Scripture: Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21
Sermon: Trouble in Antioch
Churches are a mixed bag of people, aren’t they? At first glance, you might not see much diversity here, but it’s here – under the surface. For example – let’s talk about church background: Raise your hand if you were born and raised Presbyterian – or have been for the majority of your adult life… Raise your hand if you were raised Lutheran… Catholic… Baptist… Moravian… Episcopalian… Methodist… Raise your hand if you’re new to church – not brought up with Christianity… Something else?
There was diversity in religious and cultural background even in the earliest churches of Jesus Christ. The ones the apostle Paul and his missionary partner Barnabas started in the region of Galatia, for example – from the beginning—had members who were raised Jewish and others who were raised Pagan (Gentiles). Everybody at that time was religious – but the difference between Jews and Romans was huge.
Take this story that happened in Lystra, one of the Galatian cities. Paul healed a man who had been crippled since birth. He looked him in the eye, saw his faithfulness, and told him to stand up on his feet – and he did. When the crowds saw it, they went wild and shouted: The gods have come down in human form! They called Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes and priests from the temple of Zeus brought oxen and garlands to the gates to celebrate by offering sacrifices to the apostles.
When Paul and Barnabas heard about it they tore their clothes and rushed into the center of the crowd: Friends, friends – what are you doing?? We’re people just like you and we bring the good news of Jesus to you so that you turn away from these worthless things to the living God – the One who made all this: the heavens and the earth and the seas and all that is in them! Ah, but even so, the crowds were insistent upon sacrificing to them. It’s what they knew! It’s how they worshipped.
And what an offense to their Jewish brothers and sisters! Idolatry! Imagine the challenge before the apostles: trying to bring these two groups together, to respect one another and to establish a new way of living and being as one family following Jesus.
But by God’s grace, they did. Paul and Barnabas baptized people who wanted to join the Jesus movement. And when there was a critical mass of them in a given area, the apostles laid hands on a few and ordained them as elders to lead this new church –and then they moved on to the next town.
But life together in these new churches didn’t come easy. They were so different. There was pressure from those who had been Jews to be more Jewish and pressure from the other side to be more accommodating. Paul wrote about this – about a specific fight between the early church leaders — in his letter to the Galatians.
It happened in Antioch – the very city where they first called followers of the Way of Jesus Christians. The story is relevant to the Galatians and to us today. That’s why he wrote about it and that’s why we still talk about it. Let’s listen as Mary Beth reads excerpts from Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians+1%3A13-17%2CGalatians+2%3A11-21&version=MSG
It’s why we have so many denominations and why churches have split throughout the ages: disagreements over what is essential in order to be faithful. Christian missionaries from the west have long struggled with this as they try to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that can not only be heard and received but practiced in diverse cultures.
Remember Barbara Kingsolver’s book “The Poisonwood Bible” about a missionary family who settled in the Congo?
The Rev. Nathan Price – a preacher, a father… he was a man stubbornly committed to faith the way he practiced it. Rev. Price insisted on baptizing new believers in the river, despite the Congolese deep-seated fear of crocodiles and their steadfast determination to keep their children safe.
Rev. Price believed that God was testing him – that any compromise… any bend to accommodate was a test of his commitment and that God would be displeased if he failed. And so, he held firm, while the village chief loudly warned people to stay away from the church, insisting that the Reverend wanted to feed their children to the crocodiles.
So as long as Nathan Price kept the villagers at arm’s length, refusing to let them into his heart, standing fervently in defense of his beliefs, the very people he had come to serve would never hear the message of Jesus as good news.
Two years after he graduated from college in 1908, my grandfather’s first cousin Murray Thurston Titus sailed with his new wife Olive to be Christian missionaries to the Muslims in India. They were passionate and excited to introduce the Indian people to Jesus. Imagine their surprise when they landed and quickly learned that these people already knew Jesus. He is a prophet in the Qur’an, they said.
Murray and Olive quickly realized how little they knew about the language, the culture, and the religion of those they’d been sent to evangelize. Unlike Nathan Price, Murray began a life-long journey to learn to love his new neighbors. He poured himself into their language and literature, their music and art and poetry. He studied their religion and how it was practiced. He and others like him became known as scholar missionaries – devoted to the study of the people and land into which they were sent –to seek deeper understanding… to cultivate friendships and trust… to demonstrate the love of Jesus in practice.
In their opinion, other missionary approaches were argumentative and disrespectful. One of Murray’s colleagues, a Baptist minister named L. Bevan Jones asked: Can that method be right whereby we win the argument but lose the man, and that a man for whom Christ died?… is it not possible to approach the task in another spirit and in a different manner?
Here in this country, in the last twenty years, Littlefield Presbyterian Church in East Dearborn faced a similar challenge. It started as a church in the heart of a neighborhood, but over the years 75% of the homes nearest to the church transitioned from Christian to Muslim. The streets were teeming with children, yet none of them would come to their summer Vacation Bible School.
What does it mean for us to be disciples of Jesus in this time and in this place? The session prayed, and they listened. The next summer, instead of offering a traditional Vacation Bible School, they created Peace Camp and they invited the Muslim community to come together to learn peacemaking strategies and to build a neighborhood of peace. This summer will be their 19th year, and they offer ESL classes and organize a holiday halal food basket program. After 9-11, neighbors flocked to Littlefield Church where they found safe-haven and welcome.
The cultural and religious challenges of the Apostle Paul in the Greco-Roman world, of Nathan Price among the Congolese, of my cousin Murray with Indian Muslims, or even of the Littlefield Presbyterian Church in E. Dearborn are not the same as our challenges. We have our own:
When someone says: Can we sing our old favorite hymns? We can, but my old favorites and your old favorites and the old favorites of the man or woman down the pew may not be the same. There is a difference between Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist and Lutheran “old favorites”. And some of us have no old favorites at all.
So knowing this, it’s a challenge to incorporate music in our worship in a way that’s diverse and accessible and meaningful and welcoming and free to carry the love of Jesus in song.
And what of our other church language? What about the words we use that are kind of like insider language for those who grew up in church, but sound like a foreign language to those who didn’t?
I’m on the planning team for a big celebration our Presbytery is planning for October 22. This October marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel.
I’m super excited. It’s gonna be great! That’s the event the sparked the Reformation — it’s a big deal! We got together for our first brainstorming meeting and as we started throwing out ideas, David Montgomery, Chaplain and Director of the University of Toledo Campus Ministry said: I want my students to be fired up about this and they have no idea what we’re talking about. It’s not that I don’t think the Reformation is relevant – it is, but our challenge is to figure out how it’s relevant to people who don’t know about it and are not inclined to care about something that happened 500 years ago that’s largely defined with words like: Justification, sanctification, and predestination.
When our newest candidate for the ministry in our presbytery was examined last week for ordination, and she was asked by one of my colleagues to further define her understanding of substitutionary atonement, I sat back in my pew. We need new language — language that speaks to the heart as well as the head.
I went to the mic and asked her a different question. Open your heart to us, I said, and tell us what compels you to follow Jesus.
Why Jesus? What is it about him that matters to us at a heart level? Why are we here? Why, when there are lots of other community and civic organizations out there – why join a church?
At the center of the church is Jesus. That was Paul’s point. He’d spent his life trying to be faithful by rigidly following Jewish law – and that led him down the road of persecuting the church of Jesus Christ –fighting the very God he most passionately wanted to honor. He calls himself the chief among sinners and Jesus forgave even him – and more than that, gave him a new calling – to spread that good news that no amount of law-following makes us right with God – in fact, it can take us way off course. It always has to come back to Jesus.
