When we hear the names of those disciples listed off, we may wonder where we fit into all this. These are important guys, and all this happened a long time ago. It is easy to feel left out or inadequate - or, at the very least, distanced. That’s how I felt when I read our lesson for today. I wondered where I fit into all this.
Two thousand years from now, would anyone remember Pastor Jason or St. Philip Lutheran Church? At first I thought, “Not with THAT attitude, they won’t!” But then I got a little more realistic and started feeling left out again.
But part of my job is to not give up on Bible texts, so I kept going back and reading. (Between getting hit with pool noodles and eating animal crackers. And let’s be honest: that didn’t really help with the sermon writing.)
As I thought and reflected, I slowly started to see myself in this story - but I wasn’t with those famous disciples, no. Instead, I saw myself as part of the crowd - I was “harassed and helpless like a sheep without a shepherd.”
Pool noodles aside. Never mind the controlled chaos of VBS that happened this week. I felt like one of the crowd that Jesus would encounter on his journeys. Harassed. Helpless. A sheep without a shepherd.
Because there’s always something, isn’t there?
There are always new challenges in life, in this world. It’s true for each of us in our own ways. Lately in the Lee household, it’s kids who want to test and push the limits. (“Oh, not them!” you may be saying. “They’re so sweet!” Yes, them.) Then I feel guilty because I lose it after they pushed my buttons one too many times. And I know I’m not alone in that. Generations of parents have been at their wit’s end with their kids - strained, stressed, hassled, harassed.
But it’s more than just kids for me - and probably for you. There are life changes in health, in jobs, in deaths, in relationships. We wonder, “what’s the next step? Where do things go from here?” Things are good; then they’re not. Life is predictable, then it’s not. There are places, times, moments where we feel, where we are helpless. I mean, just think about it.
We are like sheep without a shepherd.
And it’s ok to admit that. Unlike most places in our lives, here we can be real and honest. Sometimes we are harassed and helpless, feeling lost, dismissed, uncertain, unvalued. But feeling this way isn’t a sign that we are failures; instead, it’s a sign that we’re human. We’re part of the crowd.
And admitting this truth, owning that truth can help us hear the other truth in this passage: Jesus sees us and has compassion for us. That is also true. See, Jesus didn’t come primarily as a teacher, trying to instruct us in having better attitudes. He didn’t come to judge us for having down yet real moments. Jesus came to bring the compassion of God to us and to the world. Jesus came to show God’s compassion in word and deed. Jesus came to live - and die - so that we would know, feel, see God’s compassion.
We hear the truth that we are helpless and harassed. We are lost. And that opens us up to hearing and being changed by the second truth: God has compassion for us, even in our harassed and helpless state.
In a world where pressure is exerted on us to display perfection in each and every way, we get the chance to tell the truth, acknowledge our truth. We aren’t perfect, and God is still for us. Jesus sees us, and he has compassion for us.
And now, knowing those truths, we can look at the rest of this passage a bit differently. It isn’t only a “long time ago” type of story full of super-disciples doing miraculous deeds. It is actually regular people sharing the compassion of Jesus.
Jesus compassionately sees us, summons us, and then sends us. But we aren’t sent on our own, trying to live up to some impossible standards, hoping that we keep a positive attitude the whole time.
Here is where we fit into all this: Jesus gathers and sends us out to share compassion - the same compassion he has revealed to us, just like he did to those disciples. Therefore, we aren’t trying to fix people we think are broken. We aren’t trying to adjust their attitudes. We aren’t trying to overhaul someone’s life. We’re sent to reveal Christ. And revealing Christ looks like living Jesus’ compassion through sharing how Jesus’ compassion shows up in our stories.
We tell of the forgiveness he gives when our last button gets pressed.
We share the support we receive in a difficult life change.
We live out the truth: we’re loved even when we have the wrong attitude; when we feel undervalued; when we are lost, lost, lost.
Our Shepherd has compassion for us. Love for us. Grace for us. Life for us.
And we get reminded of those truths here. We hear in word and in song: “remember! Jesus came for you. Everything he did and said was for you! Hang in there!” (That’s a paraphrase; we won’t really sing that.) We get to touch water, a reminder that God has claimed us forever in baptism - always promising us compassion no matter what is happening in our lives. We get to taste and see that the Lord is good. Christ shows up in bread and wine, again giving us forgiveness and grace. Then, he sends us out to a struggling world who needs to hear the truth of God’s compassion.
Today is about,
worship is about,
VBS was about hearing the truth of God. That truth equips us to let our light - and light sabers - shine, showing compassion and care. In our lives. In our ministries. In our gathering.
That’s where we fit into all this.
God has compassion for us. Compassion enough to love us where we are; compassion enough to gather us, equip us in our lives. Compassion enough to send us out to make a difference in the world God loves so much.
And we’re part of that. That’s where we fit in. We’re loved. We’re sent. We share. We do the same as Jesus.
The Sunday after Pentecost is known as “Trinity Sunday.”
The idea is that we’ve met the three persons of God throughout the church year, so now let’s talk about them together. To recap: God the Father gets a lot of the behind-the-scenes credit. The Holy Spirit - at least in mainline protestant churches - gets acknowledged on the one Sunday of Pentecost. And the star of the whole thing is Jesus, the Son. Manger, cross, empty tomb. Today is about all three of them at the same time.
The problem with all this is I don’t think there ever has been a sermon explaining the Trinity in which the congregation returns home exclaiming, “Wow! That really helped!” I mean, the early church had to invent words to explain what they were trying to say. Not so easy to put into a sermon.
So, though I know you all will be thoroughly disappointed, I’m not going to even try to explain anything about three-in-one or one-in-three. But I will say this: the early church was simply trying to put into words how they experienced God.
And that idea, I think, is way more helpful for us than anything I might look up in a book or try to explain to you. What someone else tells you pales in comparison to our own experiences, right? God has become manifest to us. God shows up in some obvious and less-obvious ways. And does understanding Latin words help us experience God? Some of us, I guess.
But how about the rest of us? How do we experience God?
Writer Anne Lamott hits the nail on the head when she writes, “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.”
For some of us, we do experience God in the beauty of creation, like those magnificent redwood trees. Or the vastness of the ocean. Or sunrises and sunsets. Mountain top views. Cells, atoms, quarks; balls of fire light years away. We experience God there.
Others encounter God in the intangibles of life: the way music makes us feel. The way art connects with our different moods. The way a poem evokes emotion. We experience God there.
Some experience God in people. It is family. It is relationships. It is connection and dependence and bonds. Experience of God is built on love between us.
Still others meet God by serving others. As we give, as we share, we know that is God-like. That is how we experience God.
And even more than that, we see God in comfort. We know God is present when we are consoled. God is there in forgiveness and reconciliation. God is there in promise. In promise.
While we experience God, meet God, see God in many and various ways, today, we hear God - the Triune God - is present in a promise. While our Gospel reading is Trinitarian in that it says, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” that is about as far as it goes. There are no explanations or supporting statements. Except a promise. And the promise is the heart of who the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are: it is a promise of relationship. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Promise is at the heart of any authentic, genuine, and nurturing relationship. It is a promise a whole lot like Jesus’ promise: I will be with you. I am for you. I’ve got your back. Let’s see what we can do together.
The Trinity announces that God is with us. The Trinity affirms God’s presence. The Trinity means that no matter what we experience, God is in relationship with us. God will be there in all our experiences, no matter what we experience. That is the promise.
And if that’s the promise, how does that change us? How does relationship with God affect our experiences going forward? If God as Trinity is the promise that “I will be with you,” what will we do, what will we say if we truly believe that?
In our lives, knowing that God has said, “I am for you,” how will we act toward each other? How will we speak about each other? How will we live together? Maybe it is listening, not assuming. It is opening up instead of closing down. It is trusting in God over anyone or anything else.
In our congregation, how does knowing that God says, “I’ve got your back,” change us and shape us? Maybe it allows us to be more bold in who God made us to be since we know we are not alone. It encourages us not just to welcome people, but invite people to experience. It allows us to loosen our grip so that we can give, receive, bless, and share.
In our ministries moving forward, God says, “let’s see what we can do together.” What does that open us up to? How does that challenge us? How does that assure us?
That’s the big one, right?
Seeing what we can do together with God is hard because it isn’t necessarily going to be done our way. Nor is God going to magically make things happen for us. It will take time, it will challenge us, it may be difficult, but in it all, God is there. In relationship with God, we are sent to do things for the sake of the world.
And that looks like taking our experiences of God - the ways we have known God in our lives - and getting those experiences out. In relationship, in service, in music, in forgiveness, grace, and love… those are ways God comes to us; we are tasked with sharing our Godly relationship.
What more can we do? Well, we’ve started that conversation. We as St. Philip are intentionally looking to where our experiences have brought us - and looking ahead to where they will take us. The congregation has given input. Council has met. Staff has talked. We are learning about where we are as individuals and as a congregation. And we will move forward, sharing our experiences and creating new ones.
And it would be good for us to remember, all things are done with God present. Going, making disciples, sharing our experiences is going with God. And God is with us always, everywhere, in each experience. And that should shape us.
We are claimed in baptism. We are fed at the table. We are reminded of God’s promises each time we gather. God is with us always.
So as we start along this path, let’s expect God to be present. Let’s start with the acknowledgement that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are actually in the room, in our church, in our lives, in our world. We aren’t alone; we are in relationship with the one who creates, saves, and sends. And in our past experiences, in our current situations, in our paths yet untrod, we know that God goes, too. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
On Pentecost, some churches use special effects to try to dazzle the congregation. They bring in fans, fireworks, or flamethrowers to dazzle our senses, hoping to replicate the feeling of that first Day of Pentecost.
I haven’t done that. Instead, I use stained glass. In what has become a little bit of a tradition on Pentecost, we take some time to look at our windows.
To me, this is what stained glass should look like. The most prominent window is this one in the back - the huge, 30 foot tall window.
Some people have asked me if that is St. Philip, which is a good guess, but no, it’s Jesus.
It’s full of symbols for us to remind us of who Jesus is.
There is a shield which has NIKA on it, a Greek word meaning “victor.”
Near his right foot, there is the book with the four crosses, symbolizing the four Gospel stories about Jesus.
And over at the other foot is a lamp, reminding us that Jesus is the light of the world and a light upon our path.
Up the left side is a pillar, much like the poles they used to strap prisoners to when they were whipping them, reminding us of Jesus’ suffering.
And on the right is a vine going up the entire right side, reminding us of Jesus’ words, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
At the top is the cross and crown - promise and hope for us as Jesus is victorious.
It’s a beautiful window - even more so when the sun is a couple hours from setting and the light pours into this room with a kaleidoscope of colors. It is beautiful in here.
Over here we have three windows for the Trinity.
Father, with the star of David, and the eye and hand, and even, if you look just right, the words, “I am who I am.”
The Son, with the lamb carrying the victory banner and the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, reminding us that Jesus is the beginning and the end.
And the Holy Spirit - with an image of a Bible up top. The Spirit calls, enlightens, and sanctifies us through the Word. There is a descending dove at the bottom.
Over here we have the windows which display the seasons of the Church year. We start on the left with Advent and Christmas with the manger and a shepherd’s crook. Moving to the right we have a Star and Three Crowns for Epiphany. We keep going and we get to a cross in the middle with a crown of thorns for Lent and Holy Week. Then a butterfly in the top - a symbol of resurrection with Easter lilies down below. And finally, the last window is the Pentecost window with flames stretching through this window and into the other panels. Fire, like the tongues of flame we heard about in our story from Acts.
The windows are full of symbols to remind us and help us in our faith.
At first, they seem less impressive than a flamethrower. And, I’ll admit, the windows don’t quite have the showmanship of a concentrated flame spraying out over the congregation.
But here is the thing about the windows: they’re always here. They’re always around. They are always subtly reminding us of God’s presence, of Jesus’ presence, of the Spirit’s presence.
Flamethrowers can make us feel awesome. Flamethrowers, though, come and go. But God’s Spirit is always here. And that is the beauty of what Pentecost is about.
See, a lot of things in our world are driven by how we feel. We have to feel good. We have to be appeased. We have to feel energized or filled or happy. That is what our world is based on. It’s what some Churches are based on: conveying a feeling. Flamethrowers are impressive; but then what’s next?
God is a window.
We have to be careful not to relate God’s presence to how we feel. What if the next thing isn’t as impressive? What if the next surprise isn’t as surprising? What if the next sermon or song or statement doesn’t make me happy? If I don’t get that rush, if I don’t get that sense of excitement or joy, what does that say about me? About God? Our world is built on causing and giving an emotional reaction. It is a fear they can fend off; a joy they can supply; a need you didn’t even know existed until they brought it up can be filled.
Jesus is stained glass.
What happens when you don’t feel how the world tells you you should feel? What happens when the impressive, new, over-the-top thing doesn’t bring joy, leaves something lacking, is revealed to be merely presentation? Our feelings come and go. Our happiness goes up and down. And if God shows up in the flamethrowers, what about when our candle is snuffed out?
The Spirit lets in the light.
Flamethrowers come and go. But God’s Spirit is always here. And that is the beauty of what Pentecost is about.
Here is the thing about the windows: they’re always here. They’re always around. They are always subtly reminding us of God’s presence, of Jesus’ presence, of the Spirit’s presence.
When we come in here on a good day, we can see the light pouring in through those windows and give thanks to God for a beautiful day. The Spirit fills us again, and we give thanks to God for love, grace, and forgiveness.
When we come in here on a bad day, when we aren’t feeling happy, we get the reminder of the Spirit’s presence in something we can see, in something that is always here and always present. The Spirit can lift us, prompt us, refresh us with the Good News that even in our crummiest, God is here. The Spirit is here.
And, of course, not just here - but in the world, too. In the midst of everyone and everything trying to tell you how to feel, what to feel, when to feel… God is there, whatever you feel.
To help us out in the world, Paul tells us what to look for. The Spirit produces fruit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Those are the stained glass windows in our world. When we see love, we know the Spirit is there. Where there is peace, the Spirit is present. In a show of faithfulness, the Spirit is near.
In those fruits, God’s Spirit is working, is at hand, is with you.
Today, six of our young people will affirm their baptism, saying that they will do their best to continue to live in the baptismal promises God made with them. The Spirit is present! Now, how many of you were teenagers once? How many of you, as teenagers, would think that today is a flamethrower kind of moment? That the Spirit is super obvious, scorching the hairs of our head? Not many of us.
But is the Spirit present? You bet your britches.
Sometimes, the Spirit is obvious and exciting and too hot for our little hearts to handle. But God’s Spirit isn’t always a flamethrower. Sometimes, the Spirit is a single candle burning in the midst of our darkness. Sometimes, the Spirit is a tiny fruit of love or patience that took time to grow. Sometimes the Spirit speaks the words, “this is given and shed for you.”
Sometimes the Spirit is a splash, a remembrance, a calling. Sometimes the Spirit thrusts us into God’s future - urging us to take what we receive here and produce fruit out there. Sometimes, the Spirit is a stained glass window - always there and rarely noticed or understood.
Flamethrowers come and go. Our feelings come and go. But God’s Spirit is always here. And that is the beauty of what Pentecost tells us. God is a window. Jesus is stained glass. The Spirit lets in the light. And God is always here. With us. Up or down. Left or right. Happy, sad, or exuberant.
God is here. God is here. Throwing flames for the sake of the world.
What a way to start off a Bible text! “You foolish Galatians!” Other translations aren’t any more kind, using words like crazy, witless, and stupid. Insults, we understand. The rest of this passage, maybe not so much. What is Paul so upset about?
Well, he’s carrying on the argument we heard last week. While the argument was level headed and balanced in chapters 1 and 2, it seems Paul finally hit the breaking point with the Galatians’ confusion. What is it that saves us: the Law or God?
How can you start with God’s Spirit and now move on to customs and rules? “How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue in this craziness? Only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was started by God.” (The Message)
Paul then takes his argument to the beginning of Israel’s story - the founding father, Abraham. If you remember way back to Abraham, he was out, minding his own business when God pops up and says, “Abraham, I’m going to bless you! I will make of you a great nation! Through you, all the families of the world will be blessed!” Paul notes that God promises this before Abraham does anything. It wasn’t a conditional promise: if you promise to get circumcised, if you follow the Law, then I will bless you.” God promises to bless him and bless the world through him; Abraham simply trusts God’s promise.
Until that world-wide blessing arrived, the Law was given to be a nanny. We, apparently, needed a babysitter. Paul’s point is this: between the time of Moses and the Messiah, Israel needed looking after.
But now, one has come who is mature, who is able to handle things on his own without the need for a babysitter. The Messiah himself comes to bring God’s promises to fulfillment - no nanny, no disciplinarian, no babysitter required. Jesus has come.
That’s Paul’s argument. In a kind of difficult text, hopefully I did more clearing up than muddying of the waters.
Yet, as I was going through this passage, I kept thinking, “so what?” It’s a hard Bible passage to understand, to connect with, and to write a sermon on.
Some of you know that I spent the beginning of the week down in Charleston at the South Carolina Synod Assembly. The Synod Assembly is a gathering of all the Lutheran churches in SC to share the ministries that are going on and do the business of the church - like electing Council members and whatnot. Those days at Assembly are already long, but this year, I was asked to be the Chaplain. I helped lead worship and I did a lot of out-loud praying for the 300-plus delegates gathered. I was kind of on edge the whole time because at any time the Bishop could say, “Now we’ll have a prayer from our Chaplain.”
When I sat down to write this sermon, I felt as if I used all my good words early in the week and didn’t save any left.
On top of being emotionally tired this week, I didn’t connect to where the Galatians were coming from. The whole bit about no distinctions between us wasn’t news to me. I felt like I had heard, read, and preached this all before. It felt long, tedious, conventional. Maybe you are feeling the same way?
But then I thought, maybe I was trying too hard to do it myself.
Back in the late 1800s, there was a famous tight-rope walker, Charles Blondin (or Blon-deen, depending on how French you want to get). He would set up his rope 1,100 feet across Niagara Falls and walk across several times - with a balance pole, no pole, blind folded, forward, backward. He would sit on a stool, use stilts, even cook and eat breakfast while out on this rope.
But his most famous trick was when he asked if anyone would volunteer to be carried across on his back. One thousand, one hundred feet. Over the gigantic Niagara Falls. On a rope. In a surprising move, one man volunteered to do it. (Paul might have insulted, “you foolish man!”) They both made it across, by the way.
But, suppose halfway across that man who was being carried said, “This is all going quite well. But, I’m starting to not trust you. Why don’t you let me down, and I’ll finish the rest myself?”
That is what doing it on your own looks like. That is leaning on the Law and what we can do instead of leaning on the Messiah. That is what Paul was arguing against - finishing ourselves what God starts in us.
In baptism, God starts something in us. God starts us across that rope - but we aren’t out there on our own. We are carried by Christ. We depend on Jesus. No matter how good we think we are, we need someone to bring us from one side to the other. To do anything else is foolish.
Jesus does this for us, not because of our well-demonstrated balance or our superb rule following, but because he loves us. He brings us into his family, to a place where we belong, where we all belong, no matter who we are.
Christ carried Scarlett today to new life. She was welcomed into the family of God through water and Word. She’s so little - yet loved so much. Baptized into Christ, she (like us all) is clothed in Christ, covered by Christ, surrounded with Christ’s love.
She didn’t do anything to be loved. She didn’t earn the promises God gives. God simply promises - promises love and blessing. Her parents, grandparents, godparents, we all are there to help her learn to trust those promises as she grows.
In our baptisms, we, too, are placed in Jesus’ arms - or, more accurate to the story, we are hoisted onto Jesus’ back. Once we’re hoisted up there, we simply trust that Jesus has us, and he will get us where we need to go. The same was true for Abraham. He got the promise, and he trusted. God made sure that promise was fulfilled.
We like to do it on our own. But, we can’t. The Law, the rules, even we ourselves won’t get us across that rope. Sometimes, we aren’t feeling it. Sometimes, we aren’t our best. Sometimes, the words just won’t come. Sometimes, we are emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually tired. And if it is up to us in moments like that, we most certainly would fall.
But it is not up to us, is it? Instead, we trust God to do what God promises. And God promises to bring us home. God promises that Jesus has us. We aren’t nannied by the Law anymore, but carried, lifted, held, moved by Christ. We believe, we trust that God will do what God says God will do. Never alone, never on our own, but with each other. With Jesus.
And we know that God finishes what God starts. God has started a promise - a promise of blessing for the entire world, a promise of blessing for you and for me. No matter how we feel, how we walk, who we are.
All of us are in the arms of Jesus.
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve heard stories of the early Church. We’ve heard of the welcome that was extended - and the controversies that happened because of that welcome. The main issue was the entry of non-Jews into the Christian faith. Did they need to become Jews before becoming Christian? That is, did they need to follow the Law and be circumcised to follow Jesus?
The leaders of the early church - those people you probably have heard before: Peter, James, John, Paul, and so on - decided that the Law did not hold. It is Christ who makes us right with God, not works of the Law.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he drives home that argument. After giving some brief introductory and autobiographical statements in chapter 1, he goes full bore into the situation at hand in chapter 2.
The issue is hypocrisy. Cephas, better known to us as Peter, would visit Churches, eating and worshiping and celebrating with many Gentile Christians. But when certain Jews were around, Peter would back away from such table fellowship. He was switching positions depending on who was watching. This was confusing for some new Christians and set a bad example for how the Church and Christians should live.
They said one thing: “We are justified by Jesus!”
Yet, they did another: follow the Law.
How hard it is to leave it all up to God. Peter, the Rock of the Church, still fell back into the ways of the Law. Surely, (surely!), we have to do something. Maybe not follow all the Law, but some of it, right? A piece? Food or circumcision or boundaries or pray or accept or something? It can’t all be left up to God, can it?
To us, it is a simple conditional statement: if we do X, then God will act on our behalf. If we follow the Law, if we say the right prayer, if we have the right religious ceremony, THEN God will save, love, welcome, do God things.
That is what Paul argues against here in Galatians. It isn’t up to Law or fellowship or belief. It isn’t up to us. It is up to God. The conditional gets flipped. It isn’t even a conditional anymore. It’s not “if/then.” It’s a statement of fact. It’s all “because.”
Because God works, because God loves, because God sent Jesus… therefore, we are justified. Remember last week when I said that good theology starts with God? It still holds true this week. It doesn’t start with us. It doesn’t start with our “ifs.” It starts with God. It always starts with God.
Because God, because Jesus… therefore, we…
The question Paul essentially is raising is, “what do we trust in to save, to really save?” Do we trust in the Law to save us? Do we trust in what we can do? Or do we trust in God?
Paul’s argument is that we cannot be justified by us doing something. We are justified in Jesus, because of Jesus. Chapter 2, verse 16 makes Lutherans smile: “Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
He even takes it a step further to make sure we know that we can’t do anything. Paul states that we have been crucified with Christ. Crucified. Killed. Dead. Died. Kaput. In another letter, Paul talks about how in our baptism we are buried with Christ. In Christ, we are dead.
Now, tell me, what can you do if you are dead? Nothing. You’re dead. That means it is totally up to God to raise. It is totally up to God to justify. It is totally up to God to bring us to life. What is true of Jesus Christ is true for us. Yes, we die with Christ. We are buried with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.
What is true for him is true for us. We belong to Jesus’ family because of what he did for us. Because God has done all this, therefore we are justified and made right with God.
If it isn’t up to God and God alone,
if we still need to do something to earn it,
to make it true for us,
then Christ died for nothing. Here I stand.
Because God raises us up to new life,
Because God makes us right apart from the Law,
Because God saves, loves, forgives, justifies us,
therefore we… we what?
We sit here? We feel good about ourselves? We oblige God by showing up for church once a week?
While we don’t have to do anything to earn the life we’re given, we do get a chance to participate in the life of God now. We aren’t just forgiven, but sent. We aren’t just blessed, but called to participate and be with Christ. We share in God’s mission and ministry for the life of this world.
Usually here in the sermon is where there are some examples of ministries or a call to action, a way to live out faith in a tangible way. But today, you get to think about that. This is our “therefore.”
Because God justifies us, therefore we… we do what?
In your bulletin is a green slip of paper with some questions. They are fairly open ended but written with our “therefore” in mind. God has gifted us with all the intangible things we cannot earn; therefore we respond with tangible actions. Take a moment to review and answer those questions now.
The life we live, we now live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us. Therefore, we do what?
Therefore, we live. Now and forever.
All because God...
At stake is the future of the church.
What it will look like? Who will be in? What is acceptable and what is not?
Unless you become circumcised, you cannot be welcomed. (Right there I guess we’d lose about 50% of you.) Our story from Acts today is one of the biggest issues in the early church. Did Gentiles have to be circumcised to be fully welcomed into the church? Did they have to submit to the same preconditions as the Jewish followers of Jesus? It is a question that will shape the future of the church.
Some expected “yes.” Yes, they need to circumcised. There is a history to all this; they need to be included in that history, in the Law that has preceded. It is only then that they can be fully welcomed.
Others disagreed. No, they said. This is something different! Bigger! More! Those old expectations don’t hold to them.
St. Philip a pretty friendly church, I think. At least, that is what I hear. Of course people are nice to me; I’m the pastor. I hope they are nice to you, too. (And now that I’ve said that, everyone better be friendly!)
Our friendliness is a common theme I hear in new member classes. It is part of the reason why people want to partner with us in ministry. I also hear it from snowbirds - those who come down from Ohio or Pennsylvania or some other frozen tundra for one, two, three, or more months during the winter. They keep coming back because of the people, the community, the friendliness.
Maybe a friendly, welcoming church is surprising to some. Maybe it is expected.
And we have expectations in return, don’t we? We expect that they understand how to do the Lutheran aerobics of standing, sitting, and kneeling. We expect that our good order will hold out. That means no “amens” in the middle of the sermon. We only say what is printed in bold! Amen?
We do have certain expectations, a certain way of doing things, a certain threshold that must be passed to be part of this community. And yet, I think we’d say we’re open for all to come. All are welcome. But somehow we have to assimilate them into us - kinda like what the pro-circumcision party was trying to uphold. All are welcome, but you have to adapt to us first.
There generally have been two modes of Evangelism and growing the church for Lutherans. One is to make more Lutheran babies. The other is marry a Baptist and convert them. (Baptists make good Lutherans.) But that isn’t working as well anymore.
As a pastor, welcome and assimilation is something I wrestle with. Lutherans have traditions. We have beloved hymns and liturgical pieces. There is a history to all this. A lot of that is important to pass along and teach. But at the same time, we hunker so far down into ourselves that our circle stays the same… or shrinks, even. How can we as a community of faith - of Lutheran faith - be faithful to what has been, honor our history and all that has preceded, and yet open up to people who have not been Lutheran all their life?
We expect our ways of bringing people to God are consistent with how God wants us to bring people to God - like the circumcision advocates. And yet, God often seems to do things differently than we are used to, than we want, than we expect.
We have expectations. God has expectations, too.
Acts makes this conflict resolution stuff sound really easy. It’s not. But the early church can model something for us. They listened to God.
From our perspective two millennia later, it’s easy to look back and think, “God did a new thing! Therefore, the church should be a new thing!” The inclusion of Gentiles is obvious to us - most of us being non-Jewish Gentiles, ourselves.
But I am not convinced God was doing something new here. God is doing what God has always done: show mercy to all, invite and welcome all, gather a people of all types to be in relationship.
God isn’t doing something new with Gentiles. It’s the same thing God has always done. It is we as the Church who adjust to what God is doing. And that’s hard for us who have certain expectations.
This episode in Acts shows us that it can be hard. But those first apostles keep pointing to God. Look at all that God has done. God chooses. God gives the Holy Spirit. God makes no distinction between in and out. God does all that to Jew and Gentile alike. God’s mercy knows no bounds. God even extends the circle to include Gentiles and Lutherans and never-been-Lutherans and even those who put their hands up during songs. We are beneficiaries of God widening the circle. We are included.
Because at the end of the day, it is about God.
(If you’ve been around me, you’ve heard me say this before.) Good theology starts with God, not us. God calls. God creates. God saves. God sends. God does stuff. Our task as children of God, as people of faith, is do our best to tag along with what God is doing.
Acts looked to where God was moving and decided to open up to that. It wasn’t a strategic decision to help the church grow or modernize. They followed God. They joined into what God was already doing - and what God continues to do now.
God keeps expanding the circle and welcoming people into relationship. As we discuss and share and chat and vision and hope and work through the summer, it’d be good for us to remember this. God is already moving in and among us and in and among people who aren’t here yet. Our task is to position ourselves in a way that is ready to receive them, to share with them, to be friendly to them, to partner together in ministry, to help them in their relationship with God.
That is at the heart of who we are as Lutherans. That is the message we have. God has opened up wide the circle, not on account of what we have done or how well we do what we do. God has done this out of love for us. God has given us the grace to be included.
God chooses us. God gives us the Holy Spirit. God makes no distinction between in and out.
So, expect God to work in us and through us.
Expect God to speak to us.
Expect God, not to do a new thing, but to do the same thing God has always done: pour out grace upon us.
And with that grace, with the gift of the Spirit, with the assurance that God chooses and includes us, it is we the Church who adjust to what God has done, is doing, and promises yet to do.
Welcome to preschool Sunday. Let’s talk about eunuchs!
Maybe that’s not the smoothest intro to a sermon I’ve ever had, but I wanted to get that out there. Yes, there is a eunuch in the story.
Those of you who have brushed up on your history of eunuchs may already know this, but eunuchs were often employed to guard the women’s living areas or hold high positions in women’s administrations. While some were born this way, more often than not they were castrated - made to be eunuchs. This ensured a supply of non-threatening people to have those aforementioned positions of the queen. They wouldn’t make sexual advances, like men might. And since a eunuch by law could never be king, there was no threat of a coups. Eunuchs were in a “gray” area, meaning they often didn’t have a real place or real welcome anywhere.
Now, that we’ve got some background, let’s place this character into the midst of a bunch of unlikely events.
Philip gets sent out from all the important church activities in Jerusalem to go to this desolate, wilderness road. It is literally in the middle of nowhere.
There is this eunuch from Ethiopia, who looks way different than Philip does. An employee of the high court, he is dressed nicely and riding in a chariot. On top of that, he is reading a scroll of Isaiah (hopefully he wasn’t scrolling while driving). Then, after Philp runs up alongside this chariot, out of the blue he asks, “do you understand what you’re reading?” After a little sermon about Jesus, all of a sudden there is water. In the middle of the desert.
It all seems a bit coincidental and out of place. Nothing should work in the story. While in the middle of the desert, it just so happens that the one guy who knows stuff about Jesus runs across this other guy who just so happens to be reading Isaiah. And then there just happens to be water.
The out-of-place prophet encounters the eunuch who has no place.
And that is where God shows up. Like so many other stories in the Bible, this one is again meant to tell us that God shows up in ways, in places, in people we don’t expect - maybe even don’t want - God to show up in.
God leads us to those places. To nowhere. To wilderness. To places we question.
God leads us to those people. To people who don’t have a place. To people who are outsiders. To people who get shunned, or boxed in, or hurt.
God shows up there, with those people. Even when “those people” are us. See, we know ourselves. We know us. We know what goes on in our heads and our hearts. We know where we’ve been hurt - and where we’ve hurt others. We know when we’ve been too sure and when we don’t have a clue. Maybe, most days we think we’re fine. But there comes a day, a time, a period where we’re wandering in the wilderness, completely out of place, stuck in the middle of nowhere.
God sends Philip to that middle of nowhere to say there is a place for the eunuch - a place of welcome, acceptance, love, grace. That place is with God.
And that’s what God says to you today, too. God says there is a place for you. The same place of welcome, acceptance, love, grace, forgiveness, life. It’s there for you, as surprising and unexpected as you may think it is.
To paraphrase the eunuch’s question, “what is to keep us from that kind of welcome and love?”
Honestly? We are what keeps us. We think we’re too lost or too broken or too foreign to all God offers. We close ourselves off to seeing the coincidences of God. We head further down our wilderness road, trying to make heads or tails of all that is going on.
And God keeps showing up. No matter the place we are in our lives, God comes to us - as unlikely as it may seem, as out of place as it may seem, as much as it doesn’t seem things are working out. It just so happens that those are the places God shows up.
Like Philip to a eunuch: a stranger who shifts our perspective, who opens us up to see things in a new way. God shows up in moments like that.
In water - in a splash to remind us that we, no matter who we are, are claimed forever. God shows up in the welcome of a baby who can't even do anything. God shows up in the building of a varied, colorful, open community in the Body of Christ. God reminds us that we are washed clean, forgiven every time, all the time.
God shows up in an unlikely meal of bread and wine. God feeds our souls as well as our stomachs. God uses that meal to sustain us as we are sent to the varied places of our world.
God shows up in the unlikely place of a cross and, even more unlikely, an empty tomb. Because God shows up there, because God shows up in resurrected life, we know that even death can’t keep God away from us. And if death can’t stop God, then nothing will. If God can show up despite cross and grave, we are certain that nothing can or will keep us away from God’s welcome, love, and grace.
In Jesus, through Jesus, because of Jesus, God ensures we have a place, no matter who you are. In Jesus, God finds us, shows us, proves to us that God’s love is more than coincidence. It is the heart of who God is.
We have a place.
Philip, the eunuch, we, you have a place, as unlikely as you may think it is.
Because it just so happens, that’s how God works.
Hot on the heels of the Gospel of Luke is the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is a sort of sequel to Luke, picking up right where the Gospel ends. It tells the beginnings of the church and all of its messy, beautiful, tragic, hopeful struggles. What we hear and learn from Acts can be easily seen in today’s Church, our church.
There are fond memories of the early church. As things were just getting started in the early chapters, Acts tells of all the great and wonderful things that were going on.
They all gave full attention to the teaching of the apostles and to the common life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Great awe fell on everyone, and many remarkable deeds and signs were performed by the apostles … And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being rescued.
The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common … and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. There were no needy persons among them. (Acts 2.42-47; 4.32-34)
It was beautiful and hopeful. It’s no wonder people wanted to join up with them. Those types of situations and memories can draw people into the community of faith. We, too, have fond memories of faith, worship, and community. It is those memories that kept us coming or got us here in the first place.
We as St. Philip are beginning a visioning process. It’s so exciting, and it is so scary. We’ll start by taking inventory of who we are. We will listen to what God is saying. We will do our best to follow God’s call. And we will envision steps to take as a community so that we can follow God’s call for the next five, ten, even twenty years. What we do right now impacts each step going forward.
Part of that process is recalling memories and experiences, because those shape us. (Here is where the sermon transitions from “traditional talking head” to “audience participation.”) In your bulletin, you have a blue sheet of paper with some questions on it. At this point in time, I’d like you to look at question #1: “What is your favorite experience of church?” Take a minute or so to reflect and write something down, whether it happened decades ago or a week ago.
It doesn’t matter if you are a member here or not, but please do put your name on it. Yes, you’ll turn it in. We’d like to read each response. Council will use these responses as a starting point for our conversation in early June.
So, yes, we have fond memories, as did the early church. But, all of a sudden, the earliest church doesn’t look much like the ideal model. This is where the beautiful and hopeful opens to include some of the messy and tragic. There are the beginnings of divisions and hurt feelings. The original Apostles are starting to become overwhelmed with all there is to do. Turns out, they aren’t super-human. They’re just regular-human dealing with real problems.
And so, the Church adapted. This is where we pick up in our lesson today. The Church adapts. Understanding the situation, the original apostles looked around at what they had, who they had. And they used their assets to support, to grow the community of faith. They brought in further leadership - Stephen being one of these new leaders, and the one we hear about today.
Stephen was gifted, brimming with God’s grace and energy. He did wonderful things among them, pointing to God. The Apostles and the early Church adjusted their strategy, using who and what was with them. Which brings us to question #2: “What has God placed in our midst that can be used to build our community of faith right now?”
Take a minute to reflect and write down your answer. If you are visiting with us today, think about your home church - or if you’re familiar enough with St. Philip, you can use us.
Now we’re starting to see the messy, beautiful, tragic, hopeful church. Because as things shift around, as Stephen begins his ministry, people get upset. Though Stephen did some great things among them, the people start to argue and complain. He spoke with wisdom and the power of the Spirit. Still, there were splits and rifts. People quarreled, bickered, and squabbled.
Those who have been around churches know that we aren’t immune to this kind of stuff. In some ways, because people feel it is so important, these types of things happen more often. In our story today, the arguments led to trying to throw Stephen out. There were false testimonies. Eventually, there was an uprising, a few rocks were thrown, and then death.
Which is messy and tragic, no way around it. Stephen is the first Christian martyr, killed because of his faith.
But this messy and tragic part of the story isn’t without hope for beauty. Standing there, watching the whole thing, was a young man named Saul. Spoiler alert: he’s a pretty important guy going forward.
But, at this point, the future is uncertain. No one knows what the next steps will be, how things will work out, what the plan of action is. Movement from what “is” or “was” to the unknown “what-will-be” can be painful, sure. But God is present, calling, urging us forward.
In the midst of death, God promises new life. God resurrects. Cross to empty tomb. Broken hearts to burning hearts. Uncertainty to Mission. Just as God was present in the early church, not letting it flounder, God is present now. And because God is present, we can move on with hope.
We can and should have dreams going forward. In the midst of our current situations - be they to you messy and tragic or beautiful and hopeful - God calls and gifts the Church to continue on. How will we do that?
And so we look at question #3: “What is your deepest wish for the future of St. Philip Church?”
Or you can answer for the Church in general. Take a moment to answer now.
Past, present, future… God was there in the early church through controversy and calling, through martyrdom and mission. And God was there with us, too, in our best memories and the toughest days.
God was there because God is faithful, no matter if we the Church are messy, beautiful, tragic, or hopeful. God is here. Jesus feeds us. The Spirit supports us.
And God always will. God will call the church forward, in all that happens, despite all that happens. God sends us to share the love and grace that we have received in new, reforming, relatable ways. God calls us on to be the Church. That is the exciting and scary part of it.
It can be messy, beautiful, tragic, and yet, we always have hope.
We have hope because God is here, and God is faithful. And God always will be.
The week after Easter can be such a let down.
Sure, we’ve still got some “alleluias” in the bulletin; white adorns the chancel; instead of confessing, we’re giving thanks to God for new life in Christ. All this points to Easter resurrection.
But there is a little more room in the pew today than there was a week ago. Nearly all of the flowers from last week are gone. All that remain are a couple of lilies, which, to be honest, I wasn’t sure would make it until today. We’re back to our regular, routine way of doing things. It can feel so hum-drum.
As a preacher who didn’t take the week after Easter off, the emotional high of last week can make this week feel inconsequential. Uninspired. Mundane. Christ is risen. What else is there to say?
And into the weary, idea-exhausted pastor’s lap plops the Emmaus story. This story is brimming with sermon fodder. Every line is carefully crafted by Luke, with all the emotions, scenes, and analogies a preacher needs to knock a sermon out of the park. Sorrow, suspense, puzzlement… the gradual dawning of who this is, unexpected actions, presence, a meal, recognition, excitement! All this in one story! There’s so much!
“Having so much” can hurt a coherent sermon more than help it.
I had hoped that this sermon would come easily. But everything was still going on. All the events and activities continued on despite my emotional state. Things didn’t work out like I planned, like I had hoped. Sometimes, we just don’t have the heart.
Despite all the things that had taken place over the past few days, I needed to finish (or start) a sermon. So, I started my writing journey - trying to go somewhere on a path that would take me to Emmaus. In each paragraph I was writing, I just kept shaking my head. I tried to organize this way and that way. I wrote and deleted a lot, trying to make sense of all the things that happened on the way to Emmaus. But things weren’t working out like I had hoped.
Then on Thursday night, we had a friend over after the kids went to bed. It was getting kinda late, but Dana and I encouraged our friend to stay and hang out a bit more. So, we were chatting with a couple of beers, eating the kids’ Easter candy, sharing stories of life and work. And then he asked me a question, “how long does it take you to write a sermon?” And I spilled it all - pretty much all that I’ve told you already today. I replied, “Sometimes it’s quick, sometimes it is hard. I wanted this one to be easy, but blarg!” (You’ve already heard of my frustrations and dashed hopes.)
I had hoped to make it a great sermon. I had hoped to make it easy for me. I had hoped that all this great stuff would happen! And it didn’t. And then I realized my foolishness and slowness of heart in writing the sermon. My eyes were opened.
Jesus was there with me. All through my week, even in my frustrations, in the sharing of food and drink and conversation, Jesus was there. Through all that happened; through all the stuff I wish I would’ve gotten done; even through my journeys heading the wrong direction. Jesus was there.
That’s the heart of the Emmaus story.
Emmaus didn’t just happen.
Emmaus always happens.
It always happens.
Jesus is with us all the time, even when we don’t know it.
As my eyes were opened, my heart started burning - in the good way. My task isn’t to wow and dazzle, but simply point to Jesus when I see him. And maybe, let you know that sometimes I don’t see him. Sometimes I miss his presence because I’m so concerned about me and all that has happened to and around me. But Jesus is there. Jesus walks with us. Jesus shows up.
We are more like these two on the road than we acknowledge. We have our plans; we have our hopes that are dashed. We walk along; we journey from one stop to the next. And in it all, often unbeknownst to us, Jesus is there. Jesus is with us in our stories, in our journeys, in our every day and hum-drum. And we don’t see him. Yet, like Cleopas and his traveling partner, in our frustrations, in our plans gone awry, in everything: Christ walks with us.
And that is what matters. That is the Good News. That is the heart of the Gospel.
The resurrected Lord is with us always. And he can be with us always because we know that nothing can keep Jesus from us. If we’re a tax collector or sinner, Jesus is there. If we are well or ill, Jesus is there. If we’ve had a crummy or fantastic week, Jesus is there.
Who we are, what we do, what we see or don’t see; nothing separates us from Jesus. Not even hanging him on a cross and placing him in a tomb keeps him from us. In Christ, God conquers all that separates us - those things like sin and death which we have no shot at defeating. God does it for us out of love, out of grace, because God wants to be with us, wants to walk with us, now and forever. Jesus gives us the Spirit, tells us the Good News, feeds our faith with his presence. He wants to take our broken, uninspired, dream-crushed hearts and set them on fire.
And so we keep telling the story. We tell the story that Jesus told. We tell the story that we’ve been telling, week in and week out. We tell the story because the story rekindles the burning in our hearts.
We share the meal because Jesus is there, hosting, present, inviting, blessing. Opening our eyes to see him yet again. Helping us to see that he was with us all the time.
Even in the crummiest, most tiring, uninspired weeks, Jesus is there. And not just for pastors and preachers, but for you. Jesus walks with you.
I got that lesson this week. Jesus’ presence isn’t based on what I believe or how I feel or how good a sermon is. Jesus’ presence is a given. We just don’t always notice. Simply telling the story, sharing a meal - that helps us to see him again.
Christ is risen. Christ is present. Christ tells us the Gospel story. Christ opens our eyes in the breaking of bread.
Emmaus didn’t just happen.
Emmaus always happens.
It always happens.
Jesus is with us all the time, even when we don’t know it.
Whatever kind of week you had, may you know that Christ is alive.
Whatever kind of week you will have, may you know that Jesus walks with you wherever you go.
Whatever happens in life, may Jesus take your broken heart and set it on fire.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
So goes the traditional Easter acclamation Christians have used for centuries to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. It gives voice to our faith and joy at Christ’s triumph over death, over the grave, and over all that stands between us and eternal relationship with God.
And while we will say, “alleluia” about 6,000 times today, there were zero alleluias at the tomb that first Easter morning. (Maybe they lost their place in the bulletin and didn’t know how to respond.) They didn’t have any “alleluias” because they went to the tomb with no expectation of finding anything other than a dead body. They didn’t have anything resembling faith and joy. Rather, at daybreak on the first day of the week, they walked slowly and sadly to perform one last act of devotion for their beloved Lord.
They did not expect resurrection. They did not expect joy. They did not expect celebration or hope or new life. No. They came looking for death because that is what they had seen on Friday.
They went to the tomb as we would have gone, with heavy hearts and broken dreams.
What is done is done.
Until two men in dazzling clothes suddenly appear. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Because he is not living; he’s dead. We saw him crucified with our own eyes!
And then the men say, “Remember what he told you? Remember?”
And it all comes flooding back for the women. It’s like the montage at the end of the movie as the surprise twist is revealed; the images and scenes from before flash through their brains, making them wonder why they didn’t notice it before. They remember him saying, “He must go. He must suffer. He must die.” But he also will be raised. They remember. They remember and then they go and tell, go and share, and maybe even utter that first alleluia.
Remember. While we think we come here today to celebrate, to sing songs and hymns, to give thanks… really, today we are like the women who come to the tomb. We come here today and get reminded.
We need to be reminded in our own bright and dazzling way that Jesus is risen. Hear again that the impossible is possible; the unthinkable is now our hope. Death has been defeated, once and for all. Our greatest enemy crumbles under the depth and breadth of God’s love - a love that won’t ever stop.
That is a reminder we need regularly. Today, right now, this very moment, in this room, sure, we remember. But day to day, we forget. In our world, in our lives, in the midst of all that is opposed to resurrection, love, grace, and life, we need this reminder: God is bigger than it all. God is more loving than we can be. And God shows us that love in raising Jesus from the tomb.
It’s not that we don’t know it; we just don’t remember. Think of it like this: I know my mommy loves me. (Yes, a grown man just said mommy.) My mom loves me, but I don’t always remember it. I don’t always process it. If I get a reminder, like I talk to her on the phone, or get a text, or Facetime, or she likes something I post on Facebook, or she sends my kids a card, THEN I remember. But usually, day to day, I don’t remember.
I’m not always conscious of her love. I forget it, for lack of a better word.
The same is true with what God has done in Jesus. We know God raised Jesus from the dead, but we forget it in our day-to-day lives. Even those women who were with Jesus for a majority of his ministry, who followed him, who heard his teachings and parables, who saw the miracles and healings, even they needed a reminder. Lucky for them they got it - in sparkly clothes, no less.
They got their dazzling prompt, and they remembered Jesus has changed everything.
We, like those women, often need a prompt to remember, even something as great as a resurrection.
Which, like I said, is why we gather today - and yet, not just today, but week in and week out. Gathering together reminds us that Jesus is alive. And I don’t mean gather to sit in a pew, but to see others, to form relationships, to support and care and pray. To see someone who has been through hell and back. To know people who have faith stronger than I ever could. To connect with all ages and stages of what life offers - or throws - at us. These people are around when we gather, and their stories remind us: Jesus has changed everything.
Worshiping in word and song prompts us. We are confronted again with the realization that if God can do this, if God can overcome death, what else can God do? We are injected again with wonder and mystery of a God who can raise the dead and wants us to know that new life is true for us, too. Music, movement, color - all of it hits different emotions. All of it reminds us: Jesus changes everything.
