Eyes of the World – 2017/03/26

Psalm 23
Matthew 27:32-44


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden – 2017/03/06

Psalm 32
Matthew 26:36-56


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

A Proportional Response – 2017/02/19

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


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

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

Law and Grace – 2017/02/12

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


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

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

Salt & Light – 2017/02/05

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

SERMON Salt & Light

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

When the Losers Win – 2019/01/29

Psalm 15
Micah 1:6-8
Matthew 5:1-12


     Most Christians – and even many non-Christians – are familiar with the Beatitudes. Those are the words we read from Matthew’s Gospel. These “beatitudes” (based on a Latin word that means “blessings” or “happiness”) begin what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, a great sermon given by Jesus. We’re going to be spending the next four weeks (including this one) in the Sermon on the Mount, so we’ll get more familiar with the later parts. But the most famous bit of it is this week’s portion, the Beatitudes.
     Immediately, I think when Christians today read the Beatitudes, they struggle with them. First of all, one of the struggles is with the word, “Blessed.” I mean, is it pronounced like “bless-ed,” or like “blest?” (Answer: either one.) What does it mean? And really, how often do we use that word, and does it even have a place in our lives?
     Let’s begin with the definition. The word used here in Greek can mean one of two things: it can mean “blessed” or it can mean “happy.” Some biblical translations will, in fact, render this passage as saying, for example in verse four, “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That reads kind of funny to us, doesn’t it? “Happy are those who mourn.” Well, no, they’re not happy. They’re in mourning; they’re grieving for someone who’s died; of course they’re not happy. So many translations use the word “blessed” instead.
     But let’s think about that for a second. Let me ask you a question. Who here has ever blessed someone? I would bet that nearly everyone here has done so. How about when someone sneezes? Don’t you say, “Bless you,” or “God bless you”? I do. That’s a word of blessing that you’ve given. Now, keep sneezing in mind as we move forward.
     So we’re led to our first big conflict in this passage. It’s the conflict about what it means to be blessed. In fact, if we’re being honest, the people that Jesus is blessing don’t really have it so great. Remember, when Jesus gives these words of blessing, he’s not saying, “Go be blessed;” he says, “Blessed are,” meaning that he says that these people are already blessed. He names the poor in spirit first; the mourners, who have lost someone they love, are named next; the meek are third– that is, those who are intimidated or bullied; then those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Well, if they’re hungering and thirsting for righteousness, that means they’re people who have experienced the world as being unfair; unfairness makes you hunger after fairness. Fifth, Jesus tells us that the merciful are blessed, which sounds pretty good, but also means that these are people who have probably failed to receive justice; sixth are the pure in heart; next are the peacemakers, which again sounds really good, though also very hard; finally, in two separate Beatitudes, Jesus says that people who are persecuted are blessed. Yeah, so if bad things happen, it’s a good thing, maybe?
     This list Jesus gives us is complicated. It’s complicated because Jesus tells us that the people who look least blessed are truly the most blessed. But again, I ask you to think about sneezing. How often do you look at someone who isn’t sneezing and say, “God bless you”? We don’t do that, because those who are well don’t need our blessing; those who are sick do.
     In that light, reconsider Jesus’ blessings. He says, to pick one example, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus doesn’t say that the people who already have it great get to have more, and that those who have nothing will continue to. He inverts the expected social order by saying that those who have nothing are actually blessed to be in that position, because God has special things planned for them. And this leads us to our next important observation about this text, to which I’d call your attention.
     Did you notice that almost all of the Beatitudes are in two different verb tenses, both present and future? For example, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The sentence starts in the present tense – the meek are blessed now – but shifts to the future – they will inherit the earth. This is a critical observation.
     I imagine there are some folks here who have been lifelong Twins fans. In 1982, the Twins lost 100 games for the first time since moving to Minnesota. I imagine that it would’ve been tough to look at someone with a straight face in 1982 and say, “Blessed are the Twins, for they will inherit the World Series.” Yet, the 1982 Twins, losers of 100 games and playing their first season in the zany new park known as the Metrodome, an adjustment with which they struggled. And yet, the 1982 Twins eventually did get used to the ballpark and became virtually unbeatable there; that 1982 team, bad as it was, featured 24-year-old Tim Laudner, 23-year-olds Gary Gaetti and Randy Bush, 22-year-olds Kent Hrbek and Frank Viola, and 21-year-old Tom Brunansky. Every one of them became key contributors on the 1987 World Champs, and several of them were still contributors were on the ’91 team that won it all, too; many of you may recognize those names. But in 1982, those names were just a bunch of young nobodies who didn’t help win games. By 1987, they were some of the brightest stars in baseball.