When we say yes to following Jesus, when we are baptized in him, we take him on – we take on his mind and his heart and his actions and his way of seeing people – his way of seeing us. As Jesus is about forgiveness, so too, we are to be about forgiveness. As Jesus is about love, so too are we to be about love. As Jesus is about welcoming the stranger, so too are we to be about welcoming the stranger.
As Jesus is about condemning violence and hatred and deceit and abuse and ego, so too are we.
As we come to grips with the depth of his love for each one of us… that when he said “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” he was talking about me and you… that when he said: “Let the little children and the blind beggar and the crippled woman and wandering son and the demon possessed man come to me,” he was talking about me and he was talking about you…
And when he said of the dead man Lazarus, unbind him and set him free, he was talking about me and he was talking about you.
Orleanna Price watched as her husband Rev. Nathan Price became more and more strident in his stand against the village chief in the Congo. My steadfast husband tore his hair in private. I held him in my arms at night and saw parts of his soul turn to ash. Then I saw him reborn with a stone in place of his heart.
That’s the cautionary tale of the Poisonwood Bible and of the fight in Antioch — of drawing a rigid line and pressuring others to stand behind it. The law leads to death according to Paul; Jesus is the way to freedom and to life.
Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda! The ancient words – the rally cry of the Reformation: Church reformed, always being re-formed, according to the Word of God.
It means we are alive… we are open… we are always being changed – by the Spirit of God, even as the world changes around us… to find new language, to sing new songs, to incorporate fresh expressions of a timeless gospel of grace – that all may know… that all may know.
05/14/17- Mother’s Day
Scripture: Acts 15:1-14
They hover over their children, ready to swoop in to protect them from making mistakes or even decisions. They call college professors, admissions staff and workplace bosses to negotiate grades, graduate school placements and even salaries for their children. They call parents of their children’s friends to fix relationship crises. They leave work to drive back to school to pick up their student’s forgotten textbook so the homework can be completed on time. They’ll stay up all night putting the finishing touches on a project – assigned to their child. Who are they? Helicopter parents.
My mom was not a helicopter parent. She was involved in my life but as a champion not a surrogate. She was our Girl Scout troop cookie mom but she refused to sell a single box for me – instead she encouraged me to make my own neighborhood marketing plan and she cheered me on as I knocked on all the doors and made all the phone calls. Then she handed me the scissors and the newspaper and celebrated with me as I cut out the front page article announcing my record breaking sales – for my scrap book – which held my life story in clippings, programs and playbills. Later when I became a corporate sales executive and the Branch Manager of the third highest performing branch in the country, she was still celebrating with me.
My mom intervened on my behalf at school – once—but not just on my behalf. When my middle school gym teacher issued letter grades based on a curve, my mom went to the administration. Gidget Suci was in my class that year, and she was tall and fast. It was in her genes – her dad was arguably the best athlete ever to come from Genesee County. Bob Suci earned 15 of 16 possible letters during his time at Grand Blanc High School: football, basketball, baseball and track. His athletic career, which included four seasons in the American Football League is still remembered in a display case at the high school. And his daughter Gidget not only set our class curve, but all the middle school records too.
I was short and slow and gym was my only B that year. But this wasn’t just about me. This was a justice issue for my mom. Gym classes should be pass/fail based on effort not results, she argued. People’s bodies were built differently – and some (like me) could give their all and they would never be a Gidget Suci. She lost the argument, but I loved her for trying.
And then, years later when one of the ladies of her Bible Study was going on and on about how women shouldn’t be ministers, my mom leaned forward and said loud enough for all of the Southern Baptist women to hear: Careful what you say, my daughter’s a minister. And you remember the story of the wide mouth frog?
My mom was not a helicopter parent, but she was an advocate. And boy was she great to have in my corner.
The Gentiles in the early church needed good people in their corner too, advocating for their inclusion in the church of Jesus Christ.
When this movement known as the Way began, every one of it’s earliest followers was Jewish. As was Jesus. But as his followers began sharing the gospel they met harsh resistance from their fellow Jews. They were imprisoned and beaten – even stoned to death. Doors slammed shut, as they were driven out of the synagogues. And that’s where the movement may have stalled altogether had it not been for a surprising and welcome response from the Gentile – or non-Jewish community… an eagerness to learn… a passion for the good news of Jesus and his kingdom of God.
As Peter and Paul and Barnabas moved throughout the Greek speaking world, baptizing these new believers, they were thrilled to see God at work – in the same ways they had experienced.
But there was trouble. Some of the Jewish believers felt confused and angry… what about the age-old traditions? What about their rules and practices? Why shouldn’t they apply to these new people if they were going to be included in the faith family? What about the dietary laws and the ancient festivals? And what about circumcision? Surely they’d all need to get circumcised! Imagine Paul and Barnabas going back to the new Christians in Antioch and suggesting that idea to all the adult males! That, they felt, was an unnecessary burden and needless pain. They’d already witnessed God at work in these people – why wasn’t that enough??
Tradition vs. cultural adaptation: the church of Jesus Christ in every age faces this dilemma.
Times change and people do too. Is God free to welcome into the family anyone and everyone God chooses? Or do doctrines and rules set forth in the earliest church define the boundaries for ever into the future? Traditionalists feel the ground ever slipping under their feet, the rules ever changing and it’s scary! Is nothing sacred? Are there no limits? Does anything go?
Our text today has some answers for us on the way the earliest church dealt with this tension. Let’s take a look:
“God knows the heart,” Peter says. And “God is not discriminating between their hearts and our hearts”. Who, then are we to question God?
I heard a similar argument to this expressed by a man in the spring of 2011. I was part of the Detroit Presbytery then and we were meeting in the First Presbyterian Church in Plymouth to vote on whether or not to allow openly gay men and women to be ordained as ministers, elders and deacons. The moderator called people to the mic to speak for and against the motion – alternating every other person. An older gentleman approached the mic.
“I’m speaking for the motion to allow the ordination of gay men and women,” he said. “I came to the meeting tonight against this motion, but before the meeting began, I slipped away into the chapel and prayed. And in my prayer, I imagined myself standing before God who posed this question to me: ‘Why did you stand in the way of this person who I called into ministry?’ And I don’t want to answer that question. If God has called this person into ministry and he or she is gay, who am I to stand in the way? I will not stand in the way of God’s call.”
We knew this was a controversial motion and at the beginning of the meeting, the moderator prayed for open hearts willing to listen to God’s voice. When I heard that man speak, I thought to myself, that’s what an open heart looks like – a heart willing to change – not by intellectual or scientific argument, but by God’s voice.
Paul and Barnabas advocated for the non-Jewish Gentile believers in a different way. They testified to the way God worked through them among the Gentiles. Were not our hearts burning within us? said the travelers on the road to Emmaus when they realized they had been with Jesus. There’s a way in which our hearts testify to the truth of God at work. You’ve felt it – right? Every night we come back to the church after working during Invisible City – we share these stories of God at work through us and among us. People talk about feeling alive and purposeful – and that this is how we know we’re doing what God would want us to do. We find ourselves in these deeply meaningful conversations… we’re seeing people for the first time…
Imagine if someone came into our church and said: “You have to go back to all of those Invisible City people and tell them they have to come to church on Sunday in order for God to love them as much as God loves us.” And we would say: “No! God loves them already as much as God loves us.” We can feel it in our hearts as we minister among them. Why would we ask them to do anything more in order to be loved by God? They already are! And our mission is to help them feel it and know it. We watch as they realize it through us – they know that if we see them, God sees them – and that’s more than enough.