As we share the meal of communion, we do it in remembrance of Jesus. We remember his life and death; we remember that he is raised. We remember: because he is raised, he is here with us in the meal, here in bread and wine. Alive and present, bringing with him all that Jesus is: love, grace, forgiveness, perseverance, life. Not just now, but forever. The meal reminds us: Jesus will change everything.
Remembering shapes us, changes us.
Back to the analogy about my mom’s love which I don’t always remember… I still don’t always remember it, not mentally, not there between my ears. But, in a way, I do remember it each day, because I live out her love. Her love, whether I knew it at the time or not, shaped me. And now, things beyond the obvious phone calls and snail mail start to remind me. Her love comes out in how I live, in how I try to interact with my kids, in how I want to immediately put dishes away and not leave them on the counter or in the sink. My mom’s love shaped me - even if I don’t always remember.
And that is how resurrection is. It shapes us, even when we don’t know it. It gives us promises, even when we don’t remember them. It helps us live a new life today and gives us new life to come.
God has changed everything, even if we don’t remember.
But remembering… boy. Remembering really does prompt us to be different.
To expand the bounds of our own love, because God’s love knows no bounds.
To have hope that we will overcome, because God in Jesus has already overcome the worst.
To remind others of the love and promise of God, because God loves and promises us more than we know.
Remembering. It just might get an extra alleluia out of you. Let’s see.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
He is risen indeed.
Less than one week ago, Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem in praise. Cloaks were strewn about. Palm branches were waving. My, how quickly things change.
In the midst of only a few days, the chief priests and scribes have rallied, conspired, and begun to act.
Tonight, all the threads that have been running through Jesus’ story get pulled together. Some of those threads reach far back; others only a little ways. But tonight, each one gets dragged toward one, dark end.
One thread that shows up tonight is the thread of evil, the strand of Satan. This thread reaches way back in Jesus’ story to before his ministry even started. Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness where he was tempted by… Satan. Jesus, of course, fended off such temptations. The devil departed from him until an opportune time. Tonight, it seems, is that time.
Another thread is the thread of preparation - just like Jesus prepared his disciples for entry to the city. “Go and you will find a colt tied…” Now Jesus sends two ahead of him. “Go and you will find a man carrying a jar of water…” They are to go to an upper room and prepare the Passover meal. Tonight, we prepare.
There is the thread of Passover, and with it, a recalling of all that the Passover means. The Passover is the central celebration of the Jewish faith. It is the festival that cements them in their identity as God’s beloved people. They are set free from the bonds of slavery and delivered to the promised land. Throughout Jesus’ life, he has pointed to a new kind of passover. He fed hungry people in the wilderness as God did. He conversed with Moses and Elijah on the mountain top, discussing his own “exodus.” Even his teachings speak of “being ready” in the same way those slaves in Egypt were to be ready. Tonight is the Passover.
There also is the thread of sharing meals. Think of all the meals Jesus has shared in Luke: a dinner interrupted by a woman at Simon’s house; a meal shared with five thousand on the hillside; eating with Mary and Martha; dining with Pharisees which elicits parables about inviting the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame; and eating with tax man Zacchaeus shortly before entering Jerusalem. Tonight, Jesus shares yet another meal.
All of this - the strand of Satan,
the thread of preparation,
the theme of a new exodus,
the string of meals…
all of this is tied together tonight.
And oh, how we wish it were tied together in a pretty bow. But we know better. There is one more strand we’ve yet to add: death.
Jesus spoke of his death several times, teaching his disciples about what will happen once he goes to Jerusalem. He will suffer. He will die. This, he has told them over and over, this is what it means to be the Messiah. And as much as we try to drop that thread, it keeps intertwining itself into this story.
Tonight, as Jesus and his disciples gather to celebrate a meal on Passover, Satan has prepared Judas to turn Jesus over to death. As far as making pretty bows out of all the thread, God’s Messiah has failed - and failed miserably.
As we wait what will come, there are knots in our stomachs.
Though in the midst of tangles and fraying faith, Jesus shifts our perspective. Jesus takes those threads that have been running, some of them his whole life. He takes those threads, and he weaves them together. He takes the tangle and turns it into true covenant.
He takes the thread of a meal and ties it to more than sustenance for our stomachs. “This is my body,” he says. This is Jesus. Jesus is present here. In this meal, in this bread, in this cup.
He stitches the thread of the Passover meal to a new covenant in his blood. He takes a memory of what God has once done and joins it to the cup - a new covenant, an ongoing promise, that you are free from whatever has hemmed you in.
Even in the face of Satan and death, Jesus says, remember me. And as we remember, the thread that runs through this meal is every meal Jesus has ever shared. We remember the radical, unconventional welcome. We remember those with whom he ate. And we see Judas at the table now.
Drawing, sewing, stitching together the threads of his life, Jesus taylors for us a new meal, a new covenant. This meal, Jesus says, this meal prepares you to serve. It is not a meal to lord over others; it is not a supper of exclusivity; it is no cup for greatness. This is food for service.
This is a meal of presence.
This is bread and cup for remembrance, for welcome, for promise, for servanthood. It is Jesus’ body, Jesus’ blood, Jesus’ presence, for you.
For you. Those two words, perhaps as much as any in the Bible, point to the heart of the Gospel. All this: this meal, this story, this night, tomorrow, the days that follow, the threads Jesus pulls together, is for you. All for you.
All so you can know a love that welcomes everyone, and welcomes you, even when we feel threadbare.
All so you can hear the promise that nothing changes that love, not even what is to come.
All so you can serve, can love, can share the covenant promise as Jesus patches us together as the body of Christ.
As we gather Tonight, we will join together at the table. As we join, we don’t just remember these threads, don’t just hear the story of Jesus and his disciples. See, Jesus didn’t just pick up his own threads on the night in which he was betrayed; Jesus also promises to stitch our story in. Your thread, and your thread, and your thread… Jesus gathers them and weaves them into one story, into God’s story of covenant. Of promise. Of relentless, unstoppable love.
Lived, given, shed for you.
It’s Palm Sunday - a day of celebration and festivity. Our first reading outside is full of reasons to celebrate: Jesus sets the scene. Coats line the streets to prepare the way. Crowds upon crowds see Jesus enter the city. The rocks will shout if we won’t. The King is coming! Our role today is to praise Jesus!
But have you seen how we celebrate? Bless our hearts, but we’re not very good at the Palm Sunday part of this day.
We hold these branches, but we only half-heartedly wave them.
We reluctantly stand on the front lawn, pondering what those driving by are thinking.
We wonder where to put our stuff while we are outside.
We’re anxious about getting our regular seat once we get back inside.
The bold type in the bulletin instructs us to welcome the coming king, and so we do what we are told. But it’s forced. Our “hosannas” are weak and tepid.
But we play our role. We wave, we walk, we tepidly shout.
Were we taught that this isn’t how grown-ups act? We play our role in this day quite reverently - as if reverence is diametrically opposed to joy. (It’s not.) Is waving palm branches not an adult thing to do? Perhaps our own parents shushed us one too many times in the pew, and we’ve learned the “keep quiet” lesson too well. Don’t show too much emotion; it’s not respectable to be excited after a certain age.
As a kid, I remember the excitement of Palm Sunday. How cool it was to start worship outside, to hold palm branches, to take part in a parade! I felt like Jesus was there, like it was THE Palm Sunday. Everyone around me had palms. The crowd seemed bigger out on the lawn than when we were all shuffled into our pews. It was awesome!
The differences in the way I remember Palm Sundays growing up and the way they play out these days got me thinking about our role in Jesus’ story.
Back 2,000 years ago, I’m sure it would have been easy to get caught up in the moment - like at any big event where your team, your guy, is getting ready to take the field. (Few things get grown men to toss grown-up conventions out the window like watching other men in matching clothes playing a game.) I’d like to think I’d be that excited on the first Palm Sunday. But would I have been?
Even as a pastor, I often do my best not to hit people in the face with my faith. For example, way back on Ash Wednesday, the ashes came off my forehead pretty soon after service was over. I often take my collar off if I’m stopping by the grocery store. Things like that. It’s not that I mind people knowing I’m a Christian (my name is on the sign of a church, afterall) - it’s just removing the bold “attention grabbers” is how I feel most comfortable. So, let’s just say I wouldn’t have been on the front row of that parade with palms in both hands screaming my head off.
I guess I’m not the ideal Palm Sunday attendee.
These days, what role do I play in welcoming Jesus? While I tried to put a little extra gusto in my “hosanna” this morning knowing I was going to be talking about this, there is more to “welcoming Jesus” than vigorous palm waving. My role, your role, is to welcome and praise Jesus wherever he is, wherever he goes. Jesus’ actions shape how we play our role.
Where does our childlike excitement in welcoming Jesus lie now, today?
Maybe we need a little more childlike wonder and enthusiasm in our lives, in our worship, in our ministries.
And if I get honest, our lack of excitement hasn’t suddenly dropped off the map in the past two or three Palm Sundays. Child me simply didn’t notice the people who unenthusiastically waved their branches and said “hosanna” with only a slightly-louder-than-normal voice. It’s been a long, long time since we’ve lived up to the Palm Sunday role the first crowds set.
And I think I know why.
It’s hard to get excited knowing what we know about how this whole parade thing ends.
That’s the rub with today, isn’t it?
It’s hard to have a parade when you know where that parade leads.
As we continued the story inside, we picked up right where we left off outside, now with tears, with overturned tables, with plots to kill. We end today on an ominous note with lots of reasons to tread carefully. Jesus’ actions shape how we play our role today.
And Jesus’ actions put us in a tough spot.
Therein lies the challenge for us, for this this day, this week, and for each day of our lives. Today and for the next several days, we reflect a bit on our role in all of this. We reflect on our role in the climax of Jesus’ story. And we ask, what role do we play in Jesus’ story now?
We have the ideal: celebration, praise, following, staying close to Jesus.
All the disciples and followers had the best of intentions. And yet, they all played their roles… poorly. The same is true with us. Despite our best intentions, we don’t live up to the ideal. We trade childlike excitement for adult practicality. We know what will ensue before this week is out. The deafening silence of what will come has already muted our joy.
Jesus’ actions this week shape how we play our role. We get a chance to be honest.
Today, we can admit that we don’t praise as we ought, but only as we are able.
This week, we can admit the roles we play half-heartedly - or even leave unfulfilled - as we follow Jesus from a distance on his way.
And while I put a lot of emphasis today on “us” and our roles in the drama that will unfold this week, the Lutheran part of me wants to remind you that our roles start with God. We react to God’s love shown in Jesus. Jesus’ actions shape more than our role in some play, but shape us forever.
Jesus’ actions today rain on our parade.
Jesus’ actions this week cause us to question, betray, deny, and hide.
Jesus’ actions do not leave us feeling warm and fuzzy; he doesn’t pat us on the head and tell us he loves us. No, not today.
And yet, no matter how we play our role - childlike, ideal, practical - this week it is Jesus’ actions that show us he loves us. And those actions forever shape us with promise, shape us with hope, shape us for the wonders of what love can do.
Last week we read some of the most beloved of Jesus’ parables. Luke 15 is affectionately called the “Lost Chapter” because it’s all about things that were lost, but now are found: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. We read the entire chapter, all 32 verses, and no one complained to me about it being too long! That’s because we like those stories. They make us feel good, comfortable, warm. Jesus finds us! Jesus loves us! Yay!
Chapter 16, though, is a different story. Notice the Lectionary did not choose for us to read the whole chapter, even though it would be a verse shorter than last week. Hearing our parable for today may give some insight about why. While chapter 15 is warm and fuzzy, chapter 16 challenges us and makes us uncomfortable.
Chapter 15 makes us happy; chapter 16… doesn’t. I’m reminded of the C.S. Lewis quote: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” That is exactly true today.
Yet, maybe I’m assuming too much. This parable only should bother us if we don’t use all we have to alleviate any sort of need in the world and thus, don’t identify much with the rich man. But something tells me we don’t like it when Jesus talks about money. Or poor people. Or hell.
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
When I read this text Monday morning, I had the usual preacher dread before any money sermon.
When I read this text Monday afternoon, I had gotten over that. We need to talk about faithful use of money at some point and if not at church and with Jesus, where else? Plus, I had several days to carefully choose my words.
When I read this text Tuesday morning, I really started to think about how to apply this parable to our daily lives.
When I read this text Tuesday afternoon, I still had no idea how to apply this to our lives.
Then I looked out the window.
Sitting in my office, my window looks out at the stop light here at 62nd and Kings. And there he was: “Mr. King.” Or “Walkin’ John.” Or “Johnny Walker.” Just standing there on the corner, like he often does.
Those of you who have been around this part of Myrtle Beach for even a little while know who I’m talking about. Up until recently, he used to walk blocks - miles, even! - up and down North Kings Highway - hence how he got all his nicknames - pulling his cart of Rubbermaid tubs. There are rumors and legends about him - about why he walks, what his former life used to be, and so on.
Lately, instead of walking, he’s been picking a corner somewhere on this block. Sometimes he's over by the Dollar General. Other times, he's in front of the BP. But for the past couple of weeks, he's been here on this corner - “our” corner. And he just stands all day. Rain or shine, warm or cold. Sometimes he paces, but never too far from his dolly. He tends to mind his own business.
Here I was, sitting in this large, nice house - a house of the Lord, but a house nonetheless. And there he was, LITERALLY out our front door.
When I read this text Wednesday morning - and after I donned my purple and fine linen for Lenten worship - I knew I had to go try and talk. I had to try to form some relationship. I had to try something. The Bible, this parable, convicted me that I was not to just pass him by. I should not pretend like he doesn’t exist.
Wednesday afternoon, the cops were called over, and they met with him. Now, they didn’t arrest him or anything because he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was standing on a sidewalk. But he did say, apparently, that he’d find another corner the next day.
When I read this text Thursday morning, I looked up and down our block of Kings Highway. I didn’t see Johnny Walker.
And so there I was. The same as the Rich Man, only noticing the poor man outside his gates enough to give him a name. Nothing more. Were my good intentions well-intentioned enough to put me on the right side of the great chasm?!?
How about everyone else that passed him by, day after day?
I’ve never had such a literal interpretation of a parable in front of me as I have with “us” in this big, nice house and Johnny Walker standing on the corner. While I was gearing up for a “money sermon,” having this practical, tangible application made me realize that this parable isn’t about money as much as it is about relationship.
I’d heard from others that our man on the corner won’t take any thing. He won’t take money, won’t take a coat, though on occasion he will take food or drink. But that only underscores the point: I have “heard from others,” not through any connection I personally made with him.
There is a chasm - a separation - between “them” and “us” - not in the afterlife, but already, right now. Avoiding those outside our walls only reinforces the chasm that is already there.
This parable calls us to accept, welcome, and engage those people who make us uncomfortable. We are to face these people head on, look them in the eye, learn the hows and whys, the whats and whos. We are called to minimize the chasms present in this world.
While this parable isn’t about money, money is often a big cause of chasms. Money seems to instantly divide, because instead of seeing it as a tool or a gift from God, we see it as what’s mine and not theirs.
And while this parable can be spun in a way that says, “give money to the church,” I think that is an unfaithful interpretation. Instead, this parable is about more than the 10% we give to church. It’s also about the other 90% of our money.
But it provokes with more than “send a check here; donate there.” It challenges us to make a difference with all we are. We are called to act with justice, to love tenderly, to cooperate, to meet, to be community, no matter what side of a wall they are on. Because that is how the chasms here on earth are bridged. That is how “they” become “us.”
That is how anxiety becomes eased.
That is how we live as followers of Jesus.
Following Jesus means doing what he does, going where he goes, living as he lives.
Think over the examples Jesus sets for us. Jesus interacted. Jesus went. Jesus did all the things he possibly could do to bridge the chasms here on earth. And he did it by being there, showing up, and going to places that make us uneasy, to the people who make us uncomfortable - even if they’re just standing there.
But by going, by doing, by looking only to God, he also bridged the chasm that we never could cover. Jesus’ cross bridged the chasm between us and God, giving us access to life abundant and eternal. Jesus brings us over to life.
The question is, does any of that make a difference in how we live now? Does our faith in the risen Lord help us see those we would prefer not to see? Does it help us regard those around us as worthy of compassion, respect, and honor…or not? Does the One who conquered death and called us to follow make a difference in how we live now?
This parable is about the character and quality of our life right now. I would even argue that here, eternal life isn’t a distant reality at all. It starts now, each time we embrace the abundant life God offers in and through those around us. So, while this parable is a warning not to overlook those around us in need, it is also an invitation to live into fuller, more meaningful, and more joyous life by sharing ourselves – our time, talents, and certainly our wealth – with those around us, here and now.
As we do, we live into the kingdom God has shared since Moses, up through the prophets, and now makes alive and available to all in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I didn’t want to be found.
I didn’t want to be found, because I didn’t think I was lost. I knew full well what I wanted and what I was doing. I was going to be my own man, to live on my own terms. My father’s farm was doing well and all, but I knew I could do better if I left. So I did.
But before we go forward, let’s go back and let me tell you a little bit more about my relationship with my dad. Dad always told me I was special. “Younger sons always are,” he’d say. Growing up, he was always telling me about the Biblical younger sons: how righteous Abel was. Isaac was faithful. Jacob was clever. Heck, even great King David was the youngest of his brothers.
If I was so special, why didn’t he let me be special? I was always having to help out in the field like my older brother. Special people don’t work in the field.
So, I learned early on how to get out of manual labor. I knew what to say to dad to get my way. I could pretty much get whatever I wanted out of him. I liked to convince him to let me go to the market; it’s a lot more fun to goof off without pops around. He’s such a fool.
Then one day, the idea hit me. I could get out of this place if I just had some seed money. But how was I going to get that kind of cash? Inheritance. Inheritance! It’s pretty much mine already.
And don’t look at me like that. There is nothing bad about asking for one’s inheritance early. It’s not a sin. There’s nothing in the Law about it. You may see it as mean spirited; I see it as getting what I deserve. Besides, I framed it as an opportunity for me to make him proud. (I told you I knew just what to say to get my own way.) At first, he didn’t bite. But after I explained a bit more about the investment opportunities and school and threw some “God” language in there - yeah, he caved. A few days later, I had what was mine and I got as far away from there as possible.
And finally, it was just me. I only had to worry about me. It was peaceful. Idyllic. I rode my donkey as far away as I could, to some distant land, far from that paltry life as my father’s son.
Good thing I had a plan. In the market, people are always exchanging goods - as well as ideas. I knew I could find the local market, talk my way into some upper level job, or invest what I had and live out my life in relative ease. But first, I needed a vacation. Doesn’t everyone deserve a vacation? I earned it!
The first few nights were pretty good. I had some good meals, some good wine, some good company. I stayed at some pretty nice inns and earned some brownie points with the locals by buying round after round. I looked at it as an investment for later. They’d owe me, right?
Then the famine hit. Food was scarce. My money - well, what little money I had left at that point - wouldn’t go very far. I had to make choices - a place to stay or a meal? I tried to cash in some of those favors I built up among the townsfolk. No one would help. Excuse after excuse. “We don’t have money for that type of thing. We don’t believe your story. We wish we could help.” Some looked at me weird, like, “how dare I ask for help? Why don’t you pick yourself up?”
Finally, one guy - one guy! - offered some help. He gave me a job feeding his pigs. Pigs. A good Jewish boy like me, feeding pigs. I took it. I had to. Instead of dying, I fed the pigs.
As I was out there in the slop one morning, starving, longing to eat even what those pigs were eating, I knew I had to do something. I had to go back.
“Oh, good for you!” I bet you’re thinking. “You’ll go back and everything will be just the same as it was!” I say you’re crazy. This is less about repentance are more about me saving my own skin. Who other than that old fool would be willing to help me now? I sure as heck am not going to be stuck working those fields again. I’ve gotta play it right. And, if I do play it right, I bet I could get a little bit more money out of ol’ pops.
So, how can I say it so it comes off just right? I need to be convincing, but not over the top. I’ll tell him, “I’m sorry, father. I didn’t mean to hurt you!” No, no. Too straightforward. I’ll grovel a bit more. He always liked it when I talked about God… maybe, “I’ve sinned against God and against you!” Yeah. There we go. He’s a sucker when I sound religious.
I rehearsed my speech all the way from the pig farmer’s house to my own home, figuring out the perfect dramatic pauses. I hoped I could get a tear coming, too. That’d probably seal the deal.
As I made my way down that familiar lane toward our house, I remember growing up there, playing “Israelites and Philistines” with my brother in those fields. Those were some good times. As I snapped out of the daydream, I noticed someone running toward me. Could it be? It was! It was my dad! I wasn’t ready yet. I hadn’t started getting worked up or anything. Before I could even really remember where I was supposed to start, he was right there.
“Father!” (Ah, that sounded a little too formal. Try to soften it up.) “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you! I am no longer worthy to be called your son!” (I begged for those tears to come!)
But he grabbed me in one of those bear hugs only dads can give. He held on, lifted me up, didn’t care what I was saying or if I was sincere or not. What. A. Fool.
This was going to be easier than I thought.
But he didn’t stop. He kept hugging. He kept holding on. He directed me home. He called to one of the slaves to bring me a robe and ring. And then he - HE - cleaned me up. He washed me. Rinsed me. And he never said a word. He never let me finish. Never said anything about forgiving. He looked at me. He cared for me. His eyes sparkling and that smile of his spread across his face. That’s the smile he got when he was so pleased. And though he didn’t say it to me, I knew it. It was like I was dead… but now I was alive.
He set a meal before me. My cup was filled - overflowing even. It was a banquet fit for a good son, certainly not me, not the way I am. The table was set; he was there. He was with me.
He is a fool. But in that moment, in the meal, I realized: he is a fool who loves me. A fool who will do anything for me. A fool who runs to see me, who gives me gifts I don’t deserve, who lavishes me with a grace that makes me a bit embarrassed to accept. He didn’t want an apology. He just wanted me. He wanted me back in the family. That was good enough for him.
And now, it turns out, it’s good enough for me. It’s as if he understood everything - knew my plans all along - and loved me anyway. And that kind of love changes you. It’s an unconditional love. It not only loves you when you’re there, it loves you when you blow your inheritance. But more than that, it is a type of love that makes you want to be there, to experience it, to share in it. Somehow, even though you know you can’t, that kind of love makes you want to live up to it.
I didn’t deserve a party. But I got one anyway.
I didn’t want to be found. But I was anyway.
I’ll always be my Father’s child. Nothing will change that.
I’m always welcome home. And not just welcome, but foolishly, warmly, lovingly welcome.
And I know you are, too.
In our lesson for today, things are bad. I don’t know how else to say it. We are confronted with horrific events - blood of Galileans, towers falling on people, cities that kill prophets. What is going on?
These events are being brought up to Jesus so he can answer the age old question, “why do bad things happen?” The people are wondering what those others did causing these these terrible things.
Jesus doesn’t answer their question. Instead, he gives a more general overview stating bad things happen all the time, everywhere. Do you think these people suffered because they were worse than all others? No. Do you think they were worse offenders than everyone else? No.
Not the most fun topic for the Sunday morning after a time change, is it?
When it comes to the happenings in our world, we have a tendency to focus on all the trees; we notice the individual, bad events happening to others. Jesus zooms out to see the whole forest; he takes a bigger perspective. Bad and evil are not restricted to certain people in certain places because they did (or didn’t do) certain things. Lots of bad things happen. Brokenness happens. Death happens. And it’s going to happen to you.
(Everybody’s Sunday still going ok? )
It’s important to face that reality. It is what we start the season of Lent saying, after all: “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Mortality, bad things, broken lives, broken people, broken world. Unfortunately, that type of news bombards us. It’s not hard to find disaster, suffering, tragedy. Instead of giving you the laundry list, I’ll trust that you are aware this type of stuff really happens.
Our world is broken. We are broken. Sin and death have their hold. That is the big picture. That’s what Jesus sees. That is what, he hopes, we see. This big picture brings a clarity which avoiding the mess of life doesn’t give. Avoiding the pain and brokenness doesn’t make it non-existent. Often, our ignoring it exacerbates the issues. And so, Jesus brings it out to the open. In this world is pain. Here is cruelty. There is hurt.
(One more check-in. Everybody still enjoying themselves?)
But Jesus doesn’t leave us with only bad news. He uses two images revealing what God is doing in the midst of our reality.
The first image is of a fig tree. Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree that doesn’t produce figs. What good is a fig tree that doesn’t produce figs? Cut it down! “But,” says the gardner. “Let me do some work. Dig around it. Give it some fertilizer. Then we’ll see what happens.” Avoiding our reality is like a do-nothing fig tree. In avoiding the truth, we don’t produce fruit - fruit of repentance, fruit of good works, fruit of faithfulness for the Kingdom of God.
It sounds kind of scary and threatening at first - that Jesus holds up this stark reality in front of our face. “You better bear fruit while you still can!” But really, Jesus is just encouraging us to be honest - and then honestly be who God created us to be. Why waste our precious, limited time on things that don’t matter, things that don’t produce fruit, things that don’t further the Kingdom?
Jesus knows we all have time limits; so there is no time like the present to do something good for a neighbor, to repair broken relationships, to love, to forgive, to repent, to be fruit producing people. There is no time like the present. And even if we aren’t producing the fruit we should, God isn’t waiting with the wood chipper. Instead of chopping us down, God is patient with us. God creates conditions in which we might bear fruit. God tends to us so that we might repent. God gives us what we need so that we might notice the pain around us and do what we can to alleviate it.
In the midst of our broken, sometimes fruitless realities, God isn’t hasty about getting rid of us. God does whatever it takes to help us bear fruit worthy of the Kingdom.
The second image Jesus uses is that of a chicken. Which sounds like a feeble image. I am taken back to scenes from the Back to the Future movies where Biff says, “what’s the matter, McFly? Chicken?!” Not the best image for encouragement, is it?
“But it’s not just any ol’ chicken. It’s a mother hen,” you may say. Which is worse. Why not pick a mama bear or something ferocious? At the very least one of those super annoying mother geese that’ll chase you while honking? Something - anything - that might give us some confidence!
But Jesus chooses a chicken - a mother hen - on purpose. While we would prefer someone or something to fight off danger and scare away enemies, Jesus instead gives an image of comfort. He wants to reassure us.
As we’ve established, he knows that bad things are going to happen; they happen to us all. Evil will come. Death prowls around. To deny that is foolish. But Jesus, our mother hen, is there with tenderness. With care. With presence. We are not alone. Christ is there. Jesus is present; Jesus comforts - no matter what is going on around you.
Jesus brings us under his wing - not to drive away all that is bad, but to assure us that, even in the midst of the bad, it will be alright. Jesus has us. It all will be alright.
And that is the heart of the Christian message, isn’t it?
Bad things will happen to us. Just as bad things will happen to Jesus as he sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. During this season of Lent, we walk with Jesus toward that end, toward his pain and suffering, toward his death, toward those bad things that are still present in our world today. And yet, despite all the wrong, all the bad, all the tragedy, Jesus tells us that God’s love is bigger than those things. God’s love doesn’t fall away when times are hard, sad, or tragic. God is there. God’s love persists. God is present, even in the midst of this world, our world. Jesus is here with comfort, with grace, with promise - promise that though this world’s tyrants rage, they cannot win the day.
Life wins. Love wins. God wins. And because of that, we win.
For now, we gather together under the wing of our Lord and Savior, hearing again his promises that no matter what, he is with us. We are fed and nourished by God - given Christ’s body and blood to help us grow deeper roots and bear Kingdom fruit. In our realities, in our brokenness, we are still loved, still comforted, still tended to by God.
That makes today, and every day, a little better.
Through the Waters.
So, baptism, huh? That’s what we’re exploring through the season of Lent.
Baptism is the foundation of Christian community. Baptism joins us to Jesus. Baptism washes us clean. Baptism creates in us a spring that continually waters our soul. When we confess, the reminder that God already claims us as children are the words of comfort and absolution. There are many merciful images and many means of grace found in the waters of baptism - not just that one time, but every time we remember.
We are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Forever.
Since it has such importance, we’re going to take our time, immersing ourselves in baptism. Each week during Lent, we will gather to make public profession of our faith. We will return to the promises God made with us in those waters and dig deeper into what it means to be a baptized child of God. We will touch the water and remember.
Today, we start with the first line of the promise we soon will say together: we intend “to live among God’s faithful people.”
As I’ve already said, part of what baptism does is draws us together as a community. We are the community of Jesus, members of the body of Christ, joined as one. And here’s the hard part: we have to live together.
Often when I think about community for more than a few minutes, I remember my best friend in high school, Paul. From about the 10th grade on, we did everything together. When it came time to graduate, we both were accepted to Newberry College and decided to be roommates.
Community, it turns out, is harder than it seems. Over the course of our first college semester, Paul and I drifted apart. It became worse the next semester: we were confrontational with each other. We yelled, we fought, we weren’t considerate of each other - sometimes purposefully. Before that freshman year was out, I ended up moving to another room; Paul ended up leaving Newberry at the end of the year.
Is that what community is? On the surface, community is this thing that sounds great and lovely. We long for the positives of what community can be, but we resist the demands that community makes. So, our community feels inadequate, especially when we look at how “Kumbaya” everything was in the early church.
All the believers lived in wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple, followed by meals at home - every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful - as they praised God. (Message translation)
I like y’all and all, but man. It doesn’t seem like we’re anything like that. Are we failures at Christianity? At Community? At living among God’s faithful people?
What we hear in the second part of our lesson for today is the ideal community. What we fail to realize is this type of community is only possible when it is based on the first part of our lesson for today.
Peter here just finished telling the people that “God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah, him who your crucified.” Peter points them to Jesus’ death and resurrection. This, as well as the coming of the Holy Spirit, helps the people see something about themselves and about God. God has done something here - done something that allows for new possibilities.
God forgives us. God turns us in a new direction. God sends to us and seals us by the Holy Spirit. God marks us with the cross of Christ forever. This is God’s new thing for us.
Peter then describes what living among faithful people looks like in God's new possibility.
It is a community of repentance. Repentance is a change of mind, a turning of direction, an understanding that something is new.
It is a community of forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t an earned reward but a gift freely given! For-give.
It is a community gathered by God in the waters of baptism. God makes it happen in us, through us, because God gives us the gifts necessary.
This is what it means to live among God’s faithful people: we know we are are forgiven. We turn to God. We are Spirit-gathered, Spirit-led, Spirit-sealed. That gives us the chance to live with each other and with God in faithful, communal ways - like what we hear today. Our selves are taken out; God's Spirit takes over. Giving, sharing, supporting.
So, will we always live as this type of community? No, not always. Sometimes we revert to a collection of individual churchgoers, ignoring the new gifts of God for life together.
But a gift of actually living among God's faithful people is that we have others to point us back to the cross. There we see again the promises of forgiveness and mercy that shape us - as individuals and as a community. In the cross, God gives us new understanding and a fresh reminder of what God has done for us. And pointed again to that cross, pointed again to Christ, we see ourselves as united in identity, purpose, Spirit.
We repent. We forgive. We live in the Spirit - the very same Spirit God gave to the early church.
As for my room mate Paul… well, preaching on “living among God’s faithful people” can be pretty convicting. So, I sent him a message. I don’t know if we’ll get back to our 10th grade selves, but who knows what the Spirit has in mind.
God brings us together. And that means we try. We repent. We forgive. We live in the Spirit. Through the waters.
Which one are you?
That is our mode of interpreting this and other parables of Jesus, is it not? Which are you? And, to be sure, there is importance in finding ourselves in the story of scripture. We learn something about how to live; we glean a new perspective on life; we are convicted about our falling short.
Here, in particular, there are nice neat categories in which to fall. Are you the priest who passes by? Are you the Levite who refuses to give aid? Are you the Samaritan who is moved with pity and stops to help? The ideal, the lesson, the moral is we are the Samaritan. We see a need and help, no matter who it is.
But why is it that such easy lessons are so hard to actually live out? Why is it that we come up with excuse after excuse not to help someone? We must justify the help we give. We blame the one to be helped for their circumstances - poor life choices and all. We question their motives in receiving the monetary help we give and feel good when we don’t give because we aren’t enabling a certain lifestyle. We judge based on some form of “box” we put them in: country of origin, physical abilities, if they are one of us or not. Yet, the lesson is simple: help anyone, anywhere, no matter what. And we don’t do that.
On top of that, what makes us think that we are the ones to help anyway? How come we’re not the one in the ditch? Are we always so put together and on top of it that we obviously don’t need anyone to pull us back up? To heal us? To care for us? I’m not so sure about that.
So, which one are you? All of them. Which isn’t really a helpful answer and makes for a really long sermon.
The more I went around and around with the parable in my head this week, I kept wondering if I was asking the right question to learn what Jesus meant. Which one am I?
But I kept coming back to the idea that parables are more than moral lessons. Jesus didn’t need to craft these stories simply to teach right from wrong. Jesus instead used the parables to tell us something about God, about the Kingdom, about the way God operates. It’s nice to try to find ourselves in the parables, but sometimes, it just isn’t about us. So, instead of asking, “which one am I?”, the real question should be, “which one is Jesus?”
Asking the right question might clear some things up for us.
Which one is Jesus? He’s the Samaritan. In telling this story, Jesus chose a Samaritan to act how he would act. Which is significant. Samaritans and Jews were not the best of friends. In fact, they saw each other as unclean, heretical outsiders. Each rejected the other. To get a little sense of the animosity, look at the Lawyer’s response after the parable is over. Jesus asks, “which was a neighbor?” The Lawyer can’t even say, “The Samaritan.” Instead he replies, “the one who showed mercy.” On top of that, if you were here for Ash Wednesday, you heard from the end of Chapter 9 that Jesus planned to go to a Samaritan village, but they did not receive him. James and John had no qualms about asking for fire to be cast down to demolish the city. Who needs Samaritans around anyway?
And yet, despite all this, Jesus chose a Samaritan to play his role in this story. Was it merely to shock the audience? Or is there something more?
Jesus is trying to tell us God often shows up where we least expect God to be - even where we don’t want God to be. No one expects God to be present in the outcast or outsiders or enemies. No one expects God to reveal glory through a cross. No one wants a God to show power through service, vulnerability, and suffering. It’s not the way we would’ve done it. And yet, God is there - right where we don’t expect (don’t want) God to be.
That is why Jesus chooses a Samaritan. It shows this self-justifying Lawyer (and, perhaps, the self-justifying part of us) that there is no self-justification possible. We can know all the answers but still fail in their implementation. We try so hard to justify our behavior. Our categories, prerequisites, and biases take over. We ask, “who is my neighbor?” instead of “how can I be a neighbor?” Jesus tells us when we are out to justify ourselves, we miss the places and the people where God is present.
So, we might ask, who do we have the hardest time imagining God working through? Where is it least likely for God to be? And then we should probably expect God to be right there.
But this isn’t just a lesson about looking out for God. There is also promise.
Because God shows up for the least, for the fringe, for the people and places we steer clear of, we know there is no place God won’t go. There is no person God doesn’t care for. There is no group or category God avoids.
If there is no one God avoids, then it goes to show that God comes for everyone. God comes for all. For the self-justifying Lawyer and outcast Samaritans. For those who are hurting, for those who help, and for those who turn away. God comes for you and for me. God surprises us by showing up for those we least expect - even when we least expect it for ourselves.
In Seminary, one of my professors gave out bumper stickers with the word, “WIGIAT” on it. You may have seen it in my office. WIGIAT stands for “where is God in all this?” It’s an important question. We don’t ask, “is God here?” The question assumes God is present, but in a way or a place we haven’t noticed yet. Where is God in all this?
The parable of the Good Samaritan is much like WIGIAT. It tells us that God shows up - and in ways, at times, in people we least expect.
And in each time, in each place, God shows up with grace and mercy. And the more we are aware of this, the more we notice God. The more we notice God, the more we participate in God’s Kingdom. The more we participate in God’s Kingdom, the more we act like Jesus.
Jesus again draws us to see the God who shows up in places we don’t expect - even in places we don’t want God to be - because the Kingdom isn’t about us. It’s about how God operates. How God loves. How God’s glory is shown.
In this journey through Lent, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. There he will hang on a cross - an unexpected place for a Savior to be. And yet, that shows us how far God will go to bring an unexpected love.
Which one are you? You are the one for whom God shows up. You are the one God has claimed forever. You are the one to whom God has shown mercy. You are the one God calls to go and do likewise.
Like it or not, the Transfiguration is part of Jesus’ story.
On the one hand, it’s an awesome thing. Jesus shines. Jesus dazzles. Jesus flashes brighter than Ocean Boulevard on a July night. What’s not to like?
Peter certainly likes it. He likes it so much, he wants to stay. “Let’s build some tents, Lord!”
Let’s stay here a little bit more.
Let’s hold on to this, just a tad longer. This is good!
The figures of Law and the Prophets are present. God speaks. Jesus is glorified. What’s not to like?
Well, what’s not to like is Jesus doesn’t stay there. God doesn’t speak as much as interrupts Peter in the midst of his monologue to say, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The disciples hear it. Jesus hears it. And instead of basking in glory up on the mountain top, Jesus heads down. Down the mountain to cast out demons, to remind of the betrayal that is coming, to carry out his mission. He doesn’t stay in the cloud; he doesn’t dwell in the light; he leaves.
Like it or not, this is where we are.
Most of us, I’m sure, have heard all of this before. Jesus doesn’t stay at the top. He heads down the mountain for ministry.
I am acutely aware of this understanding of the Transfiguration.
This is the scripture passage that was used at the end of one of my first summers working at Lutheridge. For those who don’t know, Lutheridge is a Lutheran camp outside of Asheville, NC, set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. For me, working at camp was an important, transformative time. I got to form relationships, I got to work with kids, I got to worship, I got to be at the top of this mountain - both literally and figuratively. In a lot of ways, it was like the Transfiguration. How good it was to be there!
And yet, no matter how hard we counselors fought it, the end of Summer came. In the closing worship service, Pastor Mary talked about the mountain-top experience we had that summer. It was a great and glorious time. But we couldn’t stay. We had to go down the mountain - go back down to the rest of our lives. Sure, we could share the story of what happened on top of that mountain, but we couldn’t stay there. Like it or not, you’ve got to go down the mountain.
I’m sure you’ve had your own mountain-top experiences before. Times you’ve truly felt in awe of what God has done, or you were certain you felt God’s presence. Be it on a literal mountain or not, we’ve had some form of mountain top experiences. But we couldn’t stay there. Like it or not, Jesus leads us back down the mountain.
And we get that. We understand that. We even come to expect that. Our whole lives can’t be mountain top experiences. We - we and Jesus - come down, have to come down the mountain for ministry. We come down to this world, and we share what we’ve seen and heard.
But something struck me this time through that hasn’t struck me before - at least not in this way. While it is easy to say, “Jesus leads us down the mountain,” it is hard to say, “Jesus leads us to change.”
Change. That’s the word we churches hate to hear.
And yet, that is what Transfiguration is all about. “Change” is built into the name; “trans” means “change.” We’re fine to give a nod to the fact that we come down the mountain - you know, to do ministry and stuff. We’re not so fine with change. We’ve constructed permanence - things far more permanent than the tents Peter wanted to build. Permanent structures behind whose walls we can dwell without disturbance. Permanent ways of doing things. Permanent rules - both spoken and understood.
If we go down, if we let go, if we change, we might not get it back - whatever “it” is.
Jesus is much less concerned about “it.” He heads down the mountain to that “faithless and perverse generation.” He casts out demons. He tells the disciples again: things are going to change. “Let these words sink into your ears.” The Son of Man is going to be betrayed.
Like it or not, Jesus changes our expectations of what the Messiah is to be. He’s not stuck; he adapts. He isn’t about drawing people up the mountain; he goes down to them - as faithless and perverse as they are. He doesn’t avoid hard conversations; he instead trusts God to work no matter what is going on.
And this, this is the hard part of what the Transfiguration holds for us. We know what Jesus is - what Jesus could be. We’ve seen it! But he chooses another way. And we can’t - don’t - move on from that. We keep trying to hold on to that glory at the top of the mountain and stay firmly put. We resist letting go of what was and cringe at the thought of changing for what God is up to next. We’d much rather stay there, build a tent, and keep things as they are. It’s much easier to remember past glory with affection than it is to be excited about an uncertain future.
So, what are we as the Church - as A church - to do? Scrap the whole thing? Do we get rid of anything that even remotely resembles a mountain top experience all in the name of change?
No, I don’t think so.
See, here’s the thing about the Transfiguration. It’s not about the glory. Nor is it about some sort of “get over it and come down the mountain” lesson on change. Like it or not, it’s about both. And to have one without the other misses the whole point.
Of course we need to know God’s glory. We need to remember it, we need to point to it, we need to experience it. It is what maybe brought us here to begin with - some experience we had with God on a mountain top. We need to know, to believe that is who God is.
But we also need to love the world enough to reach out to it. To be present in it. To serve it. To open up to it. And that kind of stuff changes us. Our expectations change. The ways we see God change.
The place where God’s glory and the lesson on change meets is called faith. Faith is trusting in who God is - and then living it out in many and various ways. It is seeing the glory that shone, but also knowing that glory needs to get translated to a people and generation who don’t “get it” quite yet.
Faith is the scary sense that change is necessary, but in all the change, God is present.
So for us, here and now, we can and we do come here to experience God’s glory. To not only hear music, but feel it, sing it, take part in it. We experience a meal that spans not just across this building but across all time and all space. We experience a glorious love that forgives us when we want to stay put, that shows us the greatness of God, that sends us out as changed people to change the world. We hear the story of how God has gloriously worked in the past, and we get the promise that God will continue to work now, even at the bottom of the mountain.
Jesus leads us down the mountain to places and ways we might not be able to handle. But we know the promise. Like it or not, God’s not finished.
How much have you been forgiven?
Are you in the 500 denarii camp? In the 50? Or less?
How much have you been forgiven?
I’m not sure we think about that too terribly much. And yet, that is the question we ponder here today. Our story helps us explore our level of forgiveness a bit.
Simon, a Pharisee, invites Jesus over for dinner when they are interrupted by an unnamed woman who is known to be a sinner. She begins to weep, bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears, and dry them with her hair. She kisses and anoints his feet. Simon is taken aback. Jesus, not as shocked as Simon, uses the opportunity to tell a parable.
There are two debts owed to a creditor; one is 10 times the amount of the other. When neither could pay, both are forgiven the entirety. Which of them will love him more? Simon knows he is about to get trapped. “Well, I *suppose* the one who was forgiven the most.” I can almost see Simon’s eyes roll.
“You have judged rightly!” Jesus’ point is made. This woman surely was the one who was deep in the hole but was set free from the debt. This woman was forgiven much!
Which could have been enough. Jesus could’ve stopped right there and the same message would have been conveyed. Her huge debt is forgiven.
But Jesus doesn’t stop right there. He goes on. It’s not just that this woman was forgiven much; she was forgiven much so she loves much. He goes on. He points out that those who are forgiven little love little. Jesus doesn’t say this with judgement or Law in his voice: “if you love little, you’ll be forgiven little!” No, Jesus just describes the truth as he knows it: “those who are forgiven little love little.
To me, though, it’s not really that people are only forgiven little; it’s that they don’t notice they have been forgiven at all. Perhaps, they don’t think they need it. They haven’t done anything really wrong, have they?
and if they’re ok, that’s pretty good.
And people who are pretty good don’t need forgiveness. Forgiveness is for people like the woman in the story who is clearly a sinner, clearly in need of someone to forgive them. But them? Need forgiveness? Please...
So, again, how much have you been forgiven?
And I’m not trying to guilt trip you in any way. I simply want you to think about it.
Now that I’ve pressed you a little bit, maybe you’re scrambling through your brain, coming up with the list of missteps you had this past week. Let’s see, I lost my temper that one time… I stepped on the cat’s tail (but that wasn’t my fault; if the stupid thing would just leave me alone when I’m trying to do the dishes…). Um, I called the cat, “stupid.” How much more of this? I’m at three, I guess. How much denarii is that worth? Probably not 500.
But there’s a problem with the way we count our sinfulness. We often think of all the sins we do. Big ones count more; little ones count less. So, holding up a bank or planning a genocide - those are big. Calling someone names or talking behind their back: little sins.
We like this process because we can count it, quantify it, compare it to everybody else. Which leads us back to where Simon was. He probably didn’t think he had that much to be forgiven for - especially compared to that really bad woman who was there. If we just do all these little things, they don’t really add up to much.
This sounds a little weird, but my favorite way of understanding “Sin” takes a different slant. Sin isn’t “doing something wrong” as much as Sin is “missing the mark.” Sin, then, is not just breaking a rule or a law; Sin is missing the point of what God intends for us and what Jesus models for us.
Taken that way, we are steeped in Sin. How often do we miss the mark of what God wants for creation, for humanity?
Did God intend for us simply not to murder someone, or does God intend for us to foster and build up life? Not nurturing and enriching life for our neighbor is missing the mark. It’s Sin.
Did God intend for us to merely refrain from taking things that aren’t ours, or does God intend for us to help others improve and protect their property and income? Not helping others is missing the mark. It’s Sin.
And we could go on and on.
Sure, Sin encompasses things we have done; but it also entails those things we have left undone. We miss the mark all the time.
We often think we are ok. And if we’re ok, we don’t need God, we don’t need forgiveness. We’ve got this on our own, Jesus, thank you very much. But we are in need; we do miss God’s mark.
One more time: how much have you been forgiven?
50? 500? Too much to count? We’re all there. We all fall short. We all miss the mark. And what we proclaim is that Christ covers it.
That despite all our sins, despite every time we miss the mark, despite our knowledge of need or not, Christ covers it. Jesus takes care of it. God forgives it.
The point for today, then, is knowing that we are in need of forgiveness. And once we know we are in need, we can truly know we are forgiven… much. The good news becomes Good News. Grace abounds. Jesus says to us, “Your sins are forgiven.”
And knowing that we are forgiven much, we love much. We live out the great love that we have been shown. We focus on hitting the mark as best we can: not just living out the letter of the law, but the intent of God.
God’s forgiveness for us creates a love where we foster and build up life, like through serving a meal to those who are hungry.
Forgiveness initiates a love where we help others improve their state in life by providing essentials.
Forgiveness launches a love by which we shift our mindset from “don’t do bad things” to “do loving things.”
And when we are down, when we know we miss the mark,
we hear the Good News of God in Christ Jesus: your sins are forgiven.
We again take our place at the table and eat with Jesus,
and hear that his body and blood is given and shed for you.
We look to the cross, the place where we as humanity really missed the mark with Jesus,
and hear that God wiped the slate as clean as an empty tomb.
The more we know we miss the mark, the better that Good News is for we who need it. For we who are sinners. For we who are pharisees. For we us who are pretty good and for we who are pretty broken. For we who are too confident and too ashamed. For we who stand tall and for we who are on our knees. For we all need forgiveness.
And we all are forgiven in Jesus.
Your sins are forgiven.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
In what ways do our convictions about how God should work in the world lead us to disappointment?