     This example is illustrative because we see that sometimes, the future is set up in the present, just as Jesus tells us with the very grammar of his sentences. And one of the things that makes this particular sermon so memorable is where it comes in Jesus’ ministry. All that’s happened in Matthew’s Gospel so far is his birth and childhood, his baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, and the calling of his disciples. Jesus is just now setting out on the road as a preacher of the Good News for the first time, and he starts with this teaching. He starts by talking about God’s justice, and sets the tone for his whole ministry.
     And that’s the point at which we reach a critical juncture in understanding these Beatitudes. There are three strong “themes” that carry through these beloved words, and I want to talk through each of them. The first theme is what Jesus’ message represents, the second about what we’re supposed to do, and the last about what God is doing.
     In regard to Jesus’ message, look again at the people Jesus is saying are honored by God in this passage: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungry and thirsty for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. What do they have in common? None of them are honored in their own day. We might think we honor, for example, peacemakers – but what we really honor is winners. Name a peacemaker. The reason our culture celebrates him or her is because that person won. We might celebrate the merciful when they save us – but when they fail to persecute the people we hate, we suddenly turn against them. We pity the mourners, but we don’t celebrate them. The meek – well, the very definition of meek means we don’t celebrate them.
     Yet here Jesus is, telling us that these are the very people God is blessing. Jesus’ implicit message here is this: there’s power in weakness. There’s strength in vulnerability. What the world may look on as foolishness is often actually wisdom. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed in my friends, my country, myself, all sorts of things in my life, for celebrating exactly those things that are easiest to celebrate. We have a tendency to believe that winning is all that matters. Jesus tells us here, though, that it’s not whether you win or lose – it’s how you play the game. “Playing” life with the correct attitude is powerful, even when you don’t win.
     God blesses the weak because the strong never will. But if the strong are wise, what they will do is pay attention to the weak, to see what they have to learn. Oftentimes, it’s more than people think they have to gain.
     And so that leads me to my next point about the text, which regards these categories we see in the Beatitudes. Some of us may be thinking, “Okay, well, Jesus must be calling me to be poor in spirit, or a mourner” or whichever category. But truthfully, that’s not what the text says. In fact, the grammar of the text does not indicate that at all. What the grammar indicates is that Jesus is most concerned with those who are in those states, but not that we’re supposed to put ourselves in them unnecessarily. I’m going to skip the grammar lesson, but I assure you, it’s there.
     Instead, what we’ll see in the coming weeks as we delve into the Sermon on the Mount more closely, is that those who are in power, who don’t share these attributes, are asked to share with others. Not just to share in material goods, but to share in suffering, to share in goodness and kindness. We’re asked to live generously, to give freely, and to live in the way that Jesus did, showing compassion to those who need it most.
     In Scripture, we learn about God through one of history’s great metaphors: the Father who sends his only Son into the world, knowing what will probably happen to him. Yet, God gives this way because of the deep, deep love in which we are held. God loves us enough to do these great things for us, so we are asked to remember our brothers and sisters in need.
     Finally, that brings us to what this passage is about: Christian hope. Jesus is telling us, not that we think God might do these things, not that God will probably do these things, but that these things are done. They are already accomplished, although we don’t see them yet. Jesus is telling us that the neediest among us are already blessed, not because of their needy condition, but because God is accomplishing great things that are as yet unseen. The weakest among us are blessed, not because it’s good to be stepped on, but because God is in the business of balancing the scales in the time to come.
     When Jesus was unjustly crucified, God did not stand idly by. God showed us the great things that will be accomplished. The cross, a human tool of violence and domination, will come to represent God’s victory over sin and death. Jesus, the sinless man and God made flesh, will not be forced to stay in the tomb, but will live again, to show us that we have life to come. Brothers and sisters, today, as we hear these words of Jesus, let us remember that we are promised a future. And we know that we know that we know that the future will come, because God has made it so already. So let us work for justice and righteousness and peace where we can. And where our efforts are not enough, lett us rejoice, knowing that God brings justice, righteousness, and peace, even when we cannot. Amen.