And finally James is an advocate for the Gentiles in yet another way. James appeals to the Jewish believers in their own language. He quotes the prophets. Sometimes it takes someone deep on the inside to convince the other insiders to see differently. James has authority, but the prophets have even more authority with this traditional bunch and he leans on that argument to seal the deal.
All of these advocates are needed in Jerusalem to lead the church in a new direction with everyone in support: the ones who remind that it’s God at work yesterday, today and tomorrow, the ones who testify to the movement of the Spirit and the ones who bring us back to the ancient texts to find a way into the future.
The Gentiles weren’t at the meeting in Jerusalem. They needed advocates to speak for them – in a whole variety of ways.
Today lots of places need advocates: voices who will speak for the voiceless.
Most hospitals have patient advocates. The University of Michigan hospital website says their patient advocates provide the following:
- medical information and emotional support for families and patients
- help with access to medical records
- help with delays in test results
- mediating hospital complaints
- navigating insurance questions
Patient advocates can help families make their way through the complicated world of healthcare when they don’t know the first thing about a new and scary diagnosis.
There are networks of people who provide advocacy for immigrants: legal information and support, language training, community assimilation.
Members of my family have worked with Prisoner Advocacy, a Quaker run organization in Ypsilanti that provides support to prisoners and their family members. They ensure basic rights to healthcare and food and safety are upheld, and they provide training in preparation for parole and resources to help them reenter the free world.
Share the Warmth advocates for the homeless population in our county – for adequate shelter and mental health treatment and help with substance abuse.
Friends of the Court provides advocates for children who are victims of abuse or neglect or abandonment.
Is advocacy ever harmful? That brings us back to helicopter parents. When advocates speak for people who can speak for themselves, advocacy can lead to disempowerment. When we as parents prevent our children from facing the consequences of their own life choices or from learning important problem solving skills or making decisions for their own futures, our advocacy gets in the way of their growth. When we as advocates believe we know more than the one we’re advocating for – or believe we know better – it’s time to step back and reassess.
The word advocate literally means one called to aid… an ally… a companion… a supporter… a cheerleader… a friend. My mom was an advocate. It was great to have her in my corner.
The last time I saw her, as I leaned toward her to say goodbye, I said “I love you mom.” And she said “I love you more.” In the midst of her dementia, my mom’s got a lot of programmed responses these days. “See you later, alligator,” for example, always gets “After while, crocodile”. “I love you more” is one of those programmed responses. But after a moment, she said “Mothers always love their children more.” And that wasn’t programmed. That was truth.
Scripture: Acts 8:26-39
Sermon: Get up and go!
If you’re Philip, it’s hard not to take what happened in Samaria personally.
(I’m talking about the story just before the story in today’s Scripture reading).
It started so well.
After Stephen’s stoning, persecution of Christians in Jerusalem became intense. Things got so bad there, they all left except for the apostles. Philip went down to Samaria. And what a great place for him to land! To his delight the crowds were eager to listen to Philip talk about Jesus. He ministered among them – healing people mind, body and spirit. The air was filled with excitement. They listened as Philip told them about God’s kingdom and they came to him to be baptized – they rushed to be part of this amazing Way of life.
It was a preacher’s dream: the people had light in their eyes and fire in their hearts – they were hungry for Bible study… telling their neighbors…filling the pews… it was joyful! It was fun!
And then there was Simon… icing on the cake. Simon was a magician, and before Philip came to town, he was the miracle-worker. He was charismatic – a real crowd pleaser and he could have been a tough rival for Philip, but even Simon’s interest was piqued by Philip’s message of Jesus. His eyes lit up too and he got on board the kingdom of God train. After Simon got baptized, he stuck to Philip like glue – becoming his #1 disciple – wherever Philip went, Simon had a front row seat – eager to see, eager to learn. The two of them were a dynamic duo.
Things couldn’t have been better.
Up in Jerusalem, the apostles heard about this and they sent Peter and John down to Samaria to check it out. When they arrived, Peter and John gathered the new church together and they began to pray. They laid hands on the believers and prayed for the Holy Spirit to fill this new church with power.
Nobody’s really sure what happened next, but something major happened. Maybe it was some kind of Pentecost moment – a rushing wind… spontaneous praise… maybe people began to sing or cry or laugh or dance… nobody knows – but Simon saw this. Simon saw that these two men from Jerusalem – when they prayed and when they laid hands on people — they had something more than Philip – more power shot forth from their fingertips — Simon wanted some of that.
He began to imagine what he could do with that kind of power and it felt amazing… limitless. As soon as he could, Simon took Peter and John aside and offered to slip them some cold, hard cash for some of their kind of power – and Peter was outraged – as if the Holy Spirit could be bought!
In front of everyone Peter called out Simon – exposing him for his fraud – his wicked heart: You have no part in this, Peter said. You have missed the whole point – You’d better pray and pray hard that God will forgive you.
Then Peter and John preached a final sermon, packed their bags and headed back to Jerusalem.
Where does that leave Philip? If you’re Philip, it’s hard not to take this personally – to feel upstaged, outranked, sidelined. He wasn’t one of the twelve disciples. He didn’t have their authority or credentials.
He was one of the seven who along with Stephen was commissioned to make sure the poor were served and the hungry were fed. The truth is, he’d gone way outside his job description. He was preaching and baptizing… but wasn’t that what was needed there in Samaria? Wasn’t that what God wanted him to do? The people responded so well – they were learning so much – why wasn’t that enough? Why wasn’t he enough?
Why’d Peter and John have to come down anyway? Wasn’t everything going just fine? Simon was learning. True, he wasn’t there yet, but he was learning! With a little more time, he would have been fine… wouldn’t he? Or not? Had Philip been so caught up with the excitement and the growth that he’d actually missed some things — some critical signs that all was not well…
Had he gotten a little too close? Lost his objectivity? Should he have done things differently, called in help earlier? What did he think he was doing preaching the gospel and baptizing people? Who did he think he was?
Then the angel of the Lord said to Philip: Get up and go.
Then – right then in the middle of his confusion, his bruised ego, his feelings of inferiority and inadequacy – right after he’d been set back on his heels – then the word of the Lord came to Philip: Get up and go.
And we would totally understood if he said no. Right? No. Not right now. Not after what just happened. I’m obviously not good enough, not smart enough, not trained enough. Pick one of the disciples — they’re a better choice. You don’t want me to go. I can’t go. I’m not confident enough. Not now.
We have these chickens. Six hens and a guinea.
Through the winter, we kept them penned into a small run attached to their coop. This spring, Andy fenced off a part of the garden and opened up the gate at the end of the run. Now they can go through that gate and into a larger grassy pen and beyond that, there’s an open gate into a huge pen. The pigs used to be in that one and there’s a beautiful pile of compost with rotting vegetables and seeds and bugs – a paradise for a chicken.
But for days after Andy opened it up, the whole flock of them hung out just at the end of their little run, standing in the open gate. They refused to leave the security of the pen for the wide open life that lay right before them.
In his book Let Your Life Speak, Quaker Parker Palmer offers a twist on the old adage: When God closes a door, he opens a window: Palmer says:
Each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens up. All we need to do is stop pounding on the door that just closed, turn around—which puts the door behind us—and welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our souls. If we are to live our lives fully and well, we must learn to… live in the creative tension between our limits and our potentials. We must honor our limitations in ways that do not distort our nature, and we must trust and use our gifts in ways that fulfill the potentials God gives us. We must take the no of the way that closes and find the guidance it has to offer—and take the yes of the way that opens and respond with the yes of our lives.