It’s a pretty sharp question, cutting deeper than we care to admit.
How are we disappointed... in God?
I ask this question because we get two examples of disappointment today.
The first is with John the Baptist. John should be good to go with the whole, “Jesus as Messiah” thing. Every time we’ve met John in the story - from leaping in his mother’s womb to preaching on the banks of the Jordan - John has expressed delight in the one coming. But now, there seems to be a bit of questioning.
The last time we saw John, Herod had him locked up in a jail cell. It seems he is still not free at this point, so he is resigned to get “reports” from his disciples. And the reports do not match up with what John preached. Remember way back in chapter three? The Messiah would come with “a winnowing fork in his hand to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John is convinced that this is how the Messiah will be known.
But John is not getting reports of winnowing forks and unquenchable fire, it seems. While it may be stretching a bit to say John is disappointed, I can say with confidence his expectations are not being met.
So, he sends two of his disciples to Jesus: “are you the one?” But Jesus doesn’t answer - at least not definitively. Jesus replies, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news.”
John’s convictions about how God should work in the world lead to disappointment.
The second example of disappointment comes from the, quote, “people of this generation.” And to summarize what Jesus says about them, they are a bunch of whiny, unsatisfied little babies. Nothing is good enough for them.
The first tidbit about the children in the marketplace shows the people to be unreceptive and critical. Why wouldn’t they dance when a child plays the flute? Is the preschooler’s music not up to your superior standards? Being judgmental about the way the Kingdom presents itself is the one sure-fire way to not see it at all.
The same is true of their opinions of John the Baptist and Jesus. John doesn’t celebrate enough; he doesn’t eat enough bread and drink enough wine. Jesus, on the other hand, he is always eating and drinking. What a glutton! A glutton and a drunkard! The people know the perfect level at which to consume bread and wine in a celebratory manner. Their standards are quite specific and quite high. All they want is the perfect manifestation of their preconceived notions. Anything less is offensive.
Their ways and expectations are so ingrained toward one way, could God really be present in other ways?
The people’s convictions about how God should work in the world lead to disappointment.
And so, for us, in what ways do our convictions about how God should work in the world lead to disappointment?
Are we more disappointed like John, wondering why people don’t get their just desserts? Wouldn’t it be easy for God to, you know, winnow-fork them away? When we look around at the world we see people instilling fear to get their way. We hear about those who inflict pain, injury, and death in order to keep the existing state of affairs. If we’re convinced that this is wrong, aren’t we disappointed that God doesn’t do some smiting?
Or are we more disappointed in other ways? Are the people of “that” generation now more accurately simply the people of “this” generation, where we have strict expectations of how we experience God. When anything outside of our comfort zone shows up, we dismiss it. We wait for our perfection before we see God in the world around us, before we are able to praise God in the pew, before we acknowledge Jesus is here.
If I’m honest, I’m both of those. Some days, I can’t wait for the Messiah to come, to clean us of the riff-raff, and just stop us from all this petty, selfish, no good nonsense we humans do to each other. I want that day to be today. I’m not satisfied with how God chooses to let us be so… mean.
And, I’m often pretty cynical when it comes to how other people experience God. Just this past week I had a Minister’s Alliance breakfast and I sat with a pastor of one of the other mainline protestant churches. We proceeded to have one of those “really?” conversations about one of the more trendy churches in the area. “They really do that in worship? Really? And, really, they don’t even do this? Really?” My personal convictions of church, of worship, of Jesus made me cynical instead of celebratory that the Kingdom could be present there. And maybe, just maybe, I could learn something if I wasn’t so daggum convinced in my own ways. (You got me, Jesus.)
Maybe you’ve been there: convinced - and then convinced you’re wrong. Jesus can do that to you.
Except, when the truth hits us that our thoughts, words, or deeds aren’t in line with God’s Kingdom, Jesus doesn’t point it out as much as he points us onward. Jesus responds to our convictions by ignoring them. Instead, he says, “go and tell.”
It’s not hard-nosed condemnation, it’s not messianic disappointment, it’s not a winnowing fork and unquenchable fire. Jesus redirects us from focus on our mistakes and mistaken convictions to instead see that he fulfills the mission he was sent for. He brings the good news of the Kingdom of God. He heals, he restores, he cleanses, he raises the dead.
The Good News is we don’t have to “get it.” We don’t have to have the perfect disposition, the perfect attitude, the perfect expectations for Jesus to bring the Kingdom. That’s up to him, not up to us. That’s the best news.
Instead of wagging his finger at us, he says, “Look! Go! Tell! Here is the Kingdom of God.” Jesus brings love to this world, to this church, to our lives and tells us to go and discover it - discover it in a variety of meaningful yet unexpected ways.
Jesus comes to us - and when we are blinded by our convictions, we may miss him. But, as we are open enough to see, we proclaim, “there he is!” There is Jesus - at the table with bread and wine, just like he always is. There is Jesus, in the promise of love remembered with a splash. There is Jesus, in a relationship formed. There is Jesus, in our neighbor, in songs, in our unexpected places.
No matter our status, no matter our disappointment, God in Christ enters in. God brings the Kingdom of grace. God brings inescapable love. God brings release from convictions - all so that we can see what Jesus has done, is doing, and promises yet to do.
Go and tell and what you have seen and heard. Jesus promises you won’t be disappointed.
While we think of Jesus’ miracles as being miraculous, I think he has a different take.
For example, last week we heard of Jesus’ power to heal a man’s withered hand - though the point wasn’t the healing; it was more of an interpretation on the Sabbath. A couple of weeks before that, we had the great catch of fish - which wasn’t about catching fish at all; it was about catching people.
As Luke tells the story of Jesus, he continues to give us moments where Jesus does something miraculous - but the focus isn’t on the miracle, on the power, on the unbelievable. It’s always about something else.
I think that is true, even today, even with the most miraculous of miracles: raising the dead. On the surface, it seems like surely the point has to be that Jesus is master of life and death. Jesus has power to raise, power to give life, power to conquer our ultimate enemy! Death has no hold. Jesus is victorious!
That certainly can preach.
End of sermon, right?
Is it possible that the point of this story, much like all the others, isn’t about Jesus’ power - even his power over death? Surely, this widow dies. The people carrying the stretcher die. The mourners and the crowds? They die. Even this man whom Jesus raised up will end up dying again.
So, let’s step back for a moment.
I mentioned that all these miracle stories are about more than “Jesus has some cool party tricks.” They are supposed to point us to God and the Kingdom, sure, but they also invite us, in some way, shape, or form, to take part in God’s Kingdom now. Disciples catch people. Sabbath is but another opportunity to live out Jesus’ mission.
These stories are here, told and re-told throughout the generations, not only because of what they say about Jesus’ mission but also because of what they say about our mission.
So, what is our mission in this story? Is our mission to raise the dead? Of course not. We can’t do the miracles that Jesus does. But we can do other things that Jesus does. Here, in our story of death to life for today, the word that stands out for me, for us, for the people of God gathered here today is, “compassion.”
Jesus has compassion for this widow who lost her only son. Jesus’ response to this woman’s grief is not abstract; he doesn’t send thoughts and prayers. He feels her despair deeply, deep in his gut. This compassion motivates action, motivates the miracle. Jesus has the guts - the compassion and the courage - to go directly to where the hurt is, regardless of the political, social, economic, or religious boundaries and barriers in his way.
Jesus’ compassion is gutsy. It is one that moves alongside another, no matter what.
Which may be a little different than we tend to think of it. To us, compassion means “helping those less fortunate than we are.” Being compassionate is writing a check for a natural disaster or giving away stuff we don’t want anymore to a charity. And to be certain, those can be very helpful and valuable ways to serve and help others. There is a piece of compassion in giving.
But as we maintain our distance from those we serve, our actions draw closer and closer to “pity” rather than compassion. We stay divided - we and they; haves and have nots; the less fortunate and more fortunate. Of course, we’re always on the better side of that equation, aren’t we?
But that’s not how Jesus does it. Jesus’ compassion moves close, stands alongside, is present with, even to suffer, grieve, and mourn together. Jesus’ compassion calls us to run counter to culture’s cry to compare. That takes guts.
Jesus first has compassion for the widow. He is present, there, with.
Then he serves. Then he heals. Then he raises.
I don’t need to think too hard for examples where we as St. Philip have the opportunity to live compassion.
Deacon Peter shared with us the ministry of Community Kitchen - serving hungry people. It doesn’t matter who they are; if they’re hungry, they eat. We can support that with our benevolence dollars, and if you want to, I’m sure, you can show up to serve. Compassion is presence.
Today is the Souper Bowl of Caring. For the past several weeks, we’ve been collecting food for Helping Hand. We have several people who volunteer there on a regular basis. After worship today, youth will be collecting money. They’ll use it for hands-on ministry with those in need, serving several organizations. Compassion is walking alongside.
We’re filling baggies with essentials, like snacks and toiletries. We are collecting all these things, placing them in a ziploc bag, and will hand them out. You can either take a few to personally hand out to those in need, or we, as a congregation, will do it later. Compassion is moving close.
We’ll hand out most of those baggies when we open up our doors to the homeless for a meal on March 4. Not only will we give people a warm, home-cooked meal, but we have the opportunity to hear their stories, to look them in the eye, to sit, stand, and walk with them. We will be present with them, be alongside them, no matter what. Compassion is gutsy.
It’s not that giving to a ministry or a cause isn’t helpful. It certainly is. What will go in the baggies if no one brings stuff to put in them? But the compassion of money goes one direction, keeping us on the safe side of division. As a community that is to embody Christ, giving from a distance isn’t all Jesus models for us to do. He calls us to embrace, to stand by those the rest of the world looks at as lowly, least, less.
It’s what Jesus does. He goes to where the woman is. And even more than that, Jesus goes to where you are.
Yes, Jesus even comes to us. See, Jesus is God. We, on the other hand, are broken - dead in sin. He could say from a distance, “you are forgiven!” and stay away, stayed there with the Father and the Spirit. But isn’t our healing, isn’t our being raised, isn’t our forgiveness, isn’t our life so much better and deeper because he comes to us? That he comes to touch our world and our lives? That he dies and rises? We get to live and experience all this with Jesus alongside us.
If anyone has the right to stay away from us, it is the Son of God. But Jesus shows compassion in that while we are still broken, he has the guts to show up. He comes to us. Jesus is alongside us. And no matter what is going on, we know that Jesus has the power to overcome it.
That’s the Good News we hear today. We know Jesus can overcome whatever comes our way - illness, pain, grief, separation, sinfulness, even death. Jesus looks upon us with compassion, not pity. He comes alongside us. And because he is here, we get to see, touch, taste grace and love.
That is Good News, and this Good News is more than a distant statement. It is Good News that comes close to us and urges us to act, to be like Jesus, to have the guts to do what is compassionate.
I’d say that is pretty miraculous.
That is what I thought when I first read the our text for today. Who cares? We certainly don’t care about the sabbath.
We Christians haven’t observed the sabbath - that is, Friday sundown through Saturday sundown - as a day of rest for thousands of years. Even more than that, in today’s world, not only are we comfortable ignoring the sabbath, but we kind of have to ignore the sabbath. We use our days off to mow the lawn, pick up the prescription, and/or go out to a nice dinner. We understand the need for rest, but we don’t care about a whole day of sabbath rest. Who has time for that?
Second, when we look at the text, it seems like the Pharisees are a bunch of knit-picky rule followers. Priggish, Puritanical, Punitive. Lighten up! They’re just hungry! I’d say grabbing a few grains of wheat is barely work. And healing a man’s hand? Hardly a bad thing to do. The Pharisees’ arguments hold no water for us. So again, we are left saying, “who cares?”
To we enlightened, complex, and modern individuals, the answers are crystal clear. The sabbath is old school law that doesn’t apply anymore.
And now, I, as the preacher, am left with two avenues for the rest of the sermon.
The first is to lambast you heathens for not merely breaking but not caring about one of the 10 Commandments. Those are a pretty big deal! And to dismiss one outright because we’re “kinda busy” shouldn’t be any sort of excuse. But, considering many Christians think that Sunday is the sabbath, and many Christians also think that Sunday is the only day pastors work, I figured it would be kind of hypocritical. I blow off the sabbath - the actual sabbath - as much as anyone else.
So, the second avenue for preaching today is to try to make us care about the sabbath - or, at least, look at the sabbath in a new way. And to do that, we need to start over.
Well, for starters, God cares. There are reasons God didn’t merely suggest the sabbath but gave it as a commandment. One reason is that this is the example God sets for us at Creation. Work for six days, rest for one. As followers of God, we should do our best to emulate God. God explains another reason in Deuteronomy: “Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there.” Essentially, God is saying, ‘remember when you were slaves? You couldn’t take a break. There were no days off. But now, I set you free. And in this freedom, you have the gift of a day off.’ It’s not that they have to rest, it’s that God makes sure they get to rest.
Who cares? God cares. Anyone else care? Why, yes. The Pharisees do.
While it seems pretty obvious that the Pharisees care, they’re worth a second look. We’ve been conditioned over the years to think of the Pharisees as the bad guys. In a lot of the Gospel accounts, the Pharisees do seem bad from our perspective, but they’re not as bad as we characterize them to be. The Pharisees, believe it or not, were a lot like the mainline Protestant denominations of today. Their mission was to teach people how they could be connected to God in an individual and personal way - no need to have a mediator like the fancy-schmancy clergy. No need to run to the Temple to be holy. Living the Law - and thus experiencing God - was something anyone could do anywhere.
So when this new-fangled preacher out of Nazareth comes and starts doing things in a different way, of course they’re a little flustered. If their mission was to help people weave a fabric of faith, it seems Jesus’ mission was to rip it apart.
So, sure, the Pharisees care. Anyone else? Who else cares? Jesus cares.
Jesus cares about the sabbath because Jesus cares about life. Jesus wasn’t pushing the idea that old rules don’t apply or that new rules have taken their place. He knows that the sabbath isn’t about rules or restrictions; the sabbath is about life - about ways to foster, create, and share life. And that is what Jesus came to show us.
Bringing life is fulfillment of the sabbath. And get this: there is life in rest, in feeding, in healing. Life is fulfillment of the sabbath. Life is what Jesus brings. Life is what Jesus welcomes us into.
Jesus came to show us life and, more than that, Jesus came to BE life. Jesus came to reveal God’s intent for humanity. While the cross and empty tomb show us that in the ultimate way, even here, Jesus is pointing to life: life that full, life that is healed, life that goes beyond rules to the heart of God. That was the intent in the first place - that we would have life, and have it abundantly.
The rules aren’t what bring us life. The rules aren’t what define us. Nor are we defined by societal constructs or religious norms or ancient law. Jesus defines us. The Lord of the Sabbath defines us. The Lord of Life defines us.
Jesus came to foster, create, and share life. Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath, shows us what sabbath should be.
Following Jesus means we do our best to emulate him - in fostering, creating, and sharing life. Sometimes, that means sabbath is a day of rest; sometimes that means sabbath is feeding hungry people. Sometimes sabbath is healing for us; sometimes it means we heal others.
Sabbath can be done by anyone, anywhere. All it takes is the life of Jesus. Where he is, there is life. And so, here in worship, there is life. In a day of rest, there is life. In service to others, there is life.
Our task is to point to the Lord; to know we are defined by him; to see that our fabric isn’t being ripped apart, but maybe dyed a different color. To feed, to heal, to foster, create, and share life. To embody the life that Jesus gives. That is fulfillment of the sabbath.
Jesus is Lord. Jesus binds us up. Jesus cares. Jesus cares about ways to foster, create, and share life - for you, and for the whole world.
Luke 5:1-11 - January 22, 2017
In the Sundays leading up to today, we’ve heard a lot about crowds gathering. A few weeks ago, crowds gathered, not for Jesus, but for John the Baptist. Then, crowds gathered to hear Jesus preach - and throw him off a cliff when he offended their sense of good order and identity. And now today: today we have the familiar story of Jesus calling his first disciples.
Jesus walks by the lake where he wants to teach the crowds. He asks the owner of one of the boats to push out a bit from the shore so he can more easily preach. Afterward, he tells the fishermen to cast their nets out one more time, even though they went all night without a catch. They do, and this time there is a huge catch! It’s a miracle that there are so many fish! When Simon Peter realizes what is going on, he falls down on his knees, but Jesus isn’t having any of that. He calls Peter to follow: “You won’t be catching fish anymore. Now you will be catching people.”
Not catching fish, but catching people.
All this made me recall the times I would go fishing with my grandpa, whom I affectionately named, “Deede,” when I was just learning to talk. Before Deedle and I headed to the pond, we’d stop at a store which may or may not still exist to pick up a small bucket of crickets. Upon arrival, we’d climb out of his truck and grab the bamboo fishing poles from the back and head to the bank. We’d find our spot underneath a tree and I’d let - ok, I’d make - Deedle put a cricket on my hook. No way was I touching one of those things! Then I’d swing the newly-hooked cricket out over the water, plop it down, and watch that red and white bobber. When I saw a little action on that floating ball, I’d yank on the pole and have me a fish. I’d quickly swing it back onto the land where I let - ok, I’d make - Deedle take the floppin’ fish off my hook. No way was I touching one of those things. We’d keep it in a bucket until we were done fishing for the day.
Afterwards, we would load everything back into the truck - poles, can of crickets, and bucket of fish - and head home. Once we got to his house, Deedle would carry the bucket of fish to the edge of the woods where he had an old, rusty table. It probably wasn’t really as rusty as my memory makes it to be, but it was definitely old. He’d then proceed to *thwack* cut off the fish heads, and *sccrrraaapppe* the scales off, and toss all the guts into the woods. Again, I “let” Deedle do that.
That’s my fishing story. And when I put my fishing story next to the story we hear today, I can’t help but think, “a caught fish is a dead fish.” Which is pretty terrible since Jesus wants us to go catch people like we catch fish. Surely, we don’t follow through completely…
At first, I thought I had reached the metaphor’s end. I had pushed it too far - far beyond what Jesus means. We aren’t meant to catch people to die; catch people and then dip them in beer batter, fry them up, and serve them with french fries. Too much!
So, then I got to thinking, well, maybe Jesus means, “catch and release” - it’s sustainable, no dying is involved. And it kinda fits - catch people for Jesus, then release them to do the same. But even there, we have limitations. For one thing, when you “catch and release,” usually you catch the fish, take a picture of you holding it, and then put it right back where it came from. Nothing is different for you or for the fish. Surely, Jesus can’t mean ‘have a photo-op with would-be Christians and then let them go like nothing ever happened.’ Is nothing different after one is caught?
But catch and release can still apply. Releasing means so much more than “return unharmed from which it came.” Release also means “set free from what was holding it back,” - released from what is past, released from the old, released for something new - something new like following Jesus. Being released means the old things that were holding you back are no more.
So, maybe “a caught fish is a dead fish” holds true. Jesus catches us, and we die. Maybe it’s not a “thwack” kind of die, but once we are caught by Jesus, we don’t return to the way things were; things can’t be the same. We die to the old ways, we die to our old, sinful selves.
As we look back at this passage, this is precisely what happens to Simon Peter.
After fishing all night with nothing to show for it, Peter is caught by Jesus - caught by hearing his message, caught by seeing the works Jesus can do, caught by being in Jesus’ presence. And in that moment, Peter realizes something. Peter falls to his knees, probably a bit afraid. He’s fearful of the, “if onlys.” If only Jesus knew his inadequacies, if only he knew the failures, the times he missed the mark. His life is not what it could be, not what it should be, not what God hopes and intends it to be. Peter’s response is not awe and “let me follow you.” Instead, he tries to send Jesus away. “Go away from me, Lord!”
That, to me, is a very honest response. It’s a response of knowing that what we’ve done, who we are, isn’t up to Jesus’ standards. That fear can hold us tight.
And I love what Jesus says to him: “Do not be afraid.” Have no fear. Peter is caught in fear. But Jesus knows he is caught for something more. Jesus catches him, and Peter’s fear dies. The old ways die. The past dies. Jesus comes so that we don’t have to be afraid anymore.
We don’t have to be afraid to let the trapped, inadequate, “missing the mark” parts of us die.
We don’t have to be afraid of death.
We don’t have to be afraid of being able to follow Jesus.
Peter has been caught and dies, and yet, death does not have the last word. Resurrection, salvation, life always show up when Jesus is present. So, true to form, Jesus raises him up. And in this new, raised life, Jesus gives Peter something to do, something bigger and larger than anything he’d ever imagined. Peter is caught, he dies, and he is raised to follow.
Jesus does the same with us. Wherever we are right now, we also have missed the mark. But rather than it having hold of us, Jesus says, “do not be afraid.” It’s a word of love and life and invitation. Our old selves, our hold-on-to-the-old-ways selves die in an encounter with Jesus.
And while that is scary (death is always scary for us), Jesus says, "Don't be afraid. I've got better life for you." And we rise; we follow.
That is what we say in baptism. In those waters we die. Our old selves die. Drown. There, we are caught by Jesus, and we die. A caught fish is a dead fish. But death isn’t all we proclaim, is it? We are brought through those baptismal waters to new life. Jesus died and was raised; in baptism, are joined to Jesus - we die and we rise. We rise to follow.
God raises us to live a new life. God raises us to be with and for Jesus. God raises us so that we do not need to be afraid. God raises us to follow.
We’re caught fish. But we are far from dead. We are alive, alive with the new life of Jesus, alive to follow, alive to be disciples. And so we do. We go. We cast a wide net and we bid others: come and die… die to all the talk and rise to action; die to the hold of inadequacy and rise to gracious love; die to the ways where we miss the mark and rise to a life of forgiveness.
So, maybe “a caught fish is a dead fish” isn’t too far off the mark. Maybe when we are caught by Jesus, we do die; but in death is the promise of resurrection. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. “From now on, you’ll live.”
If someone tells you they have good news and they have bad news, which do you want to hear first?
I’m pretty much a “good news first” kind of guy. So, lucky for me, in Jesus’ first sermon, he starts out with good news - though he doesn’t really ask which the congregation wants to hear first. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Oh, wow! The people were amazed! I’m amazed! What the prophet Isaiah spoke is finally coming true. Jesus is the one! We knew the day would come!
Truly, this is good news. The Israelite faithful had waited and waited for the one who would come. Generations had passed. And now, finally, God comes through. This surely is good news!
But then, the bad news. Wait - there’s bad news? I forgot about that. What’s the bad news? The bad news is the good news isn’t for you. If the Synagogue had a record playing back in the First Century, I’m sure it would’ve done one of those super-dramatic “scratch” sounds. The good news isn’t for us?
What started out as amazement at Joseph's boy turns into rage and anger by the end.
And maybe I’m being a little dramatic. Because Jesus didn’t say that the good news isn’t for them; instead, Jesus said that the good news isn’t ONLY for them. It is for those others, too.
Jesus uses examples of famous prophets to drive his point home. Elijah visits the widow at Zarephath. There were lots of other widows God could’ve sent Elijah to - Israelite widows, even - but God sent Elijah to none of them. God sent Elijah to this outsider.
The same can be said for Elisha and Namaan. Namaan wasn’t an Israelite, and yet Elisha was able to cleanse him of his leprosy. Lots of lepers in Israel, but God chose this one.
This is why Jesus isn’t doing all those signs and wonders here in their presence. He is following a precedent God has already set; Jesus is taking the Good News beyond everyone’s comfort zone. And the people were kind of cranky about it.
This upset the normative status quo. They were there, present, dedicated - many of them faithful for a long time, if not their whole lives. They did things the right way. They learned and participated regularly. Despite everything, they stayed faithful. And when these others get special treatment, it really boils their blood. When you’re used to being the privileged, anything less feels like an insult. The long-time faithful should not get the same as all those heathens out there.
Which, on the surface, seems a little petty of these people. We, surely, don’t think such a villainous thing. Why would they be so enraged at Jesus opening up to others? “Go, Jesus,” we say. Go to the others and convince them about you and bring them back here to join us! What’s the big deal? We, for the most part, are open to evangelism and having people meet, see, and experience Jesus. We know he is not just for us. Through the years, we have gotten used to the fact that Jesus is for everyone… at least we’ve gotten used to it in the general sense. See, we’re more like that original crowd than we care to admit.
We still have this notion of ownership over Jesus - like he’s our hometown boy. It’s fine if he goes elsewhere, but we know he’s really ours. He goes out to bring people in to fill our pews. That’s what’s fair, after all. The Church is where you have to go if you want the good stuff Jesus offers.
Jesus challenges that idea. He didn’t say he came to bring good news to those who gather at 10:00 on a Sunday; proclaim release for the comfortable; recover traditions lost. The Good News isn’t for us. Jesus isn’t ours. And that is offensive to those of us who do our best to remain faithful and present.
But in our offense is the goodness and grace of God. Like I mentioned, we generally get the idea that those who aren’t like us are loved as much as we are. The ones who stand for fundamentally different ideas than we do receive the same grace that we do. As we put faces on it, though, it gets a little harder. Can God’s goodness and grace really be for Dallas Cowboys fans?
For people from Mexico yet living in the US. Those from Russia.
Hillary Clinton supporters.
Donald Trump supporters.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump themselves.
Recently sentenced to die, Dylan Roof.
Where do we draw the line? Where does God draw the line?
The outsiders and unchurched and mega-churched and pacifists and patriots and elites and working poor and the dirty and the lepers and the widows and you and me… we are all under the same God and Father, Jesus goes to all, all are loved, graced, forgiven, clean.
God is so unfair.
And maybe that gets more to the heart of it. We don’t mind God being unfair… in our favor. It‘s when God is unfair in the favor of others - others who aren’t here like we are, doing our duty by standing and sitting here each week. Even them? Even those? Yes, even and especially those.
When we see church as a club through which we are privileged with special benefits, we are offended by what Jesus says and does. It goes against what is fair and decent in our minds. Surely, not them!
But instead, when we see the Church as a group of people living like Jesus, then we know the Spirit is truly upon us. It means we exist not for ourselves but for those who aren’t here. We shine light in their darkness; we point them to God’s open arms; we tell the old, old story. We help Jesus bring about fulfillment of the Scriptures. How? “We bring good news to the poor. We announce release to the prisoners and sight to the blind. We set victims free and announce God’s special favor.”
And we do that today.
Jesus does, at least. He says, “today, scripture has been fulfilled.” Where Jesus shows up, there is fulfillment. Where Jesus shows up, there is salvation. Where Jesus shows up, there is Good News. Not because we are open and ready, not because we are in a special club, not because of us. Salvation is present when Jesus is present.
Today, Jesus shows up with us - he is here in a splash of water, a taste of bread and wine, a prayer and a song known by heart. He is here. Today, the scripture is fulfilled. Salvation has come. And then, Jesus goes to fulfill scripture elsewhere, to be salvation elsewhere. Are we offended that Jesus goes out? Or do we join him?
The Good News Jesus brings is not only do we belong, not only do we have hope, but they do, too. All do, too. And when we really start to see that type of inclusion as Good News, well, then we’re living like the Spirit is upon us, too. And to follow Jesus, to claim that Jesus brings salvation, is to trust that it is true even in places and for people we don’t necessarily like.
On this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, a time of remembering service and welcome for others, I can’t think of a better message for Jesus to tell us. The Good News is for them, too. We, as followers of that very same Jesus, are meant to live it. To live it in real ways, for real people whether we like them or not.
So, do you want to hear the good news or the Good News? Because that’s all we’ve got.
We are loved; we are loved and so are they.
I guess the old adage is true: “they grow up so fast.” I know because I have experienced it with my own kids. They are already losing teeth and picking out their own clothes. It sure is quick. I wonder if Mary felt the same way; it seems like just two weeks ago that we had a baby in a manger. Now Jesus is thirty years old. Time flies.
Yet, here we are on the cusp of Jesus doing all those things that angels announced, Elizabeth prophesied, and Mary sang. Jesus is on the scene. And yet, today, the first day of Jesus’ adult and public ministry, we only get about two verses on him. The other 20 are about John the Baptist.
Before we get to Jesus, it seems today is about John.
John is introduced as a prophet. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, and this important guy and this other guy you should know, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah.” It’s the same way the prophets of the Old Testament get introduced: the likes of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. There is a marker of time, a note of all the rulers of the day… and God comes. God comes.
And not only is John introduced as a prophet, but he speaks like one, too! We know that because he preaches truth that people don’t want to hear. Name-calling aside (you brood of vipers), John speaks about repentance and bearing fruit worthy of said repentance. There is a call to change ways and a note about the forthcoming penalties if there isn’t a change. Again, all very prophetic.
John teaches the crowds about repentance and also gives them practical ways to live. Share your extra coats. If you have extra food, do likewise. Do your job justly, without stealing or bullying. John teaches.
John also engages those outside of the normal circles for religious folk. Here he is, talking with tax collectors (often seen as greedy) and Roman soldiers (often seen as oppressive). He reaches out to everyone, even if others would look down upon such an action. John engages outsiders.
John baptizes people with water for the forgiveness of sins. Crowds would come out to the wilderness to be baptized by him. People were filled with expectation. John baptizes.
Surely, John is a prophet. But the thing about prophets is… they aren’t the ones to fix things. They aren’t the One. Every prophet points beyond themselves to God, to God coming. Isaiah, Jeremiah, now John, all point to God’s action.
John does all these prophetic things, because he knows he’s not the one. Like all good prophets, he points beyond. “Someone is coming who is stronger than I. I don’t deserve to untie his sandals.”
John points to the one coming.
By the time we get to Jesus in verse 21, we are well prepared. John has done his job. But John is absent from the baptism.
“That can’t be so,” you may exclaim. But it’s true. John gets locked away in prison before we even get to the baptism scene with Jesus. The other Gospels tell the story as John performing the baptism - even as he questions doing it. However, Luke separates John from the baptism, getting him out of the way, because Luke wants us to remember something: John isn’t the story. Jesus is. God’s action is.
At the time of Jesus’ baptism,
John’s body is replaced by the Spirit descending in bodily form like a dove.
John’s voice crying out in the wilderness is replaced by a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the beloved.”
Baptism isn’t about the baptizer: it’s about God.
Just like this story isn't about John; it's about who John points to: Jesus.
Luke wants to tell us, despite all those verses we read today, John isn’t the main character; John isn’t even a main actor. He sets the story, but he is not the story. Because One is coming who will teach with authority and power, more so than John. One is coming who not only speaks to tax collectors and soldiers, but dines with them, heals them, and calls them to follow. One is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, a baptism far, far greater than John’s.
And John, like all good prophets, knew this. He’s not the story, but he sets the story. He points to Jesus. But that didn’t stop other people from searching him out, asking, putting hope in him. And while I do my best to stay away from three point sermons, there are three things we can learn from this.
First: sometimes we can get caught up in the messenger - like a pastor, either good or bad. We have preferences things like a building, either small or grand. We even get caught up with the WAY we do church. We have a tendency to lean on moods and feelings about what brings the message, when what really matters is the Message, which is true despite moods and feelings. That message is, “Jesus is God’s son, the beloved.”
Second, we often forget that we are prophets of God, too. We help set the story, prepare the way, preach and teach. We point beyond ourselves. We point to the places where God shows up. We point and act and live.
Third, baptism is about God, not about us. It doesn’t matter if you are dunked or sprinkled: you are God’s child. It doesn’t matter if you are a baby or fully-grown: you are Beloved. It doesn’t matter if the one doing it is the best prophet ever or some curly-headed pastor: with you God is well pleased.
Baptism is God sweeping everything else away and grabbing ahold of you - dousing you with the Holy Spirit, gathering you into loving arms, and saying, “you are mine.” Baptism is what makes us prophets. Baptism is what makes the message matter over messenger. It is that tangible thing that we can touch to remember, to know, that God has acted "for you." Water helps us remember we are part of God's story, helping God to bring about the salvation started in Jesus, continued through the Spirit, and lived out in Myrtle Beach and beyond.
We are claimed, just as we are. We are God’s.
And so we, like John, point to the one who makes that story possible for us. We point to the one who is coming. The one revealed. The one born. The one crucified, died, and buried. The one raised. That’s what today - and everyday - is all about.
For years, Dana and I headed to Lutheridge, a Lutheran camp just outside of Asheville, to lead Bible study for a group of high school campers - until our kids came along. We then had to put our camp trips on hold for a few years. But now that the kids are older, we can all go for a program called “Family Camp.” And whether we go as leaders or as participants, we always go the same week in July. The week we choose to go is Christmas week. And I love it.
It is actually the inspiration for St. Philip’s now-traditional “Christmas in July” worship service. It is all the best parts of Christmas without a lot of the “other” parts of Christmas. We sing Christmas carols. We read the Infancy narratives. We gather and eat and sing and worship and decorate. And while consumer-Christmas has creeped earlier and earlier into October, it hasn’t quite made it to July. So, we do all these things without all the commercialism, without all the stress, without all the debates over “happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” It’s just Christmas. And I love it.
Today - actual Christmas Day - is like Christmas week at camp to me. Today, we brush aside a lot of the extra details - even some of the more treasured details - and focus only on one thing: God’s presence with us.
Rarely in our world do we get this type of opportunity.
We are often so distracted by other things - both good and bad. We hear of all the brokenness in our world; all the greed and all the need. We hear of - maybe even experience - death, illness, loss, grief, pain, shame. There are people at places in their lives who see no other way to live than to commit crimes, to hurt, to steal. Sometimes the brokenness is too much to take. Sometimes, the brokenness of this world overshadows God.
On the other hand, sometimes even those things that are meant to help us distract from the story. Shepherds and animals and stables and mangers and magi and stars - even babies - can screen the light. They help paint a picture and fill in the details for a story but frequently at the expense of losing the forest because of the trees. We lose sight of ‘God with us’ in search of that romanticized first Christmas.
Today, we brush aside a lot of the extra details - even some of the more treasured details - and focus only on one thing: God’s presence with us.
God is present with us. And at Christmas, we celebrate that God entered THIS world, a world where brokenness and goodness sit side by side. God entered our world - our world where sometimes the brokenness shatters the goodness; sometimes it is the otherway around.
It is into this world that God’s light has shined.
It is into this world that God interrupts the status quo.
It is into this world that God has come.
God doesn’t tweak things from afar, but enters into our world and into our lives. God in Jesus comes smack into the middle of our goodness and brokenness.
What kind of God does that?
Our God. Our God does. A God of love. A God of relationship. A God of action on our behalf.
And the beauty of John’s opening which we read today is that it isn’t just a story that happened. It is a story that still happens. The light shines in the darkness. The light shines in the goodness. The light shines in the brokenness. The light shines, and darkness did not - does not - will not - overcome it.
In our lives, God is present. We are not alone. We are never far from grace, truth, and love. In our brokenness, in our goodness, God is present, grieving and rejoicing, comforting and encouraging, creating and sharing. God is present with gifts of life now. God is present with the promise of hope - hope that our brokenness does not stay broken but that God will do a new thing. God always does a new thing.
Today, we brush aside a lot of the extra details - even some of the more treasured details - and focus only on one thing: God’s presence with us.
So, sit for a moment. Use this day and this time to remember, reflect. Right now, it’s Christmas. Just Christmas.
God lives among us. Jesus comes to us. Christ is born for us.
We have seen his glory in the breaking of the bread, in the sharing of the cup.
We have seen his grace in the forgiveness offered, in the lives made new.
We have seen his truth - truth that enters in, truth that shines in darkness, truth that does not avoid but enters, comes, lives, dwells.
This is the light God shines. This is the light of Christmas.
God lives here. With us. Now. Always.
We’ve got many characters in the Christmas story, don’t we? We may remember them from all the Christmas pageants we’ve participated in or seen over the years. Maybe right now you’re running through them in your head. Don’t forget any!
One of the things we do with the Christmas story is we often try to find our place in it. To do so, we try to connect with one of the aforementioned characters, see which one we feel like or which one fits our life, our calling, or our situation.
For example, the most common Christmas Eve sermon analogy is that we’re like the shepherds. We’re just minding our everyday business when we get this great news about a Savior. So, we drop everything - we’re compelled to go and worship - and then we are sent out to glorify and praise God for all we have heard and seen. Makes sense, I guess. But we’re not a whole lot like the shepherds. We already know what we’re coming to see, even to the point that we have expectations about tonight and traditions that must be upheld. No angels appeared to us, at least not to most of us. And when it’s all over, we hurriedly depart Christmas Eve worship - maybe with a smile, but rarely do we leave “glorifying and praising God” for all we have heard and seen. That’d be one heck of a sermon, huh?
So, if we’re not that much like the shepherds, maybe someone else in the story fits us better? Maybe someone like Mary. You know, the virgin pregnancy and relatable things like that. But she also had an angel show up. She got answers to her questions and had tremendous favor upon her - so much so that her cousin Elizabeth called her blessed for the fulfillment of what God was going to do. While I do nice things from time to time and I trust God the best I can, rarely am I called “blessed is he who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord.”
Ok, so not Shepherds, not Mary. Joseph? The guy who hauled his 9-months-pregnant-but-not-by-him fiancee about 70 miles through the desert to pay some taxes? Yeah, I don’t quite relate.
Are we the Innkeeper who turned away a really, really pregnant lady and made her sleep in a barn with animals? I guess the argument could be made that we turn Jesus away all the time, but, I’d like to think that I would do all I could within my innkeeper abilities to ensure warmth and safety.
Wise men? They’re not even in this story.
Angels? Who am I kidding?
Animals in the stable?
The donkey Mary rode in on?!
Who are we?!
Well, we’re… Us. I’m me and you’re you.
We’re none of those characters in the story. None of us fit those molds. Which may not sound like like a very Christmas-y message. In fact, that’s the same thing we hear every other day of our lives: it’s the story of division - us VS them. The story of exclusivity - the haves and the have nots. The story of telling us who is in and who is out, what we need to do to make sure we are in and NOT out, a story that shapes us more than we care to admit.
So, on the surface, we may seem left out. That this story is simply something that happened to a bunch of people a long time ago in a country far, far away. But Christmas is the complete opposite of that. It tells us a different story.
Sure, we’re us. And they’re them. But the Good New is that Jesus is born for us, too. The angel announces, “I am bringing Good News of great joy for ALL people: to YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Jesus is born for us, for YOU.
In all your particularities, in all your characteristics, in all your attributes and annoyances and anomalies, Jesus is born for you.
Whoever you are - whoever you really are, Christ is born for you.
You don’t need to be as blessed as the mother Mary; you don’t need to be from the lineage of the greatest king of Israel like Joseph; you don’t have to be angelic or wise or shepherd-ish. Jesus is born for you.
God shows up, even in our lives. The Incarnate one comes to us, is born to us, as regular and un-biblical as our lives may seem. God isn’t reserved for the exclusive; instead, God embraces our regular, even painful, entering our human community without having to sterilize everything first.
Because, when you think about it, Mary, Joseph, Shepherds… all of them were pretty regular until God showed up in their lives. Christ was born for them, and that made all the difference. Christ is born for you, and that makes all the difference.
God shows up in our stories. Christ is born… for you. And that means, for you is grace. For you is life. For you is God’s presence. For you is forgiveness. For you is community and love and redemption. For you, there is a place. There is always a place with God. At the table. Here and now. Christ is born for you.
No matter where we find ourselves in the story,
no matter the joys or sorrows in our personal story,
no matter if we feel special or sad,
on Christmas, Christ is born for you.
And that story is good news of great joy for all people.
For many months now, we’ve walked through the Old Testament - you can see the story through the kids’ canvases here on the wall. There is a big build up of what God has done - and promises of what God yet will do. And now, we’re on the cusp of promises fulfilled.
We began in September with Adam and Eve and God’s glorious intent for creation. We heard God’s call to Abraham and the faith and power God gave to Joseph. We read stories of Passover and Golden Calves; of promises fulfilled for Hannah; of a Kingdom unified and divided. Through it all, God’s grace and mercy continued to come to a people who often were lost, broken, and undeserving.
The prophets continued to point to God’s actions and God’s promises - we heard from prophets like Elijah, Jonah, and Isaiah. Jeremiah tells us that God promises a new covenant, not like the old. Joel says the Spirit will be poured out. In the midst of this all was waiting. The Israelites were waiting - and we were waiting with them - waiting on God’s fulfillment.
It’s a discipline to wait. And often, we don’t like to do it.
I know that “waiting” has changed dramatically over the years. Even just a few years ago, when I was waiting on my oil change or going to see the dentist, I used to have to read random magazines or talk to strangers. Now I’m immersed in my phone, which essentially means I don’t wait any more. I am always doing something - responding to emails, liking pictures, or exploring what home renovations cost.
Can you really call it “waiting” if you’re so preoccupied with something else that you kind of even forget fulfillment is coming?
It’s a discipline to wait, to live in this moment with expectation and anticipation.
Mary’s story is another time when we must wait. All too often, we rush through this narrative. We just want to get to the good parts: “nothing is impossible with God!” and “Here am I, the servant of the Lord!”
I know, I know, we’re sooo close to having Jesus here; it’s what we’ve been waiting for. So, the temptation is huge to just look to Mary only as mother of God, to use her as a mere stepping stone to get where we want to go. But it’s kind of cheap. And jumping ahead leaves us feeling unfulfilled and inadequate in comparison, because Mary is, well, MARY. She’s impressive, faithful, strong, exemplary. We’re just us.
But this is where waiting benefits us. Instead of fast forwarding through this announcement like DVRed commercials, we can be disciplined and wait. And as we wait with Mary, as we take this journey with her, the deeper meanings start to shine forth. We hear the angel’s statement of “nothing is impossible with God” as good news - no, more than that, as Gospel - for US, not just Mary.
As we wait with Mary, we start to see all the impossibilities that were there.
Barren, elderly women, like Elizabeth, could not be pregnant.
Young women from towns in the middle of nowhere are never favored.
And angels do not show up with absurd announcements.
Mary ponders, wonders, debates. “How can this be?”
“Me? Who am I? Why am I favored?” We may look back at Mary and wonder how she questioned; I mean, an angel is standing in front of her. But I feel like this is a genuine reaction - to not put a lot of hope in the impossible. She knows her role. She knows who she is. She knows how the world works. It’s a broken place, full of angry people who exert power over others through fear and force and finances. They don’t just hand over their throne to anyone - and especially not to a son from the likes of her. Her question shows the hopelessness of the situation. It’s impossible.
And her questions still resonate. As we wait with Mary, we see how her question pops up in our lives and in our world today. How can this be? How can God’s promise be true in a world like ours? Our world, too, is full of angry people: wars, constant wars, in places like Syria. Bottom lines matter more than people or planet. There is a lack of water, food, and basic medicines in places far away and around the corner. The stuff God promises, the way God asks us to live, the means by which God redeems, saves, and heals the world is not practical. Every single force within us and within our world fights against it. It’s impossible.
And in our own lives: all the grief, all the poor decisions, all those things that shouldn’t have happened... Maybe we’re a little bit more like Mary than we thought. Who, me? Why am I favored? We ponder, wonder, and debate. How can this be - not just in this world but for me? We know those things about us no one else knows. We know who we are. It’s hopeless. It’s impossible.
But notice how the angel responds to the question of impossibility. He states clearly that God is going to show up anyway. The Holy Spirit will come upon you. Despite the impossibilities. Despite your reasons. Despite the hopelessness. Because all those things we list are only true when God is absent. Here, God promises to show up.
God’s presence makes the difference. God comes to Mary to ensure the impossible will happen. She will bear a son and he will be great. He will take the throne of David. He will reign forever.
God’s presence makes the difference.
See, God is present, even with a lowly woman from a town in the middle of nowhere; God does not shy away. God is present, despite the impossibilities of the situation, despite the questions that arise. God is present.
And God is present with us. God does not shy away from the likes of us, either. God is present here, as impossible as it may seem. Like Mary, God knows us, chooses us, favors us. God is present in the impossibilities of our lives; God is present with good news - Gospel news - for us. God is present - coming to us as the Son of God. And that makes all the difference.
And we know that presence, even as we wait for fulfillment of promises. God is present because God came to you and claimed you forever in the waters of baptism. The Holy Spirit is upon you; the power of the Most High is with you; in all things, God is present.
As we gather at the table, we get a foretaste of the feast that has no end, because God is present in Christ - feeding our souls so we can face the impossibilities of our world with grace, truth, and life; so we can make true God’s impossible ways of love and forgiveness - for ourselves and for our neighbors.
God is the difference between impossible and possible,
between hopelessness and fulfillment,
between “how can this be?” and “let it be with me according to your word.”
God’s presence makes the difference, for Mary and for us.
For now, we wait with Mary just a little bit longer. As we wait with anticipation, as we wait with impossibilities all around us, we know that God is here, making hope possible. Making life possible. Making love possible.
God is here. And that helps us say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Maybe you’ve heard that phrase; maybe you’ve used it yourself. I find it lacking something. To me, it’s not really who you know; it’s who knows you. Who cares who we know? What matters is that people know you.
I bring this up because it is good to be known, but it’s also good to be known for the right reasons. I remember a couple of decades ago learning the difference between “famous” and “infamous.” The prime example of the day was OJ Simpson: famous for his football accomplishments but infamous for the death of his ex-wife.
It’s not just what you know.
It’s not just who you know.
It’s not just who knows you, but why they know you, the defining characteristics; that is most important.
The prophet Isaiah mentions “being known” in our prophecy for today. In verse 9, he shares God’s words: “Their descendants will be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.” God says we will be known among the nations, among the world. So, in this day and age, how is it that we are known? How are we as Christians, as a church, known?
At this point in my sermon writing, I stopped for a bit. I had one of those gut-check moments. I stopped because it is unfortunate how we are known. It seems that they will know we are Christians by our hypocrisy, not our love.
We’re known more for fighting over coffee cups than we are for fighting on the side of the poor and oppressed.
We’re known more for our bumper stickers than our actions.
We’re known more for looking inward to preserve what what we have (or once had), rather than looking outward for the sake of the world.
And, to be brutally honest, a lot of how we’re known as a collective is accurate. We often shout when we should listen. We often sit when we should stand (and not just liturgically). We care more about how one hour on Sunday goes for us than we do how the remaining 167 hours of the week go for others.
It’s not that we don’t do good things as individuals and as the church; we do!
And it isn’t that worship isn’t important; that is what centers us, recharges us for the rest of the week. It is crucial to life and community.
The problem is the issues we engage ourselves with tend to be more about our preferences than about another’s needs. And when we do pick up a cause for our neighbor, we tend to do at a certain distance, the mailing of a check, and the hope that someone else does the hard work.
We pick and choose how and when we love; how and when we serve; how and when we care. We are complacent enough with ourselves to disengage - to do what we want, when we want.
Excuses and justifications are already lined up in our heads. “Well, yes, but…” Limitations, deservedness, fear - all plausible, all real, all reasonable, but none should be our defining characteristics.
Luckily, Isaiah tells us how we as God’s community should be known. Isaiah gives us our defining characteristics. He speaks the promises of God to those then and to us now.
God’s promises are clear:
God anoints you; the Spirit is upon you.