Fishing with Good Bait – 2017/01/22

Psalm 27:4-91
Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23


     I saw this really neat little trick once, to talk about how human memories work. This guy asked people to draw something they’d seen a million times. He told them to draw a one dollar bill. People got SUPER confused – they didn’t know which way Washington faced, didn’t know if his name was on the bill, couldn’t remember exactly what the back looked like, Didn’t remember if the ones in some corners were bigger than others, didn’t know if e pluribus unum or In God We Trust was on there anywhere, didn’t know where the serial numbers went.
     And this is pretty much true for all of us right now, isn’t it? You’ve seen a lot of dollar bills in your life, and you know what one looks like – yet, when pressed for the details, you probably couldn’t remember much, much less draw it accurately.
     When I see some of my high school friends, they often ask me to tell them stories from high school, because I have a pretty good memory for that stuff, and most of them don’t. So they’ll ask who our teachers were, or they’ll have me tell them about somebody that they’ve basically forgotten. As human beings, our memories are selective – they have to be, so we can keep our sanity. But they’re also really different than we think of them as being. Memories are not a picture or a video of events. They’re little impulses in our brain that try to filter out unimportant things. So a dollar – you don’t need to know every exact contour of a dollar, because you know what a dollar looks like. You don’t have to be able to know exactly what it looks like to recognize one. So your brain filters that out, and it leaves other things that are deemed more important. Maybe these other things are more important, and maybe not. But either way, you subconsciously make these decisions every day.
     Now, this leads to problems. It leads to two friends telling a story, and them not being able to agree on who said or did what, or what year it was, or where they were going. Then you watch a silly argument about nothing. Both sides are so sure that they know, that they can’t give in. Yet, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter that much.
     If you paid attention in church last week, you heard about Andrew and Peter becoming disciples. And that story was a completely different one from the one that we see here today. That one had Andrew as a disciple of John the Baptist; this one has him as a fisherman. That story had Andrew telling Peter about Jesus, this one has Jesus meeting the two of them together. This is the kind of thing that happens when human being try to remember. They tell different versions of the same story.
     So if you heard last week’s sermon, and then you heard this passage and thought to yourself, “Well, that doesn’t make sense,” you’re partially right. It doesn’t, because the two stories don’t really “fit” together. But perhaps we don’t need to worry about which one was first, or exactly which disciples it was Jesus was calling out of the boat, or whatever mistake was made. Perhaps the most important thing here is the lesson we see in the passage.
     Famously, this passage includes Jesus’ instruction to Andrew and Peter, asking them to “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” That’s a part of the story that’s very well known. And it’s very clever by Jesus to take what they’re already doing and turn it into a metaphor for what he wishes them to do. And that metaphor of fishing for people has been something that’s stuck with the church for 2000 years.
     We talk about fishing for people because we attempt to reel them in – we’re trying to bring people to Jesus. And it’s still something we should feel inspired to do today. We should still feel the urge to get people in the doors, to ask them to build a relationship with Jesus.
     But what I think we struggle with is something you can’t do actual fishing without – bait. Imagine if you try to go fishing without any lure, without any bait – even, in some cases, it seems – without a hook. You’re just lofting a piece of string into the water and hoping some fish bites.
     Too often, I think, that’s what churches do. We forget what the hook and the bait are. But this passage gives us those things, right at the beginning – right in that part that you probably forgot about as soon as we got to the familiar line about fishing for people.
     In verse 16, Jesus says, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Jesus comes as the bearer of light. He is here for us to show us what we’ve been missing. When we engage with Jesus, our lives open up to experiencing his radical love. We can feel the presence of God. We open ourselves up to witnessing God’s presence in our lives, including answering those prayers we thought unanswerable. Only when we engage in that relationship can we see things anew.
     Jesus isn’t there as a morality tale, as a lesson about someone powerful long ago. He’s here for us, as a real, tangible connection to God, who helps us see how we’re supposed to live, who helps us when we’re in trouble, and to rescue us from our demons. That’s the person in whom we put our faith. He is the light in darkness because he is able to shine his light on the dark places in our lives – our sickness, our weakness, our pain, our brokenness. His light doesn’t always bring the healing we’re searching for, but it always brings an openness and an honesty that helps us deal with whatever we’re dealing with.
     And Jesus rounds that message out with what, in many ways, becomes his catchphrase: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” “Repent” is not a popular word. It’s a word that you’re most likely to see (outside of church) in the context of a mad streetcorner preacher standing on a box yelling at passersby in a movie (although it does happen in real life).
     But “repent,” while a word we’re unfamiliar with, doesn’t mean, “you’re bad and change everything about yourself” – although that’s how it’s often portrayed. It means, “change your hearts and lives.” And it isn’t meant as a commandment, so much as an opportunity. Think about these two fishermen here in our passage. They weren’t doing anything wrong. Yet Jesus offers them a chance to change their hearts and lives. They weren’t actively being destructive or harming anyone, yet they were given this opportunity to repent – to change their hearts and lives – because Jesus was waking them up to what God is already doing.
     Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness. In the darkest darkness of all, as he hung on the cross, the disciples were without hope. They couldn’t know that their sins were dead. They couldn’t know anything that was coming. Yet, in that darkness, in days when it must’ve seemed like they’d wasted their lives following someone who was now dead, Jesus returned, shining light in that great darkness.
     When we fish for people, we awaken them to the opportunity to change their hearts and lives and to embrace the King of Kings, Jesus our Lord and Savior. But repentance is not offered only to fishermen who happened to miss church this morning. Repentance is a choice we can all make. We all can – and must – choose to repent. We can build for ourselves a closer relationship with Jesus. Through prayer and devotion, church attendance and Bible study, through conversation with friends, and (of course!) through fishing for people, we find ways to connect with Jesus. Let us all have the courage of these fishermen to cast away whatever impediments we have to embracing the Christ-filled life. Let us turn ourselves over completely, and let us repent. God’s Kingdom has come near, and we can take part. Amen.