Get up and Go, the angel of the Lord said to Philip and he said yes:
Yes to an experience that started on a wilderness road…
Yes to an encounter with a person who couldn’t have been more different than Philip: different in culture, in social status, in wealth, in religion…
Yes to the risk of entering a stranger’s chariot… note: we do not condone this for children.
Yes to the opportunity to be an interpreter of the promises of Scripture — to point the way to Jesus.
Yes to the request for baptism – for a eunuch – expressly forbidden in the Jewish law… and yet Philip said yes, because there was water, there was a willing and eager heart and and there was a Spirit-filled moment.
This is a redemption story for Philip – an I’m not done with you yet, thus says the Lord story for Philip – an opportunity that is uniquely suited for Philip – a thanks be to God he said yes, story, but it’s not just about Philip. It’s also about the church in Samaria.
What would have happened if the call came for Philip to go to the Ethiopian and Peter and John hadn’t come down? Maybe Philip wouldn’t have gone because he thought he was indispensable to the church in Samaria. Or maybe he would have gone and left the church in the hands of Simon. Or maybe they both would have gone and the church they’d left wouldn’t have been strong enough to stand on its own.
Peter and John went down to Samaria because they were sent — by someone with much greater authority — One who was writing a much larger story. A story that’s also about an Ethiopian – who, as long as someone meets him on that road at that time to interpret that text to him and make use of that body of water, will go back to his people and become the patron saint of the Christian church miles and miles away.
This is how the gospel spreads: from one person to the next to the next. We are all interconnected. Each one of us is written into the lives of others.
The longer we sit licking our wounds over the last chapter that didn’t work out the way we would have written it, the less we’re free to be used for the next chapter that the Author of Life is writing about our lives, and the life of the very next person we’ll meet.
We are, all of us, players on a much bigger stage, characters in a much larger novel, instruments in a much grander orchestra, singers in a cosmic song. It’s all way bigger than we could ever see, know or imagine.
Listen with me to the words of this prayer written by Joyce Rupp:
God who sings through us, we thank you.
- For the talents and the abundance of gifts that are ours
- For the faith that stirs and grows in our hearts
- For the many people who have been your instruments of goodness in our lives
- For the moments when we have known the song of your presence in a special way
- For the times when your goodness has made music through us…
God of goodness, help us to trust in you.
- When fear rises up in us and we do not believe in our ability to be your instrument
- When the busyness and schedules of our lives press upon us and create questions about your song within us
- When we doubt your presence in the difficult aspects of our days
- When we lose sight of the truth that we are called to be instruments of goodness
- When emptiness, loneliness, and other struggles keep us from hearing your melody of love
God of love, sing your song through us.
- As we grow in believing in our goodness
- As we allow more and more of who we are to be influenced by your presence
- As the song of your love grows in us and the call to be your instrument becomes clearer to us
- As we struggle to know how and when to share our gifts and goodness with others
- As we go forth from here with the desire to be your instruments of love…
We don’t know where we’re needed at any given time, just that we are, just that we are. God needs us to listen when the Spirit says: Get up and go. And then to say: Yes.
Scripture: Acts 6:1-7:2, 44-60
Sermon: The Truth Hurts
A man in good standing, full of faith and full of the Holy Spirit, brimming with God’s grace and energy, Stephen was an excellent choice. When our nominating committee gets together in the next month or two to identify candidates for next year’s slate of Deacons – this is exactly the kind of person they’ll be looking for.
Our Book of Order says:
The ministry of deacon as set forth in Scripture is one of compassion, witness, and service, sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lost, the friendless, the oppressed, those burdened by unjust policies or structures, or anyone in distress.
Seems like the job description’s expanded a bit since Stephen and that first class of deacons. We thought they were just looking for people to wait tables… organize a potluck… make the coffee… hmmm…
No, when the Holy Spirit is involved, you can be sure it’s always about so much more. It’s never been just about waiting tables.
Here’s how it goes: we sign up to work at a soup kitchen or a food pantry or host a community meal… we volunteer to spend the night or take a meal to the people at Share the Warmth homeless shelter… we take our gardening tools out for a day of mission work with a homeowner through Invisible City… we take on the administration of the Mercy Fund and begin having conversations with people in trouble:
– a man needs a gas voucher because he’s between jobs and the money’s tight and he had unexpected bills this month,
– a daughter needs help with her utility bill because her mother’s healthcare costs put them in financial crisis and there’s a threatened shutoff…
– a woman needs a safe place to stay with her children overnight because her husband is hurting her and the shelter is full…
We volunteer to do something that puts us on the front line alongside people who are desperately poor or addicted or struggling or lost… and we think we can just go home and check it off our Christian todo list?
Not on my watch, says the Holy Spirit, and the deeper questions begin to surface and work on our hearts and minds… our guts wrench for the suffering of the people we’ve met… because we’ve listened to their stories and they play over and over again in our thoughts and now we’re confronted with these hard questions… the why questions and the how questions… the root of the problem questions…
We wonder about the choices we’ve made as a society and our participation in them and then that gnawing truth grows inside us as the Holy Spirit fills us with a desperate need to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that challenge perpetual and systemic injustice and heal societal sickness.
So much more than waiting tables.
Archbishop Oscar Romero said: When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.
In 1967, before a crowd gathered at the Riverside Church in New York City, Martin Luther King, Jr. put it a different way:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
Jesus was never about superficial window dressing, he was about transformation… about freedom… about life… about turning the tables on injustice and deconstructing the systems of religious, political and societal power. And it was so threatening that those in positions of power crucified him to silence his voice.
But neither he nor his followers would be silenced. And that leads to trouble over and over again. They just can’t stop… followers of Jesus just won’t stop speaking the truth.
Last weekend Andy and I joined almost 1000 other people of faith for a conference in Washington DC. Presbyterians and Methodists, Lutherans and Baptists, Catholics and Pentecostals, United Church of Christ and Quakers came together to be reminded of the power of the Holy Spirit that fills us and the urgent need to speak and keep on speaking. The quote I just read from Martin Luther King, Jr. came from the speech he gave entitled Beyond Viet Nam: A Time to Break Silence. That speech was the theme of the conference.
A time comes when silence is betrayal, King said in the opening paragraph.
And I think about Stephen who kept on talking as his enemies grinded their teeth in rage against him… kept on talking as his accusers did their best to shout over him… kept on talking through the raining stones… he was compelled by the Holy Spirit who filled him with power to keep on bearing witness to truth.
Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me… not so – it was his words – his words of truth that so enraged the crowd that they took up stones to silence him. The truth hurts when it can’t be heard. And maybe it can’t be heard when it hurts too much.
King said a lot of hard things in this speech – truths that hurt to hear. He spoke boldly for peace. Some of his most ardent supporters critiqued his involvement in the Viet Nam conversation: Aren’t you a civil rights leader? they asked and they aimed to shut him out of any political conversation about the war. In response, King developed a convincing and faithful argument that racism, materialism and militarism are giant triplets – completely interconnected with one another.
A nation, he said, that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. – This is not just.
In the conference, we listened to people describe elements of the upcoming budget and we discussed and evaluated it as a moral document, considering how it will impact the most vulnerable in our country and abroad.