God sends you to bring good news to the oppressed and to bind the brokenhearted.
God sends you to proclaim liberty to the captives and release the prisoners.
God sends you to comfort those who mourn, to put garland around them, to praise them.
That is how we should be known. We should be known as the people who do those things. Imagine it. Imagine if that is really what we did. Imagine if those were our main attributes.
No more would we be known as, “the church on the corner of 62nd and Kings,” but instead, we are “those who proclaim freedom to ones who are captive.”
No more, “we’re the Lutheran church,” but “we care for the needs of all who mourn.”
No more, “we meet at 10:00 on Sundays,” but “we bring the good news to the oppressed.”
“We stand up for those who need it. We bring messages of joy. We feed the hungry and clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. We welcome. We share. We go.”
What a way to be known.
It is possible to read this passage, though, as a promise that is too good to be true, as a mission too hard to live, with characteristics too lofty to attain. It’s a prophet, afterall, preaching about life beyond this world. It’ll be fulfilled, one day.
The thing about prophets, though, is that the visions they share and the claims they make seem so very far off - but they name them anyway, share them anyway, live them anyway. And they do that because God is active anyway. Despite our excuses or exceptions, God is active anyway. And God still works in and through us anyway. God pours out the Spirit!
Which means, while we are here, awaiting God’s fulfillment of the vision, we don’t sit like bumps on a log. We don’t wait for ourselves; we wait while actively believing the promise that will come. We hope in what God is bringing so much that we take part in making it happen. We live the vision we want to see right now. It’s kind of the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We work with God to make it true today simply because we expect it will be true one day.
God sends us as Spirit-anointed messengers, and so we go as those messengers.
God sends us to heal and announce and set free, and so we go to heal and announce and set free.
God sets the vision, God tells us who we are, how we are defined, and we go, do, be that - even now, even in this world.
All the while, we know one day God’s vision will truly be the way things are.
And we live now, waiting - waiting on the One who will make it all happen in fullness, who will bring God’s vision in a perfect way.
We live now, bearing the characteristics of God now, because we know that one day, our excuses won’t matter. God, who loves justice, will bring it.
And in the meantime, how will people know us? Hopefully, they’ll know us as
God’s own children,
recipients of the good news,
healed of brokenheartedness,
liberated from bonds of sin and death,
comforted beyond belief.
They’ll know we are Christians by our love.
And they’ll know it, because we do love for them.
Because we serve.
We bring good news.
We heal the brokenhearted.
We set people free from what holds them down.
We build. We repair. We feed. We give. We love.
They’ll know who we are because we live like who God defines us to be.
Who God made us to be.
Who God saves us to be.
Uncertainty. That is what I feel connects the life of the prophet Joel (and the Israelites of his time) with our lives today. Uncertainty lies in the midst of all that is going on. It is a major player in each scene, both past and present.
As I mentioned, Joel was a prophet. And if you know anything about prophets in the Bible it’s that God always sends them for a reason. The usual reason is the people aren’t following God in the ways they should be. In particular, they’re not living out the Law in service to God and neighbor. So, the prophet’s job, for the most part, is to bring news of repercussions if things don’t change. The day of the Lord is coming, says Joel as a prelude to our text from chapter 2, and with it, repercussions, which looks like a swarm of locusts, devouring and ruining, encompassing everything in sight. Pretty scary. Pretty creepy. Pretty devastating.
So, in the verses before our text for today, there is uncertainty. The uncertainty lies in the questions and mixed feelings over this day of the Lord. How much time? How many must repent? Does one bad apple spoil the whole bunch? Isn’t this hardened justice a little cruel? Where is the mitigating grace to balance? And there aren’t answers - none from the people and none from Joel.
The day of the Lord is coming, like locusts to devour. What will that mean?
For us, we may not worry about quite the same swarm of locusts coming, but uncertainty, on many levels, still rules the day. The upcoming month of celebrations brings a bag of mixed emotions for many people. Our family life or other relationships may have changed dramatically since this time last year. What will this normally festive season look like this year?
Beyond that, what about the months and years ahead? Health, family, finances… it all can change in an instant. And not just for us alone, but the country. There are deep divisions which only serve to heighten the uncertainty. How about the world, and our neighbors near and far? How do we help when we can’t even agree on what the problems are? Each day is a new challenge for many of us, and we just go, day by day, with emotion, fear, mourning, and uncertainty. We have hope, but we are also realistic. What will it mean?
Uncertainty then. Uncertainty now.
“Yet even now,” says the Lord. “Yet even now, return to me.”
For Joel and his people, the only thing certain was change; things would have to change. The status quo of how things were was about to be upset, regardless of if the cause was a change in people’s ways or a swarm of locusts. But for the prophet, the answer to any issue, especially in the midst of uncertainty, was always to look to God.
When you don’t know where to turn, return to the Lord your God.
One of the easiest things for me about preaching is I don’t have to make stuff up. I read what the Bible says and basically I try just to say that again in ways that might connect with you and me. Unlike a novel or short story, I am not trying to think of a plot, not trying to tell a story I create, and surely not trying to make up anything new. Instead, I just try to make connections and try to say what the Bible tells us.
For Joel and all the other prophets, I think it’s something similar. Their job of bringing potential bad news is hard, for sure, but they just say what God told them to say. And God always has a little more to say than the bad news. And that “little more” God says through Joel is, “return to me.”
“Return to me,” says the Lord.
And here, if we slow down a bit and really listen to what God is saying, this is more than just an emotional cry for us to come back. God says, “I know you; I want you to come to me.” See, returning isn’t a superficial, outward thing - like rending one’s clothing, changing an appearance. It is a deep, inward thing; it is returning to God with all our heart. It is rending what is inside of us, it is opening up wide what is buried deep.
The thing about rending open your heart is you are bringing whatever is in there, all the emotions and feelings - weeping, mourning, uncertainty. Fear. Joy. Whatever the doctor says, whatever the length of the wait, whatever the results, whatever the number of empty seats at dinner, whatever brokenness, apprehension, and uncertainty is there inside, even now, God knowingly, lovingly, certainly says, “return to me.”
God knows. And when you don’t know, return to the Lord your God.
In this time of Advent, we wait. We wait in particular for the day of the Lord. We wait for the Lord to come and show us what we and generations already know: that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. On that day, we will see how God chooses to judge the world. On that day, we know we will be changed; things can't stay the same. On that day, we know dreams and visions will be certain. On that day, God’s love will be made flesh.
God says, yes, the day of the Lord is coming, but be certain it is being brought by a God who is gracious and merciful. Be certain that God’s arms are wide open, waiting for us to return. Be certain that God fully knows what is in our hearts - all that is there - and God will take it, take us, no matter what we’ve buried deep.
Be certain, that because you have been named and claimed in the waters of baptism, you are always and forever God’s own. Be certain, that God feeds our souls at the Lord’s table, and you are always welcome. Be certain, that the Holy Spirit is poured out on you, giving your visions and dreams life in this day and in this time. Be certain, that the day of the Lord is coming. And even now, God still comes to us with grace, mercy, and steadfast love.
It is certain, but we still wait, don’t we? We wait for the child to be born; we wait for the Lord to come; we wait for our dreams and visions; we wait. But let us not wait with uncertainty. Because even there, God comes with certain promise: you are certainly loved. You are certainly known. You are certainly mine.
Even now. Even always.
As things usually go with writing a sermon, I try to start reading a lot of articles and books early in the week and let all those ideas sit with me for the next several days. Then, on Thursday morning, I close up the doors to my office and use the readings that I have distilled over the past several days and just go. If all goes well, I have some semblance of a sermon that I work on over the next few days. Editing usually is way easier than writing.
But this week, I just wasn’t feeling it. We have two passages from the prophet Jeremiah: the first part is a story many people have never heard before and the second part is so overly familiar it becomes… trite. Simple. Even mundane. Everything I read sounded the same to me; nothing stood out. God is the initiator. God does it. God upholds our end of the covenant. Like, it's a nice thing but it felt so... simplistic to me. I guess I’m really in a bad mood if the Gospel message doesn’t inspire me.
And that is precisely what Jeremiah is talking about.
In the first part of our lesson, we have Jeremiah instructing his friend Baruch to deliver a scroll of his prophecies to King Jehoiakim. Think of this as God’s Word being hand delivered to the king. And what does the king do? The king tears it up and throws it in the fire. He disregards it.
Which made me wonder how we do that. I don’t think many of us use quite as tangible of a way of disregarding God - tearing out page after page of our Bible and throwing it into a fire. That’s a little too… blatant. We’re much more subtle in the ways we disregard the Word of God.
We do that because the Word of God is a pretty thick book. There is a lot of stuff in there. And we all have favorite passages, unknown passages, obsolete passages, and interpreted passages. We have quick ways to justify our actions - or non-actions - and we can back it up with the Bible! So, yeah, we may not be as overt as King Jehoiakim in disregarding God’s Word, but we sure do filter it, domesticate it, and pick and choose what we like and follow. Sometimes, we just aren't “feeling” how God is truly calling us to live.
But the days are surely coming.
That is the promise. That is the hope. That is the Gospel.
God responds to the ways we’ve disregarded God and the Law, and God’s response is Gospel.
God persists. God continues on. God makes a new covenant. God doesn’t tear us up and throw us away - as we often do with God’s way. God doesn’t discard us, also as we often do to people who turn from us. God doubles down. God promises something new. God makes a new covenant, not written on paper or stone, but written on our hearts. God is persistent.
The Israelites broke the old covenant - repeatedly. We aren’t exemplars of living a godly life, either. But God doesn’t stop. God takes the best parts of the old covenant - the relationship, the love, the “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” But God does something new with all that; God makes the deal that it will be written on our hearts, the very center of our thinking and doing and being. No more will it be left up to our interpretation or our learning or even if we “feel like it.” God will write it so intimately in us, that it will just be who we are and what we do. We will be programmed with God’s law.
We see and hear and know that promised new covenant through the Word of God. But see, the Word of God is more than mere words of the Bible. The Word of God is Jesus. All things came into being through him; what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. Jesus is God’s new covenant in flesh and bone.
In Jesus, God shows us what it looks like to forgive our iniquity and remember our sin no more. In Jesus, the covenant takes flesh. In Jesus, the covenant lives. The covenant forgives.
We see the new covenant in God’s Word, Jesus Christ. But also, here and now, this very day, we see that covenant in the meal we share. Jesus, like God and the prophets before him, is betrayed. And yet, Jesus says that this cup is the new covenant. It is a new covenant - shed for you and for all people. Despite our actions, despite our betrayals, despite our feelings on the matter, despite our fleeing from following Jesus wherever he goes, Jesus seals the deal.
We have the promise of this new covenant - a promise that endures through betrayal and cross and tomb. The promise is raised up and lives. The promise is shared each time bread is broken and wine is poured.
And for us in this time and this place, our challenge is, maybe, letting go of God’s Word in paper or tablet form, in order to live the Word of God in our actions and words.
What would it look like if instead of limiting to a particular phrase, verse, or story, we took the whole story?
What would it look like if we did, not simply what Jesus did in a particular verse, but if we did what Jesus’ entire life taught us to do?
What if we did what was right, not what was written?
Do what is loving and grace-filled and forgiving, not what we remember or look up.
Do what is written on our hearts, not what is written on a scroll.
Do God’s law because we are really feeling it.
But of course, we aren’t quite there yet, are we?
I’m reminded of my Ethics class back in seminary. In the very first class of the semester, our professor, Dr. Bell, talked about how Ethics, that particular class in and of itself was sinful. It is sinful because we have to think about what is right and good and best. See, the Law isn’t written on our hearts just yet. The fact that we have to weigh options and process doing good for each other shows our inherent sinfulness.
We don’t have God’s Law written on our hearts yet, but we do have a God who is persistent. Who comes to us, who forgives our iniquities, who forgets our sins, who dies and rises, who opens up eternity for us, who always does something new to make sure we know we are loved.
I started out the sermon talking about how I just wasn’t “feeling it” this week. I guess that just goes to show that the Law, the new covenant, isn’t written on my heart yet. Even we pastors sometimes feel disconnected - yet, God’s promise is still there. Even for us. And for you, too.
Yet, as we come to places where the Word is written and shared, preached and broken, splashed and sung, well, we get to feeling a little bit better. It’s a time that God writes on our hearts yet again. God persists. God doesn’t give up. God writes on our hearts. And God always will.
While the Biblical title of the book is simply, “Jonah,” we like to think there are two main characters to the story: Jonah and the whale.
Jonah is a prophet of God. He self-identifies himself as a Hebrew who worships the Lord, the God of heaven. But there is a little more to him as a character than simply being a prophet. Essentially, he’s one of us. He’s from our crew, our family, our side. But, boy, is he bad at being a prophet. God calls out to him, “Arise, go to Ninevah.” So Jonah sets out to Tarshish, which is the exact opposite direction.
The natural question to ask is, “what will happen to Jonah?”
Jonah doesn’t want to do what God asks. It is obvious he has some character flaws, but because he is “one of us,” we tend to give him the benefit of the doubt. If you read it from an honest perspective, this insider gives all of us a bad name.
He doesn’t help the sailors row while they’re in the storm. He doesn’t pray when everyone else on the boat is. When he finally gets to Ninevah, he only walks a little ways into the city, where he preaches a pretty terrible sermon - and not just terrible because it is eight words long. He doesn’t even want the city to be saved. He is pretty indifferent and apathetic about the whole thing. What will happen to Jonah? What will happen to the sailors? To Ninevah?
Contrast this insider character with the outsider characters.
For example, Jonah encounters sailors along his journey. The sailors all worship different gods. That is the code language for “not one of us.” During the storm, they all pray; Jonah, as we know, does nothing. When they finally figure out Jonah is the root of all the trouble, Jonah says, “throw me overboard.” Which the sailors don’t do - not at first, at least. They just row harder. Eventually, after praying for mercy because of what they are about to do, they reluctantly throw Jonah into the sea. And when the storm stops, they offer a sacrifice and make vows to the Lord. The sailors, those outsiders, do the right thing.
But our guy, Jonah, has done the wrong things. The story very easily could end here, with him tossed into the sea. And that would teach us a lesson, wouldn’t it? It’d be a 2x4 to the face kind of lesson, too: do not disobey God! Remember what happened to Jonah who did! That’s if the story ended here.
But, as you know, the story doesn’t end here. We bring in our second character. No, not the fish. While cool and miraculous and even a colloquial title character, the fish is only mentioned a handful of times. But you know who is mentioned a whole lot more than the fish? God. God is the other main character.
God has been there the whole time. God calls out to Jonah to go to Ninevah in the first place - Nineveh, that wretched city whose inhabitants hate the Israelites and whose wickedness rivals no other. But, for whatever reason, God cares enough about Ninevah to send Jonah there. And while God has been here the whole time, now is really where God works. And now is where we get a lesson, though not a 2x4 to the face kind. We get a lesson about God’s character.
God isn’t one to give up so easily. God maneuvers things so Jonah gets a second chance.
God is one to care - even about outsiders. Jonah doesn’t care one bit about what happens to Ninevah.
Jonah runs away. God is one to be present.
Jonah gives things a half-hearted effort. God does whatever possible - sometimes even impossible - to make sure love and grace (a second chance) are present.
We see God’s character shine through a lackluster prophet and his terrible pastoral skills. Sailors and Ninevites change their ways and worship God, even though Jonah tried his best not to do a thing.
This story is meant to challenge us. Jonah, the insider, is the worst character in the story. He is supposed to be a model because he represents us, though he is anything but. The outsiders are the ones who respond to God appropriately.
Maybe we who are insiders don’t give enough credit to those outside of us. Maybe “we” judge the character of others based on preconceived notions. Maybe “they” aren’t so bad afterall. Maybe “they” are who God sends us to and “we” do our best not to do a thing. It is definitely a challenging idea, that our character flaws keep us from doing God’s will toward others. And I really think that is a key to the story.
But there is another aspect just as key; this story can challenge us, sure, but it can also comfort us. It not only shows us our character in the form of Jonah, but it shows us God’s character in all it’s tenacious and gracious glory. The Jonah story shows us we are never outside of God’s presence. What should’ve happened to Jonah? What should’ve happened when he ran away, when he was on a stormy sea, when he was thrown overboard?
What should’ve happened, didn’t. Because God is present. Because God is forgiving. Because God does miraculous things to keep us headed on God’s mission.
There is nowhere God won’t go. There is nothing God won’t do to be with us and save us. We see that in the character of a lousy, half-hearted prophet. We see that in a big fish. We see it in walls falling between insiders and outsiders. We see God’s character in a cross. In an empty tomb. In a loaf of bread and a cup of wine. God goes, God comes, God shows up, all so we know God’s presence is never far from us. There is nowhere we go that God can’t have us, doesn’t have us.
Unsurprisingly, this is my son, Jonah’s, favorite Bible story. And while it is probably more because he can have a book with his name on the cover, I hope his reasoning ends up shifting away from vanity and more toward the insight of never being outside of God’s presence. My personal favorite verses actually have the same theme. Romans 8:38-39 say, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
On this All Saints Sunday, we remember those who are far from us - so far we can’t get to them. They were the characters in our lives who shaped us and loved us and formed us and guided us. We miss them, we love them, but we can’t get to them. Yet we know they aren’t outside of God. We know they are not outside of God’s presence. We know nothing separates us from God - not running away, not storms, not half-heartedness, not lame sermons, not insiders or outsiders, not even death. Nothing can take us away from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. I’m convinced.
Today, as we remember the Saints who have gone before us, we remember them in light of God’s character. Today, we remember what is true for Jonah is true for us; and what is true for us is true for all the saints, whether insider or out. Today, we remember God’s story: The story of Jonah and God’s mercy. The story of us and God’s grace. The story of all the saints and God’s inescapable love.
I’ve heard it said that winners write the history books. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Long ago, if you were the loser, most likely you not only lost, but you were obliterated in some sort of way: enslaved, expelled, or even executed. No history for you. That leaves the writing of history to the winners. Generally, kings of the day would hire someone to write the story of their conquests - embellishment encouraged - so that they could go down in history as the greatest ever.
But God’s story - God’s history, if you like - is a little different. It’s not so much about the victors or the elites; God’s story is about those whom typical histories don’t remember. Today’s story is a perfect example of that. In the book of First Kings, a book that we’d think would be exclusively about, well, kings, God takes a moment to highlight some people outside of the elite. We hear of the prophet Elijah, a widow, and her son.
We start the story with Elijah confronting King Ahab (you knew there had to be at least one king, right?). Ahab was a bad dude, bringing in other gods for Israel to worship all because his wife, Jezebel, was so persuasive. This confrontation starts and ends with Elijah saying that it isn’t going to rain until he says so.
God then tells Elijah to high-tail it out of there; kings don’t like it when they aren’t the ones setting the agenda. And God sends Elijah to a wadi way outside of town where the ravens bring him food. But, eventually, the brook dries up.
So, God then tells Elijah to go to Zarephath in Sidon where a woman will feed him. But the widow doesn’t seem to have gotten that message. At first, she refuses to feed Elijah, fearful that if she feeds him, she and her son won’t have anything to eat. This is her last supper. Elijah then becomes the messenger of God yet again: “Do not be afraid. God will provide. The jar of flour will not run out and the bottle of oil will not become empty.” The woman goes and does as Elijah asks. And it turns out just as he said - daily food for her and her son. The jar of meal doesn’t run out and the bottle of oil doesn’t become empty. Even with what little was there, God made sure it was enough.
I promise I did not pick this text in particular for our Commitment Sunday. It seems too perfect, doesn’t it? The widow is worried that if she gives, she will run out, but somehow she never does. In the midst of fear of scarcity, Elijah says, “do not be afraid. God will provide. There is enough. There is more than enough.” So, the same should be true of our monetary gifts! Give and your pockets will never be empty! Who cares if you are on a very limited and fixed supply? Use it all for God’s mission in the Church and you’ll be taken care of. It is perfect!
Maybe too perfect.
I mean, it’s a good sentiment and all, to trust God to provide, because God will and God does. God gives us all we have - whether much or little. And our call is to trust in God - trust that God will continue to provide our daily bread. That part I can totally get on board with. But I can’t shake this feeling of irresponsibility in this “perfect” analogy. Maybe it’s because my faith isn’t as strong as this woman’s, or maybe it’s because I’m not as great of a prophet as Elijah, but I want to say to you, if you only have enough for one last meal with your son, please, please, please, do not give it all to the church. Instead, let me know after worship and we’ll make sure it’s not your last meal.
And that, maybe, is what we (we who are pretty sure we’ve got more than one meal left) can learn from this story of radical giving. We can still be faithful to God’s call - still trust in God above all else - by providing for others out of our abundance, even when we think it is scarcity.
Not to sound cliche’, but “sharing is caring.” Or, to say it in a less trite way: as we share what we have, blessings abound in terms of relationship and grace and love. Sharing connects us to one another. Without that widow sharing what she had, her relationship with Elijah would’ve been kaput. And, most likely, her relationship with her son would’ve ended in premature death. But when she shares what she has, blessings abound for Elijah, for her son, and for her.
God does provide. As we share what little or large gifts we have, we bless others, we share grace, we inject life into deathly circumstances. This whole month at St. Philip has been about sharing God’s work we do and have done - what blessings and relationships and joys have been shared, despite what our meal jar and oil jug have in it. We’ve done a whole lot of very good things.
And beyond that, beyond the very specific idea of giving money, this passage as a whole has something to more to say to us, particularly we who identify ourselves as Lutheran Christians.
Today, we also are celebrating the 499th anniversary of the Reformation - the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door and kicked off a movement of rediscovering God’s grace and love in our worship and church and Bible. I feel God called the Church to move - to move on from where it was to a new place.
Just like Elijah by the wadi, the Church was fine where it was. But God knew that water wouldn’t last. God knew Elijah - and the Church - needed to move on. So, God tells Elijah to go and visit the woman in Zarephath to be fed. It’s as if God never meant for Elijah to stay in one place forever; God moves him along. And Elijah trusts each step of the way.
And so for us as the Church, we know that God doesn’t intend for us to stay in one place, comfortably stationary; it’ll end like Elijah by the stream. For us as St. Philip Lutheran Church in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, we in recent history have been by dried up creeks - maybe we even stayed there too long. But now, I feel God has moved us on, moved us ahead. God is sending us to forge relationships, to share our flour and oil (our lives) with each other. God is bringing us to a new place.
God keeps moving us along. Moving us forward to live in ways we never have; to proclaim the message Elijah preaches, “do not be afraid,” in places we haven’t yet gone; to let go of the things that are drying up; and to reform us again into people who are reliant on God every single step of the way.
It’s exciting, but man, oh, man, doing what God says is scary and unknown.
The Reformation was scary and unknown.
And the woman giving when all we see is scarcity is scary and unknown.
The only thing to do is trust God - trust in who God is.
And if we know anything about God, it is God is one who provides.
When a creek dries up, there is a widow with some flour and oil. God provides.
When the Church loses its way, there is a monk with a hammer and a Bible. God provides.
When we are weak and afraid, there are words of promise from prophets and angels, “Do not be afraid.” God provides.
When we are empty in mind, body, and spirit, there is a table set for us.
When we journey to the cross, there is an empty tomb not too much farther.
When we are all but forgotten by the history books, we are remembered by a God who named us and claimed us; who died for us and rose again; who gives us life and breath and the grace to live again - and not only again, but forever. God provides.
Oh, yes, God provides. God provides the grace:
to always move on,
to always be formed in new ways,
to always open up our jars for the good of relationship,
to always make life where all we see is death.
Do not be afraid. God moves. God provides. God always provides.
Our reading for today may sound kind of convoluted and rambling, but, believe it or not, it is one of the most important passages in all the Bible. I say, “believe it or not,” because most of us don’t recognize it - maybe we don’t even remember hearing it. Ever.
When we think of important passages in the Bible, we first think of the ones we can remember; obviously. But we remember them because they are quick and simple, easy to memorize and tell us a whole lot about God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” kind of stuff. Even if we’re pushed beyond John 3:16, we can come up with other important stories, some of which we’ve read this year as we go through the Bible: the covenant with Abraham (I will bless you and you will be a blessing) or the Passover and Exodus from slavery (let my people go!).
But this? A kind-of-hard-to-follow passage from Second Samuel about building - or not building - a house? And yet, this passage is the key promise that shapes the rest of the story going forward. This is the point where we start to see God’s plan for forever.
We start off with the king, David. His life is one of the more familiar in the Bible. He has humble beginnings as the youngest of Jesse’s sons, but he gains notoriety on the battlefield, first with his sling against Goliath, and then later with armies, conquering those stinkin’ Philistines. He is a king, but not just A king - the king of the golden era. He’s not perfect; he’s a flawed human being. But he has a heart that loves God and wants to do God’s will. A key example of that is the Ark of the Covenant - yes, the same Ark from the Indiana Jones movie (well, maybe not the same ark). David recovers it from the Philistines and brings it to Jerusalem.
This is where we are at the start of chapter 7. David lives in a house (a house of cedar just means it’s a nice house). And while David has his nice house, the Ark of the Covenant, God’s seat among the people, is stuck in a drafty ol’ tent. “This isn’t right!” David exclaims. “I want to build a house for God!” Sounds like a pretty good idea. His buddy, Nathan the prophet, agrees. “Go, do what you have in mind. God is with you”
But that night, the word of God comes to Nathan. And God says, “I don’t want a house. I don’t need a house.” God shuts the house-building down. And maybe you can imagine the disappointment David might have felt the next morning when Nathan got around to telling him. This isn’t what David expected.
David’s intent was to do something for God - a way to say “thank you for all you’ve done for me.” It's like when someone gives us a gift and we want to reciprocate - partly to be kind, sure, but it is also partly that we want to be on the same level as the gift-giver; we don’t want to owe anyone anything. Or, if you really want to delve into the psyche of gift giving, maybe David was trying to soften God up a bit to ensure God will keep the good favor coming. Most likely, David’s motives are somewhere in the mix of all of that. But God isn’t interested in what David can do for God. God turns it around. David is told what God is going to do for him, even long after David is gone.
To paraphrase what God says: “You’re going to build a house for me?! I think not! I’m going to build a house for you!”
This is the promise.
Why is God building a house such a big deal? Because the house God will build is on a different level. It isn’t a home of cedar, or a chateau amongst the olive trees, or a bungalow by the oasis. This house is one of people. It’s a lineage. A dynasty. After recounting all that God has already done for David - taking him from shepherd to king; protecting him from enemies; making his name great - God lays out the future.
And this future is forever. An heir of David’s will rule forever. And nothing - nothing - will change that. In fact, God says that when - not if! - when the son commits iniquity, he will be punished (as those things go), but God’s steadfast love will not depart from him. God would always be faithful.
Here, God promises fidelity. Which may not seem like a big deal to you. The Bible is full of God promising stuff and then coming through. But what makes this promise different from the others is the unconditional nature of the promise; David does nothing before or after the promise. Abraham was given a promise - a deal cut by God and then marked by circumcision for all the guys in Abraham’s family. Israel was freed from slavery and then handed 10 Commandments to guide them. Don’t get me wrong - God is the initiator; God did something for the people before they were in any way deserving, but God would also say to them, “I saved you like I promised, so c’mon guys. Do a little better.”
But here, there isn’t even anything that David is supposed do in return. In fact, God doesn’t expect anything but failure, wrongdoing, and iniquity - and yet the promise still will hold true. A Son of David will rule forever. And this is true. For generations this was true. The Davidic line did go on ruling as king for over 400 years.
But 400 isn’t quite forever.
Which conflicts with what we know about God. God keeps promises, right? And if this promise is as big of a deal as I am making it out to be, then surely, God didn’t drop the ball, right?
No, I don’t think God did.
God’s promise, if you you remember, is on another level. But it is even on another level than we were anticipating. David’s heir, who is a Son to God, would reign, but in a way we don’t expect.
We don’t expect a manger. We don’t expect a king who serves. We don’t expect God to come to us as one of us. We don’t expect God to keep promises with a cross. We don’t expect an empty tomb. But God keeps promises, even if it means raising people from the dead. Despite our iniquities and wrongdoings, God has kept true to the promise.
Jesus, heir of David, Son of God, is the King of kings. God is building something through David’s lineage, and it’s not a house: it’s life - life that is ruled by God, life that is promised, life that is forever.
We are brought into that lineage by being joined to Christ in baptism. We are heirs of the same promise God made: I will not take my steadfast love from you. No matter your house, no matter your lineage, no matter your failures and flops. I will not take my steadfast love from you. Promised life is yours.
We hear that promise. We have a King forever. And we have a God who wants to build something through us. Because God, as we see here, knows there is a time and a place for buildings. But what God primarily wants is to build something through us.
God wants to build something through us, with us. God wants to build life, a life for all, a house where all can dwell, a place where the cross shows us how to serve, a lineage of love and grace. God gives life that is promised; life that is forever. And God does it now.
That is God’s vision for us. That is God’s promise for us. That is God’s love for us.
It is, as I’ve said, a love that is on another level.
And for that, thanks be to God.
Last week… last week, we were supposed to get the golden calf. Nothing sets a preacher up for a fire and brimstone sermon like a golden calf. It’s like a fastball, straight down the middle - easy to knock out of the park. Well, easy in the “there is a whole lot of things we can compare the golden calf to” kind of way - and it shows up in the midst of our Stewardship Campaign, nonetheless. But Hurricane Matthew had other ideas. I guess we’ll have to wait on that fire and brimstone.
So, we need to go back two weeks to when we last gathered, where we had just read about the Passover - the meal, the event of God’s saving from slavery in Egypt. Once the Israelites were free, they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, with all the trials that brings - the golden calf being one of them. The book of Exodus ends with the people on the cusp of entering the promised land. The book of Joshua (while not the next book in the Bible is the next book in the history), continues the story as the Israelites enter the Promised Land - and all the battles that went along with that. History continues with Judges - individuals to rule and guide the Israelite people. The book ends with the verse, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
Up to that point, God was the King of Israel. There was no earthly monarch, no king on the throne, because there was no throne. But the Israelites started to look around and realize all the other nations had kings. They wanted one, too. And that is where we pick up today - but not with a king; we’re still a few years away from that. We start with Hannah.
And Hannah is a special woman. See, there was this question, this issue for Hannah, that was with her wherever she went. What do you do when your mind and your will wants something so badly, but your body just doesn’t follow suit? What do you do when who you are isn’t just characterized as a disappointment to your husband, but maybe even a disappointment to God? What do you do when who you are isn’t good enough? What do you do?
Here’s a little more to Hannah’s story (this is what we miss in those first 8 verses of 1 Samuel): Hannah is the first wife of Elkanah. And she is constantly teased by Elkanah’s second wife, Peninnah. Hannah had no children, whereas Peninnah had many. And so it was, that Hannah, day by day, felt the sting of criticism by Peninnah. Every year, Elkanah would make a trip to Shiloh to offer a sacrifice to God. And after he sacrificed, he passed helpings from the sacrificial meal around to his wife Peninnah and all her children, and he always gave an especially generous helping to Hannah because he loved her so much. But Peninnah still would taunt her, rubbing it in that God had given her many children, yet Hannah had none. So, every year, every day even, Hannah felt ashamed of who she was, despite her husband’s affection and love for her. What do you do when who you are isn’t good enough?
And with that question in mind, we look at where our Scripture passage starts today: “After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose…” What do you do? Hannah rose.
And in her rising, she went to a particular place, to do a particular thing. She went to the temple. She presented herself to the Lord. And there, she prayed to be remembered. “Remember me. Do not forget your servant.”
And guess what? God remembered. Hannah went on to bear a son - and not just any son, but a son who would be the change, not just in Shiloh, but in all of Israel. Samuel would be the one who would usher in a new era of stability and hope in an uncertain time - one who would grow and continue to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.
Hannah rose. Hannah prayed. Hannah trusted God. What do you do when who you are isn’t good enough? You let God raise you up. See, God not only answered a prayer here; God accomplished more than simply saying “yes” to a request. Because at the right time, in the right way, a human need and a heavenly need aligned here. And when that happens, there is a “rising” situation. When human needs and heavenly needs align, there is a rising situation.
God remembered, for sure, but God also did something with that remembering. God started the Kingly line, because Hannah’s son, Samuel, was the prophet who anointed Israel’s first king, Saul, and then Israel’s greatest king, David.
All this caused Hannah to break out in song - “there is no Holy One like the Lord…” The song praises God because of the unexpected, gracious gift of life. When a human need and a heavenly need align, there is a “rising” situation. Hannah rose; God raised Hannah.
And if all this kind of sounds familiar, it’s because this also happened to a young woman, with whom we’re a bit more familiar, named Mary. After unexpected news, Mary rose. Mary, too, breaks out in song with a very similar theme to what Hannah sang. Mary was overwhelmed with the news the angel brought - so overwhelmed with the Spirit that she had to sing. Mary went on to bear a son - and not just any son, but a son who would be the change, not just in Bethlehem or Israel, but in all the world. One who would usher in a new era of stability and hope in an uncertain time. When a human need and a heavenly need align, there is a “rising” situation.
And that Son, Jesus, is the one who came to bring together the needs of humanity and the needs of God. And you know what happened to him. For some reason, we didn’t think he was good enough. We put him on a cross.
We had our needs and desires in a savior;
and God had needs and desires to save us… and when they meet, there is a rising situation. Because, though he was killed, died, buried, Jesus rose. Though the tomb was sealed tight, Jesus rose. Even when there was nothing more that we could do, Jesus rose. God raised Jesus from the dead.
And so, when the world is down on us, we can rise, too. What do you do when who you are isn’t good enough? You let God raise you up. Because that is what God does. In all these situations, when who we are isn’t good enough by whatever standards, God raises. Hannah rose. Mary rose. Jesus rose. And we can rise, too.
Trusting in the God who raises from the dead, we know we are raised now. Each day, through the water and word of our baptism, we are raised up to live a new life.
We bow our heads in prayer, but raise them to see the new life God spreads before us.
We kneel around the table, but raise our hands to receive the body and blood of our Lord, and we feast on the goodness and mercy of a God who raises us up.
We are down, broken, ashamed because of our situation in life, our health, our job, our any number of things… but we don’t stay down.
We rise. We are raised. We will live.
When we are down, we rise. We rise because God raises us out of those things we cannot raise ourselves from. God raises us up. That is our God; that is who God is.
Where our needs and God’s needs intersect, raising, blessing, and life are always involved.
We ended Genesis last week with a nice ending: Joseph and his brothers made up and they all lived together happily ever after in Egypt. The second book of the Bible, Exodus, doesn’t start off quite as cheery. Sure, Israel’s descendants were still in Egypt and they had taken God’s advice to heart and were fruitful and multiplied.
But, eventually, a new Pharaoh arose “who did not know Joseph” (1:8). This new king enslaved these rapidly growing Israelite foreigners because he was afraid of their increasing numbers (1:8-14). After many years of slavery, the LORD called Moses to lead the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt (3:1-10). Moses reluctantly went. The LORD sent plague after plague upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians in an effort to persuade Pharaoh to set the Israelites free, but Pharaoh kept refusing, time after time (chapters 7-10).
Finally, the LORD prepared the Israelites for one final and somewhat terrifying plague: the killing of all firstborn Egyptian children and animals (11:4-8). The firstborn of the Israelites would be spared the deadly effects of this plague by participating in the Passover meal and spreading the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of their homes. Our lesson for today describes that Passover meal.
For us, this is just another story of God saving. For Israel, for the Jewish people, this is the most important event in their history. The Passover meal is the remembrance of the LORD’s deliverance from their slavery in Egypt. God is the one who brought them out, saved them, freed them.
And so they remember. They remember by sharing a meal and telling their story.
Each time they share the meal, they remember. They remember the lamb, sacrificed. They remember spreading the blood on their doorposts. They remember the hurried way in which they were to eat. They remember God.
They remember God’s promise. And that’s what it’s really about. It isn’t really about the lamb or the bread or the blood. Those aren’t magical, protective things on their own. A lamb won’t ward off destruction. Blood by itself doesn’t provide protection from evil. What is important is the word that is attached, the promise associated with the sign. The blood is a sign “for you.” A sign of divine promise: God commits to passover the blood-marked houses. Israel can rely on God being faithful.
The bread is just bread - simple bread without leaven - but it’s that way because of what the LORD did. It is that reminder of the day on which they came out of slavery, because the LORD brought them out from Egypt by the strength of hand. Israel can rely on on God being faithful.
Why do you need the blood of the lamb? Blood is how we know we are saved.
Why do you need the bread? The bread is how we remember God set us free.
Which brings us to the questions, why do we need the blood of the lamb? Why do we need the bread? The blood of the lamb is how we know we are saved. The bread is how we remember God sets us free.
This story reconnects with Jesus. On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus celebrates this very same Passover meal with his disciples. Yet ,he takes that meal and reinterprets God’s saving actions. Not only does God deliver from the chains of slavery in Egypt; God, through Christ, will take it even further. God will deliver us from the bonds of sin and death.
Jesus takes the bread of Passover, the bread of remembrance, and says, “This is my body. Do this for the remembrance of me.” We eat, we drink, we proclaim the good news of what God has done. Jesus tells us to remember; to take and eat; this is given for you.
Then, Jesus himself becomes the Passover lamb - our Passover lamb. God’s only begotten son is sacrificed - not to save simply/only the firstborn - but to save us all. Because of Jesus’ blood shed, we are set free; because of Jesus’ blood on the posts of the cross, judgment and condemnation and bondage must pass over us.
But in Christ, God does even better. Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t simply an exchange - one life to save another; blood shed here so it won’t be there. The lamb who was slain has begun his reign by rising from the dead. Jesus leads the exodus out of the tomb, out of the grave, out of death - not simply for himself, but for all of us who are covered by his blood. God will pass over our our sinful ways. His death shields us, but his life leads us out. His resurrection means we are not bound to the old ways of enslavement to sin and death. Jesus, risen from the dead, leads us to God’s promised land.
This is our story. This is God’s work.
In the Passover, the story and the rituals are so interwoven, they cannot be understood properly in isolation from each other. You need to tell the story AND eat the meal - and by doing that, it is more than mere memory; it is God’s action now. And for us, too, we don’t just remember Jesus or Passover or a meal. It’s not just a mind game; we’re not trying to recapture something that is past.
We remember God’s promise. And that’s what it’s really about. God makes those promises tangible for us now in the meal we share together. At the Lord’s Table where we gather, Jesus is present - helping us to remember his sacrifice for us, giving us again the promise of love and life for today. We don’t simply remember that God has saved; we are participants in God’s saving. God delivers us. God is faithful. It’s so real you can taste it.
Why do we need the blood of the lamb? Why do we need the bread? We need them to remember. We need them to be saved. We need them to be free.
This is salvation, given for you.
This is life, given for you.
This is Christ, given for you.
Let’s eat. Let’s drink. Let’s remember. Let’s live the story.
Joseph is most famous for his Amazing, Technicolor Dreamcoat… or just simply (as you may have learned in your off-Broadway Sunday school class) his coat of many colors. Today, though, we see there is way more to Joseph than his outerwear.
In the larger context of Genesis, Joseph is the continuation of family dysfunction. Last week, we started everything off with Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel. Not to sound too much like a boring genealogy, but
Abraham begat Isaac (who was almost sacrificed by his father);
Isaac begat twins, Jacob and Esau (brothers who came out of the womb fighting, and later, the younger, Jacob, stole the inheritance from his big bro);
Then, conniving Jacob (who, during a wrestling match by a river, had his name changed to Israel) begat twelve sons, the youngest of whom was Joseph.
It is not the smoothest of family histories, with the problems of one generation being passed onto offspring.
Continuing this family disfunction thread, we learn right off the bat that Joseph’s brothers hated him. Joseph, O Joseph, how do we hate you? Let us count the ways…
One: Jacob (Israel) clearly loved him more than any other of his children. In the grand scheme of life, I haven't been a parent for all that long, but I do know that it is a bad idea to overtly show favoritism toward one of your kids. Of course his brothers hated him!
Two: Joseph got a fancy coat as a gift from his father. At first, a coat may not seem like a big deal. I mean, if we see someone with a coat or a shirt that we like, we just go to the store or order it on Amazon and it’s here in two days. No biggie. But way back then, clothing was a major status symbol. You couldn’t just go an buy one. It took a lot of time to spin wool into thread and weave fabric and then dye and cut and sew. Months! And so, if you have a coat that I like and Dad gave it to you and Mom spent all summer making it for you and what about me… of course his brothers hated him!
And three: The dream. Listen to this dream I dreamed: “suddenly I was standing tall and you gathered around me and started bowing down!” What a little twit. Of course his brothers hated him!
And so the brothers conspire to kill him… then they debate about killing him… then they use reason - or “reason” as far as these things go - and decide instead to sell him as a slave.
We skip ahead in our lesson to chapter 50 where Joseph meets again with these same brothers after the death of their father, Israel. In the interim, Joseph was taken to Egypt, and, through his dream-interpretation skills, worked his way up to becoming the second most important person in the country. His brothers came to Egypt in search of food because of a drought in their homeland. Joseph ultimately forgives his brothers and he invites the entire family to live there with him.
At the end of Genesis, we have a happy ending. Despite the favoritism, plotting, and bad ideas (it is NEVER a good idea to sell your brother to anyone), we have a happy, sitcom-like ending. Everyone has made up with minimal commercial interruption.
And because it is such a happy ending, some people say, “this was God’s plan all along.” Not only were Joseph and his brothers reconciled, but people’s lives were saved from famine. This was God’s will! Which I take a bit of issue with. Did God really persuade the brothers to sell Joseph as a slave in order to accomplish God’s purposes? Or, rather, did the brothers do it on their own, committing a sinful act against their own brother?
The story, I think, says a lot about both. The brothers really did sin - a pretty bad one, too. As I mentioned before, it’s not nice to sell your brother into slavery. And yet, God was at work anyway, despite the the sins that human beings commit. God is always working toward the good, no matter what choices or paths we take. God doesn’t cause us to sin, nor does God leave us alone to bear the consequences of our wrong-doing. Even in the midst of suffering, God is present, God is loving, God is working to resurrect something new, better, and good.
Sometimes, we make a lot of work for God with our choices. We, like the brothers, choose the wrong way.
And sometimes, we just end up on the wrong end of circumstances. We, like Joseph, are caught up in the brokenness of this world.
And yet, somehow, God keeps working. God keeps showing up with promises. God keeps moving things toward God’s future.
This is where we often get caught, though. We often try to find immediate answers to our pain, our suffering, our sticky situations. And while I doubt many of us were sold by our brothers into slavery, there are moments, periods in our life, past or present, where it seems we were thrown in a hole and left there; places where the world stripped us of our fancy adornments and shipped us off to realms unknown. And that is hard. It is hard to see or believe or trust that God is somehow working behind the scenes when we’re suffering: when we have a decline in our health or ability. When one we love is removed from our lives. When we are looking up from the bottom a deep pit and wondering...
And yet, for Joseph, what looked like a hopeless life of slavery in a foreign land turned out to be a way in which many people were saved. Despite evil actions, naive choices, and being a bit annoying but not really doing anything wrong, God still worked toward God’s goal. Joseph’s suffering had some meaning after all, though he couldn’t see that until he got to the end of the story. People were saved; there was forgiveness and reconciliation; life was sustained.
And while it isn’t true that all suffering gets a happy ending in 30 minutes or less - or even ever - sometimes when we look back, we can see that our trials and difficulties, at least in part, offered some help or benefit - for us or for others.
People in 12 step programs know this, as each new member gets a sponsor - someone who themselves has been to rock bottom. They are a mentor, a friend to call, someone whose own suffering can give another person hope and life - and strengthen their own, as well. God is working.
In this community, we have our own stories of hurt and pain. We have the tales of trials and hopelessness. I know; many of you have told your stories to me. And yet, as you were telling me about your pain, you also told me how God was there - how God supported and guided, how God didn’t give up on you, how God was still present, working toward the future God intends for us. A lot of the time, it takes a lot of time to see that.
Those are good stories to tell - especially to those who are in similar circumstances. It is always good to tell the stories of how God keeps working.
That is what I have learned from you: God keeps working on, in, and through us, no matter what. That is what we hear again from the Joseph story: God keeps working on, in, and through us, no matter what. Even despite our terrible, horrible, no good, very bad choices - and even in the circumstances that simply happen: God is working.
And we know this, too, in a deeply profound way through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Our decisions put Jesus on trial.
Our choices nailed him to a cross.
Our course of action killed God’s Son.
But God kept working; God kept telling the story; God moved death to life, pain to joy, loss to fullness. God won’t give up because of our choices, purposeful or not.
Our end - God’s end - is seen in Jesus. No matter what happens, God is working for life, for resurrection, for love and grace and wholeness. Our current stories of love and loss, of ups and downs, of sufferings and celebrations are all brought into the story God is telling, into the story God will always be telling. God keeps working on, in, and through us, no matter what.
No matter what.
Last week we ended our story about Creation and Fall with the question, “so, what is God going to do about it?” And Then I talked about Jesus, about the cross and an empty tomb, about God’s persistence and protection. Which is all true. But a whole lot happens between Creation and Christ. Today, we get the first step on the journey to Jesus; and the first step begins with a promise. God makes a promise.
The story of Abram (later, Abraham) and Sarai (Sarah) is the very start of God’s chosen people who will be known as Israel. They were old (Abram was 75 when God first made this promise) and, up until then, they were an infertile couple. They had no heirs and were an unlikely choice to be the father and mother of a nation - they weren’t likely to be father and mother to ANYONE. And yet, God chose them. Did I mention he was 75?
Some time has passed since God’s initial call to Abram back in chapter 12. Here in chapter 15, we still have no baby and Abram and Sarai aren’t getting any younger. God has seemed silent, but we get the reiteration of the promise here today. God reassures Abram that “I am your shield; your reward will be very great!”
Abram wants to believe, but he does a couple of very human things: first, he questions and complains. What will you give me? I still don’t have an heir! I have no offspring, despite your promises. And second, he hedges his bets - you know, just in case. I’m still childless, God, so I’ve made sure Eliezer of Damascus will carry on when I go. Abram probably hopes God will come through, but he was preparing in case things fall apart.
And then God takes Abram, the pragmatist, out into the dark of night and has him look up at the stars. “Look at the sky. Count the stars. Can you do it? This is how many descendants you will have!” The stars are sign of the promise.
And this is what convinces Abram. Abram believes the Lord. God shows the stars; Abram believes. The object lesson of the stars in the sky doesn’t just reiterate the promise, but magnifies/intensifies it. God is so committed to the promise that the Lord dazzles Abram by showing him what he couldn’t at first see. There is no way Abram can bring this about. It is all about God.
All this got me thinking about what we do. Think about what happens today when you step outside on a clear night. What do you see? Stars, right? Well, some stars. Where we live, we don’t get quite the view of the Milky Way that Abram might’ve seen. The lights that are all around artificially brighten the sky, hindering the number of stars we can see. We’ve got our own lights that we’ve put up. And when we have our lights, our street lights, spot lights, neon lights, it makes it way harder to see the stars that God has placed in the sky.