Becoming Disciples Again – 2017/01/15

Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians
John 1:19-42


     In, oh I want to say 4th grade, we had a science teacher at my school who would wander from room to room, pushing her things on her cart. We were learning about how to do science – how to identify a problem, how to test a hypothesis, how to gather evidence, how to follow directions – you know, the basic drill.
     So one day, she walks in with sheets of paper for us. She hands them out and we all get going. You can see right away that, whatever you’re supposed to be doing with this sheet, it’s going to be involved, which makes sense. We’re learning about science. Anyway, the way you can tell it’s going to be involved is that it has like 30 or 40 points just in the directions. So our teacher sets us loose.
     I read the first direction, which is to read all directions before beginning. Then the second is put my name on the top of page, so I do that. The third, I think, was about counting the letters in your name. Then the next was to take that number and write it on the back of the paper. Then you had to draw a picture, you had to do a BUNCH of math problems. I was only in fourth grade, and I remember having to ask how you divide fractions, because somehow I wound up doing that. I asked the teacher, and she told me to be sure I had paid attention to all the directions, so I started over. Ugh. I wound up at the same point a second time.
     In the meantime, one kid had already turned theirs in. I couldn’t believe it! I was always the first person done. But if you looked around the room, everyone was trying furiously to figure this paper out. Then, after what seemed like forever, the teacher gave us permission to stop. She called out the one student who had turned in the paper, and commended her on a job well-done.
     The teacher held up the paper, and ALL that was on it was the girl’s name! Then, the teacher asked us to look at the final direction on this sheet of, I don’t know, 30 or 40 directions. The last one said, “Ignore all the other directions. Write your name in the top right corner of the page, turn in your sheet, and sit quietly at your desk.”
     Well, wasn’t that a nice little lesson in humility? Obviously, this was something that was going to be important for us when we were doing science experiments – read all the directions first, so you know for sure what you’re doing. Don’t just start working without knowing what’s coming next. Ask Carissa – when I cook a new recipe, I’m obsessive about reading the directions all the way through multiple times, and getting everything out and ready. I like to think it’s all residual emotional scarring from this silly sheet of paper we had to do in 4th grade.
     I fell for the trick on that sheet hook, line, and sinker, because I was ambitious, I like to work, I like problem solving, and I enjoyed activities in school. Why wouldn’t I want it? But my eagerness got the better of me. And in school, it’s important that we always follow the directions.
     Most of us, at some point in school, learn that lesson well. It’s either a tricky little worksheet that a teacher gives, or a math teacher who refuses to credit a right answer unless you show all your work, or it’s a science experiment that, perhaps literally, blows up in your face. And because we’re trained that way from so early on in our lives, to follow the directions, I think we often catch ourselves believing that that’s how life should be.
     Unfortunately, life is rarely a precise set of directions laid out for us, telling us exactly what to do and when. In life, we’re forced to wing it a little more than we get to in school. And it’s no different for followers of Jesus, in his time or today, than it is for anyone else. We’re all asked to go with the flow once in a while.
     There were a lot of things to notice in today’s passage from the Gospel of John. Perhaps you were in church last week, and you noticed the references to Jesus’ Baptism, which we talked about extensively last week. Perhaps you noticed that there were a lot of references to Jesus as the Lamb of God. Perhaps you were reading along in the Bible in your pews, and you noticed an inordinate number of statements in parentheses. But perhaps most important of all to notice in this passage is the concept of identity.
     Today’s passage begins with a discussion between the Pharisees and John the Baptist. These Pharisees were asking John who he was. I mean, they knew he was John the Baptist, but they wanted to know what that meant. Specifically, they wanted to know if he was the Messiah.