We heard from international humanitarian organizations about what cuts to foreign aid will mean for emergency famine relief in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. Christian leaders from around the world spoke about the global impact of our military strategies on indigenous villagers. And we heard from inner city pastors concerned for the way domestic cuts will impact the lives of the poorest among us.
All of the speakers spoke to us with courage, desperation and hope – leaning into a closing phrase of King’s speech: We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.
The last night of the conference we walked to the Pentagon for a prayer service on the lawn, standing where the Dorothy Day Catholic Workers of DC have stood every week since August of 1987 praying for peace.
Another quote from Archbishop Romero: Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Let us not tire of preaching love. Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love, love must win out; it is the only thing that can.
Stephen had the face of an angel and he prayed to God to forgive those who filled with anger, silenced his voice with their stones. The truth hurts.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero are two of the 10 20th century Christian martyrs memorialized in stone above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey – all of them beaten or stabbed or shot for speaking a truth that hurt too much to be heard.
But the gospel – the good news is in the footnotes. Over and over again, those who witnessed these awful deaths carried forth new seeds of faith that multiply by the Holy Spirit. One of the martyr statues belongs to a young African woman Manche Masemola. She was killed by her parents who believed she had become bewitched by Christian missionaries. 40 years later her mother converted to Christianity.
Lucian Tapiedi, an Anglican teacher in Papua New Guinea was axed to death when their village was raided by the Japanese. His murderer later converted to Christianity and built a church in his name. Another martyr depicted in stone, Wang Zhiming was a Chinese pastor executed in a stadium before 10,000 spectators during the Cultural Revolution. His suffering birthed a monumental growth in Christianity in Wuding – from 2800 Christians at the time of his arrest to 30,000 today.
And the witness who collected the coats during Stephen’s stoning was none other than Saul – who would be the Apostle Paul – the great Christian missionary of the New Testament.
When we are baptized or renew our baptismal promises when we join a church, we vow to renounce evil and turn to Christ. And we’re not the only ones making a promise. God also promises to fill us with the Holy Spirit and so equip us to follow the Way of Christ. There is no greater power and there is no greater call. The call of the baptized is for each and every one of us – not just Deacons, not just elders, not just pastors to speak truth – to renounce evil and to speak truth.
When pressed by the incessant gnawing of truth, the Holy Spirit is at work and when the Holy Spirit is at work, you gotta know it always means so much more.
Again in the words of King: the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. A time comes when silence is betrayal.
And so, we pray: lead us, guide us grant us your strength and power and courage and grace.
04/16/17 – Easter Sunday
Scripture: Luke 24:1-12
Sermon: Nonsensical Tales of Silly Women
What if one of the women had a smartphone on her and she’d taken a selfie with the men in the lightning-white clothes – would that have made a difference?? Would the men have believed them then? What if they took a video of the empty tomb… if they captured an audio recording of the message? Would that have mattered to the eleven? All they had were their voices… all they offered was their word, their heart, their integrity and that was not enough.
Nonsense, they called it… futile, folly, fantasy… an empty, silly tale… λῆρος in the Greek… the root of our word delirious. Talk of glowing people who appeared out of thin air, a missing body – the dead alive again– This was crazy talk – emotionally charged, sleep deprived hysteria. Ludicrous ladies, nonsense.
My heart breaks for them to be dismissed like that.
But seriously? Would we have believed them? There were several factors working against them:
They hadn’t actually seen Jesus. They weren’t eyewitnesses; they were messengers, passing on what was told to them. In a court of law, that’s hearsay, and most of the time it’s thrown out. It can’t stand up to simple cross examination: who were these men? I don’t know. Where did they come from? I don’t know. Did you recognize them? Have you ever seen them? Did they even know Jesus? No… no… I DON’T KNOW. Can you describe anything about them besides that they were wearing light-bright clothes? No, our faces were to the ground.
Memory mattered. Remember how he told you… way back in Galilee… the messengers said. Apparently the men didn’t remember. But, that was a long time ago and a lot had happened since then. And when he said that particular thing – about being crucified– they didn’t want to hear that, and when you don’t want to hear something, sometimes you don’t actually listen very well. Plus, the thing about rising again on the third day—that didn’t make any sense — and they were still trying to figure out how he’d fed 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. Jesus said a did a lot of confusing things – it was impossible to keep it all straight. The women, however, did remember and for them, that made the difference.
They weren’t in the inner circle. Even though they were among the few named women in the gospels, indicating their importance to the community, they remained outside the leadership. Never mind that they had traveled with the group since Galilee, that they were loyal and present always — even to the cross — and that they were the principal financiers of the whole mission. As women, they remained subordinate, never acknowledged as fully participating members of the team.
The message itself was hard to swallow. If there’s one thing we know it’s that the dead stay dead – regardless of how much we may want it to be otherwise. Jesus was beaten to a pulp before he was hung on the cross. They pierced his side and declared him dead, dead, totally dead. They placed him in a rock-hewn tomb and sealed it shut with a giant boulder. Nobody would have wanted to believe he was alive again more than the disciples, but it simply was too much of a stretch – it was unbelievable. And the two shining guys? Just icing on the top of the insanity.
But maybe the biggest factor working against the women? Hopelessness. It’s hard to believe in much of anything when hope is lost. Sometimes I try to imagine how these disciples felt after Jesus was crucified. I think about the times in my life when I’ve really believed in something and put my whole self into it and it fell apart – the bottom dropped out of it… and it was over. If we’ve lived long enough, we’ve had experiences that might come close to what they felt: the end of relationships, job loss, catastrophic accidents, community crisis… shock, frustration, grief, fear, confusion, anxiety, anger… deep profound loss. I learned the other day that the British have a word for this: gutted. The followers of Jesus were gutted. And when this is the case for a person or for a community, whatever energy remains is focused on moving forward – getting through it. Giving time or thought to some story that both defies all logic and reopens raw wounds?
The heart can’t take it. Even though that is exactly the story that’s needed.
So upon returning from the tomb, the women burst into the room with all the passion they could muster, and proclaimed a message with their whole heart and whole selves. And really it’s not all that surprising that no one believed them, despite the capital T truth of their message.
Such is the task before us – as preachers, teachers, disciples and followers of the Way of Jesus. We’ve been sent, as the women were to: pass on a message with no eye-witness testimony…remember what he said – 2000 years ago… which—it’s a good thing we have it in writing – although it wasn’t originally written in our language or our culture or even our day – so it’s even more confusing now than it was then – and they didn’t understand it then… And take this nonsensical tale to a world that needs it just as much as it did back then – because Lord knows these are anxious, confusing and fearful times—and hope is in short supply for so many.
What did he say? The son of man must be delivered into the hands of those who are ill-intentioned, they’ll crucify him and on the third day he’ll be raised up again.
What kind of sense does that make? Who writes a story where the hero willingly walks into a trap and loses everything, only to pop back up again? What’s the point of that?
Last Thursday night we gathered here and told the story again – remembering together all the gory details of his arrest and trial (such as it was) and how the soldiers and crowds mocked him and spit on him and jeered at him – over and over again adding insult to injury. And at about the lowest and worst point, Jesus said, from the cross, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. How could he do that? After everything… And then he died and it was over and he was silent and they won. Only they didn’t win. See? That’s the thing!
It’s nonsense, and it’s genius. Jesus never played by the same rules as those who sought to destroy him. He stood with dignity and faced them down with courage and they ranted and raved and exposed themselves as the pure face of evil and corruption, violence and shame.