Now don’t read too much into this analogy: I definitely think things like headlights at night keep us safer; but what is true about the analogy is that the things we put up in our life and in our world, the lights we put up, often block us from seeing and trusting God’s promise.
That’s what it was with Abram. He had promises of an heir - and not just any heir, but an heir of his own, his own child, and it wasn’t happening. It seemed God’s promise wasn’t lining up with his experience. And so he started putting up his own lights of questions and complaints, hanging bulbs of practicality and sensibility, further blocking his view of what God’s promise actually was: to give him an heir.
We are in a similar boat as Abram. We’ve got the promise of God, and we pretty much trust it, but we, like Abram, question and complain; we plan and figure out our solutions; we’re pragmatists, too. We like to hedge our bets, make sure things are done. We have to do something to make it happen, right? God’s promise to us can’t be that good! It’s another light we put up, hiding some of the stars, hiding the promise God wants to show us.
We feel this way because often our experience seems to tell us that God’s promises may not be lining up. We aren’t seeing the stars God places.
Those experiences - be they multiple questions we have, hung like a strand of lights, or a few spotlights shining brightly - our experiences and choices can be the streetlights and spotlights that keep us from seeing God’s stars of promise.
We can get really deep really fast with talking about how our experience hides God’s promises. Beyond the immediate Biblical issues of pregnancies and childbirth, which many people around today still experience yet don’t share, our questions and complaints, our pragmatism and planning doesn’t cease when we are beyond childbearing years. In fact, a whole host of difficulties arise no matter our age.
God promises to lead us to green pastures, beside still waters, and yet life is as turbulent, strenuous, and painful as ever. If the Kingdom is coming, why do we fight? Why do we argue? Why are we just as selfish and guarded as ever?
God promises life and hope and a future, and yet disease, difficulty, and death overshadow it all. If Jesus is risen, why won’t he just come back? Why do we still have to say goodbye to people we love? Why doesn’t it seem like God is in control?
God promises us better than this, right? We try to look to those promises of God, but our present just seems so full of incandescent, harsh, blinding light. Where are the stars?
And in the midst of our human temper tantrum, God reminds us: “Do not be afraid. I am your shield. Your reward shall be great.” The God who made the promise then to Abram makes a promise to us in Jesus: yes, you are loved. Yes, you are mine. Yes, you will be with me forever. Nothing you can do will make it happen or not happen.
The promise is there, always there, just like stars. Even when we don’t see them, they are there.
And God breaks out the object lessons for us, every time we gather. Abram had the stars in the sky; we have the foretaste of the feast to come, the table that spans all times and all places, the meal of Jesus’ presence and grace. When it is hard for us to believe that God’s promises are true, Jesus sets a table before us in the the presence of our doubts, our questions, our pragmatics. Take and eat, take and drink. This promise is for you. For you.
This meal doesn’t simply reiterate the promise, but magnifies/intensifies it. It’s a promise that brings us outside of ourselves, a promise that shows us the magnitude of God’s love, a promise that spans beyond this room to places like and unlike it, a promise that in no way we can bring about; we’re too practical and reasonable for that.
God’s promises aren’t practical and reasonable. God is not a pragmatist. God is love. God’s promises are over the top. They are like the number of stars in the sky. God pulls us outside, shows us the grandeur of love, and says, “I’m going to do it.” We don’t have the foggiest idea of how or why, but we trust. That is faith. We have faith that God is there, that God’s promises are there, despite whether we see it at this point in time or not.
That’s the promise. Whether you're 5, 35, 75, or 105… God’s love is like the stars in the sky. Always there. Too big to count. And yet, for you. The promise is for you.
Here we are at the beginning.
Each year, we here at St. Philip walk through the whole story of the Bible, starting in Genesis and moving from history to prophets to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and then to the early Church. We get to hear the whole narrative of God’s story to us - hear how God has been active in our world from the first days, to now, to the days yet to come. And today, we start again; we are here, back at the beginning.
There is nothing closer to the beginning than when God created everything. And while most of us are quite familiar with the opening words of the Bible, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…”, today we start at a different beginning. We still begin with the story of creation, but it is a more intimate telling than what we find in Genesis chapter 1. Instead of the whole cosmos as the setting, we zoom in on a particular place: the Garden of Eden. God does not speak in some distant voice - making us in God’s image through spoken word, but rather, God quite intimately crafts and molds and breathes into the first man’s nostrils the breath of life. God creates man - “a-dam” in Hebrew - from the earth, “a-dam-ah.” A play on words, reminding us we are only dust without God.
We are God’s creation. And we were made to till and keep the land, to serve it, to preserve it, to be partners with God in helping it flourish. This is why we were created: to be images of God, be like God, in this place and in this world. It’s a lovely scene. It’s creation! Full of promise.
But, as we know, there is more to the story.
God created more than just the man; woman, too, was created to be an equal partner - one able to help and provide companionship. We are told in Genesis 2:25 that in the garden of Eden, “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” At that time, there was nothing to hide and no one to hide it from… until the serpent slithered on the scene. “The serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.”
The line about Adam and Eve being naked is immediately followed by a description of the snake as crafty. In Hebrew, the words for “naked” and “crafty” sound almost the same; it’s another play on words. The man and his wife were nude, and the serpent was shrewd. By connecting the two ideas together like that, it emphasizes their vulnerability to the serpent. The humans were naked as a jaybird before the crafty snake. (Footnote)
And it all starts with a question - a question that the woman answers correctly, I might add.
“Are you not supposed to eat from any of the trees?”
“Oh, we can eat from any of the trees - except that one.” That’s the right answer.
But then the serpent plants the seed of doubt: “You won’t die. You’ll be like God!”
And so she eats. And Adam, quote, “who was with her,” ate. Then and only then did they have something to hide, literally with fig leaves and metaphorically their shame. When they hear the leaves rustle in the evening breeze, they hide. Some people imagine that what Adam and Eve heard was only the wind - that their guilt in knowing they’ve done wrong is what caused them to hide, mistaking the noise for God. I think we’ve all been there, where our guilt gives us a heightened sense of self-preservation; every noise, every question puts us the more on guard.
This is the story of creation and fall. We are created in God’s image and fall from that likeness nearly right away. Yet, in some ways, “fall” is a misnomer; we don’t fall as much as lunge up for a power grab. We replace “being like God” with “being God.” We want to handle knowing what is good and what is evil. And yet, knowing good from evil does not mean we always have the ability to choose good over evil.
And somewhere inside us we know it. This first story is all of our stories. We all, at one time or another, feel exposed in our choice of action. We hide the truth from ourselves and from each other. We wear flimsy coverings of self-assurance, self-righteousness, self-justification. We hide in the thickets of reputation or work or addiction. We hide from the truth. We hide from God, who is the source of our lives.
That is the tension we have in our story for today and in our lives every day. We are created in God’s image, to be like God, and yet we are often choosing to become God. We have tremendous possibility, but with that comes our predicament. Knowing good from evil does not mean we always have the ability to choose good over evil.
On this 15th anniversary of the attacks on this country, I can’t help but be reminded of both of those aspects of our humanity, both our “like God”-ness and our “want to become God”-ness.
I was but a lowly college junior when it happened, prepping myself for an early morning economics class. At the time, I was unable to imagine what that event meant for our country and our world.
Obviously the attacks were terrible. Three thousand lives were taken away - civilians, first responders, young, old, male, female… all types of people, all walks of life. The terrorists who did it were about a power grab up - about striking fear into us as Americans - maybe even to the rest of the world. It showed in the worst possible way what human beings can do when we stop being “like God” and want to “become God.”
And yet, in the minutes, days, and weeks after those attacks, we saw what being “like God” is. We saw care for another. We saw partnerships. We saw community. We saw purpose. We saw self-sacrificial love. We saw our potential as God’s likeness. If only we didn’t need a tragedy in order to care for each other like that.
Knowing good from evil does not mean we always have the ability to choose good over evil. But for a few brief days, we chose rightly. We were like God to each other.
Fifteen years later, we’ve forgotten - not forgotten the events of the day; we’ll never forget that. But we’ve forgotten to be the image of God in the world - the image of care, partnership, community, purpose, and love.
Today, we’re going to bear the image of God, just a little bit. Lutheran churches all across the country are participating today in “God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday.” Many congregations are doing something in the community - bearing some aspect of God to the world. We are going to be like God today, too, as I talked about in the announcements. It’s small, nothing revolutionary, but it is a way to offer appreciation, support, and love to a few of our first responders. And maybe this is only the start of bearing God’s image beyond these walls.
Because that is what God created us to be: we are God’s image.
Our story today is about just that: God creating us to be partners and us choosing what that looks like. Sometimes we choose the wrong way. The tree is just one example of that. But what we don’t hear from our lesson is, what does God do about it?
Not to ruin the rest of the story, but: God gives us Jesus.
God gives us the cross. God gives us an empty tomb. God clothes us in Christ at baptism. God claims us with water and word. God feeds us at the Supper. God still calls us to be the image of God to the world. God still breathes into us the breath of life. God still desires us to be partners in mission and ministry.
Knowing good from evil does not mean we always have the ability to choose good over evil. And God knows that about us. Has from the beginning. And yet, God doesn’t give up on us. We mess things up on page 4 of God’s story. The next thousands of pages are all about how God keeps coming back for us.
That’s what God’s story is: a story of God acting with love, despite whatever path we choose,
a story of God showing up, even in the midst of our hiding,
a story of God still writing,
because, as we know, with God, there is always more to the story.
Well, we are in the final week of our series on the Lord’s Prayer. Today, we look at the last two lines Jesus taught his disciples, “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” even though that isn’t what he said - at least according to Matthew. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
In the meantime, some of the more astute among you may be thinking to yourselves, “hey, this is the last week of the series and there’s a whole ‘nother sentence to go! What about, ‘for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever amen’?” So, a brief aside: we’re not going to look at that in our series, mostly because Jesus didn’t teach it. It’s not in Matthew, nor is it in the Gospel of Luke; Martin Luther doesn’t even cover it in his Catechisms. The best anyone can figure about the ending we pray is somewhere along the line of passing the prayer down, Christians liked to have some form of doxology - a doxology meaning a short hymn of praise to God - and so added it to Jesus’ prayer. It stuck around because taking it out would mean we’d have to change the way we’ve always done it.
Ha! A little church zinger there.
But anyway, today we are looking at that last line of what Jesus teaches us from Matthew.
And I’m going to start with that part we are all familiar with: “lead us not into temptation.” So, let’s think about this. We’re praying this sentence, right? Prayer is directed to God. Logic leads us to believe that we’re asking God not to tempt us. Why would God lead us to temptation? That’s a bit unsettling, isn’t it? That God - the One who knows our every thought anyway - would toy around with us by leading us to a bunch of situations where we’ve got a pretty good shot of achieving only disappointment.
The easy answer to this problem is, “it’s a translation issue,” meaning that the prayer we have been saying most of our lives isn’t really what Jesus taught us to say. Hence, the newer translations like I mentioned before: “save us from the time of trial” or “do not bring us to the test.” But it still sounds to me like we’re trying to convince God not to put us in a pass/fail situation, so merely substituting different words for “temptation” doesn’t cut it for me.
Certainly there are Biblical examples of God testing: Abraham taking Isaac up the mountain for sacrifice; Job’s entire adult life; even Jesus was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit. Those were pretty intense testing situations - every single one of them I would have failed.
But at the same time, we have passages that tell us the opposite: that God leads us to green pastures and still waters; that God protects and shelters us from our enemies; that (as James says) God tempts no one to sin. Martin Luther picks up that thread and says, “It is true that God tempts no one.” Luther goes on to say that temptation comes from the devil, from the world around us, and even from we ourselves.
So, what are we to do? Could God ever bring someone to a time of testing? Or is it all outside of God? But maybe before we answer that, we should look at the next line: “deliver us from evil,” or “rescue us from the evil one” depending on your translation of choice.
While some people with too much time on their hands argue whether we are praying to be delivered from evil in general or the “evil one” in particular - i.e., the devil - to me, there is little real difference between the two and thus the arguments have no real consequence. Evil is real in our world, we know that, we see that. I’d list several key examples here, but you can open up any newspaper or go to any website to see that. So, whether this line is about the evil one or the evil we do to each other, in my mind it doesn’t matter.
We are praying to be rescued from it all, from outside evil and the evil within us. We are asking not to be put in places where we might fall away. In short, we are praying to be saved.
In this prayer, we are turning to the one who can do all of that - the only one who can do all of that - the one who teaches us to pray this way.
In the midst of uncertainties and temptations, surrounded by evil and evil ones, our call, I think, is to turn to Jesus. See, Jesus alone is capable of living this prayer out. He’s the one who did withstand testing and tempting. He is the one who overcame evil and the evil one. He is the one who was crucified, died, and was buried. He is the one who is alive again, resurrected because of God’s love and God’s will for us and the world.
In all things, Jesus trusted God as one who would guide and protect. And so, when we pray: lead us not into temptation, do not bring us to the time of testing, deliver us from evil… whatever those temptations are, whatever brought us to this point, what we are saying now is we can’t do it on our own. We can’t do it on our own. God, help us!
“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” is meant to drive us back to God. To have us stop looking to ourselves as our own savior and recognize our place as needy. Jesus is teaching us to call upon God in our testing, because God is the one who saves.
We are to recognize our own vulnerability to forces around us, our susceptibility to temptation, and trust again that God is the one who saves.
We aren’t to boast about our accomplishments or chomp at the bit for a chance to prove how great is OUR faithfulness. We realize that we, ultimately, are helpless; God is the one who saves.
Despite the gifts of God all around us, we fail. And so, we pray: grant us the strength to resist temptation. Give us your good things to keep us from evil. Feed us at your table. Remind us that we are washed and claimed children. Help us to live faithful lives knowing that you, God, are the one who saves.
It is the pinnacle of the prayer. God, help. Save. Rescue. Deliver your people. Deliver us.
We should’ve seen this coming. All we have prayed leads up to this:
For God’s name to be hallowed, holy, means we are delivered, not destroyed.
For God’s kingdom to come means we are rescued, not rejected.
For God’s will to be done means we are loved, not losers.
And as we share our daily bread with those who are hungry and homeless, as we forgive that guy we haven’t spoken to in years (forgiving because we have been forgiven), as we do these things on earth as they are in heaven, we live out this prayer.
As we pray today, be driven back to God: the God who is holy, the God who provides, the God who just may challenge our creature comforts; but above all, be driven to the God who saves.
For God’s is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever.
Sins, trespasses, and debts.
As we have gone through the Lord’s Prayer for the past several weeks, we’ve looked closely at various aspects and words, like “hallowed,” “will,” and “bread.” And for the most part, those words are fairly straightforward - even if there is more to them than what appears on the surface. But today, we get to the word (or words) that give us the biggest hangup. Sins, trespasses, and debts.
The first hangup is that different versions of the Lord’s Prayer use different words here. Some churches use this word; others that one. Older translations prefer this, while newer ones tend to say that.
“Trespasses” is the word we here in the Lutheran Church are most familiar with when we pray. It is the word used in the Tyndale Bible, which was the first ever published English translation - yes, even before other, more famous English versions came out. But I can’t help but feel that as long as I don’t go on someone else’s property, I’ll be alright.
“Debts” actually gets closest to the meaning of the Greek word used here in Matthew, the version we read today. Plus, it is the word used by the King James Version and gets used in some of the prayer translations other churches use. “Debts” gives us a sense that we owe something and don’t have the capacity to repay. I wonder how good God’s bookkeeping skills are...
And last is “sins,” which gets right to the heart of the matter, even if the word can be a bit ambiguous. In the Gospel of Luke, this is the word that Jesus uses in teaching his disciples to pray. “Sins,” while the most theological of the words, also seems the least serious for some reason. Maybe it is because when we think of “sins,” we think of all the little ticky-tack stuff we’ve done wrong. It’s not like I was trespassing or anything.
But, believe it or not, “trespasses” is more than sneaking into someone else’s yard, and no, I don’t think God is up there with a heavenly Quickbooks program keeping track of our debts, and yes, sins are worse than the little lies we tell each other every day.
The word we use shapes how we feel about this line of prayer and shapes how we feel about our culpability in committing sins, trespasses, and debts. But somehow, in trying to figure out which word best describes our own, personal level of brokenness, we overlook the most important word: forgive.
Forgive us our sins, debts, and trespasses.
And I partly think we overlook this word “forgive” because, well, we aren’t quite convinced we need it - not all the time, at least. Most of our life is spent trying our best not to owe anyone anything, not to infringe on another person physically or emotionally, not to commit any “sins.” So, it doesn’t really matter what word we use because we don’t think we really do what we are saying… so we don’t need the word that precedes it: forgive.
And yet, we do fall short of God’s glory, we miss the mark of what being a faithful human is, we do not love as we have been loved, we have sinned in thought, word, and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have sins, debts, and trespasses.
Contrary to what one may think, the hardest thing about this isn’t admitting we aren’t perfect. That’s actually pretty easy! We do that all the time to relieve any guilt we have or soften people up so they don’t think what we did was all that bad. I mean, nobody’s perfect, right?
The hard part is that we have to admit that we are need. That we aren’t in control of our destiny; that we can’t do it by ourselves; that relationship, left in our own hands, has no future because WE broke it. When we let our guard down, when we are honest, when we look back, we see that we are in need of restoration, of new relationship, of forgiveness.
To pray this prayer is to admit that, yes, we are in need. We are indeed broken. We recognize that we are beggars. To pray for forgiveness is to ask for a future in the relationship, a future we can’t create.
And thanks be to God, God wants there to be a future. God’s forgiveness is there for us.
And while some people use forgiveness (or lack thereof) to scare us, or we are worried that what we’ve done, if God really knew, could never be forgiven, we know what God’s future, God’s forgiveness really looks like. It’s Jesus.
Jesus, as he was walking, teaching, and meeting people, showed us God. When people met him, they met something more than a nice teacher who had a special warmth and understanding. They experienced God’s judgement. They experienced God’s final word. They experienced God’s verdict for them, for us, for the world. And that verdict wasn’t fiery wrath nor the cool justice of getting what one deserves. Jesus brought God’s judgment of forgiveness and grace - showing us that God wants a future with us.
Here’s what forgiveness does: it changes us. It’s not saying, “you’re not perfect; that’s ok!” Nor is this saying it doesn’t matter what you did, some sort of “no harm, no foul” type of thing - that’s way too simple. God’s forgiveness changes us, changes things.
Instead, to forgive is to say that our wrongs of the past aren’t too big for God to handle and we are set walking on a new path. As long as we think our past is just fine and dandy, we get only the future we make for ourselves. God offers a different future of relationship, of support, of guidance and welcome and all those things good relationships should be. God raises us up as children, loved and forgiven, and with a future - a future in God’s loving care, always.
God’s love for us gives us that future through forgiveness.
And of course, there is a catch.
The catch is: we do it, too. We are called to model our love and our forgiveness on God’s - undeserving, unmerited, unending. Just like what we prayed in the previous line with our daily bread, we pray for forgiveness and then, in turn, share that forgiveness with others. Forgiveness, like bread, must be received day by day. And, like bread, it is given to us to be shared with others.
Now, I have to admit, there is nothing new in this sermon. I hope you’ve heard this all before. It is the heart of the Gospel Message. God acts to bring us into relationship, over and over again. And yet, we need to hear it again. We need to hear it all the time, every day, because we forget it every day. That’s part of our sins, debts, and trespasses.
We should be reminded every week, every day - we are loved by a God who refuses to let what we do to others or to ourselves define who God made us to be. God raises the dead, God sets us on the right path, God mends relationships. God forgives our past and loves us into the future - free from sins, free from debts, and free from trespasses.
That is the gift of God.
That is the forgiveness of God.
That is the love of God.
Thanks be to God.
We are now in our third week of looking at the Lord’s prayer. And here in week three, we take a little bit of a shift. For the first two weeks, our petitions were oriented toward God. God is our Father. God’s name is holy. God’s Kingdom comes. God’s will is done. And not that our prayer at this point shifts away from God, but God is no longer the focus of what we pray. Now we turn to us. We pray for our lives, for our day-to-day, for our saving.
As I hinted in the first week of our series, this isn’t about me and God, but we and God. We pray to Our Father, we ask here to give US these things. It isn’t an individual need, but a communal, worldwide need. We are asking for ourselves as well as for others. We all have the same needs, and our same Father gives to us.
We start the “we” petitions this week with “give us today our daily bread.” Which seems really simple at first - a little too simple, if you know what I mean. I actually wondered how I was going to say anything meaningful and substantial about this straightforward line of prayer. But then, like most things, I actually thought about it a bit. And then I had questions. Lots of questions. Easy questions. And hard questions.
And the first question was, “what’s with this ‘daily’ business?” Sure, we want enough for today, but what about tomorrow? In a world where we can take home leftovers from our fancy dinner out, in a world where Financial Advisors encourage us to have at least six months salary saved up, in a world where we are judged by bigger and more and what we have… why would we only pray for a daily allotment? Shouldn’t we pray for security for what is coming? For a lifetime supply? Which made me think of another question: how much is enough? What amount would truly satisfy us?
I’m not sure we could be satisfied if we looked at things that way. We would always have a reason for “needing” more. But Jesus teaches us to go the opposite direction and find our security elsewhere. We aren’t secure in our stuff - never will be; but we can be secure in the one who provides it. By praying for just today, Jesus helps us see we’re in God’s safe and secure hands - not in the grip our never-enough stuff.
While we prefer to hedge our bets about tomorrow, Jesus says, “daily.”
While we want to stack the deck a bit in our favor, Jesus teaches us to pray, “give us today our daily bread.”
That is the simplicity of this petition. We don’t demand the guarantee of a full pantry, but humbly seek only for today. God provides for us daily. It’s how we learn to trust the one who gives instead of what is given.
Like the story we hear from Exodus. This is the beginning of the story of God providing manna from heaven. Manna is pure gift. If God doesn’t give it, you don’t have it. If you try to store it up, it goes bad overnight. If you leave some, hoping it will be there for tomorrow, it will go to waste. Manna is the gift of God for today. Manna is what it looks like to be dependent on God. It forces us to recognize that God’s abundance does - and must! - come each day. And it does. It does.
But we don’t pray for manna; we pray for bread. So, I thought of my next question, “what is bread?” The obvious answer is that stuff made with some wheat or barley, mixed with some water, salt, fat, and yeast, and then baked.
Which seems kinda lame. Bread. How about a fried chicken breast and a couple of pickles to stick between that bread? So, when we pray “bread,” does Jesus want us to mean literally and only bread? Or is there more to it?
Certainly Martin Luther takes it that there is more to it than just “bread.” We pray here for a full range of physical necessities: for food, yes, but also for shelter, for family and health, a job and friends, for peace and civility. Yes, it is more than just bread. It includes those things that give us a dignified and just life.
God gives us our daily bread.
But is “bread” meant only for our physical well-being? Or is there something more? It is Jesus himself, who, while discussing such matters in the desert with the devil, said, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4) So, is it possible that there is more to it than even all we need physically?
Based on a lot of the imagery God’s kingdom (the kingdom for which we just prayed to come on earth as in heaven), I’d say yes, it means more. “Bread” here also points to spiritual needs and sustenance. Elsewhere, scripture connects our spiritual home with earthly meals, calling God’s Kingdom a heavenly banquet. Jesus’ parables compare the Kingdom to feasts and parties. Jesus even tells us to share in the meal of his presence, to “do this in remembrance of” him.
To me, our “daily bread” is more than what we need to survive; it is what we need to live - and live fully. Eating bread is a physical act, but eating with someone is a spiritual one. In Jesus, we see both aspects of daily bread: he ate meals and broke bread with sinners and outcasts and lepers. More was going on here than eating. And yet, he also plainly gives daily bread to those who are hungry, multiplying loaves for thousands.
Jesus shows us that daily bread is indeed what we need physically, but also what we need spiritually. And God provides both for us.
When we pray, “give us today our daily bread,” we are praying for God to give us the bread we most desperately need. We need the bread of the kingdom, the bread of divine presence, the bread of nourishment… bread to power us to live out this prayer, bread to strengthen us to nourish those who don’t have, bread to loosen our grip on what we stockpile, bread to send us to feed, to clothe, to house.
God gives us what we need. Not to “me,” but to us. And though the words of the Lord’s Prayer may sound a bit “new” today, they still are not about “me.” As much as we forget it, this is a prayer for us, for OUR bread, for bread that we share and eat together. We share and eat together. In a human community, we provide where there is need. When we have enough for a day, we make sure others’ needs are met. And when there comes a day when we don’t have, others provide for us. That is what we pray.
Give us today all we need.
Because, in the end, we are all dependent on God. We are not capable of generating everything. We are recipients only of what God gives. We are recipients, we are given, we receive… and thus we are stewards, caretakers of the gifts of God. God gives us what we need - physically, spiritually, daily, eternally. We see it in Jesus. In his life. In his death. In his resurrection.
Day in and day out. And now, we are stewards for the sake of us, for we, for others.
So, last question: What does it mean to receive? To know that what we have and who are is gift?
Maybe here is where I keep quiet and let that question sink in. Because as we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” we admit that we are beggars before God. And God gives us our daily bread - bread, all we need, spiritual fulfillment, a place always.
What does it mean to receive?
I look forward to seeing how we live out that answer.
Welcome to week two of studying the Lord’s Prayer. Last week we talked about the first couple of lines, looking closely at God’s name. While it may seem too holy to use, Jesus tells us to use it, to say it, to call upon God.
And so we do. We call upon God in prayer. This week, we continue to focus on God by asking for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done.
Now, when one is preaching a sermon series on prayer, there are lots of cute sayings, inspirational quotes, and meaningful proverbs to pass along, but there is one particular saying that can only be used in one sermon for the whole series. Which adds this pressure. There is this pressure about the right time to drop the phrase because I can’t use it again next week. Once I use it, there’s no turning back. No reusing it. And though we are only in the second week our five week series, I think today is the day. Today is when I have to play this card: Be careful what you pray for.
Be careful what you pray for.
Because here we are praying for God’s will to be done. We are praying for God’s kingdom to come to us, to earth, just as it is in heaven. How often do you really want God’s will to be done? No, really.
Our world is built on competing kingdoms which we are pretty happy about keeping. They’re all around us: kingdoms of politics, of country, of church. They fight for our hearts and minds, each giving us a justified reason on how they can provide us with some form of security or power - or, what we really desire - a sense of control. Man, does that suck us in. We are shaped by and for those very kingdoms in hopes of our will having a say.
Even if you want to step back from all those external kingdoms that promise us the world, our own will - what we want - shapes the actions we take, the thoughts we have, and even the core of our beliefs. How many times do we wish that we had just a little bit more - another this or another that - another drink, another dollar, another day? How often are we hoping that things just work out for me in this situation? And even if we don’t act on it, how often do we think about revenge, about someone getting their just desserts? How often do we think we can do God’s job better than God can?
This isn’t always explicit in our thought process, but we’re so conditioned by our world and the kingdoms around us that we are utterly appalled if God’s will doesn’t perfectly line up with what we want.
So, again, I say, “be careful what you pray for.”
Because when we pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, we are praying for God’s alternative, something different than any earthly pattern of kingdom.
We see what God’s kingdom and God’s will look like in Jesus. He turned the patterns of the day upside down by bringing God’s kingdom - blessed are… the rich? The powerful? The perpetually joyful? No. Blessed are the poor. The broken. The grieving. He told stories of the Kingdom - unseen yeast and very small seeds and relentless searching for those who have gone astray. Jesus brought the kingdom, which made those in control upset. “Why does he eat with them? Doesn’t he know who she is?” And yet, God’s kingdom is seen in Jesus and his actions. In Jesus, we see God’s will, not our will, being done.
In fact, Jesus shows us that God’s kingdom even overcomes our wills being done. Human will, our will, turned a celebration of parades and palm branches into shouts of “crucify” once we realized we weren’t going to get what we wanted. Our will nailed Jesus to a cross. Our will abandoned Jesus to find a more suitable savior.
But God one-upped what we wanted. God’s will to create and give life and always welcome us home shows what God’s kingdom will look like. God’s power to resurrect overcomes the power to destroy, the power to divide, the power of death.
God’s will is life. God’s will for us is Jesus. God’s will is that we have a future.
And that is why we pray.
We pray with expectancy, with anticipation, with faith and hope because God has a future ready for us. We pray, as Martin Luther wrote, not so that we can make God’s kingdom or God’s will happen - it will come whether we pray or not - but we pray so that it may come about in and among us now.
It’s not like we are always completely against God’s will; it’s that we don’t often want God’s will to be done through us. Yet when we pray for God’s will to be done, we are praying that we might be changed. Praying this prayer means we work, we change, we welcome, we look to God’s future. Praying “God’s will be done” means we do God’s will. We are inviting God in so we might make our present more like God’s future.
Be careful what you pray for.
God’s future cannot be kept at some safe distance. God’s kingdom breaks in... through us.
We are participants with God in the Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. That has been God’s mission all along - not to build us up, not to build a church, but to build the Kingdom - a place where Jesus lives and it is evident that he is alive.
And sure, we get moments of this kingdom - both through things we open ourselves to and ways in which God just shows up.
When we welcome those who aren’t normally in our personal kingdom, God’s kingdom comes.
When we support people, places, and projects that show signs of God’s kingdom, God’s kingdom comes.
When we taste God’s coming kingdom at the communion meal. When we realize we are loved and claimed, children of God. When we pray - really pray - and are open to what God has to say, God’s kingdom comes.
This is what we pray - though today, we aren’t going to pray the Lord’s Prayer - at least not in the usual way. Instead, Henry is going to sing the prayer for us. Use the time of prayer to focus on letting go. Let God’s will be done in you, through you, as it is in heaven.
Be careful what you pray for. You just might get it.
Such a short snippet of the Bible has tremendous impact on our piety and worship.
They are words of comfort as much as they are comforting to say. I liken it to coming home from two weeks of vacation: praying the Lord’s Prayer is like sleeping in your own bed again. There is something that feels right about it. The ritual of the Lord’s Prayer surpasses all that is going on, no matter the time, no matter the place. It is a prayer that encompasses everything we need - God in heaven, daily needs, forgiveness, deliverance - it is all here. It is really the perfect prayer.
Not a Sunday goes by where these words aren’t recited. If you grew up in a what we call a mainline denomination, no doubt you have heard the Lord’s Prayer said week in and week out. These few verses from Matthew are so much a part of our worship that they flow off the tongue with hardly a thought. Like I said, there is something comfortable about that.
And yet, our familiarity with this prayer makes it hard to always care about what we’re saying. Like most things we’re too comfortable with, we take it for granted. Comfort can distance us from what we’re actually doing: talking with God. Familiarity can breed complacency.
And so, for the next five weeks, we’re going to dig into the Lord’s Prayer using the same scripture from Matthew with supplemental texts. We’ll use Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Some of you may have noticed it printed in the bulletin. I may reference it, I may not. It is there for your learning purposes. We’ll change up language - from the one we all know, to the one that sounds like the one we all know, to song and music in order to enhance our understanding.
And here’s what I hope happens: I hope that we all get a deeper sense of what we are saying when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. That taking time to reflect on this prayer over the course of these next several weeks will strengthen our faith and trust and even comfort with this prayer. And not comfort because it is the same as it ever was, but comfort because of what the prayer means.
Also, I hope, that if you haven’t taken the time to memorize the prayer, particularly those of you with young children, now might be a great time to start teaching and learning together.
Because “together” is what it is really about. To take it back to the beginning, this is something we do together each week in worship. And together is how we start.
It is Our prayer. We pray to Our Father. We as a community pray.
Which may not seem like that big of a deal, but think of how weird the prayer would sound if we started out “My Father” - and I don’t mean just weird because it’s different but weird because it sounds selfish and greedy. “My” points in, “our” points out. From the outset, we are shaped to look beyond ourselves to see we are connected and together. We are a community as we pray; whether in a group or alone when we are actually praying, we are reminded that we are not alone.
Ultimately, we are bound together - not because of who we are, but because of whose we are. We are children of God - God is Father of us all. God has given us life and we are brothers and sisters of the Son, Jesus.
“Our Father” does more than just begin a prayer; it states we are in relationship. We are connected to this God to whom we pray. This God who created the cosmos and ordered the stars and counts the hairs on your head - this God who is so different from us and reigns from heaven - this God just might actually hear us. And because we are praying to one we are in relationship with, we know God does hear us. Despite the distance, the significance, the power, we are loved. We are in relationship with our heavenly Father.
This is a very personal - sometimes comforting - way of addressing God, and because of that, our own memories or feelings towards our earthly dads often influence the way we view God. If you are really close to your father, then you might imagine God as someone who wants to go out in the backyard and play catch with you or take you fishing, the one who raised you and loved you. But speaking of God as an earthly father may make some uncomfortable. If your dad is not or was not a big part of your life, or if you have a bad relationship with him, then it is pretty easy to think of God as distant and uncaring.
There’s nothing I can say in a sermon that is going to fix anyone’s relationship with their dad. While we plug “my father” in this slot, the gathered community helps us to see all aspects of what a loving Father should be. Through the story of the Bible, we know God is more loving than even the best of parents. From rescuing to feeding to giving life, God wants us to know how much we are loved.
God is our Father. Loving. Close. Holy.
In this prayer, we point that out: “hallowed be your name.” For anyone who has studied the word, “hallowed,” in Confirmation class, you may remember that it means “holy.” God’s name is holy. And most people like to emphasize this point: God’s name is set apart and special and way up there.
Which is good to do. It helps us to give reverence and understand that we aren’t holy - at least not on the same holiness level as God. So, again, most people talk about the hallowed part, but I want to talk about the name part.
God’s name is a big deal. Think back to the Old Testament: God tells Moses His name is “I AM.” There is a commandment not to misuse God’s name. God name is truly holy. And the Jewish people took all this very seriously. They were afraid to misuse God’s name - so afraid that they stopped using it altogether. Instead of calling on God either in prayer or when reading scripture, they would substitute another name - Adonai. It was like they had a nickname for God, all so they wouldn’t mess up and misuse God’s real name on accident.
Normally we think of nicknames as meaning we’re closer to someone - it’s like an inside joke or something. But this is more like the nickname you give someone when you don’t remember their real name. “Hey there, Buck-a-roo.” “What’s up, Sport?” Not so special anymore, is it?
But here, in the prayer that Jesus teaches us, he says, call on God’s name. Use God’s holy name. God is close. God is father. Pray to God, call on God, use God’s name! God is holy and set apart, yes, but not set apart to BE apart - but set apart so we see how good God is. It is very much the opposite trajectory from the Old Testament. There, the name was sooo special and sooo holy that no one was ever to use it. But Jesus teaches us that God’s name is sooo special and sooo holy, so we should use it all the time!
So we do.
We pray to Our Father, who is in heaven, yet is here with us, close to us, comforting us, and loving us. Our Father who gives us life - life now and life to come. Our Father who gathers us together to see we are not alone, but surrounded by our brothers and sisters.
Our Father whose name is holy, and yet encourages us to say it, speak it, call upon it. Who comes to us in holy and ordinary ways - and says, do this, too! We share in the holy supper as often as we can, by which we also share in God’s goodness and grace. We remember ordinary water with Holy Word that claims us God’s children forever.
Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father...” because prayer is about relationship. This prayer to Our Father helps us to see the relationship God has already started and secured with us.
Because that is who God is. God is one of relationships. God is one of care and forgiveness. That is what is important to God and that is what we see in Jesus. And that is what Jesus came to show us. Jesus came to show us God’s true self, to show us how much God wants to be in relationship with us. Enough to be born as one of us. Enough to die for us. Enough to rise again. Enough to give us new life.
With that, I’d like to close with prayer.
Let us pray.
Our Holy God, our loving Father. I thank you because You have graciously and lovingly given us the gifts of a relationship with you and prayer to you. Help us to call on your Holy Name in all aspects of our lives. Give us comfort in knowing you are with us and your love surrounds us. Ground our life in prayer, that we may be ever conscious of your presence with us. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Christmas is always a busy, exciting, and fun time; at least, it‘s an exciting time in my house. And by exciting I mean, “stressful.” There are invitations for people and from people, cookies and sweets galore, presents to buy and presents to which we say, “no, we’re not getting that.” Decorations and untangling lights. Christmas cards and people. And family. And friends. And... people. And it’s probably only going to get even more “exciting” as the kids keep getting older.
But as much as a stressor as it can be, it’s an ingrained part of the season. Some people thrive on this (it’s what they look forward to) and it isn’t Christmas without all that stuff. They can’t wait for Christmas to come with all the lists and activities… and people.
For others - maybe for you - you long, not for Christmases to come but for those Christmases past, because Christmas these days is pretty unexciting. In those days, your table was more full. The presents under the tree were a bit more colorful - and plentiful. The decorations had a bit more macaroni glued to them. In those days, as stressful as it was, in those days, we had what we don’t have now.
Now, maybe the kids are all grown up and off doing their own thing for Christmas, giving us only a simple phone call or video chat.
Maybe we don’t decorate much any more because, what’s the point? I’m the only one who is going to see it.
Maybe that spot to our left now is only an empty chair at Christmas dinner.
Yeah, we long for the Christmases past. Nothing is quite as nostalgic as, “those days,” is it? Whatever it is we have in our heads as the “perfect Christmas,” we often fall short of the idyllic pictures we paint for ourselves. Our nostalgia for “in those days” Christmases even seeps into our story for today.
Just think about it. In those days, a decree went out. In those days, Joseph went from Nazareth in Galilee to the City of David, called Bethlehem. In those days, the time came for Mary to deliver her child. In those days, shepherds were watching their flocks. In those days… What a picture perfect story.
Well, it is picture perfect when we view it through our eyes of “in those days.” But when we take away some of the sentimentality and stress of trying to make our own Christmases special, we can see and hear this story anew. While that first Christmas was the most special Christmas ever, there was nothing special about it!
“In those days” is less about nostalgia for a perfect Christmas and more about God breaking into human history in a new way. “In those days” puts God’s action into a real story, a real place, with real people. “In those days” is how God starts to work - and not with a lot of fanfare, not in grand ways, or with important people. “In those days” it wasn’t our picture-perfect scene - but God showed up anyway.
The time came for Mary to give birth, and she did, just like all other mothers have always given birth. Her pregnancy, labor, delivery - all the same as the others, with the pain and the crying and contractions. And while it is a bit unbelievable to think that no one would have room for this very pregnant lady, our world is - and always has been - a world where there’s not enough, never enough, at least from how we view things. The bands of cloth are less sentimental and more necessity; the feeding trough, the same. All this took place, not in the capital city, but a backwater town. Not in a hotel or palace, but a stable. Not to kings and presidents, but shepherds and a carpenter and an unwed teenage girl.
In those days, there was pain and hurt.
In those days, there wasn’t enough.
In those days, things weren’t perfect, despite how we tell the story to our kids.
And yet, in those days, God fulfilled the messianic hope.
In those days, the glory of God was revealed.
In those days, God came into our world to redeem it.
In those days, God acted to flip our world on its head; to show up where there isn’t enough, to enter pain and grief and homelessness, to bring us Good News of great joy that to you this day is born a Savior. In those days, a Savior was born. Strip away some of the nostalgia and the story is even more powerful.
God does not shy away from our less than perfect; in fact, God enters it willingly.
And the glorious thing is, the reason why we celebrate even now is that those days, those days are these days, too.
God fulfills the messianic hope in these days.
In these days, the glory of God is revealed.
In these days, God comes into our world and redeems it.
In these days, God comes. In these days, even these days, God is with us. The first Christmas sets the precedent that God shows up, particularly in our lowest points, even when we can’t find any room, into our “nothing special about it” moments. God enters to bring us Good News of great joy.
God came in un-picturesque times, and comes at these un-picturesque times, particularly at times we feel cast aside, to remind us, to show us, to prove to us, that no matter what is going on, Christ nevertheless is born for us. Even our un-idyllic Christmases do not keep Christ from showing up. If the most special Christmas of all time had nothing special about it, that must mean that God did this for some other reason besides being special - and the only reason why I can think of God to come in unprofound, lowly, imperfect ways is love.
This isn’t a love that our world is keen to see.
This love isn’t out to prove a point, but to give us hope.
This love isn’t here to reinforce the picture-perfect, but reach those who feel down and out.
This love is here for each and every one of us, no matter what.
Today, and today in particular, with most of the lists and preparations for Christmases like in “those days” absent, maybe we can hear the message that God and God’s love is present in these days, too. That Jesus shows up again and again in our less-than-picture-perfect. Christ is alive and present in our to-days. To us is born this day a Savior out of love.
And because of him, we have hope of some day, one day, hope that God won’t leave us solely to those days or these days. We have that day yet to come.
That day, where God’s dinner table is full, and to our left and to our right are all God’s children.
That day, where the glory of the angels decorates our gathering.
That day, where the idyllic pictures of the perfect Christmas are surpassed by present company.
But until that day, we live in these days.
We live in these days with Jesus still coming to us, inviting each of us to his table, feeding us with love and grace, gathered with a community of support and forgiveness.
In these days, we live with God still giving us the gift of life and hope and joy.
In these days, we live with God’s present of presence.
No matter what, Christ is born.
So, hear again the Good News: To you is born, this day, to day, in these days, a Savior. Who is the Messiah. Who is Lord. Who is love.
Love is the gift of Christmas. And today.
Paul points out that Jesus was a giver. Jesus was uber-generous. And, of course, it should go without saying that the point of everything we do is to become more like Jesus.
Which is nice to say, isn’t it? “I want to be more like Jesus.” But I’m not so convinced we really do. I think we want the eternal life, the miracles, the ability to turn any difficult question back on the questioner - but we don’t want any of the other stuff - any of the stuff that really made Jesus, JESUS.
Jesus gave up the richness of life in heaven, in perfect union with God the Father and God the Spirit. He became a human - and not a king or a nobleman or a business tycoon; no one rich or powerful or famous. Just a human. He came as a poor kid, born to an unwed teenage mother. He grew up in a backwater town in Galilee no one had ever heard of. And he died a shameful death reserved for outlaws, slaves, and other “lesser” people. To paraphrase Paul’s words, rich as he was, he gave it all away for others - for us. He became poor so that we might become rich.
That is Jesus’ generosity. So, are you sure you want to be like Jesus? Hmm. Second thoughts, I see.
Yet, that is what Paul is urging the Corinthians - and now, us - to do. He wants us to imitate the generosity of Jesus. But more than simply generosity - Paul wants us to imitate, to give, to share Jesus’ grace.
Grace. Grace is running throughout our passage today. There’s a problem, though. We don’t see grace in our passage - and I mean that both literally and metaphorically.
First, literally. I can’t believe I’m about to say this but, the Greek is simpler. The word translated as “grace” is strewn throughout our passage for today. It is used not only to refer to God’s grace and Christ’s grace, but also to the generosity that overflows in us as a result of divine grace. The word only shows up in English in our verse 1. But elsewhere: privilege, generous undertaking, and generous act - that is really grace!
It is the grace of sharing in this ministry;
We should complete the grace among us;
Paul wants us to excel in grace;
We know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This grace isn’t only something we receive; it is also what we are called into. We are called to live grace-filled lives. All we do should be from the perspective of God’s grace to us in Jesus.
Second, metaphorically: we don’t see grace in this passage because we don’t see grace in giving - especially not in giving away money; it’s hard for us. Particularly because I can take this green papery stuff and give it to someone at a store and they, in return, give me something really cool back, like a new phone or a chicken sandwich. Our reaction to giving is, “what about me and my needs?”
But Paul is urging generosity and grace in what we have for the well-being of others. At the beginning of our passage, Paul speaks of the church from Macedonia. They were a poor church, and yet, something unexpected happened. There was an outpouring of generous gifts. They gave offerings of whatever they could - even far more than they could afford - wanting the privilege (the grace!) of helping out in the relief of the poor. This was encouragement, an example, for the Corinthians.
And it is encouragement and an example for us, too.
Often we have cutesy ways of talking about money in the church. There are rules, there are suggestions, there are guidelines, there are pies and apples, charts and *ahem* thermometers, there are programs and pledges. A lot of this comes about because none of us want to talk about giving, let alone giving generously, and none of us really know how much is enough. Wouldn’t it be terrible if we gave too much?
We need guidelines, for sure, goals at the very least, to challenge us and direct us. But, at the end of the day, it is about following the example of Jesus, learning to live like Jesus. Giving is truly about being generous, being grace-filled in living.
Which is way harder than some set-in-stone rule. It’s also way harder to explain and way harder to convince someone to do. As I said in our Wednesday Small Group this past week, “Sometimes I wish Lutherans had more rules.” Then I could just tell you what the answer is, what the magic number of “being generous” is, and be done with it. I suppose I could lock the doors and keep passing the plate until we have enough, though that is probably breaking some firecode. And while the Bible gives us guidelines - such as tithing 10% - what it really comes down to is living out the grace of Jesus, not just in attitude but in action, in altruism, in all things.
Is holding fast and hard to some rule really being generous and grace-filled? Or is it more gracious to simply give of oneself for the betterment of another? There are a lot fewer rules about that.
What we have is an example - an example we can’t live up to but are called to imitate anyway. Jesus graciously became poor so that we might be rich. Paul wants the Corinthians to know, us to know, that we aren’t just giving money to help feed some hungry people. We are doing that, of course. But when we give, we are also doing something much deeper, too. We are sharing the grace of Jesus Christ.
We are sharing the grace of Jesus Christ.
When I was in seminary, I took a two-ish week trip to Honduras where we worked in a very poor village helping to build houses. There were lots of kids around and when we weren’t working we’d play futbol with them and sometimes they would accompany us to the nearby “city.” One day, one of my friends bought an icecream cone for one of the kids who was always around. That kid was so excited that the stared at it, mesmerized. I have no idea how long it had been since he had eaten ice cream. But what he did next was amazing. He yelled at all the other kids who went with us and told them to come over. He lined them up and gave them all a lick. His instinct was this: this is so good, I can’t keep it for myself.
In the end, that’s what this whole idea of generosity, what living a grace-filled life is about. Not guilty giving, not rules for an exact amount, not any of that. It’s about joy - the joy of sharing the grace of Jesus given to us. It’s realizing that grace permeates our lives. It’s about realizing that the good things in life - like ice cream - are too good to keep for ourselves.
Generosity and grace isn’t something we can teach. We can give direction. We can set goals. But at the end of the day, we are invited into God’s abundant generosity and grace, and it is up to us to balance the needs of others with what we have been given. It is up to us to see the gifts of grace God has given us and pay that on, pass grace along, by allowing Jesus’ grace to transform us into generous people.