     “No,” John said, “but there’s someone coming who’s greater than I am.” We’ve all certainly heard variations on that story during Advent, as we lead up to Christmas. John is always a big part of those weeks leading to Christmas, and so we often hear his testimony. But this passage is different, in that it continues. “And lookee here,” says John. “Here’s the one – the Messiah – the Lamb of God.”
     Notice that this is just the first of several clarifications on names or naming that we’re going to get in this passage. John has clarified that he’s not the Messiah, then points to Jesus, who is. John later, in verse 34, states that Jesus is “the Son of God.” After John literally points to Jesus and says who he is, two of John the Baptist’s disciples (one of them Andrew) just stop following John and start following Jesus. They have a new name for Jesus, too – “Rabbi,” meaning “teacher.” Then, Andrew goes to his brother, Simon, and calls Jesus by another name, “Messiah.” And finally, Simon, Andrew’s brother, is brought to Jesus to meet him. When Jesus sees him, Jesus tells him that his name, “Simon,” is no longer what he will be called, but rather he’ll go by “Peter” (well, actually “Cephas,” but that means “Peter”).
     So what’s with all the re-naming? Well, I got to thinking about this passage in light of my story earlier about directions. You see, in life, we’re not given this sheet of directions that says everything we’re supposed to do. Most of the time, we just follow the next thing on the list. Think, for example, about Andrew in this passage. He’s a pretty minor character, you’d think. He began the passage as a disciple of John the Baptist. There he was, just a man following after where he saw God working, trying his best to serve God.
     Then, one day, he finds out from John that there’s another guy who’s even greater. What does Andrew do? Well, I would think there was probably a temptation to quit, to feel like everything has been a waste. Or perhaps there’d be a temptation to say, “Well, that’s nice, John, but I’m already following you, and second-best is good enough for me.” But instead, Andrew rolls with the punches – he just leaves John and follows after Jesus.
     I think we easily underestimate the courage that it takes to follow after a new call that comes later in life. It’s much, much easier to stay the course where we’re comfortable than it is to actually course-change in the middle of things. People stay for years and years at jobs that make them unhappy because the alternative of switching is just too much to bear. And sometimes, that’s the right decision.
     But when it comes to following God, there’s definitely not a roadmap that says that there’s one right way to follow. Throughout your life, you’ll undoubtedly be asked to do different things to serve God. I think about Pastor Carolyn. She was a nurse at the beginning of her career, and insodoing was following God’s call on her life, saving people. Then she became a pastor, and followed God’s will, serving people in a different way. Now, even in retirement, she serves as the “pastor to the pastors” in our Presbytery, helping people who need her advice and counsel.
     It’s not that any of these stops along the way was “wrong” and she should’ve picked the “right” one from the beginning. Sometimes, God throws us into a situation that’s right for a certain time, but it’s not meant to be forever. So the question we need to ask God all the time is this: What are you calling me to do now? Sometimes, we’re going to hear that we’re supposed to stay the course; sometimes, it’s time for a change. Sometimes, it means doing something big and bold with our lives, like giving up a big purchase we’ve looked forward to so that we can give to a charity that really needs our help. Sometimes, it’s a little gesture like checking in on the neighbor who needs a little help in the winter. Sometimes, it’s going to mean finally making that commitment to reading the Bible more regularly. Sometimes it’s going to mean praying differently. There are a hundred different ways God could be calling you to serve. But you don’t find out until you’re ready to ask.
     In conclusion, people (including Jesus!) get different names in this passage, because sometimes God needs us to become something else. Sometimes, we need to be bold and not fear having our name changed. Andrew goes to Jesus, and his name stays the same. Peter comes to Jesus, and he hears his name changed. But the important thing we learn is that the only ones who find out what their name is supposed to be today are those with the courage to ask.
     So take time in prayer; ask God where you’re being called. Talk to the important people in your life about it. Make a bold decision for God, make a private decision to do something personal. Either way, find out how God is leading you right now, and chase after that thing. After all, you don’t want to ignore a call from God. Amen.