And the capital T truth of the empty tomb and the risen Lord is this, in the words of Desmond Tutu: Goodness is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death.
Last Sunday morning we came to church with the news that two Egyptian Coptic churches were bombed as parishioners gathered to celebrate Palm Sunday. 44 people were killed and 126 were injured. Reda Adly, Moderator of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt, wrote: I declare our unity and solidarity with the Coptic Orthodox Church, in Egypt and the world.. I ask from my colleagues and pastors to once again carry the message and meaning of the cross, love and forgiveness. Hmmm…
Coptic Bishop Thomas said: When there is such a tragedy we always tell people not to be afraid of those who kill. (What??)Yes, they can take the body but what else can they do? They can’t take the eternal glory. Fear is invading the Western society. This is the purpose of terrorism. But the message of fear must be stopped. When you are not afraid, you are able to love, to forgive and to show strength. Forgiveness means that I don’t allow hatred and fear in my heart. We call for justice and we pray for the persecutors that they will understand and be enlightened by the truth of humanity. Don’t forget the story of the 21 young men in Libya: They were kidnapped, they were tortured and threatened in an attempt to change their faith. But what these men did was pray and lift their eyes all the higher. When you turn your eyes higher, things on earth appear smaller.
Goodness is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance recently took a delegation to Syria and Lebanon. They visited schools for refugee children.
Children have started to return to one of the schools they visited after two years of conflict in that city. At its low point, attendance had dropped to 300. Now it is up to 1300. But as the students returned, trust between neighbors – especially across religious and cultural lines was strained. So the church in that city started a multi-faith after school program to help rebuild relationships through basketball, soccer and community events. These projects give them hope and a sense of belonging.
One of the delegation members said: You see children running in the streets and people going to market, trying to regain some kind of normalcy in the midst of destruction, she said. Looking into their eyes, I felt compelled to make sure to look at them with a promise. Some of those eyes were so lost but they believed in a greater hope. I wake up with the memory of those eyes and faces.
Twelve hours after the delegation left Syria the chemical attack was waged in the city of Idlib. Two days later the United States launched missile strikes.
Martin Luther said once, “If I were God, I’d kick the world to pieces.” There are days and there are times when that may indeed seem the most sensible thing to do.
But Martin Luther wasn’t God. God is God, and God has a different idea. He enters the world, offers himself to the world again and again and by grace, keeps on blessing the world, making possible a kind of life which we all, in our deepest being, hunger for. The fact that God doesn’t do it the way we’d do it is probably what makes the most sense.
All those first women had were their voices… all they offered was their word, their heart, their integrity — and that was not enough. Oh, but it was enough – it was enough to get one person – Peter– to go and see for himself that their story was true.
Such is the task before us – men, women, children – all of us as followers of Christ – to lift our voices and tell this nonsensical tale of an empty tomb, a risen Lord, and a hope-infused way of life. A song sung throughout history and herstory with courage and faith:
Goodness is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, victory is ours through God who loves us.
04/09/17 – Palm Sunday
Scripture: Luke 19:29-44
Sermon: This is Our King
There was cheering and exaltation. People waved palm branches… and white horses snorted and marched. The chariot, flanked by the Roman guard, moved toward Jerusalem carrying its famous rider adorned in his gold-embroidered royal toga. The fifth Prefect of the Roman province of Judea, Pontius Pilate, made his way to Jerusalem from his palace on the coast of Caesarea. 200,000 Jewish pilgrims were headed to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Passover. And Pilate went with a full display of Roman political and economic power to keep the peace.
While there, he stayed in luxury at Herod’s palace and he checked in with the people who worked for him: the Temple authorities, the High Priest, the keepers of the treasury, and those who collected Judea’s taxes for Rome. They all, along with other members of the wealthy elite and ruling class welcomed Pontius Pilate to town with regal ceremony… recognizing his celebrity and his authority.
First century historian Philo described Pilate as vindictive with a furious temper, inflexible and relentless, cruel and corrupt with a habit of regularly insulting people. He was not well-liked, but he was powerful. So his parade was all you might imagine it to be: pretentious, impressive, majestic… fitting for a man of his position.
At about the same time, across town, there was another parade. This one honored a simple, humble teacher, preacher, healer riding a donkey. His was a different kind of crowd: peasants mostly, and day laborers, tenant farmers and shopkeepers… there were those he had healed – blind now seeing, lame now walking, deaf now hearing, demon possessed, now in their right mind.
Formerly social outcasts, they belonged now to a new kind of family. Ripping the coats off their backs, they lined the streets before him praising him for giving them hope and new life.
They called him blessed.
They called him king.
Unlike the man in the other parade, this man wasn’t heading into Jerusalem to keep the peace. For he knew deep in his gut, you can’t keep what you don’t have.
On the top of the Mount of Olives there is a tear-shaped church: Dominus Flevit, it’s called – Latin for The Lord Wept. Through the glorious window of the church and from its gardens there’s a breathtaking view of the old city of Jerusalem. It’s here that pilgrim groups, like ours in 2015, stop, reflect, pray and weep over the elusiveness of peace.
Ironically, the site wasn’t marked until the 12th century when the crusaders built a small chapel there to commemorate Christ’s broken heart as he looked over the holy city. A short time later, in September of 1187, a Sunni Muslim Sultan from Egypt known as Saladin set up camp on the Mount of Olives and laid siege on the crusader-held Jerusalem. They relentlessly pounded the ancient walls of the city with catapults and flaming arrows until they successfully broke through. The crusaders were unable to defend against the breach and eventually negotiated a surrender. After that, the small chapel, the place of Jesus’ tears, fell into ruin.
If you, even you, said Jesus, weeping as he looked over the ancient city, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side.
I imagine the crusaders wept along with Jesus reading this very Scripture, as did the gospel writer Luke’s readers in 85 AD, a mere 15 years after the Roman army, led by the future Emperor Titus surrounded the city of Jerusalem while thousands of Jewish pilgrims were gathered to celebrate the Passover. The Romans took the city by force from the Jewish Zealots who’d occupied it four years earlier. While Rome set up their ramparts, infighting arose among the defending zealots with one side murdering the other.
Destroying the Temple wasn’t Titus’ intention – Rome had grand plans for it – repurposing it into a temple for the Roman Emperor and a Roman pantheon — but it caught fire during the fighting and the flames spread quickly. Here’s how the historian Josephus described it:
As the legions charged in, neither persuasion nor threat could check their impetuosity: passion alone was in command. Crowded together around the entrances many were trampled by their friends, many fell among the still hot and smoking ruins of the colonnades and died as miserably as the defeated. As they neared the Sanctuary they pretended not even to hear Caesar’s commands and urged the men in front to throw in more firebrands. The partisans were no longer in a position to help; everywhere was slaughter and flight. Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar the heaps of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom.
If you, even you, said Jesus, weeping as he looked over the ancient city – nearly 40 years before this devastation – if you, even you had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.
The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem – besieged by the Assyrian, Babylonian, Roman, Persian, Ottoman, and British Empires and most recently bitterly embattled in Arab –Israeli wars…
Generations and generations have fought over you shed blood over you, wept rivers of tears over you. If only anyone knew what would bring peace – yet it remains to this day elusive… hidden from our eyes.
The days will come upon you… and they keep coming upon us…
His misfit, motley crowd heralded him king: The one who comes in the name of the Lord: Peace in heaven! they cried, Glory in the highest!