Paul concludes our reading for today with a reference to God providing manna in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt. “The one who had much didn’t have too much, and the one who had little didn’t have too little.” That’s a direct quote from Exodus 16:18. Paul wanted the Corinthians to know that all the saints are on a journey together toward their promised inheritance. And so are we. We are all in this together, bound together by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was rich - and yet, for our sake he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich. To say it another way, Jesus gives us lots of ice cream, and it is way too good to keep to ourselves.
Probably the most famous verse from our passage today - and maybe from all of Second Corinthians - is verse 17: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (The exclamation point really makes it stand out, right?) And it’s a great verse - a lot is packed into it.
But to really understand it, I think we need to move a little further on in the passage to verse 19. “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” There’s no exclamation point, though, so people may not think it is quite as important. But to me, this is at the heart of the Gospel message. It’s what makes everything else possible: God makes the world right so that we might be reconciled with each other, that we live with God, that our old selves might pass away, and we might become new with all creation! Exclamation point!
It’s a big, big verse with big, big implications. In Christ, God was reconciling the world. Not just me, not just you, not just us. The world. Everything.
But what exactly does that mean? It leaves us with a lot of question marks. What does it mean that God reconciled the world? As with most things when it comes to God, I don’t know - at least I don’t fully know. I can only see things from my limited, human point of view.
As such, I need to think of examples of reconciliation I have experienced.
And when it comes to that kind of stuff, I always think of “making up” after a fight. They pretty much all go the same way: first there is the fight or the tiff, then after some length of time there is some sense of admitting one is wrong, and then the other person is like, “well, it’s ok.” And then you hug or something and it’s all better. You’ve made up.
Is that all reconciliation is? God giving the world a big hug and saying, “it's’ ok?”
Surely not. We may need to re-think things if God handles reconciliation the way we do.
Maybe another example: the Coastal Carolina baseball team. They did something that was seemingly impossible. No, not winning the National Championship. The impossible is that they united support from both Clemson and Carolina fans. There were no divisions; fully united in one common mission. (Maybe the Coastal baseball team should run for president.)
And while it’s kind of silly and a bit overly simplistic, there is some truth to the analogy. In Christ, God brings separate and broken parties together in one common, reconciled life where past animosity, apathy, or anger didn’t matter. Jesus just did his thing - living, dying, rising - and we were welcomed into it, swept up by our champion to a new reconciled life. We were brought together with God. Period.
And there are two things about this that I want to highlight.
First, God initiated it. We didn’t bashfully go up to Jesus and say, “I’m sorry,” before any of this took place. Even though we were the ones who did wrong, God is doing the work of reconciling - by forgiving, by not counting our trespasses, by offering us relationship. In a lot of ways from a human point of view, that doesn't make sense. Forgiveness and reconciliation before we admit or accept anything? But it’s how God functions.
In the book we’ve been reading for our Wednesday night Small Group, the Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning insists that God’s forgiveness is already there and has already happened. We are just to notice it, trust it. He says, “The gospel of grace announces, ‘Forgiveness precedes repentance. The sinner is accepted before he pleads for mercy. It is already granted. He need only receive it. Total amnesty. Gratuitous pardon.’” (2005, pg 188)
So, the first thing to note is God comes and forgives before we know we need it, and definitely before we do anything to make amends.
The second thing I want to highlight is this: it’s not a finished thing yet. If you notice, the word is “reconcil-ING” - an -ing word, meaning a continuous, ongoing action.
God keeps doing the “re” in reconcile. To me, that means we are “conciled” again and again and again. God is making things right between us again and again and again. God is not holding our sins, trespeasses, or iniquities against us, even though we do them again and again and again. God is continually reconciling us. Period.
God is going above and beyond what is expected - deserved, even -
by giving us that hug before we even say we’re sorry.
By uniting us before we even notice with whom we are united.
By giving us love continually, repeatedly.
God is making us new, even if we’re pretty comfortable with how we are.
And this is where the new creation piece comes in, because it really helps to explain what God’s reconciling us means. We aren’t just told something good. God doesn’t just get used to our brokenness and then learns to live with it; nor does God give us a self-improvement book and hope something sticks.
God makes a new creation - God re-creates us! In Christ, we are being made new, forgiven again, loved again, created again. God’s on-going reconciling of us means we aren’t what we were - and we aren’t yet what we will be.
And that’s Good News. We aren’t and won’t be left like this. God’s love for us re-creates us, re-shapes our lives. No more are we left with our known and unknown brokenness; we are being made new! God is forgiving, creating, and reconciling us and the whole world. We don’t meet God’s standards; God loves us anyway - and not just loves us as we are, but loves us so much God won’t leave us this way. Knowing we are loved, forgiven, and reconciled, we can live as re-shaped, re-created, re-conciled people.
That is the story we tell and re-tell. As God’s new creations, we are, as Paul says, ambassadors for Christ. We are made new to live out this ministry of reconciliation. We live it out by being reconciled to one another.
But, honestly, that is hard to do sometimes. Others still sin - not that we don’t. We often look at situations and at others with a human point of view. That’s the reality of it. But in Christ, there is always the possibility of new life, resurrection, a new creation. And if it doesn’t work, God has a way of trying again. Of loving again. Of never giving up on us.
That‘s what it means to be reconciled with Jesus.
We are loved and re-loved.
We are created and re-created.
We are reconciled and re-reconciled. Again. And again. And again. In Christ, because of Christ, we have new life. Period.
Or, maybe I should say, exclamation point!
Paul speaks of how are are to walk: we walk by faith, not by sight. Paul sets up a dichotomy between God’s eternity, which cannot be seen, and our mortal existence, which we can see, touch, and hold.
I confess I’m guilty of walking by sight and not by faith. And, to be honest, so is most of this world. We hold to the mantra, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” We place a lot of weight on things we can see, touch, and measure: status and success, awards and rewards. It doesn’t count unless it can be counted.
What matters is what we see. Because of that, we know what to show other people.
These days, it is so very easy to craft a perfect world for everyone to gaze upon. With social media and sites like Facebook, it’s a cinch to put your best face forward and share only what looks perfect in your life. Take 37 pictures and only share the one where the light makes your eyes sparkle, the angle makes you look thinner, and your kid hasn’t spilled his chocolate milk. Easy enough, right?
What we see isn’t what we get.
Or, another example for those of you who aren’t into the whole social media thing: magicians. When I was growing up, I remember watching David Copperfield specials on TV. He would pick MY card out of the stack, right over the airwaves; he would make trains disappear; he would fly! Of course, he actually did those things, right? I saw him do it with my own two eyes!
What we see isn’t the truth.
And a third thing about seeing: these days, visuals are how we process information - both for learning and for entertainment. Long gone are the days when families gather around the radio to merely listen to their favorite program; movies with special effects and dazzling images have taken over. Back to social media, images about an event are more engaging and interesting than simple text; there are whole platforms devoted to images. In school, it isn’t enough to lecture about a topic - images are used to reinforce an idea or to show an example. And that type of stuff isn’t all bad. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all.
What we see shapes what we know.
Visuals, the things we see, are how we have been shaped to learn, to be entertained, to live. And yet, visuals can deceive us. They can be flat out wrong, as with an illusionist, or at the very least, they can not show us the whole picture, as with social media, magazine covers, and even news channels.
In our world, where we walk by sight and not by faith, Paul challenges us to turn it around.
We walk by faith, not by sight.
Paul dares us to take an honest look at ourselves and our world. We see some impressive - and not so impressive stuff, all of which can distract us from our walk. Paul reminds us that what we see, what we are, are mere earthly tents. That’s the reality. All that we see is temporary and should not guide our way.
While we emphasize visible results, Paul says, “do otherwise.” Our ordinary days, our bottom lines, our temporary tents are not all there is and certainly should not be our primary focus; sight is not all there is. That’s the Gospel Message: what we see and have around us is true and real, for sure, but nevertheless, there is more. God has more in store.
As we think through the story of the Bible, God places very little value on the things we see, the tents we build, the things we put stock in.
“What can we give you, Lord, to please you? Ten thousand rams to be sacrificed? Rivers of oil?”
No. God wants justice, love, kindness, humility.
Jesus tells stories, not about people showing their success, but people longing to have right relationship, to find what was lost in their lives, to experience love.
Even the cross wasn’t about what was seen but rather about what was unseen. It was about trust in God above all. It was about forgiveness while hanging there. It was about a love so strong that we don’t see Jesus in a tomb anymore.
God places weight on things we cannot see, touch, or measure. God builds right relationships. God shares love. God gives eternal life. God grants faith.
So, again, Paul challenges us to look beyond what we can see - to have eyes of faith to see the things we can’t see. Or, better yet, to WALK the ways we can’t see. Walk by faith, journey through this life looking for God and what God values.
Walking is inherently an active thing. Often in the Bible, walking is used as a metaphor for living out faith - not simply having faith, but living faith. Faith is an active thing. Faith walks the way of Jesus. Faith ensures that love orients us. Faith looks to God and God’s promises in Christ, the things we, in this present time, cannot see with our eyes - but faith can see them now. And one step more: faith takes what is unseen and makes it seen - faith lives out love in our actions, faith shares life here and now, faith takes those things we can’t see and does something.
That is something God does. God knows we need to see. Or, at least, we really, really like to see. So, we have the sacraments of baptism and communion. That’s how good God is. While we walk by faith and not by sight, God still gives us things to SEE, to hold, to taste, and to touch.
The sacraments are visible signs of invisible grace. They are tangible things we have where God promises to be present with love and life. In water, in bread, in wine, we have Christ in ways we can see, to feed us and wash us with the love, grace, and forgiveness that we can’t see.
Today, Bill was baptized. What a powerful moment and witness of God’s love. We got to see water splashed; forgiveness and inclusion unseen but just as present. I don’t know if Bill was expecting a change, but when we look at him, we see the same Bill. What we see is the same. But what we don’t see is the unchanging love of God that surrounds him, that surrounds us all and brings us together in one family of Jesus. God does things we can’t see, even through the things we can see.
Which just goes to show, God does not steer clear of our earthly tents and visible, tangible, see-able lives. What we see isn’t separate from God; God is unseen in what we see. In bread and wine and water, for sure. In our lives and in our days. In our human moments of pain or relief, of hurt and joy. When our earthly tent leaks or rips or falls, God’s still there, often unseen, but present nonetheless.
We don’t always see God, but God sees us - sees us really, through our selective profiles and magical illusions. And God still loves us enough to give us the most important things we can’t see: love and grace, forgiveness and community, life eternal and life now.
Faith orients us. Faith helps us set our sights on God. Faith helps us see past the tents to the kingdom. Faith helps us walk through this life to the life God prepares.
Through faith, we see, we trust, we live.
So, let’s walk…
There is a paradox here in our life and in our world. God shines in the darkness, God stores a wonderful treasure in us, God’s eternal glory is present; yet it is present in our humanity, in our fallibility. As we continue in our series through Second Corinthians, Paul today uses the analogy of a clay jar to explain this. It’s ordinary, simple, and vulnerable to being broken. And yet, it holds this treasure. The powerful presence of God through Christ is in each of our fragile, prone-to-breaking, cracked-up lives.
We were reminded this week of how fragile life is.
First, early Sunday morning we had murders in Orlando. People were taken away, lives smashed, because of one person’s fragile and far-too-cracked mind. We are only clay jars.
This past Friday was the one year anniversary of the shootings in Mother Emmanuel AME Church. Even in God’s house, we are only clay jars.
Then, more particular to our community, the loss of SeanMichael, a 21 year old kid (I think I’m old enough to say that now). If you needed the reminder, we are only clay jars.
So often we try to push that out of our minds - not just our physical vulnerabilities, but the mental and emotional and spiritual, too. We assume that vulnerability is a word that describes other people - people who can’t bench press as much as we can, who don’t make as much money as we do, who are way young or way old. They’re vulnerable; we’re not.
At the very least, we can manage our vulnerabilities: control them, hide them in some way. When a crack starts to show, we can manage it. When we have some rough edges, we do what we can to cover them up. Trust me, I know a lot of the tricks.
And why wouldn’t we do that? We live in a world that that loves to point those flaws out, that loves to have reasons to tout why one is better than the other, why one pot is more worthy of it’s place over another. If people really saw our cracks, wouldn’t we lose our place? Wouldn’t we lose our connections and relationships? Wouldn’t we lose love?
And yet, what is true for one is true for all. We are all cracked pots, clay jars, fragile beings - inside and out. Sometimes, we do a pretty good job of hiding that fact, but it’s there. If we are to be truthful with ourselves, we have to let that sink in. We are vulnerable.
We’ve got our cracks, inside and out.
We are clay jars.
That’s the truth.
Yet, this is also true: God still chooses us.
Today is a reminder of God’s love, even in the midst of our human frailty. We are given the blessing, the honor, the treasure of the light of Christ, the glory of God, the grace of the loving Creator choosing to give us Jesus.
God chooses us.
There’s an old story that’s been passed around about a water bearer who had two large, clay pots. Each one hung on either end of a pole which he carried across his shoulders. One pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream back to the master’s house. The other pot had a crack in it and as such, arrived only half full (or half-empty if you want to be a pessimist).
This went on daily, with the servant delivering only one and a half pots full of water to his master’s house. Of course, the uncracked pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect at the job for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection, and miserable that it was only able to accomplish half of what it had been made to do.
After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, the cracked pot spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.”
“Why?” asked the water bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”
“I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts,” the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the master’s house, why don’t you look at the beautiful flowers along the path.”
Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of all beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it somewhat. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”
Despite our cracks, God chooses us for love, for ministry, for the treasure that is Christ, working through the failings in our world in order to bring life.
In the face of tragedy, in Orlando and across the world, people gathered to show love and solidarity as one human family.
After Charleston, instead of a race war or riots, there was a single human chain - all people, all races holding hands nearly two miles across the Ravenel Bridge.
In SeanMichael’s case, organs were able to be transplanted into seven others in need.
In the worldly failure that is cross and tomb, God brings resurrected life.
Life that God gives to us for no other reason than we are loved by a gracious creator.
This is where the honesty about who we are comes in: we can admit our vulnerabilities and our cracks. We can admit we are clay jars. We can admit that we aren’t worthy. We can admit all that because we know that in Christ, God chooses us anyway, God uses us anyway, God shines through us anyway - and maybe only because we have some cracks.
Our broken lives in God can make the life of Jesus visible.
Or, to borrow another of Paul’s phrases, “We do not proclaim ourselves (who would tout the accomplishments of a clay pot?); we proclaim Jesus Christ, (the true treasure).”
We aren’t worthy because of who we are; we are worthy because God chooses us. And God choosing us… that is grace. Even when we are cracked to pieces and can’t hold it together, God chooses us. God places treasures in our broken lives.
We are who we are, and we are loved.
Loved enough to be given the most valuable gift.
Loved enough that even our flaws can produce something beautiful.
Loved enough that we get to shine God’s light wherever we see darkness.
May you have the courage to be imperfect and know God chooses you.
May you let go of who you think you should be in order to know who you really are as a child of God.
May you live as a cracked pot, bearing the treasure of Jesus to the world.
Few churches gave Paul more trouble than the one in Corinth. Paul would clean up one mess and then several more would pop up. For the next several weeks, we are going to hear from Paul’s second letter to the the Corinthians and hopefully learn something about how God’s love and grace applies to our church and our lives, here and now.
Paul starts off the letter as he generally does - with greetings and salutations in chapter 1. He references the other letter (or letters) he’s written, but it doesn’t take him long to get right to one of the previously mentioned problems. That is where we are today.
Paul, in this second chapter of Second Corinthians, is writing about someone in the church who offended and hurt him. It’s kind of hard to decipher the exact issue through his language - especially when one doesn’t know what in the world is going on - but that is the premise. Paul tells us he skipped a visit to their church because it would’ve been too painful to be there. Instead, he wrote a tear-filled letter to let them know of the love he still has.
We aren’t totally sure what this one person did to make Paul upset, but it apparently upset others in the church, too. So much so that the whole church took it upon themselves to discipline that one member - punishment by the majority, as Paul says. But Paul thinks that is enough.
Paul is certain that the matter is handled. The person is welcome back. He is… forgiven.
Forgiven. The Church isn’t the Church without forgiveness. We Christians understand ourselves - or should understand ourselves - as people who need to be and who indeed have been forgiven by God. That is what we should proclaim. That is what we should be about. That is what we should live and share and be. Forgiveness.
God forgives; we should forgive. Nothing else to say, right? Forgiveness is like nothing ever happened. Let bygones be bygones and move on from there. Well, kinda.
Forgiveness isn’t nearly that clean and tidy, is it? Should we really tell the abused, the raped, the enslaved to just forget it ever happened? Once someone says, “I’m sorry,” is it like pushing the “clear” button on a calculator? I don’t think so. And while I can’t get into it all today, these questions open us up to the idea that forgiving doesn’t always mean forgetting.
On the other end, instead of forgetting, we can take forgiveness simply as therapy for ourselves, no matter the other person’s actions on the matter. We say things like,
“I’m forgiving you so I can be at peace.”
“I’m forgiving you so I can let go of the pain.”
“I’m forgiving you so I can move on.”
And I totally get that. Sometimes we need to jettison the baggage that comes when someone hurts us but refuses to acknowledge it. Or maybe that’s the only route you can take because the person may have died. Or you know they aren’t in place to change. Sometimes, that is what we have to do. Live and let live.
But the problem with that mode of forgiveness as the default is that it leaves us as individuals, as self-sustaining beings with no need for others, no need for community. “If all that ultimately matters is individual autonomy, then forgiveness and reconciliation… are of little importance.” (Jones, Embodying Forgiveness) So, while forgiveness is therapeutic, and resentment does harm us, the purpose of forgiveness is not so I can feel better.
The purpose for forgiveness is the healing of broken relationships. Forgiveness is about a path to restoring fellowship. Forgiveness is about fostering and maintaining community. Forgiveness is not just personal; it is interpersonal. Forgiveness, at its best and ideal, leads to reconciliation: relief on one hand and change on the other.
But rarely is it easy and clean. Forgiveness, for sure, is hard and messy work. Paul says it is worth it. He uses his case as the example: Don’t overwhelm with excessive sorrow; forgive and console. If all you do is pour on the guilt, you could very well drown him in it. Instead, pour on the love.
The example Paul uses is one of forgiveness moving what was broken into something complete again. A fragmented community made whole. And where did Paul get such a crazy idea? Why do the hard thing of forgiving? Well, that’s what God does for us through Jesus.
Think for a second, what is God’s forgiveness about? Is it simply about God forgetting? Is it to make God feel better? No! It’s about mending our relationship, about us being welcomed into the love that God shares as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, about us being changed by that gift so we are open to reconciled life.
Yes, it is hard. Yes, it is costly. But God says it is worth it. It is worth the difficulty, the pain, the death, all so relationship can live. So love can win. So community can be full.
With a love that conquers death, God tells us we are forgiven.
With a love that turns our hearts, God tells us we are forgiven.
With a love that makes us fit for God-like relationship, God tells us we are forgiven.
With a love that names and acknowledges the brokenness of our past, God tells us we are forgiven; meaning, our past - fully known to us and to God - our past does not define our future. God’s love makes it so.
Knowing the kind of love that does anything to restore a relationship, we are to follow that example. We are be disciples, apprentices of Jesus. We are to practice what we receive.
So, if anyone wants to practice, I’ll take on the pastoral duty of saying mean things to you so you can practice forgiving me. Oh, of course not.
But, truly, the way we can practice forgiveness is by being forgiven ourselves - knowing what it means to be forgiven. That’s what we’re here to do. The Church isn’t the Church without forgiveness.
We practice forgiveness by trusting in the relationship God wants and prepares for us.
We practice forgiveness by hearing those words, “I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins,” trusting the love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
We practice forgiveness holding out our hands and receiving Christ in bread and wine.
We practice forgiveness in community. Community with God. With each other. Here and now.
For the past three days, Ellie Maroon and I have been in Columbia for our annual Synod Assembly - all the Lutheran churches in SC gathered together to discuss business, hear new ideas, and worship. And on Friday night, we had a guest preacher. The Synod invited Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff, Sr., who is the interim pastor at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Now, you may remember that one year ago this coming Friday, June 17, a disturbed young white Lutheran attended a Bible Study at that church and ended up killing nine African American Christians - including their pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinkney, who was a classmate of mine in Seminary. Into this context, Rev. Goff preached on forgiveness.
He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘cause you know I can’t preach like that (can I get an Amen?) - but he said something along the lines of forgiveness is different for everybody. Different levels, different lengths of time, different relationships follow. But, but to forgive (at least start to forgive) two days after this event, like the family members in this case did, that shows a forgiveness shaped by God, that their hearts were shaped by God’s love and grace, that it didn’t just happen. It was trained and shaped and formed by repeated examples of what God’s forgiveness looks like. Their hearts were shaped by what God’s love looks like.
Shaped by God’s love.
The Church isn’t the Church without forgiveness. Our relationship with God shapes how we will forgive others.
Forgiveness is so much more than being absolved for a wrong we have done. It’s also much more than fire insurance to keep us out of hell. Forgiveness names and also heals our past. Forgiveness frees us for a new future with hope, here and now.
Forgiveness gives us community, a way to see and share God’s love.
We know God loves us. Let’s be shaped by that love so we can practice what we preach.
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday - strategically placed just as we culminate the major readings of the church year and is the transition to what is called “ordinary time.”
We started out in the fall with lots of Old Testament readings - readings about Israel’s God - the God revealed in the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and giving of the 10 Commandments, who worked through regular people and not-so-regular prophets. At Christmas, we moved to Jesus, God’s Son, who traveled and taught and died and lived. And then, last week, we heard the story of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, riling up the disciples and encouraging them to get out and spread the good news of what God had done in Jesus.
So, we have heard the whole story now: God revealed as Father, as Son, and as Spirit. Put ‘em together and what have you got? The Trinity. The three persons of God, inseparable but distinct. Today we celebrate and acknowledge more than usual our one-in-three, three-in-one God.
And I have to admit, this is a tough one. Especially since everything I have ever read about the Trinity has had some sort of footnote, excursus, or chapter devoted to explaining how our language and minds are woefully inadequate to describe the glory, complexity, and paradoxical nature of the Trinity. A lot of preachers at this point say, “I’m going to try to do it anyway!” and spend the next 15 minutes confusing everyone in the room, themselves included.
Well, I’m not. Not really. Instead of trying to explain the Trinity, where NO explanation is really adequate, I’m going to invite you to do some actual theological thinking. So, instead of today being all about regurgitating Doctrine, where all we do is assert something about God, we’re going to do Theology, meaning we’re going to take what we know about God and apply it to our life and our context. What we say about God somehow has to matter for our lives, right?
Who is God and why does God matter? We need to think through who God is as revealed to us in the Father, Son, and Spirit, and then figure out why that matters to our lives.
And to prep myself for this, I did something I don’t normally do. I guess it was the nature of this Sunday that made me do it, but I need to admit that I went back and looked at my old sermons. I usually don’t do that because I think they’re terrible. It’s like listening to your own voice being played back on a recording. It’s just odd to hear yourself - or, in this case, odd to read what you said.
But, anyway, I did some re-reading of old sermons this week and I realized something after about the third sermon: I’m not going to say anything new. It’s the same thing each time I preach on the Trinity.
Who is God? God is relationship. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are relationship - connected, loving relationship. The three persons are bound tight in a relationship of love. Our God, at the heart of who God is, is about being connected with another, about loving and being loved. They are the perfect relationship – one that loves and gives and shares so intimately that they are one, literally one.
That is who God is.
Now for the theology part: why does God matter? How does God as relationship matter to me, for me?
Well, because God is relationship, it tells us a lot about God’s motives. God didn’t need to create us in order to have a partner, in order to have someone to love, in order to be in relationship with someone. Instead, God chose to create us, God chose to redeem us, God chooses to love us.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit created us to share in the relationship of love they have. That’s how good God’s love is! God desperately wants to share with us ultimate love and the best relationship.
We weren’t created so that God could lord over us from afar, or toy with our emotions about whether we’re in or we’re out – we were created so that we could know and have what God has, so that we could share in beautiful and glorious love with God and with each other. The only thing that makes love better is sharing it with others.
We were created to be in that type of relationship. And God will do whatever it takes to ensure we know that and make it so. That is the story we hear from the Bible.
Paul may just be the first theologian - taking what he knew about God and doing more than describing. Paul had to make sure who God is made a difference in our very existence and life with God.
For Paul, God’s action in Jesus was God walking the walk, not just talking the talk. God did something about our sorry state; we humans are pretty bad at relationships. Our best ones have moments of frustration and discord - not to mention the discord we created with God. But God wanted us anyway. God wanted relationship with us, wanted to share love with us, so God mended our relationship.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “We are justified.” God justifies us. God makes the relationship between us and God right again, before we even know it needed to be made right.
See, justification is nothing less than the promise that God accepts you as you are -
not because of WHO you are or what you have accomplished,
not because of what you MIGHT become or COULD do,
not because of who you have promised to be or what you have pledged in your heart,
but God accepts you because that is who God is and that is what God does: God makes relationship.
And what this does is bring us peace. No fear about where we stand. No moments of having to be “on guard” with God. Not even a new self-help manual. God justifies us so that we might be able to have peace. And if we have peace, we have relationship; and if we have relationship, we know we are loved.
We are justified to God because God wants us to know love. That is who God is.
And despite what is going on around us, Paul insists that because we have peace with God, we can endure whatever this world throws at us - and not just endure but build character, grow stronger, thrive despite what is happening. All this does is reinforce who it is that holds us, no matter what. This is our hope.
Because of who God is, God brings us into relationship and love before we even know we need it. We don’t live in fear of God, but we have peace with God. And if we have peace, we have relationship; and if we have relationship, we know we are loved.
That is why God matters. But even more than that, that is simply who God is.
So, this may seem a bit familiar to some of you, but one of my favorite things about this building is the stained glass. To me, it is what stained glass should look like. The most prominent window is this one in the back - the huge, 30 foot tall window.
Some people have asked me if that is supposed to be St. Philip, which is a good guess, but no, it’s Jesus. It’s full of symbols for us to help remind us of who Jesus is. There is a shield which has NIKA on it, a Greek word meaning “victor.” Near his right foot, there is the book with the four crosses, symbolizing the four Gospel stories about Jesus. And over at the other foot is a lamp, reminding us that Jesus is the light of the world. Up the left side is a pillar, much like the poles they used to strap prisoners to when they were whipping them, reminding us of Jesus’ suffering. And on the right is a vine going up the entire right side, reminding us of Jesus’ words, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” At the top is the cross and crown - promise and hope for us.
It’s a beautiful window - even more so when the sun is right about there and the light just pours into this room with a kaleidoscope of colors. It is beautiful in here. And while that is the most prominent of the windows, what I really want to talk about are these on the sides.
Over here we have three windows for the Trinity. Father, with the star of David, and the eye and hand, and even, if you look just right, the words, “I am who I am.”
The Son, with the lamb carrying the victory banner and the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, reminding us that Jesus is the beginning and the end.
And the Holy Spirit - with an image of a Bible up top and a dove at the bottom.
Over here we have the windows which display the seasons of the Church year. We start on the left with Advent and Christmas with the manger and a shepherd’s crook. Moving to the right we have a Star and Three Crowns for Epiphany. We keep going and we get to a cross in the middle with a crown of thorns for Lent and Holy Week. Then a butterfly in the top - a symbol of resurrection with lilies down below. And finally, the last window is the Pentecost window with flames stretching through this window and into the other panels. Fire, fire like the tongues of flame we heard about in our story from Acts.
The windows are full of symbols to remind us and help us in our faith.
Which is good, because on a day like today, we need something to help us out.The Holy Spirit poses a problem for a lot of us. In Lutheran circles, it seems that we can get by just fine without much recognition of what the Spirit might be up to. But perhaps that’s not just a Lutheran problem...
Today on Pentecost, we are told of the Spirit who comes like fire; we are reminded of the Spirit who descended like a dove; the symbols remind us of the Spirit, but in a passive kind of way. The symbols we use remind us the Spirit exists, but only touch on what the Spirit actually does. And maybe that’s on purpose.
Because if we really look at what the Spirit does, the Spirit shakes things up. And we don’t like things shaken. Symbols are much safer. A dove, gently landing. A well-contained tongue of fire, like on a candle. We can handle that.
But when we get into what the Spirit does… well, that poses a problem.
In Acts, the Spirit enters people’s lives in a rush of violent wind - nothing calm about that.
The Spirit gives the ability to speak other languages - could be rather flustering.
The Spirit draws the disciples outside where they are surrounded by crowds - some of whom call them 9 a.m. drunks. Do you want to be called a 9 a.m. drunk?
To those who first experienced it, the Spirit was a really problematic thing. The easy response would have been to retreat from Jesus’ promises, to head back to the lives they knew, or to chalk up the past few years to some really cool experiences and hold on to the memories of the glory days. But instead, the Spirit comes, convinces them God’s reign is more true, more powerful, more comprehensive than ever, and thus, turns their lives upside down. They can’t stay inside; they have to go out.
Before long, they’re going places they have never been, saying things they shouldn’t be saying to people they shouldn’t be saying them to, and eating and sharing and communing with people they formerly wouldn’t have gone near. All because of the Spirit we call Holy.
Which adds to our problem with the Holy Spirit. Instead of simply showing up as something that dances gracefully through the air and making our problems melt away, it seems the Holy Spirit is sent to cause problems for us.
The Spirit is sent to create some new problems for us, some big problems, some better problems. Problems that draw us out of our preoccupation with ourselves and into active concern for the welfare of our neighbor.
Problems like not being content with status quo.
Problems like making us aware of how much our world needs to hear the promise of grace.
Problems like connecting us with Jesus’ mission.
Jesus says “go and make disciples” and
“when you care for the least of these you are caring for me” and
“love one another as I have loved you.” And doing that kind of work is inherently problematic. In our world, this type of stuff is disruptive, difficult, and at times even dangerous.
We don’t like to do it, and, frankly, the world would prefer we keep it all to ourselves anyway.
That’s the problem the Spirit creates for us. We have a message to share. We have a love to give. We have a grace to make known. But it’s not convenient. We’d much rather stay inside, and symbolically help with our prayers of solidarity. Give a token amount to a cause. Lip service, a tip of the hat, a check in the box of fulfilling the culturally acceptable thing to do. Our problem is we like the symbol.
But the Spirit isn’t a mere symbol; the Spirit moves and moves us. The Spirit chooses us to be part of the problem. Believe it or not, the Spirit sends us out to do just what those disciples did. To preach. To serve. To care. To witness. To love.
The Spirit chooses us to be part of the problem. We are the ones to bear God’s creative and redeeming Word to all the world. We are the ones who are called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified. We are the ones to stir things up.
But the Spirit doesn’t leave us with a holy shove out the door. The first disciples were given the ability to speak; the Spirit gives us gifts as well. The Spirit equips us, gives us as a community that we need to do what we are tasked to do - not just so we can deal, but flourish.
We are gifted with comfort and grace, encouragement and strength, with Body and Blood, with forgiveness and life, with community and call, with hymns and mission, with adoption and an Advocate.
The Spirit chooses us to be part of the problem.
And for that, let’s give thanks for the gift of the Spirit: The One who came and continues to come to remind us of God’s love for us in Jesus,
the One that reveals problems in order that we may serve others in love, courage, and hope,
the One who comes not just symbolically, but actively, to remind us that we are chosen. God chooses us.
And to be chosen is to be loved.
We are loved.
We are God’s own.
And we know that through the Spirit.
“Watching the person I loved best in the world die made me realize that nearly everything I as a Christian had ever learned about suffering and evil was a crock, with a lot of pious cliches about “God’s plan” and “God needing another angel” thrown in.”
That’s how Jacqueline Bussie, in her book, Outlaw Christian, describes how she felt as she cared for her mother in her last days. She continues by saying,
“All the so-called answers that I had been taught about suffering and sacrifice and salvation, when replaying in my sleepless head after a day of changing my mom’s Depends, stung like a splash of bleach in my eyes. Words that once consoled made God feel further away than ever. I found myself asking, ‘why didn’t anyone ever tell me this is what life and love really feel like?’”
Death is hard. Often we want answers - or we want to give answers to others, say something that takes their pain away, relieves the grief, if even for a second. So, we recall platitudes and cliches - something someone told us long ago, something that maybe kinda-sorta helped us - or we thought helped us, something much like Jacqueline was describing: short-sighted, shallow, well-meaning but overly-simple platitudes.
But platitudes aren’t the Gospel.
The Gospel is resurrection.
Paul, here, gives us full-bore Gospel. No skirting around around the edges. No cliches about pinochle with St. Peter. No Family Circus cloud-watchers. In fact, the whole letter to the Corinthians has been leading up to this very moment. Way back in chapter one, which we read several weeks ago, Paul started out by saying the cross is foolishness to this world. And now, Paul culminates with what that foolishness means: it’s Gospel. Christ has died. Christ is risen.
Yet, the Gospel is only Good News if we come to terms with the reality of death.
Everyone wants to know what happens when we die. There were as many theories about it back in Corinth as there are now. Some thought the Spirit left the body. Some thought nothing happened. Some probably thought something in between. Paul hears all those theories and points to Jesus as the answer.
“What happened to Jesus?,” Paul seems to ask. He died. He was nailed to a cross and he died. He didn’t bide his time in the other-worldly woodshop with his Heavenly Father until Easter Sunday. He was in that tomb, dead. Death is real. And that stings.
But resurrection is real, too.
If Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can you say there is no resurrection? Everything in the faith is based on the promise and hope that Christ was bodily raised from the dead, not spiritually or metaphorically or temporarily. Jesus is alive.
Yes, death is real, but death is not final.
Christ is raised from death to life.
Paul is not giving trite sentiments. Paul is not simply trying to make people feel better. He is stating the Gospel truth. Death is real. Death is not final.
Jesus, Paul says, is the first fruits of those who have died. The “first” in “first fruits” implies there will be more fruit. Just like death initially came to us through one man, so does resurrection. Everybody dies in Adam; everybody comes alive in Christ. The “first” leads to more.
But we have to wait our turn. Christ will come again to defeat the enemies of God, and the last enemy is death. Death is real. Death is not final.
So we, along with Paul, can say, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where is your sting? Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We will be raised because of Jesus. We will be given resurrection life - raised from death. The person whom God created is the person God redeems.
For us, it seems the ultimate question is, “what happens to us when we die?” But Paul helps us to reframe the question as, “who has final say on the existence of everything in the cosmos, Death or God?”
Paul’s answer is pretty clear. God has won. God has us. Christ has died. Christ is risen. And Christ will come again, bringing victorious life to a broken world. Death is real. Death is not final. But God is. Christ is. Resurrection is.
While platitudes may make us question God’s motivations for quote “taking someone away,” the Gospel, on the other hand, is the promise of being together. The Gospel means God is near in our grief, in our hurt, in what leaves us stinging. The Gospel means God cares about us - all of us, the whole of us, all that God has made. The Gospel means God’s plan isn’t finished yet; there is still more to come.
As we wrap up the season of Easter, this is the message we claim and proclaim.
Christ is alive. Because he lives, we, too, shall live.
That’s what God has done for us through the foolishness of the cross.
That’s what God has done for us through the empty tomb.
That’s what God has made final.
But how can Paul be so sure?
Paul bases it on his own experiences in what was handed on to him.
See, Paul wasn’t making this up. It was passed on, told to him, shared with him; he experienced the risen Christ. Yes, Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus road (that would be pretty convincing), but he also experienced forgiveness, empathy, and connection to something more than what this world offers. The first fruits of resurrection were showing forth to Paul in life-giving ways.
He was handed on the message of resurrection and life - something that was the Gospel before Paul heard it or preached it or died for it. And Paul passed it on to the the Corinthians. The Philippians. The Romans. And more. And now, Paul, through what has been handed down, passes it along to us, to you.
For us, this goes beyond Paul; surely others have handed on to you the Good News - in words, in actions, in the way they lived. Who handed on the faith to you? Who was it that taught you about Jesus? Who first told you that old, old story? Who made that story feel alive and ongoing, even to today?
Say a prayer of thanksgiving for that person who handed on to you what they themselves had received: the Good News of Jesus.
Now, how are you actively handing it along? How are you living in a way that passes the Gospel on? Do you live in a hopeful way? Are you open to the ongoing creative action that resurrection brings?
Living resurrection life can be difficult - especially since the sting of death is still present. Our task as resurrection people is to notice where the Gospel needs to be preached - with words, like with a caring conversation, a reminder of life, a giving of grace; or with actions, like a supportive hug, a gift of a meal, a sharing of presence.
Jesus is our hope - the resurrected promise of life,
the first fruits of what will be true for us,
the one who still hands down grace and forgiveness and Gospel.
Jesus is God’s gift and promise of love and life for us.
Death is real. Death is not final.
Because Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
And we will, too.
*Due to technical difficulties, there is no audio recording from May 1.*
You can imagine it, I’m sure.
Lovely flowers all around the room.
The lights are a bit brighter than normal, it seems. It may be due to the extra candles lit down the aisle - or it just may be the extra energy and emotion surrounding the day.
People are showing up a little early to get their seats.
The music starts - Pachelbel, Canon in D; maybe something with violins or cellos; elegant and soft.
And then it’s time.
Five men, wearing tuxedos, impeccably PRessed, enter from the side.
And one by one, women wearing (hopefully) elegant gowns, rhythmically file down the aisle, each ending up opposite a man of roughly the same height.
Then the music changes, a bit stronger, louder, prouder - and there enters the bride, grasping father with one arm and, in the other, a bouquet slightly more grand than the preceding bridesmaids.
The slightly-embarrassed-because-everyone-is-looking-at-me smile is on her faces. Yet, she doesn’t care.
The bride arrives; the father takes his seat; the pastor starts.
And chances are, about seven minutes into the service, someone will read, “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”
And why wouldn’t they? It’s poetic; it’s got love it. It’s perfect! This passage was made for weddings!
Except, it’s not about weddings.
Yes, it is poetic. Yes, it does talk about love. A lot. But it’s not about marriage. It’s not about weddings. It’s about more than that. It’s about love.
Well, what’s the difference? Love and marriage. They go together like a horse and carriage!
The problem here is a translation one. It is about love, but for us English speakers, that can mean a whole bunch of things. I love my wife and I love... strawberries?
So, from the outset, we have two things working against us in understanding this passage: first is our “love” of strawberries and second is the fact that this passage is nearly synonymous with the American wedding.
Yet, Paul means something more here in talking about love. It’s not a love of berries - be they staw or blue or other; nor is it a hubba-hubba love - or even a deeply romantic, monogamous, fidelity kind of love. The kind of love Paul is talking about here is bigger and greater and deeper. It’s about more than that.
It’s about God’s love. You know, that big love, unconditional love. The love we can’t describe but put adjectives to anyway. It is inclusive. Inescapable. Undeserved. Always there. The Greek word for this kind of love - for God’s love - is agape; it is agape love that God has for us. Agape love is love at its ultimate.
But it’s even more than that. This passage is more than about God’s agape love for us. It’s about what God’s agape love does.
In the span of five verses, love is the subject of 16 verbs in a row. Sixteen!!! In every phrase, God’s love is the subject of action. That may not come through in our rather static English adjectives: “love is patient; love is kind…” Instead, Paul says love “shows patience.” Love “acts with kindness.” Love is a busy, active thing that never ceases to work, to do, to act.
It is a restoring kind of love. The kind of love that can eat with sinners and heal lepers.
It is an influential kind of love. The kind of love that doesn’t just make you feel better, but changes you.
It is a sacrificial love. The kind of love that will give its all - like on a cross.
It is an enduring love - the kind of love that nothing will stop - like the kind of love that bursts out from an empty tomb.
And, as we hear at the end of the passage, God’s love knows us. We are fully known by God’s love; yes, already fully known as we are - and we are loved anyway. Our brokenness, our sinfulness, even our own lack of agape love does not drive God’s love away. God’s love shows patience with us in our mess ups and screw ups. God’s love acts with kindness toward us when we aren’t deserving of such a response. God’s love bears all our brokenness; God’s love endures all we do. We’re loved - not abstractly, but actively. We are loved.
That’s Good News. In our major screw ups: God still loves. In our lack of compassion for those who suffer: God still loves. Even in our pride about how we’re not as bad as they are: God still loves.
But leaving it there is not enough. At least it wasn’t enough for Paul.
If you remember from last week when we started in this letter to the Corinthians, the church there in Corinth was having some issues. They were choosing sides and fighting among each other. Paul, here, reminds them of God’s active love. But more than that, Paul certainly is expecting the church to live this type of love out. It’s the whole point of the chapter: not to tell us what love is, but tell us what love does.
So, hearing about God’s agape love, we now see it’s about even more than just that. It’s not just about God’s love, but it’s about what our love does. We as the Church are challenged by Paul to make active love our greatest characteristic. He ends by saying, “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Which is hard for us.
I think much of the Church’s history, our history, has emphasized Faith as the greatest attribute to have. But here, Paul encourages us differently. It’s a switch, a change, to put love First and faith Second.
So, how do we live with love first?
I think the obvious answer is to provide standard care for people - things we’d make sure we’d do for anyone that we love. We’d make sure they’re not just alive, but living. Not just fed, but given hospitality. Not just sheltered, but made to feel at home. It’s what we do for people we love. And we are called to do that for anyone - not just those who pass some other attribute test beforehand. It’s love first.
But maybe more particular to the intent of this passage, we look to the rest of Paul’s letter for some insight. We know it is written to a place in conflict, so we have that. But also, in chapter 12, right before this one, we have Paul’s famous “Body of Christ” analogy - that we’re all different, but we come together to make one functioning church. We need eyes and fingers and knee caps. And agape love is what causes us to function together.
So, what we can learn here today is that love should happen, even if we’re different from each other. We don’t need to change who we are to be part of God’s community, the Body of Christ. God says, “I love you just as you are.” And we, then, can only say the same: “you are loved as you are. You are welcome as you are. Help us live out this love as the Body of Christ.”
This love we hear about today is a love for a community that is various and different and yet all striving for the same thing: Christ’s work here on earth. And also, with love first, that means we welcome all FIRST, then we help to teach the faith. Then we help to give hope. We are to be a community that practices love first.
This is also a realization that love is never done - or to use the words of the text, love never ends. Love isn’t a project to be completed. Instead, active love is about a vision of a new reality, a new possibility - that here, a place and community where active love is found, people feel and know the promise of God’s active love in Jesus.
Are we ever going to be perfect at it? Not this side of the Kingdom… But if we aren’t first about love, we are like one of those wind up monkeys who claps their cymbals together.
The "Wedding Text" - and love in general - is not a passive, observable event that seeks our affirmation and support, but something that calls - yearns! - for our participation. This is not a text where we are asked to look on as guests, dressed up for a party and seated dutifully in the church pews, but rather needs our involvement.
We are the body of Christ.
We are loved.
We make that love known.
First and foremost.
Because God first showed us patience.
God first acted with kindness.
God first loved us.
And that’s the greatest.
Today we continue with the apostle Paul on his missionary journey.
Last week, we met up with Paul as he traveled to Thessalonica to start a church there. Continuing his mission in our first scripture reading for today, Paul goes to Corinth. At Corinth, Paul moves in with Aquila and Priscilla; maybe he took a shine to them because they were tentmakers, just like he was. But more important than that, every Sabbath, Paul was at the synagogue, doing his best to convince both Jews and Greeks about Jesus.
And the thing is, Paul was pretty good at that. As you may already know, Paul started churches all over the Roman Empire. We know this because 1) Acts tells us this, but 2) also because Paul wrote letters to some of those churches. Today, in addition to the passage from Acts telling us about Paul traveling to Corinth, we also hear from one of Paul’s letters to the church he started there.
One of the first things I learned in my “Paul Class” in college and then in seminary was that Paul wrote occasional letters - not that he wrote letters occasionally from time to time, but that he wrote letters because there was an occasion to write the letter. Usually, it was because the church had some sort of problem. That’s where we find ourselves with this second scripture reading.
See, the church in Corinth was fighting among themselves. They were picking sides, going around saying, “I’m on Paul’s side,” or “I’m for Apollos,” or “Peter is my guy,” or - thankfully there were at least some - “I’m in the Messiah group.” Paul is dealing with quite the crisis, huh?
Paul wants to reiterate to the Corinthians that he isn’t out to get followers for himself, but to preach the message of what Jesus has done and collect a following for him.
Paul is writing about the unity they have, we have. Don’t focus on the less-important, even fictional separations. In a very succinct way, Paul encourages them instead to focus on the cross of Christ - not on a particular preacher, not on who baptized whom, not on these types of divisions.
Paul points to the cross.
It seems foolish that our Savior was put to death. But the cross shows us the lengths God will go for us. God does not give up on us. Because of Jesus’ cross, we know there is no place God cannot be. God does show up, even if it seems like God can’t be there. What looks like defeat, what seems like foolishness, is actually a way to show God’s power - a way to take our world’s brokenness and turn it to life. In the cross, we know death is defeated. In the cross, we are set free. In the cross, the loving creator meets us where we are - in our weakness, failure, loneliness, suffering, even our death.
See, the cross levels the playing field.
Since we are all in need,
we all fall short,
we all are broken,
we all need a savior, we all look to the cross, the power of God, for any hope we have. The cross unifies us in its once-and-for-all action. We all meet at the foot of the cross, which is God’s redeeming action.
Wherever we stand on issues, we gather around the cross of Christ, where we hear Good News of forgiveness, resurrection, and abundant life. It is quite foolish, isn’t it, that we can disagree about stuff but still come together at the foot of the cross? That is the power of divine love.
And I don’t think it is accidental that Paul brings up baptism on his way to making the point about the cross. While it is almost comical to see Paul catch himself on whether he baptized people or not… “Come to think of it, maybe I did baptize some of you…” I think Paul mentions baptism on purpose. His mis-remembering of events only drives home the point further: it’s not who did it, but whose you are that is important.
The essential thing is that baptism connects you to Christ, who is crucified and risen. Baptism is the unifying way that we know - we know we are washed and claimed, and we forever have that life-giving spring inside us. Baptism, despite being done separately, is a sign of our unity - because it is not dependent on us who are washed, nor is it up to the one doing the washing. Baptism is the work of God to join us to Jesus. It tells you who and whose you are. You are joined to Jesus. You are God’s own.
One in the cross. One in baptism.
This is the Gospel Paul is sent to proclaim. And this is the great part: Paul is convinced that it should be a simple message. It doesn’t need to have a bunch of fancy rhetoric or eloquent wisdom. Otherwise, the message of the cross might be emptied of its power.
It’s a simple message: Jesus loves you.
Jesus loves you.
And Jesus loves them, too.
Isn’t that, when we get right down to it, isn’t that what it’s all about? Jesus loves you.
It’s not about us. Not about differences or preferences. Not about who did what or didn’t do that. We are linked in our brokenness and need, yet, even more so, we are united in Jesus’ love.
Jesus loves you; we see it in the cross.
Jesus loves you; we see it in baptism.
Jesus loves you; we see it in an empty tomb.
Jesus loves you - in your need, in your choosing sides, in you being no one but you.
If we base the Gospel on anything else, we’ve lost our way.
Jesus loves you.
You are a baptized child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit.
You are marked with the cross of Christ forever.
You are a beloved child of God.
Jesus loves you.
And if you ever need the reminder of unity,
a reminder that we are all in the same need,
that we all are recipients of an amazing and unconditional love,
you’ve got a cross ready to be traced.
You’ve got water ready to be splashed.
You’ve got hands out, ready for bread and wine.
You’ve got a brother and a sister, a community, who has been there, is there, will be there.
You’ve got the Gospel that rests entirely on God’s sure and certain promises.
You’ve got Jesus.
You’ve got love.
Peter. Paul. Mary. David. Matthew. Jonah. Noah. Abraham. Even Melchizedek for crying out loud.
But now… now, I’m a Biblical character! Ha! I mean, we Jasons are often associated with either the Argonauts or Friday the 13th movies, but now, Jason is a character in God’s story! It’s too bad my big scene is about being dragged out of the house by some ruffians and paying a fine. But there I am. Shouldn’t we all be so lucky?
Even so, Jason is only a very minor character in the greater story that is Acts of the Apostles. Acts, primarily, is about the birth and expansion of the Church, picking up where the Gospels end at the ascension of Jesus and going through the apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, concluding in Rome. We get to hear about all the good and the bad, about the conversions and sermons. We get to see that the life of the church is much like the life of Jesus.
Last week, for example, we got to hear how Peter could do what Jesus did, in the exact same way Jesus did it. He healed. This week, we run into people who want to quiet and contain the message about Jesus, much like authorities wanted to do to Jesus himself.
And yet, the Church, and Paul in particular, pursued; they were not quieted. The story we have today is representative of many other stories about Paul in Acts. The pattern goes something like: Paul enters a new city; he preaches in the synagogue first and to others afterward; some accept the gospel he offers, while others reject it and even persecute Paul and his followers; then Paul moves on to the next city. Rinse and repeat.
Which is all well and good for Paul. For Peter. For the early Church. But what about us? What does this pattern, this story, this report of the early Church say to us know?
It shows us that the struggles of the church have always been there. That people have always been against the message of the Church, the idea of the Church, the ways of the Church. Look at the complaint of the Jewish leaders and the ruffians who dragged Jason and some other believers before the city authorities. “These people have been turning the world upside down.”
The struggles happen because, at its best, the Church takes the world and turns it upside down. The world, of course, fights that turning. The Church says Caesar isn’t lord, Jesus is - which means there’s a higher law, power, and being worthy of allegiance. Beyond the accusations in this story, the Church didn’t abide by societal norms like separation of Jew and Gentile, slave or free, male or female. It went against the class structure by saying the powerful will be brought down, the last will be first, the greatest of all is the servant of all. It opposed the oppressive economic systems that consolidated wealth and possessions among a few and instead freely shared and gave away food, belongings, and money. They cared for widows and orphans and immigrants and broke bread with glad and generous hearts.
The struggles happened because the Church turned the world upside down.
And, just like it always has, the Church today is struggling. But we have to be careful about what the real versus perceived struggles are. While it does happen around the world, we in the US aren’t struggling with people busting down our doors, dragging us into City Hall, and making us pay bail - or worse. We, as much as we may think it, aren’t being persecuted. But we are struggling.
So, what are we struggling with? We are struggling with our identity of becoming a minority. We are struggling with the loss of privilege. We are struggling with the world moving on and leaving us behind.
These are struggles, I think, because we as the Church aren’t turning the world upside down anymore. Instead, we’ve bought in (both literally and figuratively) to the ways of the world and the ways of society. What do we want? We want the church to be in a place of power again, we want to be top again, we want to be great again. We want people to come to us, to notice us, to make us feel good about who we are, without us having to live up to any of the mission we’re tasked with or sacrifice any of the prominence we still have.
Which sounds pretty worldly to me.
What this lesson tells me today is that struggles will come by being the Church, and we have to make sure we are struggling for the right reasons - those reasons being that we act like the Church we read about in Acts, that we turn the world upside down again.
This is a call to us, the Church of Jesus Christ here and now, to live the mission the early Church had: the radical inclusion that surpasses societal boundaries, the ministry of sustainable life for all, the belief that true greatness is found in serving, the realization that this world leads to nothing but death.
And most important, being the Church means living like Jesus is Lord, and knowing that changes everything.
See, God has already turned the world upside down - or, should I say, right side up. Because upside down to our world is God’s right side up. By giving a bunch of fallen, broken human beings undeserved love, God turns the world right side up. By valuing grace and mercy over just desserts, God turns the world right side up. By the crucified becoming resurrected Lord, by death losing its sting, by promising us more than this world can give, God turns the world right side up.
Now, as the Church, we live in this upside down world, trying our best to see things God’s right-side up way. We preach and teach, we welcome and serve, we share and give, we be the Church and continue to turn this world right side up. Through welcome. Through giving of ourselves. Through showing up, being present, and offering comfort when someone else’s world is turned upside down. We are the ones God has called into this story.
We are the characters in the story God is telling now. We are God’s Church now. It’s not just Peter and Paul, not just Jason and Melchizedek. But Linda, Bob, Bill, Skip, Scott, Mike, Caitlyn, Joan, Marilyn, Carol, Emily, Bradley, Malinda, Corey, Tyler, Irv, Drinnon, Ed, Nancy, Pat, Brent, Henry, Sue, Ander, Dana, Tom, Elaine, Eric, Inara, Camille, June, Bonnie, Elfrida, Billy, Sophie, Art, Roz, and you and me and us and Jesus.
We are the characters in God’s story of turning the world right side up. Named children of God at baptism, we are sent to be the Church - not the best, not the greatest, not the most powerful, but be Church. Be Jesus. Be Christ.
Be with Christ, as Christ is with us.
And with his help, we can turn this world right side up.
I don’t know about you, but this story today sounds like it came from one of the Gospels where Jesus actually is in it instead of the book of Acts where Jesus isn’t. The pattern here is the same as many of the healing miracles performed by Jesus: the setting and problem are laid out before us; there are some powerful words spoken, along with a touch; the healing happens; people are amazed! It’s a miracle!
Now, the hard part about preaching miracles is that there are always faithful people who didn’t get one - more than those who did. And to make this story double-y hard, at least when it is Jesus doing the miracle, we can say, “oh, it’s JESUS. He IS the Son of God, after all.” But today, it is Peter who is doing the healing. We don’t get the “Son of God” excuse this time. He is one of US - just a regular guy. Why can’t I do that?
It brings up loads of questions about our inadequacies. Are we not faithful enough? Do we not believe the right things? Are we simply not bold enough in our asking? Big questions, no easy answers.
Where is God when there is no miracle?
This story, I think, speaks to that question as well. Despite the miracle being the part that catches our attention, often, the actual miracle itself is only a small piece of the bigger picture trying to be drawn.
We hear about this lame man who is brought up each and every day to be placed right outside of the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. There, he would ask for money and food, a means of survival, a donation to live another day. Those coming to the Temple for prayer or worship would need to pass right by him. There he was, day after day, outside the temple.
And then, Peter and John arrive on the scene. Peter says, “what I have, I give to you,” which leads to the amazing story of the lame man being raised to jumping to his feet. After he is healed, not only is his ability changed, but so is his location. He entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. Because Peter went to him, the man is moved from outside of the community to inside the community - from someone unable and unwelcome to fully part.
Healing is really a restoring to community. And I think it works the other way around, too: to be in community is, in a way, to be healed.
Which sets our mission, doesn’t it? It’s the same as Jesus’ - just as Peter continued what Jesus did, we are to do so, too. We are called to continue, create, and cultivate the community Christ commissioned. So, who sits outside our gates?
Maybe not literally - at least I don’t think we had anyone sitting outside our doors this morning. But who is on the edge/outside of church or society? Who could be healed and made whole by the church recognizing them as an actual human being?
There are people who do indeed sit and beg; eye contact, let alone conversation, with them is often avoided.
There are people who have been told that they aren’t worth a relationship, who are emotionally paralyzed because the most important relationship they had is now strained, broken, or severed.
There are people who are excluded or hurt because they have been forced to sit outside as worshipful people pass by.
Jesus’ answer to those people, Peter’s answer, too, is a welcoming community - as should our answer be. We can offer healing to others by including them in this community of faith. In this community is healing. Today, we will commission several Outreach Visitation teams to go out and welcome, invite, and share news of this place. They will go to all sorts of people. Some will be broken. Some will be wary. Some won’t see the need. Some will have a community of faith already. Some will be healed by the welcome. By the inclusion. By someone going to them and saying, “what I have, I give you to.”
In one of the planning meetings for the Visitation Teams, Dick Albert used a quote about just this type of thing. He said, “it is like one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” We are going out to tell others about “what we have,” about community, healing, sustenance for the journey.
And that’s all well and good - and we probably identify with the story in this way - go and welcome people. Act!
But sometimes - often times, maybe - it’s the other way around.
We’re not always Peter.
A lot of times, we are the beggar.
We have a paralyzing piece in our lives; a place that is unhealed. We are begging to be made better, longing, day after day, for things to just be normal again. We need healing from pain, from illness, from grief or worry or doubt. We need to be brought back in and welcomed, reminded, healed.
That’s what this community of God is for. It is a people who go, to remind us of God’s love - of their love, to be community with us, to receive us with grace no matter how we feel. It may not bring us the healing that the beggar experienced, but it is healing that lets us know we are welcomed, we are loved, we are not alone. Knowing you are loved, despite what is happening, is quite the miracle.
Maybe this healing happened a long time ago and that is why you’re still around.
Maybe this healing is happening now, today.
But either way, we know that somewhere along the way, someone came along; grabbed our hand; said, “what I have, I give to you”; raised us up; and healed us through community. And that is the power of Jesus. Whether through a neighbor, a parent, a stranger - the power of God is present. How else would raising happen? How else would community happen? How else would healing happen?
It’s God’s ultimate plan of salvation - a community that welcomes all and heals all. A community that spans all times and all places. A community nothing can break apart or destroy, not even death.
A community we get a foretaste of,
a community Jesus gathers,
a community God makes happen.
Growing up, I never really was an outsider. I always was kind of in the middle - never a loser, geek, or dweeb, but also never in the top-tier popular crowd. You know, just regular, if that’s even a thing in high school. I had my group of friends and we were fine. I was fine. Community was fine. Life was fine.
Life was fine, even up through my first year of college. And then I worked at camp. At Lutheridge, a Lutheran camp in the mountains near Asheville, NC, I experienced community like I had not anywhere else. The community there healed me in ways I didn’t know I needed to be healed.
The healing wasn’t about giving me some ability that I didn’t have - or removal of some dreaded trait I had; instead, this healing was about making me better in all senses of the word. I wasn’t a dweeb, a prep, lame, or regular: I was me. There was community for me. There was love and grace and acceptance and healing for me.
That community changed me - healed me - made me want to make every community I’m part of have characteristics of that Lutheridge community - closeness, fun, real, trusting, worshipful, supportive, accepting - all the things Christ wants for us.
I wasn’t broken - at least I didn’t think I was broken. But Jesus, through community, raised me up to a new vision of what community can and should be. And in your lameness, big or small, known or unknown, this community of Christ is here to point to a love that can heal - maybe not always like the beggar, but sometimes in ways that we need it more. Knowing you are loved, despite what is happening, is quite the miracle.
When I started the sermon, I mentioned that this story sounded like one that Jesus should’ve been in. Maybe I was wrong about that, because Jesus is there. Jesus’ story continues - in those first disciples and even into our stories today. Jesus works in us and through us.
To raise others up into community.
To bring us back into a community of love.
To shape us into the community he wants us to be.
To love us, despite what is happening.
Last week was fun, right? In pretty much every worship service - whether you were here with us or elsewhere - there was a little something extra. There were handbells and processions and people galore. Doing that kind of stuff is fun. And all the extra is good! It’s a celebration! Jesus is risen from the dead! We have grand expectations for that day! God changed everything with that empty tomb. So, now, of course, we are glad for things to go back to the way things were.
We can get back into our own pew once again without having to fight off any visitors. We can fall back into our church routine - back to being comfortable. Things can go back to normal.
But they aren’t the same as we thought.
On this, the second Sunday of Easter, there are certain expectations we have - like that we’d have some sort of familiar scriptural resurrection appearance - doubt-filled or not.
That the service would migrate back to kneeling for confession - how come we’re not confessing?!?
That there might even be a substitute pastor! (It is “Supply Pastor Sunday” around the church, after all.)
But instead, it is a day full of some unfamiliar pieces - or, for church nerds, a day of familiar pieces in unfamiliar places.
Today, things go back to normal, but they aren’t the same.
Which is probably how the disciples felt, too. After one crazy event after another, things were finally getting back to normal. Jesus was back with them, talking and teaching, eating and encouraging. He was there! Is this the time when you will establish the kingdom?
All of it - even the foolish questions - made it feel just like the good ol’ days. Normal.
But things, somehow, weren’t the same.The disciples were told to wait - wait here, wait for promise, wait for what God was still going to do. What more could God do? That “not the same-ness” was further emphasized once Jesus “was lifted up.” The disciples were left in this pre-Pentecost moment, with only a promise of the Spirit to come. And they - along with we, too, probably - think: “how is this better?”
It’s a pretty good question, isn’t it? We’d think that having Jesus around would be best for us, for the world, for everything. But God chose a different way. How does Jesus ascending - not doing the normal thing and staying with us - how does this improve things?
Well, first it double-confirms for us that Jesus is Lord. And because of that, things are not the same.
This is the same Jesus who, while on earth, lived out God’s will, welcomed sinners, suffered and died, and was flat-out rejected by this world. All the powers that be, including death, did their very best to stop him and stop God. And they failed. Not only is Jesus alive, he is raised as ascended Lord.
If Jesus is Lord, that means Caesar is not.
If Jesus is Lord, it means our politicians in office and those striving-to-be in office are not.
If Jesus is Lord, it means fear, war, and any principality that tries to define you is not.
If Jesus is Lord, it means I am not; and you are not.
Since Jesus is Lord, nothing that stakes any claim on our life or livelihood can stand in light of who Jesus is.
We live in this world where things are normal, but not the same.
And we don’t live by standing and staring at where Jesus used to be. Because Jesus is ascended, we continue to encounter Jesus through hearing the Word, through fellowship in the church, in ministry to the poor and marginalized and broken, and in the Sacraments.
Which is why for the season of Easter during worship we are shifting from our normal Confession to a Thanksgiving for Baptism. Of all the times in the Church Year, Easter is when we should be giving thanks the most for what God has done for us - visibly, tangibly seen and felt in those waters of baptism. Because of the unfailing nature of God’s promise, and because of God’s once-and-for-all action in Christ, we give thanks! We return to those waters, remembering that we are redeemed children of God, that we receive forgiveness, that our whole lives revolve around what God has done. So much of our worship life is simply returning to God’s baptismal covenant, in which our ascended Lord is present. We give thanks that we are daily raised up to new life because of baptism.
In communion, we receive the true presence of the living Christ, knowing that death no longer has dominion over him. Jesus nourishes our faith and forgives our sin. Our spirit is fed at Jesus’ table, where we’re all invited, where we share a foretaste of the heavenly feast with Christ and the Church of all times and all places.
While it may seem that Jesus has departed from us and left us alone - it is quite the opposite. Because of God’s work through the sacraments, because Jesus is raised from the dead and ascended to the Father as our risen Lord, we know Christ can be and is present with us, even when and where it doesn’t seem like Jesus could be. This includes other moments of departure in our lives.
Ultimately, because of Jesus, we trust that none of the other departures we experience in our lives - be they departures of relationships, departures of health, the departure of life itself - none of it means a departure of God’s promise and love.
We have the promise of a love that is stronger than death, stronger than anything that happens. It is the promise of an empty tomb. It is the promise of an ascended Lord. It is the promise of water and Word, bread and wine. The promise that God’s love in Jesus Christ will not depart from us, ever.
And with those promises comes another: the gift of the Spirit. For this, at least in our passage today, we must wait. Yet, the disciples don’t really want to. They want the kingdom now. But, as in most cases, be careful what you wish for. Because God isn’t making things the same, like in the good ol’ days. Instead, the Spirit leads the disciples to a place where they will be light for the whole world, to be witnesses to the ends of the earth. They are to continue what Jesus started.
And we, washed with the promise of daily dying and rising; we, fed and nourished at the table of Jesus; we, given the gift of the Spirit; we, who have Jesus as Lord; we are not called to wait for an old-style kingdom to be restored, but instead, we are sent to live out God’s mission to redeem all nations, to take the Good News of Jesus to the ends of the earth. We continue what Jesus started.
On this, the second Sunday of Easter, we are tempted to let things go back to normal. And in some ways they will. But we know, that though things go back to normal, they aren’t the same. And thank God for that.
Christ is alive, but my bracket is dead. #thanksKansas
But onto more important issues.
Of course they were.
Of course the women were wondering about who would roll away the stone. After all, they had watched the whole thing – watched Jesus as he was nailed to the cross, saw the crowds and the bandits mocking him, looked on for Jesus’ final breath and death, oversaw Joseph collecting the body and placing it in a nearby tomb. The two Marys and Salome, along with some other women who had supported Jesus, had seen it all, including that huge stone rolled into place.
And after seeing it all, early on the day after the Sabbath, they went to the tomb, wishing to care for their teacher one more time. Perhaps their grief had clouded the thought process, or the craziness of the past three days broke up their routine, but for whatever reason they forgot about that stone. They started to worry about it while they were already on their way. They’ll never be able to get into the tomb now. What were they going to do?
They were faced with the reality of the situation. The facts were laid out in front of them, and some things don’t change. Big stones are hard to move.
And dead people stay dead.
And yet, when they rounded that final corner, they see that the stone had already been moved. The tomb is wide open.
This is the beginning of Mark’s account of Easter, and it starts at just the right place: with the cold hard facts we know won’t change…until they do.
Big stones don’t get moved, until they do.
Dead people stay dead, unless God acts.
As the young man announces to the women and to us, “Jesus is not here. He is going ahead of you. You will see him.” Jesus is alive. Resurrected. Not dead anymore. Just like he said; just like he promised.
The Easter story starts with the facts we know won’t change... until they do.
Today, Easter Day, God raises up hope -
hope for our world,
hope that big stones will be moved,
hope that the tomb is empty,
hope that death has lost its sting,
hope that Jesus is here and there and ahead and behind and in and with and under.
Because Jesus is alive! He is raised!
These are the new facts.
Jesus’ resurrected life brings hope to a disappointing world. Even throughout Jesus’ story, he brought hope despite what was happening, despite what the facts were, despite what disease or demon or even death was doing. Hope gets raised up, even in the disappointment.
And even in the disappointment of this particular story.
Yes, it is hard to think that there is disappointment in an Easter story, but it’s there if you look for it. Like I said, these women had seen it all: trial, death, burial, and now an empty tomb - and they say nothing to anyone! They were afraid! How… disappointing.
And yet, somehow, hope lives. Despite the terror and amazement, despite the silence and the screwups, despite death and disappointment, hope is raised up. And because we are gathered here today, we know that fear is not the end of the story; that is not how the story ends.
There is a reason to be hopeful - and it is not because of Jesus’ followers; it is because of Jesus himself. Jesus is alive. Jesus lives. Jesus is our hope. Christ is risen, alleluia!
The story ends today with the world seemingly the same as it always has been - people failing, disappointment all around, fear having the apparent last word. And yet, we know that the world is NOT the same as it always has been. The tomb is empty. Jesus is out. Christ is risen, alleluia!
The fact of the matter is, Jesus’ story is not over. The last word has not been spoken. Fear does not win. Death’s rock-hard place in our lives is rolled away.
When we are faced with the reality of our situation, the facts laid out in front of us, when we are gathered in a darkened hospital room, or have tears on our pillow, or dread the upcoming anniversary date, we can trust that God’s fact of love has the power to change what is true and insurmountable for us. Some things don’t change - can’t change, until they do.
Jesus’ story is not over. And because his story isn’t over, our story isn’t over either. The same hope Jesus brought then on that first Easter morning, he brings now: that death’s hold on us is only a fact until it isn’t.
We live in the openness of the tomb.
We live with the hope of a love that conquers death.
We live in a world where Jesus is alive.
The whole point of Easter is that the story continues - God makes sure of it.
So, how will your story continue? What world-determined facts of your life are now open to new possibilities because of this Easter day, because of Resurrection life? Go ahead, name it, claim it. The impossible is now possible. Facts are facts, until they aren’t. Big stones get rolled away. Dead are raised. Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, is alive.
God is still writing the story -
Jesus is here with us, because he is raised.
Jesus is ahead of us, meeting us in our world.
Jesus is behind us, redeeming our failed moments of terror and amazement.
Jesus is in our communities and our lives, with us in bread and wine, undergirding our faith and hope.
This is the story of Easter. A story that isn’t over yet. A story that gives us hope that the impossible is possible; that tombs are empty, that death leads to life, that Christ is alive and we shall live, too.
Christ is risen, alleluia! Alleluia. Alleluia.
God is supposed to bring us peace, right? God is supposed to deliver. And yet, when we look around our world, our country, even in our own hearts, peace is hard to come by.
God is supposed to be relentless, right? Always working, always persisting, never giving up. God is supposed to stay the course. God is supposed to deliver.
We have this hope - hope for peace, hope that God indeed will persist, hope that our fears will be gone.
Jesus, that is where you come in. You come to bring peace to our world, to our lives. You will save us from from all this. Our hopes are justified; our hopes are in the one true king - God’s chosen one - who entered Jerusalem, riding on donkey. What a day! What a celebration! Not everyone gets to ride into Jerusalem. It is reserved for the privileged few.
You rode; we walked alongside.
You led the way; we followed.
You are royalty, our hope.
We shouted, “Hosanna! The king is here!”
It was a grand welcome. It was this public affirmation of who you are, who we know you are. You are the king. Through you, God is going to bring us peace. I know it to be true; we all know it to be true.
Finally, God’s persistence through the centuries is going to be rewarded. You are going to do what it takes to save us, to protect us, to bring peace. That is what the parade was about. That is what the palms were about. That is what the hosannas were about.
Jesus, you are going to establish peace in this world, in this country, in our lives.
Yes, I realize you think the cards are stacked against you - but we expect you to defy the odds. You’ve done it your whole life. You’ve always done the impossible - healing the possessed, paralyzed, and impaired. Because that is the kind of king you are: you do what seems impossible.
And yes, we’ve all heard the rumors. There are plots out there - plots to get rid of you in one way or another. But you always have an answer, don’t you? You always have a way to cut right to the heart of the matter, to turn the tables on those Pharisees. If anyone can finally do it, if anyone can finally win, Jesus, it’s you.
Which is why this anointing thing is taking us all by surprise. This anointing is supposed to be a big deal - it was to us at first. You want to know who else was anointed? KINGS. David, for example, was anointed king. This is supposed to be more fuel for the kingly fire!
But then you say that she has anointed you for burial?
Burial? It may seem insurmountable - like things are getting heavy and stressful, but you always find a way to escape their petty entrapments. You’ll think of something. You’ll do something, or say something, or make something happen to get around this. You always do. You always escape.
You’ve got to. For us. We’ve got to have it. Jesus, you can beat this, beat them. It doesn’t have to end this way. You’ve just gotta fight. Be strong.
You are supposed to be kingly, getting prepared for life as a king - not being prepared to die.
Think about us! Are you just going to lay down? Acquiesce to the powers that be? What about our feelings, our hopes, our fears? What about us? We gave up everything - EVERYTHING - to follow you and now you’re just going to quit? Let them win? What about the peace you’re supposed to bring? What about the life and the kingdom you’re always talking about?
Is it not going to happen? Will we look back on today as the turning point of everything?
No, this isn’t peace. This is stupid. How naive. How naive I was to think that you could actually conquer the powers of this world. Your heart is in the right place, but you don’t have what it takes. It’s like you’re limited - limited by your compassion. You can’t follow through with what needs to be done. You are held back from being great by what you think God wants.
You know what? This isn’t what God wants. You think God wants a dead prophet?
Or, maybe worse, maybe God isn’t even here, never was. How could God be here with this plan of inaction? With death on the horizon? God doesn’t die - God doesn’t lose. God isn’t here with you or with us.
You know what they’re going to do to you, right? They don’t take this kind of half-hearted rebellion lightly. They’re going to crucify you, you know that? Nail you to that cross bar and hang you there. Is that really what you want? So, fight! Do something. Get rid of them, otherwise they’ll get rid of you.
Well, I guess you’ve done what you could. And kind of like that woman who poured all that expensive oil on you, she did what she could. What a waste. Both of you. You’ve done what you could and it isn’t enough, not nearly enough to do what we want.
This isn’t how the story is supposed to end. It’s not how the parade is supposed to end.
Jesus, to me, to us, to this movement, to this world, you’re a failure. A failure.
You could’ve done so much - given so much. Instead, it looks like you’re dead set on giving your life.
Huh. Peace. We’ll see what kind of peace we get out of you.
What are we going to do with a dead savior? Better yet, what’s God going to do with a dead savior?
I guess in the days to come we’ll see how relentless God really is.
Before we get into the meat of the sermon, I want to point out two ironies about today’s lesson:
First, do you see the irony in having a text that says, “keep awake,” when we just had our Spring Forward time change and lost an hour of sleep?
Second, do you see the irony in having a text talking about the destruction of the temple - “not one stone will be left upon another stone” - the day we announce our “Raise the Roof” campaign?
Let’s hope it is more funny irony and not prophetic irony…
But yes, today’s text is all about, in common parlance, the end of the world as we know it. Many people throughout time - even dating back to when the Gospel of Mark was initially written - have tried to decipher the question we all want to know: “When is it going to happen?” Every few years or so, some guy determines he’s figured it out, picks a date based on some “evidence” in the Biii-bull, a bit of media hoopla ensues, and the “end of the world” comes and goes without so much as thunderstorm.
So far, everyone has misunderstood the signs - or, I would argue, misunderstood the intent of - these passages all together. There is no doubt that these passages are meant to point us to Christ’s ultimate victory and God’s triumph over all that is wrong and messed up in our world. But, I think there is a little bit more to it than just, “Jesus will come back some day and we’ve got to figure it out so we can be on our best behavior when he shows up.” Pay attention to the parable at the end of our lesson today.
The master of the house goes on a journey. We as the servants don’t know when the master will be back - be it in the evening, or at midnight, or at cock-crow, or very early in the morning. We’re just told to “keep awake.”
Here, on the cusp of Holy Week though, these times give us new insight into how we see Jesus as God’s victory and triumph. The parable starts off in the evening, just like when Jesus shares a final meal with his disciples. Then, there is midnight, like the time of the betrayal in the garden. At cock-crow, Peter denies. And in the morning, Jesus is convicted to die.
While we look to Jesus’ to bring the end with pyrotechnics and a laser light show, Jesus points to the cross as the end of the world as we know it. Jesus’ death is the world altering event, the time of the God’s triumph, the event to mark Christ’s coming in glory and power. God’s future - the future we are waiting for, longing to know when - breaks into our world in the cross.
And now, when we are told to “keep awake,” it isn’t so we can pass some Divine pop-quiz that could show up at any moment. Instead, Jesus invites us to be ready now, because the victory we are waiting on is all around us. In the cross, God reveals grace, mercy, and new life to us and to the entire world. We know that love is here already. Keep awake; be on the lookout for God’s love all the time because God’s future has broken into our world.
I realize that I’ve kind of put a damper on all the sky ripping and earth crumbling. I’m sorry if that disappoints you. But a lot of that imagery does more harm than good. We think God isn’t around because we don’t see those huge, spectacular kind of events. No pyrotechnics, no God, right?
Wrong. It’s like buds on a fig tree, Jesus says. Subtle, but they’re there when you take a moment to look. Forget the idea that God only works through fire and parting of seas. In the story of the Bible, much of how God works is through the ordinary faithfulness of men and women - stuff that would make a pretty boring movie.
So, where have you seen God’s future of grace, mercy, and new life break into our world today? It doesn’t have to be cataclysmic. God works in ordinary, humdrum, even mundane ways… well, ordinary and humdrum unless you’ve actually experienced it.
So, again, where have you seen God’s future break into our world?
It could be in the commitment of a friend,
in a shoulder to cry on,
in tiny arms hugging your neck,
in warm sunshine on your face,
in a long-awaited phone call from a sibling,
in supporting someone,
in someone supporting you.
Where do you see God now?
It may be subtle - like buds on a fig tree - but as we pay attention, we know a victorious Jesus is near, even right now.
Which leads us back to the Temple. I’m not going to go into a whole lot of detail on Jewish thought about the destruction of the Temple, but I am going to say that, since the whole point of this passage is to show us God’s victory in Jesus,
to tell us to pay attention to how God breaks in here and now,
and to remind us that God shows up in subtle ways which are easy for us to miss, I think the destruction of the Temple is just another way of saying, “pay attention - everywhere, all the time!”
God isn’t contained to a building, so maybe our faith shouldn’t be, either. When we are boppin’ along in our regular life, God’s victory is there - in sometimes subtle ways; our task as Christians is to make those ways obvious to those around us - to acknowledge that God is present in each aspect of our lives: our work, our hobbies, our joys, our pains. As we acknowledge that God is there, regular life becomes holy life - life aware of God’s goodness and grace, no matter what it is we are doing.
Sometimes making God obvious in our daily life looks like singing hymns at Mellow Mushroom - a time, a place, a way people don’t often associate with God’s presence;
sometimes pointing to God looks like a quiet, one-on-one conversation - a way to more deeply and personally invest and share;
sometimes acknowledging God happens and shapes a meal shared with friends, turns a betrayal with forgiveness, reinvigorates an old relationship with new life. God’s future breaks into our world. We only need to notice. Regular life is holy life; holy life is new life.
We are invited to watch for a victorious God, who shows up in our lives in routine and magnificent ways. And when will this happen? Well, it already has. And it does now. And it will again.
So, keep awake. God is going to deliver new life.
Some would say Jesus is arguing. I look at it as having “strong conversations.” In his slow and steady march to the cross, Jesus has been in a lot of strong conversations. The Bible keeps saying Jesus was “teaching,” but I think we can see through that guise. The Pharisees and scribes keep trying to trap Jesus - get him to slip up and say something that will turn the tide in their favor. But Jesus keeps answering “well.” It seems their plan will have to be put off for another week.
Today, we get several moments of “teaching” - ranging from traditional insights all the way up to warnings about the scribes (that’s where we get into “strong conversation” territory).
First, we have the greatest commandment - something we are pretty familiar with. This is the least controversial of the conversations we hear today. A scribe asks Jesus, “what is the greatest commandment?” He replies with two… maybe a 1a and a 1b, you could say. Quoting the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus recites the Shema: “you shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And the second is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
As I said, this is the least controversial piece of what we hear today. Jesus’ answer is nothing radical; it is something any good Jew would applaud. The greatest commandment - the thing to do above all things - is love. It is the common thread between 1a and 1b. Love. It isn’t just about you and God or God and you; it involves how you love those around you, too.
The second conversation kicks the tension up a bit. Jesus questions some long held beliefs about the Messiah being a conquering war-king who will wipe out all the bad guys. That, in some people’s minds, is what David’s heir was supposed to do. Jesus calls that into question: how can David’s heir be greater than David? Not that big of a deal for us, really, but a little unsettling for those who were convinced about the Messiah.
The third conversation is where everything starts to get more interesting. I want to reiterate that Jesus is still in the temple - the place where the scribes, the pharisees, and the religious elite hung out - and he says, “Beware of the scribes!” Uh oh. “They like to wear fancy robes.” Oh boy. “They like to be brown nosed.” Oh boy again. “They destroy the widow’s livelihood.” He sure has a lot to critique.
I think we get his point. Beware of false piety. The scribes were seeking to be great in the eyes of others (and probably trying to be great in God’s eyes, too). Everything they did was for the sake of appearances.
Which takes us to our last scene: the widow and her two copper coins. No arguing here! Only a shining example of stewardship! That is true commitment; she is able to part with her possessions.
But is that what we are supposed to get here? A mere positive example? I think on its own, taken out of the “strong conversation” context, yes, this is a shining example of stewardship - someone giving up all they have - even if it is just a little bit - to support the Temple or church or God or mission, you name it.
But taking this story in line with all these “strong conversations” gives us a different perspective - and a non-traditional perspective at that. Jesus JUST TALKED ABOUT how the scribes destroy widow’s lives - and now, here is a widow giving everything she has to support those very religious elite. Remember the greatest commandment? Particularly 1b about loving your neighbor? Where is the love of neighbor when a widow feels compelled to give everything she has and still has to survive? Jesus is, in short, hammering against Temple practice and those who allow, let alone encourage, this woman to give “all she had to live on.”
We have this nostalgic idea of this woman going all in - what a shining example that is! When really, maybe this widow’s giving should point the finger at us. We should be going all in with love for neighbor so that others don’t have to give their very last copper coins. To say it another, maybe more pointed, way: does our concern for what happens in church on Sunday morning exceed our concern for our neighbor?
That one stings a bit, doesn’t it? But, I think that is what Jesus is really getting at. The religious elite focus more on appearance than application; on looks instead of love; on niceties instead of neighbors.
Jesus gives us teaching after teaching, and here, a prime example that calls out the religious elite. Someone the scribes had overlooked, Jesus saw. Someone the Temple never noticed, Jesus recognized. Someone we wouldn’t even care about, Jesus brings to our attention.
No one notices or cares or sees. But Jesus does. God does. God sees her, notices her, cares about her.
That is the God we worship. That is the Messiah we follow. It is a God who notices those whom everyone else overlooks. In the widow’s struggles, in her lowest point, God notices; Jesus cares - cares enough to call out the “religious” folks around her.
Which leads me to believe that God notices us, too. Sure, we often try to get noticed in one way or another, but God notices what others don’t see. While we may have more than two copper coins, there are times when we feel like we ourselves are worth less than that. There are moments, days, months where we just wish things had worked out differently. We may be a widow. We may not have much. We may feel like if we give any more of ourselves, we will be empty. We may be at the end. We may feel overlooked, unfulfilled, like we are fending for ourselves.
And yet, God cares. Jesus notices. And Jesus invites us to notice others. Just like he did for his disciples, Jesus invites us to look up, look around, open our eyes, see those who need to be noticed and cared for - see those who need to be loved. Afterall: there is a 1b to go along with that 1a. Love God, love neighbor.
God cares. God invites us to care, too.
Jesus invites us into a new relationship, a new way to love God and love one another. And that is what worship, at its best, is about. Worship on Sunday mornings isn’t an achievement in and of itself. Instead, it is a springboard out of this place so that we may love. Here, we are reminded of God’s love in all the amazing and beautiful ways we can experience it: through music, words, and songs; in colors, light, and decoration; in movement of body and mind and soul; in the touch, taste, and smell of bread and wine; in the presence and closeness of God and neighbor. All of it is meant to do one thing: show us the brilliance and beauty of God’s love for you and for me.
So, why oh why does that love stay here? Shouldn’t the love and grace we experience and proclaim and receive here in this place translate into something more in our lives? Love God, love neighbor. We gather and are reminded and filled with God’s love, so that when we see someone down and out - someone who is broken, lonely, afraid, grieving, hungry, a widow giving all she has… we can step in with love. And when we are that someone… when we are broken, lonely, afraid, grieving, hungry, a widow… others can step in with love, be with us, notice us, care for us, share with us the promise and hope we have in God.
That is how God wishes it to be. Love God, love neighbor. Notice God, notice neighbor. Because God loves us and notices us. Because the Messiah we follow loves us and notices us. He lived 1a and 1b. And along the way to the cross, he teaches us, he helps us notice, he gives us grace, he goes all in - all in so we can gain.
So we can live. So we can have love.
This is a pretty obvious parable, especially for someone who has spent over 35 years in the church and has a masters degree in theology. I get it; it’s easy!
The landowner is clearly God and the vineyard represents Israel. The Tenants are the religious leaders of the time - the pharisees, the chief priests, the scribes, etc. The servants the landowner repeatedly sends are the prophets throughout the years, and the Son is Jesus.
The tenants/Pharisees obviously think they know what is best and are selfish and greedy and will do anything they can to keep what they have - even kill those whom God sends, AND EVEN if it is the beloved Son. It’s pretty clear - and I guess it has to be since the chief priests knew it was about them right away. What a crazy parable about a bunch of crazy tenants.
It’s so obvious. Amen?
And then I thought, maybe it’s too obvious. Could it be that simple? And if it is that simple, where do we fit in? Which ones are we?
Are we simply “the others” God gives the vineyard to? Are we the new tenants?
So then, is this parable a warning for us not to do the same?
Do we handle things differently than the tenants in the parable? Really?
Are we just as guilty of the same sins?
What messengers of God have I rejected? Have you rejected? Have we all rejected?
What is to stop God from getting fed up with us and tossing us out?
What a crazy parable!!!
And now, it’s not so easy.
When you view the parable in this way, one of two things happens: 1) It becomes easy to distance ourselves from the message because we aren’t crazy like those tenants are and thus it has zero impact on our lives OR 2) it becomes one rabbit hole after another - full of questions and convictions and more questions about our status and failures in God’s vineyard and thus integrally important to our lives.
But if we were to look at the parable from a different perspective... It isn’t about crazy tenants anymore; it is about a crazy landlord. I mean, really. Who would send servant after servant, only to have them beaten and cast out, some hit over the head, some killed - and after all this happens, send his own beloved son into that type of mess?
I would think that the right thing to do in that situation is to send in the police! Or an army or ninjas or something. What a crazy landlord. He doesn’t do things the way we smart, non-crazy people would.
And maybe that, THAT is the point of the parable. It is meant to show the gap between what seems right in our eyes and what God would do. It shows us God’s tenacity, God’s seemingly illogical persistence, God’s crazy love.
This parable, when viewed not looking first for ourselves, but looking first for God, shows a crazy love that keeps on coming, even to sending the beloved Son. It is enduring, tenacious, unrelenting. It is love no matter what.
As the father of two small children, we do a lot of reading. And while we read a variety of books, I always try to sneak in some of my favorites, one of which is titled, “I Love You Stinky Face.”
The book starts off with a mom telling her child that she loves them: “I love you, my wonderful child.” But the child has a question. “Mama, what if I were a big, scary ape? Would you still love me then?” To which the mom replies, “If you were a big, scary ape, I would make your birthday cake out bananas, and I would tell you, ‘I love you, my big, scary ape.’” To which the child replies, “But mama, but mama!” and rattles off some other creature which would be difficult to love: a skunk, nicknamed stinky face; a meat-eating dinosaur; a one eyed monster; and a green alien who eats bugs instead of peanut butter. And each time the mom replies with some action she would take - hamburgers for dinner, looking the child straight in the one eye, filling a lunch box with all the tastiest bugs you’ve ever seen... and, of course, conclude with an “I love you, my scary, meat-eating dinosaur.”
No matter what the child said or what the child was, the mom would keep coming back with a new way to show love. Relentless - even crazy ways to show love.
That is God in the parable. Relentless - even crazy in the desire to show love.
Now, some of the astute Biblical scholars among you may have noticed the end of the parable where the landlord will come and destroy those wicked tenants. Except, in real life, God never does destroy the pharisees or Israel or any of it. At least God hasn’t yet. The parable ends, but God keeps coming. Also in the parable, the Son is killed - end of story. But in God’s story, the Son is killed… and raised. God keeps coming.
The entire parable foreshadows what is about to happen. While the parable points to death and rejection, Jesus points a little further down the road. He hints that there is more to the story: “The stone that the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone” - the cornerstone of a whole new way of life. God keeps coming, and, instead of rejecting everything outright, God builds something new. Instead of death being the end, God builds something new.
God doesn’t reject us, but keeps coming.
God keeps coming, expecting that even now we’re tending the vineyard - doing what it is we’re supposed to be doing. That is where we are in the parable. We are tilling and planting. God is still the landowner who gives us everything so we can work, care, do his purposes. And of course, God expects a share - expects us to share - expects that all may have a share.
And while we work as a congregation to partner with God in many ways here in Myrtle Beach, the most obvious example of that today is Community Kitchen. It is a place whose mission it is to serve, to share. What other ways do we as a congregation make sure the vineyard is producing its share? How do we do that personally?
Yes, God still desires justice and righteousness and all that a proper, holy vineyard should produce, but in the end, this is a story of the enduring, tenacious, unrelenting, crazy love of God, who loves us us beyond our understanding and imagination, no matter where we find ourselves in this parable. God sends messenger after messenger, and when all else fails, God sends the beloved Son.
God sends the Son to us.
To show us how to live. To teach us about the kingdom. To feed us in bread and wine. To wash us clean. To convince us that God’s ways are the best ways. To die, to rise, to build something new.
To keep coming, to keep building, to keep raising us up.
That’s crazy love.
If it feels like we just did this scripture passage, it is because we kinda have. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus predicts and teaches the disciples about his death and resurrection three times in fairly short succession. Immediately following each of those predictions, though, the disciples royally screw up their response.
Going back a couple of weeks ago, after Peter confesses, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus gives the first prediction; being the Messiah means: go, suffer, die, rise. “Nuh-uh, Jesus,” Peter responds. (It is rarely a smart thing to rebuke Jesus.)
Then on our reading from Ash Wednesday: Jesus tells the disciples that he will be betrayed, killed, and rise again. So, in response, the disciples argue amongst themselves about which one is the greatest.
And today, we get Jesus saying that he must go to Jerusalem, be handed over, be condemned, be mocked and killed, and after three days… rise again. So, this time… Well, we’ll get there in a minute.
If there was a wall nearby, I’m sure Jesus was banging his head against it. But along with banging his head, each time the disciples screw up, Jesus takes them back to the basics of what it truly means that he is the Messiah.
Today, we get two scenes following Jesus’ third prediction and they are tied closely together by one simple thing: Jesus responds to each by saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” It is as if we are supposed to compare these two responses to Jesus. So, let’s do just that.
First, the disciples James and John come forward and ask Jesus, “We have something we want you to do for us.”
“What do you want me to do for you?”
The disciples want to sit at the highest places of honor. They still think the Messiah can’t suffer and die, that he certainly wants a hierarchy of assistants, and he surely will indulge their cravings for prestige and privilege. Which isn’t what Jesus came for. He came to serve. The disciples don’t see what he is talking about.
Second, by the road we have the blind man, Bartimaeus. He calls out, “Son of David! Jesus! Have mercy on me!” Jesus calls him over and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Let me see again.”
And Jesus makes it so he can see again. He recovers his sight and follows Jesus on the road.
Quite the contrast, right? In both scenes, the characters understand Jesus is the Messiah, but they respond in two different ways to Jesus. It would seem that the disciples are more blind than the blind man. James and John, though physically seeing, were spiritually blind; Bartimaeus, though physically blind, was spiritually seeing.
So, I have what seems like a dumb sounding question, but it gets to the root of the passage, I think. How do we see like the blind man? Because that is what we really want, right? We want faith like that - faith to see Jesus for who he is, faith that doesn’t keep quiet, faith that puts trust in Jesus even if you can’t see what is directly in front of you. A faith that is bold, confident, and insightful.
Because, unfortunately, I think a lot of times, we, like the disciples, just don’t get it.
We keep a super-safe faith where we say the right things about Jesus, but the words don’t really translate into us being any different, into actions that are in any way shaped by the one we confess as Messiah.
We, like the disciples, acknowledge that Jesus is Christ, but still wonder about our place, wonder about others’ place. We long to have a safe, secure, comfortable place for ourselves instead of making sure everyone just simply has a place.
We say that Jesus is the Messiah but don’t listen to a word he says about greatness, service, first and last. Somehow, all that is a personal, private thing and has nothing to do with real life. Does faith have no public consequence at all?
Faith in the Messiah - THIS Messiah - isn’t about saying the right things. The disciples said the right things. It isn’t about wanting a place of power or honor or being great. Jesus repeatedly says to stop thinking like that.
Faith in the Messiah, from what we read today, looks like the blind man Bartimaeus. Faith here is his unrelenting conviction that Jesus can and will rescue him from his need. We see and can learn this faith by what Bartimaeus does. He, apparently, gets it right - right after the disciples get it so wrong. So, back to my dumb question: how do we see like the blind man?
First and foremost, Bartimaeus is aware of his inadequacies. It may seem like an obvious thing, that a blind man would seek out Jesus, but he knows he needs Jesus’ help. The jump to our lives isn’t so hard. When we don’t see our need, we don’t see our need for Jesus. When we don’t see our need, he becomes a granter of privilege instead of the granter of mercy.
In our needs, where we are lacking, where we need forgiveness, Jesus gives us mercy. We all have our blind spots, our failures, our inadequacies. As we acknowledge our need, we acknowledge we need Jesus and only Jesus.
Next, he knows who Jesus is. Bartimaeus calls him, “Son of David,” which is a rather royal title, drawing on the name of Israel’s greatest king. The implications of this title will become more clear as the story progresses toward Jerusalem, but for now, we’ll just say that Bartimaeus knew Jesus to be a chosen one from God and sees royal dimensions to Jesus’ identity.
Jesus, the Son of David, is the Savior who gives of mercy, restoration, healing, and wholeness. The blind man never lost sight of that.
Third, he asks for the right thing. Jesus did not come to bestow power and honor but to open eyes to the new realities made possible when God is present. When it comes to understanding what Jesus has come to do, the disciples James and John are more blind than Bartimaeus because they ask for status. Bartimaeus asks for compassion and grace.
Finally, Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way, even to a difficult situation. His words, his awareness, his faith led to action - and not action that led to a seat at the right or at the left - but action that led to a cross. Faith means following - being moved from ALONGSIDE the road Jesus walks to walking ON the road with Jesus as he walks. And that way takes us to places of a servant. A slave. Last.
That’s how you see like a blind man. Know who you are: in need; know who Jesus is: God’s chosen; know what Jesus will do: serve; and follow along. This isn’t a faith that we too often see - especially from people touting how faithful they are. And it isn’t a faith we - me included - have too often.
But that’s why Jesus comes to us, isn’t it? Because we so often forget how to respond.
Jesus keeps walking along. And all may follow - whether we’re healed or learning to be healed; whether we’re servants or learning to be servants; whether we’re self-aware or self-important. He’ll teach us along the way about death and life, about cross and tomb, about first being last. He knows we feel inadequate yet don’t too readily admit it. So, he’ll share himself with us - in a meal, in a splash, in word of grace - all so we can know again who he is.
And we may ask some dumb questions. We’ll ask the wrong things, look for the wrong rewards. Jesus may bang his head against the wall… but he’ll bring us back to the basics: “Remember what I did for you. Remember the life I give to you. You are saved. You are made well. You are forgiven. Go. Be servant of all. Walk on the road with me.”
And he’ll do it again. And again. And again.