A little over thirty years earlier, shepherds heard words like this when they tended their flocks on the hillside outside Bethlehem… words like this, only slightly and importantly different:
Glory to God in the highest, the angels sang, and on earth peace…
On earth… peace.
God came to earth in flesh in the man from Nazareth, Jesus – not to keep peace, but to make peace… to teach peace… to live peace. And as he enters what will be his final week walking the earth with this mission, rightly lifted up as king by those in his parade, their praises melt into his heartbroken lament.
He is not weeping for himself – despite what he must know is coming. He weeps for all of creation – on a seemingly never-ending cycle of destruction, violence and domination.
Last week we looked on in horror and gut-wrenching sorrow at the images played over and over again of Syrian children struggling to breathe after being bombed with Sarin gas. Our president, believing the Syrian president had crossed a line with this form of attack, authorized an airstrike of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to the airbase believed to have launched the chemical weapons.
Within 24 hours, the Syrian government was back to rockets and barrel bombs – their more conventional weapons — that have led to a half-million deaths and 11 million refugees since the Syrian civil war began six years ago.
And we wait, holding our breath, wondering what will come next.
Nations who lauded our decision to strike are clamoring for more: it’s not enough, they say. Those opposed to it are doubling down on their own fleets, weapons and military might – fueled by a new resolve. Yesterday North Korea said a US missile strike on Syria “proves a million times over” that it was right to strengthen its nuclear program.
If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace, cried the one atop the donkey that day, 2000 years ago – the one those in his parade called king, the one who is our king.
There once was a man from the ruling class who went far away to get royal power for himself, Jesus told the crowd, as they neared Jerusalem – just before the parade began. He called together 10 of his slaves, Jesus said, and gave them some money to invest while he was gone. The citizens of his land hated this man – they didn’t want him to rule over them. They sent people after him to block his promotion. But they failed and he returned with royal power as their king. He called his slaves together to find out who multiplied their money while he was gone. He rewarded those who made the most with cities for them to govern. Then he called the last servant forward. “I was afraid of you,” the servant said. “You are a harsh man. You take what others have saved and you harvest what others have planted. Here is what you gave me. I wrapped it up and hid it. And now I give it back to you.” The king became angry and punished the slave. He took back the money and gave it to the one who made the most – as a reward. “To all who have, more will be given,” the king said. “to those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” And then he called for all who didn’t want him to be king – all his enemies — and he had all of them killed.
This was the last story Jesus told before he entered Jerusalem. And he didn’t interpret it for the crowds. Because for his listeners, it was self evident. This is what kings of the world look like and act like: they broker power. They’re ruthless and shrewd in their business dealings and they maintain their authority by controlling the resources of others. They accumulate political, economic, religious, military and social capital and use it to their advantage, in order to stay on top.
But that is not God’s kingdom. And that is not the way of God’s king. When he goes into Jerusalem, he will not play by their rules. He will expose the fraud. He will speak truth to power. He will purify God’s house by revealing corruption in the Temple leadership. He will not take up swords or advocate for violence. He will stand in solidarity with the least of these – breaking down every barrier that stands in the way of freedom and justice and dignity for all.
There have always been two parades – always been two kinds of kings.
This is our King. This is his way. Today we raise palms in his parade. And today we weep with him – we weep with longing for peace. When the parade is over and the palms litter the empty street, when he wipes his tears away and walks forward with courage and resolve, when Jesus enters what he calls the den of thieves will we stay with him?
Prayers of the People:
Every year we remember and celebrate the palm parade. We re-enact the waving and the shouts and we imagine what it may have been like to join Jesus in the streets — descending from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. And today, in addition to remembering the parade, we remember his tears as he paused and looked over the city. It isn’t just that hill and that city over which he cries. He must still weep today over every child, every parent, every brother, every sister who dies at the hand of another — with every casualty of war, every drop of blood shed, every act of terrorism, every time one person dominates another, stripping him or her of the dignity you have bestowed upon them.
We cry too over the violence of the nations and the ravages of the earth. How long, O Lord will it endure? We pray for our leaders: for President Trump and his national security advisors… for the leaders of the United Nations and our allies and partners — we pray for an urgent peace and a well intentioned and purposeful plan. We pray for accountability and for compassion. We pray for humanity and for life. And we pray for those who suffer — who live in war torn lands and whose lives are shrouded in fear… families who’ve been displaced from their homes… decimated communities… we pray for humanitarian aid — for ministries like One Great Hour of Sharing that bring resources to the far reaching corners of the globe — for education and community rebuilding, first aid, food and clean water. We pray for refugee resettlement — that families may be welcomed into neighborhoods and communities that provide safety, security and the opportunity for new life.
We pray for your church and your kingdom on earth: grant us the mind and heart of Christ our King, we pray: an attitude of selfless grace, open-hearted welcome, forgiveness and peace. Grant us the courage to speak truth and to listen with humility, to stand for justice and to hold on to one another with fervent love.
We pray for healing for our friends and families living in pain and uncertainty. May it be well we pray.
In these times and in every time we trust in you as we lift our voices together – calling upon the ways of your kingdom to be revealed: Our Father…
Scripture: Luke 18:31-19:10
Sermon: Seeing Clearly
Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”
Wait – stop. George- read that last line again. Hmmm. What are you reading out of? The Message? Because I have the New Revised Standard in front of me and it’s a bit different. Listen:
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
I give and I pay vs. I will give and I will pay…
When you read it George, it’s like Zacchaeus is defending himself against the crowd’s false accusations… as if he’s saying: Who are you calling a sinner? You don’t know me! I give half of what I earn to the poor. If there’s ever an error in my books, I repay four times!
But when I read it, it’s like Zacchaeus climbs down the tree and falls on his knees before Jesus — a changed man. From this day forward, he will start living a new way. Beginning today, he’ll give to the poor and he will pay back those he has ripped off.
What do you have? Look it up in your pew Bible: Luke 19:8. Or, if you have a smart phone, look up a different translation – The Voice or King James or The Good News – what do you find? Different translations – different meanings–
So what is happening with Zacchaeus? Is he defending his character before his accusers? Is this an example of a good rich man? Or is he vowing before Jesus to change his ways – from this day on? Or is it a bit of both?
This is one of those curious instances where the original Greek is ambiguous. It is present tense, but it can either refer to a regular habit, or something that is happening at this very moment. It could be a proclamation: I am now giving… or an ongoing behavior: I always give… George– What does Jesus say in response?
9-10 Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”
Salvation has come… that which was lost has been restored… what’s going on here? Please pray with me: Let us see ourselves in the characters of your story, we pray, O God. Let us open our hearts as they open theirs. Fill us with your grace as you speak your truth to us, AMEN
Nearing Jerusalem, Jesus came to Jericho – the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world – nearly 10,000 years old. Known as The City of Palms – it was – and is – an oasis in the desert.
A blind man outside the city gate wanted to see again. He must have seen before but that was now lost. Having once seen, the loss was all the more painful. He was a beggar. Desperately poor. He lived at the bottom rung of the social ladder – solely depending on the charity of others. His sight restored would be life restored… independence restored… community restored… a future restored.
Lord, let me see again, he cried, Have mercy. And Jesus said: yes.
Salvation has come… that which was lost has been restored.
Another man – inside the city gate – also wanted to see Jesus. He was rich– the chief tax collector for Rome in Jericho. Rome didn’t tax individuals, they taxed regions and they farmed out the management of their collections to the highest local bidder. The winner of the contract paid taxes to Rome up front, then they assessed the public.