Because that’s what it means to be the Messiah.
Today, we pick up the story of Jesus shortly after the events of last week’s big reveal: Jesus is the Messiah who must go to Jerusalem, be rejected, suffer, be killed, and be raised. He reiterates that mission, as we heard on this past Ash Wednesday, right before the disciples argue amongst themselves about who is the greatest. Jesus explains to them what true greatness looks like.
So, it is along this journey to Jerusalem, with Jesus’ teachings on discipleship still ringing in our ears, that this man comes to ask him a question.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? Hmm. Good question - a genuine question. He isn’t trying to trip Jesus up like the Pharisees or other people do. He really wants to know, it seems.
The conversation starts off fine. Do the commandments. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t cheat, honor your father and mother. BOOM. We can do that. I’m all for not murdering; I’m all for family and safe neighborhoods. It seems like a nice list that we in middle-class America can get behind. The demands sound reasonable and pretty straightforward. Consider it done, Jesus.
But then Jesus says, “Oh, and one more thing…”
Go, sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All of a sudden your Lenten discipline to give up chocolate for the next 40 days seems a little inadequate, doesn’t it?
I wish I had one of those record-scratch sound effects.
Go, sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. *scrrrrrrratch*
Talk about tension between our lives and following Jesus. When we hear what Jesus said, a zillion things happens inside us. I mean, just think, how would you react if you were told to sell whatever you own and give it to the poor?
We would quickly work through the 5 stages of grief, wouldn’t we?
Denial - Nope. No way he said that. Did he say that? He didn’t mean that. Did he mean that? Anger - Really, Jesus? You just want me to get rid of everything? Become homeless, a beggar? There are already enough poor people. I don’t need to become a burden to society by giving away everything. How dare you even suggest such a thing.
Bargaining - OK, so, I get your point. How about I just acknowledge that I should prize following you more than I do my couch or something? If I understand that you are more important than all my stuff, is that ok? Can we continue on, pretend this conversation never happened?
Depression - Wealth is every problem’s solution, and why can’t it be so here? Like the man in the story, we probably leave sad because we can’t get what we want by also having what we want.
Then, Acceptance - Well, I’m not sure we really get here.
And because we don’t really get to the point of accepting Jesus’ proposition at face value, we interpret Jesus’ message through some sort of lens - be it spiritual or general or otherwise. It isn’t that we can’t learn things by selectively applying Jesus’ prescription for living - especially when we get so caught up in a desire to acquire. Applying certain characteristics of his message can help us refocus on what is most important in our lives.
But at the end of the day, after we have done our best mental gymnastics to make this text say something less upsetting to our values system, we are still left with Jesus standing in front of us saying, “Go, sell whatever you own and give it to the poor.” Our spin, our perspective, our rationale doesn’t relieve the tension of this text. Jesus keeps the pressure on us, on all disciples, relative to wealth, to stuff. Go. Sell. Give.
If this message does not take our breath away, if we are not shocked, appalled, grieved, or amazed, we either haven’t heard what Jesus is saying or we’ve heard it so often that we don’t really hear it any more.
And I think that is Jesus’ point. We need to be shocked, appalled, grieved, and amazed. We need to realize we can’t do it.
But God can.
So, be it the Kingdom of God, or eternal life, or salvation, or whatever you want to call it, Jesus demands our best obedience to the Law, as well as all we own. It will literally take all we have, both in and out. That’s impossible for us.
But nothing is impossible for God.
And thinking about it a bit more, even all we have, along with all we can do, is not enough to achieve the life we seek.
Because, what still happens if we have everything? If we could have everything in the world that we wanted? We would still die. We are still dust.
What happens if we give everything away? If we lived only by the goodness of God and our neighbors - living day to day like the sparrows or the lilies? We would still die, still are dust. Who has any chance on their own? With God, you have every chance in the world.
I think Jesus has driven that point home. It is impossible for us - like a camel through the eye of a needle. But God can do it. God can do the impossible. God can bring the Kingdom. God can give us life. God can even raise the crucified. So, yeah, God can do it... for us.
It would seem to me, then, that the question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” is the wrong question to ask. Because the answer is “nothing.” Nothing we do - CAN do - will cause us to inherit eternal life. So, maybe the point of Jesus’ answer - both initially with the Commandments and then with the selling of all possessions - maybe the point is to take our minds off of ourselves and direct us to our neighbor.
All the Commandments he listed have to do with other people; none of them have to do with us. All of the possession-selling is about caring for others, not ourselves. Maybe Jesus is teaching us here that it isn’t about us or what we want or what we can do - as possible or impossible as it is. God has taken care of the impossible things we strive for.
Our job here and now is to handle the possible things: care for each other. Do the hard work of being a disciple, of caring for others. To live out a mission that is bigger than us. To partner with God in bringing the Kingdom here, to make life eternal now, to be disciples who don’t think twice about giving all that they have and all that they are to the mission of God’s Kingdom.
Because in the end, it’s not about who can be saved; it is about where Christ is going.
It is about the cross of Christ, about dying and rising, about us following that kind of Messiah.
It’s about the inheritance we receive upon his death. Because of Jesus, our inheritance is eternal life. Impossible for us, yet totally, completely, most-assuredly possible with God.
“What were you arguing about along the way? ...
The silence was deafening - they had been arguing with one another over who among them was the greatest.”
Arguing about who among them was the greatest.
Seems a bit absurd for the disciples to be talking about this, don’t you think? And while it isn’t something we openly talk about, striving for greatness is engrained in our society. Anything less is, well, failure.
That word, “great,” gets thrown around all the time - everything from the greatest country in the world to the greatest quarterback to play the game to “they have great shrimp tacos.” There is always some form of pecking order for things. Someone is always above - or below - where you are.
And while we may not say it exactly like this, life, then, becomes about not dropping down a rung - not losing livelihood, or status, or control, or power - not losing anything that gains us some sort of advantage in life. And if you can do the opposite of dropping down by moving up a rung, that’s great!
And while I don’t know if any of us would argue face to face with another human being about who is greater, the constant implication is there. All the pieces are in place for setting up hierarchy. Look around. Just look around. Listen to the discourse happening all around us every day.
What were you arguing about along the way?
The silence should be deafening.
Jesus breaks the silence.
First is last. Be the servant of all.
On Ash Wednesday, what we hold most true gets turned upside down.
What we see as a most coveted way of living gets turned upside down.
What we long for in the here and now gets turned upside down.
What we want for us, for our kids, for our leaders, for our country… Jesus turns it upside down.
To us, greatness is associated with life - greatness IS life. The greater the life we have, the greater we are.
But Jesus says the opposite.
Greatness isn’t about having the life we want; it is ensuring that others have the life they need.
Real greatness comes from how we treat those who are last.
True greatness is building up the bottom even though we could be alone at the top.
Greatness is welcoming one such as this.
And to show that, Jesus - a dignified, respectable, great teacher - scoops up a child. A child. One who needs simple things done for her. One who is reliant on love and care from others. One who is considered in that day and time to be weak and insignificant.
Jesus says and shows that greatness is hospitality to the one who is most vulnerable, who is last, who is even less than a loser in the ways of the world.
The shock, realization, and honesty of Ash Wednesday is we see what rung we are really on. If greatness is life - the life we want - well, we are all going to be least and last at some point. Nothing makes one more vulnerable than death. Despite all the bravado and noise of this world, today we admit our perceived, yet finite greatness. Like it or not, we will lose life.
Today, we proclaim that we are dust. Those ashes are powerful things.
What were you arguing about along the way?
Our greatness comes into perspective.
I have a good friend, whom some of you know, who recently underwent surgery and treatment for cancer. Things look good, he feels good, but his treatment is such that he won’t be attending worship today. As he was reflecting on that, he said to me, “I haven’t missed an Ash Wednesday service in my adult life. I guess I will just have to imagine the radiation is my substitute for ashes this year.”
And that hit me. Today, we wear ashen crosses on our foreheads as a visible sign of our mortality; we wear a visible cross to admit. To remind. But there are signs of our weakness, of our vulnerability, of our finite greatness all around us; they don’t just show up on Ash Wednesday with smudges of palm ash; they are around us in invisible ways everyday.
But because of Jesus, there also is grace in our everyday.
Out of no other motivation than love and grace, Jesus, who lowered himself on the cross and was raised in greatness, now lowers himself to serve us who are dead last. Jesus came for those on the bottom, even though he could be alone at the top. He came to welcome ones such as us.
We who have ashen foreheads. We who undergo radiation. We who have scars. We who hide the addiction. We with bad knees. We who argue about greatness. We who have dropped down a rung or two. We who think the world of ourselves. We who are dust.
Jesus shows us God’s greatness by ensuring that we have the forgiveness, the grace, the life we need. Jesus, the servant of all, scoops us up like a child in his arms forever. Jesus holds us. Jesus serves us. Jesus loves us.
Jesus gives us love and life and grace in our everyday.
This morning, I gave ashes to the preschool kids and parents as they came in for the day. There is something about putting ashes on a three-year-old’s forehead… and I told them, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” but I had to add “and remember that nothing will take you away from Jesus’ love.”
Nothing will take you away from Jesus’ love.
And while I won’t say that to you in a few minutes, I’m will say it to you now:
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
And also remember that nothing - nothing - will take you away from Jesus’ love.
“Who do people say that I am?,” Jesus asks.
You can’t get any more straightforward than that, I suppose. Who do people say that Jesus is? Some say he is a prophet. Some say he is a forerunner. Some say he is a great teacher, a fabulous role model, a misunderstood Jewish itinerant preacher. Jesus is a pest. Jesus is nobody.
All these answers are based on what Jesus has done so far in his ministry. As we’ve been reading through the Gospel of Mark, the question of who Jesus is has been answered in powerful deeds and miracles, in comforting stories and teachings. Jesus is the one who heals. Jesus is the one who feeds. Jesus is the one who brings the Kingdom of God. Crowds - large crowds - have gathered to hear and see.
But that is not really what Jesus is getting at.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter pipes up: the Messiah!
Which, you know, good on him. He gets the right answer. It is something that we as the readers of the Gospel have known since verse 1 - that Jesus is the Christ - but no one else knows. Demons hint at it - you are a holy man of God! - but that doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. It isn’t until this point in the story that anyone or anything gets the right answer about Jesus. And Peter is the one to do it. You are the Messiah. You are the Christ.
The obvious homiletical move at this point is to turn Jesus’ question from the 1st Century disciples to 21st Century disciples. Who do you, pew sitter, say Jesus is?
No doubt, if you’ve been to church throughout the years, you’ve heard sermons on that very question. I didn’t check through my own personal archives, but I am sure I’ve preached that sermon, too.
Who do you say Jesus is? It’s actually a question we’re pretty comfortable answering. You know why we’re comfortable with it? Do you know why that is an easy sermon to preach? Because the focus stays on us. It is about our answer. We become the subject; Jesus becomes the object. It’s easy to talk about us and who we say Jesus is.
Well, welcome to the turning point. Today, the story is no longer about who we say Jesus is.
Up until this point in the Gospel, the things Jesus has done appeal to the human perspective. They are things we can get behind. Healing, feeding, and teaching. From our point of view, this is what Jesus should be doing. That’s who people say Jesus is. That’s who you and I say Jesus is.
But now, after this turning point, the story is about who Jesus says he is.
And who does Jesus say that he is?
He is the one who must go, suffer, be rejected, be killed, and rise again.
That is not who Peter says he is. It’s not even who we say Jesus is, if we are really honest about it.
Peter speaks up to protest - to make his vision of the Messiah known.
Jesus shuts him down. No, Peter. That’s not right.
Jesus is the one who follows God’s mission, and following God isn’t winning in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of Peter, even in the eyes of you and me.
Such is the way of the Messiah.
It is a way no one really wants to travel. It is a way of denial of self. A way of losing oneself. A way of forfeiting what we think is most important. That’s not the way to appeal to us.
This whole story of who Jesus is - who people say Jesus is, who we say Jesus is, who Jesus says he is - the whole thing culminates in the biggest question of all: who does God say that Jesus is?
And God says, “this is my Son, the Beloved.” Jesus is God’s own. And it is evident. We get glory. Brightness. Holy. Mountain top. Overwhelming.
Peter here, again pipes up. “It is good for us to be here.”
Ok, great Peter. Here’s the guy who gets so much wrong;
the obtuse disciple who, as luck should have it, got the one big question right;
again he blurts out something and we wait for Jesus to come back at him. We wait for: “Peter, it’s not about spiritual experiences; the Son of Man came to serve!”
And we wait for it… wait for it… But, no.
No correction, no rebuking, no “get behind me, Satan.”
And I wonder if Jesus doesn’t rebuke Peter because, well, Peter’s right. It is good to be there.
Even if Peter - even if WE - don’t really know what is going on…
gazing upon Christ, who is changed to shine with the light of God… that is good.
In that moment, in one instant of transfigured clarity, the humanity of Jesus bursts forth with the eternal glory of God, and it is good.
In that instant Peter/we glimpse the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become like God. And that is good.
God became like us so that we, one day, could be like God.
Who does God say Jesus is? Well, look and see.
No, this story is not about us anymore - at least not like we think it is. It is about Jesus.
This story is about Jesus, who goes to the places that suffer in our world, who does not shy away from the pain we have, who works through weakness, and willingly shows up in places like a cross.
This story is about Jesus, who also rises, who ascends to a mountain top and takes us along, who radiates the glory of God, shines the light of God’s love, and transfigures this world.
This story is about Jesus, who invites us into the presence of God.
As I said, this is a turning point.
Along with the narrative, today marks a turning point in the church year, too. This week, we transition to the season of Lent. In this turning point story, we get a microcosm of what Lent is about: We meet the Messiah. We see the path of suffering and death. We go to the cross, the losing of one’s life. And we see the glory at the end of it.
For the next forty days, this is our journey - our journey with Jesus.
It is a journey that happens every day. A journey that maybe isn’t as evident as a transfiguration, but happens on mountain tops as well as journeys to the cross. Jesus is with us every day; there is grace in our every day.
Who do people say that Jesus is?
Who do we say Jesus is?
Who does Jesus say that he is?
Who does God say that Jesus is?
He is our Messiah. He invites us into the presence of God. And it is good to be there.
I know how Jesus felt.
I’m probably not supposed to say that, but at least I think I kind of, maybe have an idea as to how Jesus felt going back home to his hometown.
Like many/most of you, I did not grow up in Myrtle Beach, even though it does show up part of my history. What I consider my hometown is Lexington, SC - just outside of Columbia. And whenever we go home, we often stop by and worship at the church where I spent most of my adolescence. And whenever we do, I always get this feeling like I never grew up. I’m still that goofy little 8th grader in everyone’s eyes.
I have preached and helped to lead worship a couple of times. I’ve even baptized a niece and a nephew there. And the whole time I’m up front, I see these people from my past and I wonder what they are thinking.
There are old Sunday school teachers and I wonder if they remember the time I hid the Sunday school curriculum in the ceiling tiles because I didn’t want to have class that day.
There are some old friends - some of my best friends - who I don’t talk to very much any more. Life takes you in different directions.
There are my parents, sister, brother... and wonder what they think seeing me up there, especially considering what stories are they know about me.
Then, of course, there are the long-time members who no doubt at some point saw me lighting candles as an acolyte or picking up their communion cup or passing the offering plate their direction. When they talk to me after the service are they going to say, “I’ve known you since you were this big!” or do they even remember who I am?
All this is to say that I can understand how Jesus may have felt going home.
But my homecomings are probably like most people’s when they return after some time away; it’s a little odd seeing people considering the completely new context, but it’s not bad. Jesus’ reception on the other hand, is a little more… unwelcoming. The hometown crowd seems to think of Jesus in ways like, “who does he think he is!” or “he’s gotten too big for his britches!”
Now, why they would think this, I don’t really know: jealousy, uncertainty, whatever. But what I do know is that because they felt this way, it somehow limited Jesus’ power. He could do no deeds of power among them. Somehow, these people’s unbelief, these people’s doubt or jealousy or anger or confusion limited what Jesus could do in their midst.
So, what is going on here?
I have to admit, that this confuses me and actually makes me a little uneasy.
The reason is, at the core of my belief is that God does not need us to do anything. God is not limited by our faithfulness or unfaithfulness. God is not confined by what we say or what we do. God is not restricted by our whims or wants and God can and does accomplish God’s purposes with our help or not. That, to me, is the heart of Lutheran theology - saved by grace through faith. It is all up to God. It is by grace we are saved, not by anything we do or don’t do. All of our work, all of our faith - that is just a trust and a response to what God has already promised for us. God has saved us because that is what God wants.
So, to hear that Jesus’ power is limited because of these people’s pettiness... It makes me ask the question, “what kind of a God is that?”
It is the kind of God who is still involved in our world and who uses us to carry out God’s mission. Let me explain a little more.
Despite this scene, Jesus still brings the Kingdom of God. It is what we’ve been hearing about all through the Gospel story so far. Jesus brings God’s Kingdom of grace and love in surprising ways. And no matter what kind of limits human beings have tried to place on Jesus, God’s Kingdom still showed up.
At the end of our passage today, we even get a foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus in what happens to John the Baptist. Talk about a way to put limits on Jesus’ power. Humanity tried our best to limit what Jesus was doing, and God still accomplished things beyond our imagination. God has taken care of the big picture - despite us, despite Jesus’ family, despite what this world wills and wants.
God takes care of the big picture. And that is the context for Jesus sending out those disciples. No food, no extra clothing, none of the things you’d think they’d need. Just a trust and a faith in God’s gracious Kingdom. What they trusted in, that is what they spread.
That is the context for Jesus sending us. We aren’t sent out to make God’s Kingdom happen; we are sent out to share the fact we know God is up to something. We as Christians believe that God has shown us love in Jesus Christ - a love so deep and so strong, that diseases, disasters, addictions, or death doesn’t - can’t - hold it back. What a hopeful message we have to share.
And yet, some how, we don’t do as good a job as those disciples. We who know the full story, who know what Jesus went through, we who know what God has done, we don’t do as good of a job as disciples who at this point in the story miss the point altogether.
Are we too familiar with Jesus? So familiar that we limit his work in some way? Sometimes, yeah, I think we use what we learned in second grade Sunday school class about him and don’t see how he could possibly be saying anything different now.
Are we too attached to our way of living, way of being, way of doing church that we don’t “go” as Jesus intends to send? We certainly don’t like to leave any provisions behind. We like the comfort and familiarity that we have in our lives, in this place.
Are we afraid? Are we afraid that if we do this whole Jesus/Kingdom thing right, we might end up like John the Baptist *gggskkkktttthhh* - or at the very least, have a strained relationship with the “powers that be”? That if we start living that way, the world will start to look at us funny, as if we’ve lost our head?
There are so many reasons - excuses - to keep the Kingdom to ourselves, to NOT be sent.
What we trust in, that is what we spread.
Ultimately, what it takes is for us just to trust that grace is the best way to live.
That God has - DOES - will take care of the big picture and our job is just to share that. As we go about our days trusting that Jesus has us, we remember and believe and trust that the way Jesus lived - yeah, that’s the right way to live. Grace begins to influence our lives. Grace begins to direct us. Grace begins to be spread.
Then we start to see new ways to open up the kingdom to others. We meet Jesus again, as if for the first time. We start to spread grace - and we’re less afraid to do so. We’re open to relationships over rules. We see a simple meal of bread and wine as a family meal where Jesus feeds us. We see a love engulfing us and this world - and we can’t help but spread the news.
We are called to be more than homebodies or a hometown crowd. We are called to be the Church, to be Jesus’ apostles, to be God’s partners in sharing big-picture grace in this world.
Because, despite what we currently think,
or what we remember about way back when,
God’s mission here and now is composed of people like you and me.
You and I help make it what it is.
It will be friendly, if we are.
Its pews will be filled, if you and I help fill them.
It will do great work, if you and I work.
It will make generous gifts to many causes, if we are generous givers.
It will bring other people into its worship and fellowship, if you and I invite and bring them.
It will be a mission, a partnership, a Church where people grow in faith and serve God, if you and I are open to such growth and service.
With God’s big picture guiding the way, we are sent to do just that.
Jesus? Yeah, I’d heard about him. Seemed everyone heard about him.
There were all these stories flying around town about this traveling Rabbi. Some said he taught with an authority, not like the scribes. There were rumors that he could cast out demons and heal all kinds of illnesses. There’s even this story going around about this group of friends who broke through someone’s roof and lowered their paralyzed friend down so Jesus could make him walk again.
Of course, there were skeptics, too. They claimed he was a fraud - nothing more than a quick-witted carpenter, preying on people’s emotions and entertaining the crowds with stories - parables, he called them. Too bad no one understood them.
As for me, I wasn’t sure.
Until that one fateful day…
My daughter woke up one morning not feeling well. And yes, she did look a little down, felt a little warm. My wife had her lie down in our bed and cared for her best she could. We prayed; the synagogue prayed. I made sure she had the best care. But as the days went on, my daughter didn’t get better.
My friend, who is a healer - the best healer I know - he said to me, he said, “Jairus, I don’t think she is going to make it.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard those words about your daughter. Lord, I pray you haven’t. They take the wind out of you. Your world starts to crumble. All that I had worked for, all the influence, all the advantages I had earned in my life… they were useless now.
This isn’t supposed to happen. What had I done to deserve this? What did my daughter do?! Nothing! I - WE! - are a faithful family. We do what we are supposed to. We live the Torah. We… are… faithful… And now, my little girl gets sick, really sick, maybe even sick enough to die.
I didn’t know what to do, so I did the one thing that made sense to me my entire life: I went to the synagogue. That one place my entire life that has been there for me; it is that one ritual that comforts and centers me.
And on my way, looking out toward the sea as I often do, I noticed a large crowd gathered near the shore. “It must be that Jesus,” I thought as I continued to walk.
I only took a couple of steps more.
Jesus. Could he? No. No. I can’t. He’s an imposter - a false prophet. Right?
Besides, what would those in the synagogue think of me going to him for help?
Would it show that I don’t have my life under control? That I’m not the faithful leader I claim to be? Could I do that - let myself be vulnerable like that?
It was worth it. My daughter is worth it.
And that is why I went to Jesus. Not because I believed in him, per se, but because I was desperate. I saw him as my only hope.
As I walked down the hill, I started to notice that the crowd was a little bigger than I thought. I didn’t know how I was going to get to him. And as I started pushing my way through the fringe, people started to actually move away. It’s amazing what people will do when they recognize you; I still had that going for me. I don’t know if they were expecting a theological debate when I got to Jesus or what, but I didn’t care. My daughter was sick. I needed his help, if he could give any.
As I twisted my way through the crowd, I rehearsed what I was going to say. “I’m Jairus, leader of the synagogue. My daughter is gravely ill. I request your assistance,” over and over in my head.
When I finally got through the crowd and stood right there in front of Jesus, all that I had rehearsed left me. I didn’t know what to do. So I fell at his feet. I begged. I didn’t inquire or politely ask. I begged. I was at his mercy, desperate. Half yelling, half sobbing I cried out, “Come with me, Jesus. Come, heal my daughter.” He stood me up and looked at me with warm, deep eyes - those eyes - and he said, “Take me to her.”
Me with a little bit of hope, we went back toward home, me leading and Jesus and his band of followers tagging along. We had to fight a little through the crowd and right when we were almost through them all, he stopped. “Who touched me?” It’s a crowd, Jesus. Dozens of people touched you. Let’s go.
I don’t know why he had to stop. And then that woman came forward. That woman. I’d seen her around. A lot actually. She was unclean. She came to the synagogue a lot for purity rites and cleansings. She was the one holding me up?
I tried to get Jesus and remind him of the urgency in this matter. My daughter is sick. Things are already hopeless enough. Come on.
But he just stood there, this woman crumpled at his feet, sobbing that she had done it, blabbering on and on about this and that. And then he talked to her. This interruption was more important than my daughter’s life?!?
I felt disdain for them both. Not having time for this, I turned to leave. It was a waste of my time, of precious time. Then I heard him say to her, “Your faith has made you well.”
FAITH!? I thought to myself. Faith!? I, as a leader of the synagogue, know about faith. I, the head of a family, know about faith. I can tell you how faith is supposed to look, and this woman isn’t it.
I spun around on my heel and right as I was about to let them both have a piece of my mind, my friend showed up and placed his hand on my shoulder. When I looked at him, I knew.
He didn’t need to say anything.
But he did anyway.
“She didn’t make it, Jairus. She didn’t make it.”
As he kept talking, everything kind of went blank. Though I was in a crowd, everything was quiet. I felt cold. Weak. My eyes lost focus. I was still.
No. No, no, no, no.
I flashed back to all the memories I had with my little girl. The times, years ago, when she would wrap her little hand around my finger. The way her nose would wrinkle up when she smiled. And that laugh. I wouldn’t hear her laugh any more. Running and playing and stories at night. Gone. Gone.
I was too late. Jesus was too late.
His talking is what snapped me out of it. “Don’t listen to them,” he said. “Trust me.”
“What? She’s dead,” I protested. “You let her die! You and that woman over there.”
He turned back to me, looking me right in the eyes - intense this time, but still warm. “Believe.”
Then he told everyone to stay put except of a couple in his crew.
When we got to my house, several of our friends had already heard the sad news. They were outside crying, comforting each other. Some were singing and reciting psalms. And when we got to the front door, Jesus said, “why are you all so sad? She’s only sleeping.”
And people laughed at him. They laughed.
I did not. There wasn’t anything funny.
I didn’t know what Jesus was going to do now. It was too late.
But he insisted and went in anyway. As my wife and I stood in the doorway to our room, my arm around her, we watched Jesus go over to our daughter, sit down on the side of the bed, and, just like he was waking up a sleeping child, say, “little girl, little girl. wake up. It’s time to get up.”
And as her eyelids started to flutter a bit, my wife rushed from my arms, but all I could do was stand there.
That was no healing. That was life. Life in the midst of death.
Who is this who can even raise the dead?
For some reason, all I could think about that woman - that woman who had caused this mess to begin with. Faith - Jesus noted her faith. Some things started to make more sense.
He wasn’t just healing her illness; he made her whole again. He did more than make her feel better. Physically, socially, spiritually, even - Jesus made her whole.
I think that’s what Jesus does. We have our cares and our worries - but Jesus has all of us. He doesn’t leave us where we are, but fixes things we don’t even know are broken. He raises us up - raises us up from death, from brokenness, from separation. It is a new life - a life of faith.
When my daughter was dead, I thought my world had ended. And in a way, it did. This world I myself had constructed and believed to be true, that did end. And Jesus, along with raising my daughter, raised me up to something new.
Now, I have hope. I have seen what God’s Kingdom looks like. It is unconditional love for a self-important man. It is abounding grace for an unclean woman. It is power to raise the dead. It is the promise that with Jesus, it is never too late… never too late...
So, yeah, I’ve heard of Jesus.
I hope you have, too.
Throughout Mark’s Gospel so far, we’ve been hearing about Jesus bringing the Kingdom of God and showing what the Kingdom looks like through healings and miracles. But today we get into Jesus opening our eyes to the Kingdom of God through teaching.
Specifically, he uses parables - stories using everyday objects, people, or items to explain how the Kingdom of God works. Jesus uses parables to engage listeners and challenge what they believe to be true. There are parables about family; about masters and servants; about losing common objects; about farms, gardens, and seeds.
That last is what we hear today.
It is the parable of the Sower… a parable many of us know so well.
A sower went out to sow.
He threw seeds over here and he threw seeds over there. So, of course, some seeds would fall here and some seeds would fall there. There were seeds on the path, where they were easy picking for the birds. There were seeds on rocky ground, where they could find just enough nourishment to get started growing, but couldn’t sink their roots in deep enough to keep growing. There were some that fell among weeds and thorns; they didn’t stand a chance. Then, finally, there were the seeds that fell on good soil, where they grew and brought forth grain, yielding thirty, sixty, a hundredfold.
Now, I don’t garden. I don’t plant. I don’t till, sow, or farm. None of it. Very little experience in it. But I do know that this sower-guy isn’t doing as good of a job as he could be.
I don’t plant - if you didn’t catch that the first time - but if I did plant, I wouldn’t go about it like this. Here is what I would do:
I’d go online and do research about what kind of plants grow well in the coastal climate we have.
I’d go to Lowe’s - the blue Lowes, not the food Lowes - and look at their soil mixes and fertilizers.
I may buy a soil testing kit to see what nutrients I am lacking and then would be able to supplement.
Heck, I may even buy some railroad ties and build myself a raised bed so that everything functions AND looks pretty.
I’d probably talk to other gardeners who have experience growing what I plan to plant to see if there are any tips I can pick up.
I’d carefully till the soil, combine in the potting mix, add my fertilizers and nutrients, and intentionally separate my small packet of seeds into appropriately spaced holes.
I’d check on them regularly, watering, pruning, clearing out any weeds; have a scarecrow to shoo away birds; At all times, I would ensure that my soil and seeds were in tip-top shape.
Yes, that is the way I would do it.
But the Kingdom of God isn’t our way. And nothing shows that to me more than the differences in how the sower and I would plant seeds.
We conserve our seed; God throws them in excess.
But, of course, this is a parable and not about literal seeds. All this is really about God’s Word - about spreading the Good News, about sharing love and grace, about resurrection and Spirit and truth and belonging and forgiveness and welcome. And even there, though, we fail. And maybe in worse ways than the literal seed thing.
Where our world aches for spreading seed, we often feel like we’d be wasting it. Where people hurt and long for the word of God, we often feel like we can’t share what we have. When we are confronted with the need for “seed,” we often have an excuse not to spread it willy nilly.
We look at what might make better use of our time.
God spreads seed.
We look at our lack of knowledge or expertise.
God spreads seed.
We look at our limited supply.
God spreads seed.
We have our reasons, our ideas, our ways.
God spreads seed.
God spreads the Word liberally around us.
The Kingdom of God is not seen only in good dirt. This parable tells us that the Kingdom of God is seen being spread in all places of our world and our lives. The Kingdom of God is abundance of God’s word so that it can produce. This is what Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is like.
It is only once we see God excitedly - almost uncontrollably - throwing seed do we even dare to care about what kind of soil we are.
Because God doesn’t care what soil you are.
God is going to throw seed, word, love, grace, forgiveness on you no matter what. God is willy-nilly like that. On your rocky places, God is going to throw some seed. On your weedy places, God is going to throw some seed. On your trampled, bird-infested, under-fertilized, stone-filled places, God throws seed.
That’s how much God cares. Not about preserving seed, but about spreading the word of love, of grace, of Kingdom. God wants that all over the place - all over our world - all over you. God wants you covered in seed. Word. Love. Jesus.
God does this because God knows we aren’t just one type of soil. And sometimes we know that, too. Different days, different moments in a day even, we are different soils - sometimes receptive and sometimes not, sometimes hardened, sometimes tilled. Knowing that about ourselves, knowing our rocky spots aren’t outside of God’s word, knowing our trampled places aren’t outside of God’s love, knowing that each and every part of us is covered in love by God… it gives us hope that something can grow.
Because God in Christ doesn’t stop with simply sowing seed. God keeps working on us, helping the word to grow in us. Feeding us what we need in bread and wine. Watering us with baptismal waters. Breaking up our rocky hearts with community. We know God doesn’t stop once seeds are sown. Nothing stops God from working on we little dirt clods. Nothing: not birds, not weeds, not a tomb.
And that is the Good News. Nothing stops God from spreading love. God will gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown. And God does what is needed to ensure love takes root and grows. God brings about a harvest of love, even in us. And God uses that harvest to keep spreading more and more and more.
So, what are you going to do with that harvest of love and grace God has sown in you?
Dig appropriately spaced little holes and put a seed or two in?
May you see the harvest God has brought about because of Jesus.
May you know God’s Kingdom covers you and our world in every single place.
May you sow handfuls of love.
And may it bring a harvest of thirty, sixty, a hundredfold.
Hot off of a bunch of healings we heard about last week in chapter 1, Jesus continues to bring the Kingdom of God in chapter 2 by doing more kingdom stuff. Today, we get 3 or 4 more stories, depending on how you break them up, about what the Kingdom of God looks like.
First, we get the dramatic story of the paralyzed man whose friends break open the roof and lower him down to be placed right at Jesus’ feet. To this, Jesus responds, “Son, your sins are forgiven!” I can just imagine those four friends’ response: “Uh, Jesus, that’s not what we came for.” But after the Pharisee’s rumblings amongst themselves, Jesus proves that he has the authority to do both: to forgive and to heal. The man stood up, took his mat, and went out.
When have you been paralyzed by inaction, fear, grief, or doubt?
Next, we get the call of Levi the tax collector along with eating with sinners and tax collectors in Levi’s house. While I am sure there were honest tax collectors - just like I am sure there are honest politicians and used car salesmen - they sure don’t have the best societal reputations. And as for “sinners,” that may not sound as bad because, hey, we’re all sinners; Jesus surely would eat a meal with us. But here, “sinners” is really code for “those people.” You know, those people you shouldn’t associate with? So, here Jesus is eating with “those people” and the Pharisees, again, question, but this time they question his disciples. “I came not for the well, but for those who are sick; not for righteous, but sinners.”
When have you been cast aside by society’s ways or boundaries?
Then, finally we get the Pharisees’ direct question to Jesus: why don’t you fast? To which Jesus responds with a bunch of sayings about things that don’t really relate to us. Bridegrooms? Patching cloaks? Wineskins? So, here’s what you need to know: the bridegroom saying is really more ominous than anything. The bridegroom being taken away? There’s some slight foreshadowing there. And for the others, here’s a modern day parable: “No one makes a pot of coffee with used coffee grounds.” I think that gets the point across. The Kingdom of God requires something new - a new way of living; Jesus shows that new way.
Where have you been abandoned because you were torn, busted, or old?
On the surface it seems that all these stories are just strung together in a random “day in the life of Jesus” but, if you notice, they are all connected; they build on each other. Not only does the conflict and disapproval of the Pharisees increase a bit in each new scene, but in each, Jesus demonstrates and teaches what the Kingdom of God is about.
Jesus comes, bringing a new vision of things.
“The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
“Those who are well have no need for a physician.”
“No one puts new wine into old wineskins.”
What truly draws all these stories together is that human need for wholeness, for acceptance, for sustenance, for healing is much more fundamental to God’s will than maintaining the way things currently are. And they all lead to the point that God’s Kingdom requires a new way of living.
The Pharisees and Scribes - they had their ways and their boundaries. Which is what got them all in a tizzy in the first place. Jesus, it seems, was willy-nilly about the whole thing. He didn’t keep to the established ways and boundaries. That’s the problem according to Jesus. These ways and boundaries were followed, even at the expense of human need.
Which is not how the Kingdom of God works.
Instead the Kingdom shows us God’s will and God’s will is Gospel. The Kingdom comes with the declaration, “your sins are forgiven.”
Huh. That’s unexpected. That isn’t what we planned on hearing. It may not even be what we want to hear; it may be a disappointment. “Jesus, that’s not what we came for.” Fix it. Fix me. And Jesus does, in a way. Jesus brings Gospel. And Gospel starts with forgiveness. It starts with “follow me.” It starts with the bridegroom being present. It is the promise of redeeming. That’s Good News.
But Good News continues. “You are forgiven, now get up and walk.” It moves to a meal - a meal with the physician. It continues to life. It continues to wholeness. To acceptance. To sustenance. To healing. To being made new. No matter the boundaries.
Where we are paralyzed by inaction, fear, grief, doubt… where we need not just healing, but wholeness, Jesus ignores the boundaries and brings the Kingdom.
Where we are cast aside by society’s ways or boundaries… where we need not simply something to eat, but true community, Jesus disregards the boundaries brings the Kingdom.
Where we are abandoned, left because of discord, divorce, or death.... where we need not just words, but action; not just platitudes but presence; not just torn cloaks, busted wineskins, and old ways, but where we need Gospel, Wholeness, Resurrection… Jesus destroys the boundaries and brings us through.
Jesus brings us through to make us new… make us new again.
Jesus makes you new. He has to. There is no other way to carry the Gospel around. Because Gospel life in an old way of living, in a way of Law or in the way of the world, it’s not going to fit. It’ll taste like a pot of coffee brewed with used coffee grounds.
And that is what baptism is all about. It’s where we are met with the Gospel, forgiven of our sins, and made new each and every day. Water is the constant reminder that Jesus has washed you clean with the Gospel, brewed a new pot of coffee with you every single day. A new pot of coffee every day. Sounds pretty good to me.
Jesus’ Gospel is a new way of life - a way of seeing a need for wholeness, for acceptance, for sustenance, for healing and not regarding any boundaries as more important or more powerful to keep him away.
The Gospel is a new way. A way of wholeness.
And that, then, is our call.
We aren’t to be gatekeepers of the Old Way, but messengers of the Kingdom;
we’re not boundary builders, but bearers of the Gospel;
We are to bring and live God’s Will for the world.
So, whom do we forgive?
Whom do we heal, make whole?
With whom do we eat, share our food and money and time?
We do it with these people. With “those” people. And with everyone in between.
That’s what Jesus does for us.
Jesus makes us well. Makes us whole.
Jesus eats with us, shares a meal at that table with these and those, us and them, you and me.
Jesus patches, fills, and brews us anew.
Jesus forgives us and tells us to go.
Go. Take your mat.
Spread the Kingdom.
Jesus has busted on the scene.
After months of us reading through the Old Testament, hearing stories of purpose, promise, and prophecy, the Messiah has shown up. The wait is finally over. At Christmas, God becomes flesh and lives among us. In worship, we now transition to the story of Jesus. For the next few months, we will be spending time in the Gospel of Mark, reading through this story, from chapter 1 to chapter 16 - from the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ to… well, we’ll wait a while to see how the story ends. *wink, nudge*
If you notice, we pick up in chapter 1, verse 21 of Mark’s Gospel because of last week’s Lessons and Carols. But even though we are only a little ways into the story, we’ve already missed a lot. One might not think there could be all that much in those other 20 verses, because when we are writing a paper or a story, we start of with an introductory paragraph or two of “fluff” - we try to get the creative juices flowing or get the reader’s attention before getting to the important stuff. Well, Mark doesn’t do that. He jumps right into the action.
So, in the previous 20 verses, John the baptizer prepares the way,
and Jesus has been baptized,
tempted in the wilderness,
proclaimed the Good News of God,
announced that the Kingdom of God has come near,
and called his first disciples. Yup. All that.
And now, Jesus begins to heal.
Jesus shows his authority in teaching and healing by exorcising demons from a man in the synagogue. He then heals Simon’s mother-in-law at her home. He cures many who are sick in the city. He retreats to a deserted place and there, heals a leper. Again, so much in a relatively small chunk of scripture.
So, what is Mark doing here? It’s like he is beating us over the head with all these healings. We got the picture after one healing - and certainly after two… but three, then four healing type stories in a row?
Mark is telling us a story - a continuous story - and at the beginning of this story, he is setting the stage for all that will follow. He starts his entire Gospel out with Jesus announcing the Kingdom of God has come near; now, Mark is showing us what that Kingdom of God looks like. It’s healing. It’s wholeness. It’s community. It’s full life.
These miracles are proclamations of the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God can show up anywhere.
Whether in the synagogue or at home,
whether it is a man or a woman,
whether it is a possession or an illness,
whether one is unclean or a good Jew,
Jesus brings the Kingdom there. Jesus rules over all. Jesus heals all. Jesus is present with all.
Jesus brings the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of God looks like wholeness, community, welcome, purity, and mission. It breaks down divisions, it mends bridges, it incorporates individual kingdoms into God’s Kingdom.
Because that, ultimately, is what the Kingdom of God is about - about us all being in this together and God removing whatever barriers or walls are put up against us - or walls we put up ourselves. These people in Mark’s Gospel were forced into a certain way of broken life: a possession, an illness, a leprosy - all separated from God’s Kingdom by something: being unclean, unwanted, broken, controlled. They were cut off from the life God intended until Jesus showed up.
Which brings us to today: what makes you feel unclean?
What makes you feel unwanted?
Where are you broken?
What forces control you?
What can’t you do anything about?
Those are very personal questions with even more personal answers. Because, if we’re honest with our answers, I mean, really, really honest… our answers just reinforce our shame, drive us back into our individual uncleanliness, cause us to withdraw back into our broken selves.
It is no wonder we’ve all built our individual little kingdoms -
places where we control what happens,
where we control what we reveal,
where we control what gets seen.
Our individual kingdoms are places where we are safe and secure from ridicule,
where we get to exclude instead of be excluded,
where we aren’t the freaky, broken, loser of an outcast; they are.
We are king or queen of our carefully crafted ego-castles… But also in our castles, we are always waiting for the next attack; always wondering when someone will find the weakness in our outer wall; constantly hoping that our strong facade can repel anyone from getting too deep to see what really goes on inside.
And then Jesus comes with something better, something he wants us to be a part of.
He shows up to the individual kingdoms of our lives. He busts in on the scene, proclaiming the Good News of God, announcing that the Kingdom of God has come near, encouraging repentance, and even calls us to leave our individual kingdoms for his Kingdom.
Jesus invites us, welcomes us into God’s Kingdom - which means we give up our control and ego and perceived emotional safety, yes, but Jesus exchanges all that for God’s Kingdom, where we are already accepted, cleansed, healed, lifted up, forgiven, sent, loved, never forgotten, alive, truly alive - all this even while we are fully known. Whatever the walls around us - forced or self-imposed - we are welcomed fully in God’s Kingdom.
All that separates us is gone. Jesus welcomes us, makes us fit for God.
That is the point Mark is making. Jesus brings the Kingdom and this is what the kingdom looks like.
All walls are broken down - illness, sinfulness, brokenness.
It is for all, no matter where or who you are.
It is for all, and ultimately all will be made well.
God removes whatever barriers or walls are put up against us, no matter what they are.
Don’t you want to be part of this? Because even you and me and our highly-protected honest answers are part of the Kingdom. Jesus says so.
He makes the unclean, clean.
He makes the broken, whole.
He makes truthful answers gladly welcomed.
He makes us alive. Forever.
Now, I know not all of us are at the point of giving up our individual kingdoms. We aren’t ready for that, yet. We are hesitant to lower our drawbridge, even though we know who Jesus is. We just aren’t ready to leave our kingdom for his.
And even to us who still stay put, Jesus brings the Kingdom. In bread and wine, Jesus assures us that he is present in our lives. In water, we are reminded again that Jesus has claimed us as much as we hide that truth. In worship, we admit what self-truths we can - and still hear a word of grace and forgiveness for all we’ve done and left undone. In all this, we count on Jesus to be exactly who he says he is.
And he gladly will.
Jesus will show up. He’ll do what he’s always done: establish community, welcome the broken, heal the controlled, be present in the lives of everyone.
Then he’ll invite them to see the Kingdom - to be the Kingdom.
And he does that, even for us.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
We’re already here. It’s hard to believe. Just a few days ago (ok, in all honesty, just a couple of hours ago) I still had lots and lots of things to do, preparations to pull together, *ahem* sermons to finish. Stress trying to get everything just right for tonight, deadline quickly approaching, stores not having what I needed, and throw on top of all that a poorly-timed head cold and you get… well, Christmas as usual.
Then you end up overreacting to a request from your wife and, well, one realizes that Christmas hasn’t changed. That’s pretty much how it always goes, isn’t it? It has always been a big ball of chaos, a time of overcrowding and over-doing, a moment in time where there just isn’t any more room. No space for one more thing.
It even goes all the way back to the first Christmas. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for the Roman census to be registered, taxed, counted - you know the drill. And what do they find when they arrive? No room. There is so much hustle and bustle, so many people and crowds, so much to do and prepare, that there is no space for a man and his very, very pregnant fiancee. It’s at the heart of the sentimental tale, isn’t it?
This “no room” is a point we emphasize - even to the point of creating characters who aren’t even in the story. For example, in my younger days, I played “Innkeeper #2” in one of my church’s Christmas pageants. (Go ahead and scour the scriptures for “Innkeeper #2.” I don’t think you’ll have much luck.) I think my one line was, “No room here!” or something equally dismissive of two kids in the Sunday school class a year ahead of me playing Mary and Joseph.
We emphasize this point, but we really only emphasize it so we can get to where we want to go with the story: there is no room in the inn so the expectant parents are forced out to the stable with animals and a manger and all the nostalgic, idyllic pictures we have in our heads.
There was no room. No space.
Again, not much has changed from then to now. Our lives are chock full of stuff - stuff to do, places to be, important tasks to complete. All so we can have a nostalgic, idyllic Christmas.
Is there any room? Any space in our lives?
Maybe on a deeper level, is there any room in our world? Our world of pain, pain others cause us, pain we cause others… in our world, there isn’t any room for a Wonderful counselor.
Or in our world - our world that is full of bigotry, hate, violence...there isn’t any room for the Prince of Peace.
In our world of brokenness, selfishness, death… there isn’t any room for Emmanuel, God with us.
There is no room. No space.
Which makes the event of Christmas all the more powerful. God finds room - God MAKES room - in our world to be born among us, to be present with us. There is no room, no space and yet, God still shows up. On a night like tonight, God comes to us. God is present, born, and alive in our world.
The promise of tonight is that despite what is around, God comes to us in Jesus.
Despite the lack of room in our world, God comes to us in Jesus.
Despite the no space we leave in our very own lives, God comes to us in Jesus.
God makes room, despite our full, busy, crowded selves. Or to say it another way:
God comes, even if we play Innkeeper #2 from time to time.
On a night like tonight, be it scheduled on our “to-do” list or not, we do get to stop, just for a moment, to sit… to be still… and we get the chance to be cast in a different role in God’s story. If even just for a moment, we aren’t saying “no room here.” Tonight, we have a role where we see the splendor and majesty of the Christ that is born for us. We experience what the shepherds did, experience what Mary and Joseph did, experience it announced again that “for you. This day. Is born a Savior.” A Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord. We can experience the Christ child because tonight, tonight, God makes room for us to to be at the manger and see again the Christ child, born for us.
And what a sight it is.
And as God makes room to be born in our world and our lives, God makes room to fill us with hope - hope that if God can do this, what can’t God do?
God makes room to fill us with wonder - wonder at the dedication and care God has for we who so often have no room.
God makes room to fill us with love - love that finds a way, no matter the circumstances, no matter the difficulties, no matter what. God’s love finds a way.
Which is the point of all this, afterall. God makes room in our full, busy, broken lives to show us a love that always finds a way. Yes, even in our world. Yes, even in us. God’s love always finds a way.
And since God has made just a little bit of room in us tonight, maybe we can carry that hope, that wonder, that love out from here. Maybe we can keep room, just a little longer - let God’s love really settle in, so we can carry it beyond this night and this place and let the world know the hope this Christ child brings.
At Christmas, we celebrate God’s love finding a way into our lives and our world.
On a night like tonight, God makes room.
On a night like tonight, Jesus is born.
On a night like tonight, love finds a way.
Here are sermons from Pastor Jason, delivered at St. Philip.
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