It was a lucrative business. Whatever they collected beyond what they paid Rome they took as profit – or management fees. Rome didn’t care how they handled it as long as they got paid, so you can imagine there was rampant abuse, exploitation, extortion and all kinds of fraudulent behavior.
And the tax collectors also served as moneylenders. So if a farm in Jericho had a bad crop and had to take out a loan to pay its assessment, Zacchaeus and his band took care of their debt and charged high interest– then took ownership of the land if the fees weren’t paid on time. Tax collectors had a reputation for being ruthless, dishonest and heartless. They were hated and vilified.
So when Zacchaeus, chief among this despised group wanted to push his way to the front of the crowd to see Jesus, the crowd would have none of it. They were delighted to box him out and block his view. In every other part of their lives, he held the advantage, but not on the street.
For an honorable wealthy man, they would have been pleased to part the way, but absolutely not for him. In desperation Zacchaeus climbed a tree. Hidden by the branches, above the fray, he saw Jesus. And he saw his neighbors – maybe saw them for the first time.
He saw mothers carrying babies with older children in tow. He saw farm workers with weathered faces and blistered hands. He saw fathers and sons – carpenters and peasants, shepherds and shopkeepers… Zacchaeus saw all of them reaching toward Jesus with hope for a better life. And just maybe that was the moment he began wondering about his part in their struggle.
Zacchaeus lived comfortably beyond their day to day drama. His staff managed the dirty details of collections. They were simply numbers on a ledger to Zacchaeus, but now he could see their individual faces… the sag of their shoulders… the desperation in their gait. And he could see Jesus – looking at each one… touching each one… blessing each one…
I give away half of my income to the poor. But to what poor, to which poor, to these poor? How have I treated these men and women and children on the street below me? What have I done to them… for them? Did this man lose his farm or this woman close her shop so that I could cover my wife in fine jewelry? Are these farm workers thin and exhausted so I can buy better linens? Do these children have no sandals on their feet and wear clothing too small for their bodies because of me? What is my part in their struggle? If I’ve defrauded anyone… I will repay him or her four times over.
They’d been invisible to him – their individual life stories and heartaches. I think it’s at least possible that before he met Jesus, Zacchaeus was a charitable man – in that he regularly gave generously to the poor. But isn’t it also possible that his habitual charitable giving kept him from seeing and from realizing how lost he was?
And that day, when he climbed a tree to see Jesus, he saw something he didn’t expect to see – that he was part of a neighborhood that was not well.
The doctor had come to visit and despite what Zacchaeus told himself – that these people didn’t know him – didn’t know how much of his income he actually gave away — when they called him a sinner, Zacchaeus was beginning to realize that the crowd actually spoke the truth– he was a chief sinner – a carrier of the virus. And Jesus had come for him.
Church, we are the body of Christ – here and now. And it is our call, our purpose, and our responsibility to provide people the opportunity to give charitably – so that through our financial offerings Catherine Cobb can keep their shelter open for families suffering from domestic violence, children in Syrian refugee camps can continue to receive education in these war-torn days, Tecumseh Service Club can buy food pantry items for the hungry in our town, and families in acute crisis can receive the support they need to move through a rough patch. Financial gifts do a lot of good for a hurting world.
And it is also our call, our purpose, and our responsibility to dig deeper and ask harder questions in order to peel back the layers of our society and learn what’s inherently sick and broken and systemically unjust and to face our own complicity in it.
That’s why we host Courageous Conversations here at the church about the root causes of such things as domestic violence and homelessness, conflicts in the Middle-East, sex trafficking and mental illness, white privilege, crises in the environment and addiction. We open up and explore complex challenges in our society today in order to see more clearly, that in seeing and learning, we have the opportunity to repent and work together toward transformation in the name of Jesus who proclaimed a wholly different kind of kingdom where the hungry are fed, the lowly are lifted up, chains are broken and all that is unwell is made whole.
First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly… Jesus said. For Zacchaeus, maybe that log was complacency… maybe it was comfort or security or greed… maybe it was his self-deception of goodness… maybe it was ignorance… Jesus, with kindness, love and mercy helped him remove it so he could see himself, his neighbor and his God more clearly.
Our prayer of invitation this morning is an invitation to confession on the way to the table of grace. It comes to us by way of the Iona community in Scotland. At the end of this prayer, you are invited to come to the center table where you will find small mirrors with a piece of wood on each one. Come slowly to the table in prayer, look into one of the mirrors and lift away the piece of wood so you can see your face clearly. Pocket the stick and remember it in prayer.
Let us pray:
Imagine entering a room,
with chairs round the wall and dim lighting,
You find a seat, and sit down,
and as you look around,
you discover that your vision is blurred.
You cannot see clearly the people who sit around you
and you cannot see clearly the table in the middle of the room
around which everyone is sitting.
And you are thinking “what’s wrong with my eyes?”
You hear the voices of those around you.
They are the voices of people who are telling each other the truth…
about their past hurts,
about their secret hopes,
about their faith and their doubts.
Some voices you recognize,
even though you can see no faces,
because each of these voices belongs to someone
whom you have judged and found wanting.
Other voices you can’t place.
They belong to someone you’ve never known;
someone whose life is very different than yours,
yet you sense is connected to you in some way.
You thought you knew people like them,
but you only knew part of their story.
And now you hear it all.
And as everyone speaks,
their voices summon up the emotions
which led you to make judgment:
your impatience with people who take a long time to say what they mean,
your jealousy of those who do what you wish you could do
or have what you wish you could have,
your distrust of those whose language is not yours,
your anger at those who hold opinions which you cannot agree with,
your fear of those whose generosity or thoughtfulness
shows up your own indifference.
And as you listen, as you are compelled to listen
to what is in their hearts, and realize what is in yours,
as you bow your head
and regret all the quick conclusions
and false presumptions,
someone sits down on the seat beside you.
Without warning the voice says, “can you see?”
And, shaking your head, you say, “no… No one… Nothing…”
And then the voice says, “you’ve got a log in your eye,
and until you get rid of that, you’ll never see yourself,
or your neighbor, or your God.”
And then this unnamed stranger walks toward the table
in the middle of the room, inviting you to follow…
And do something about the log in your eye.
Thanks be to you, O God, for this invitation.
Thanks be to you, O God, for your table of grace.
Thanks be to you, O God, for your forgiveness and love.
Scripture: Luke 16:19-31
Sermon: The Great Divide
Before we read the gospel story, let me draw your attention to the insert in your bulletin. You’ve been assigned a social/economic class. For the next few minutes, I’d like you to put aside who you really are and assume this role. This is who you are as you push closer in the crowd to hear the Rabbi Jesus.
A show of hands: who is who this morning:
2-5% Wealthy/Elite kings, aristocratic families, high priests,
10-20% Ruling Class: Landowners,Tax Collectors,Army Officers,Scribe 40-50% Merchant Class: Peasants,Tenant Farmers,Craftsmen,Shopkeepers
15-20% Household Slaves
15-20% Lower Working Class: Day Laborers,Farmhands,shepherds,apprentices
10-15% Destitute beggars
After hearing this story- What are your thoughts?
This is not a real story, but, like Jesus’ other stories, it reflects circumstances of real life. We’d expect to find members or representatives from every class of people present in the crowds who gathered around Jesus, listening. And unlike our modern world, the categories were pretty well fixed – people didn’t often move from one level to another – well, maybe down, but definitely not up the social ladder. People were mostly born into categories – through family businesses, land inheritance or religious pedigree. And they spent their energy holding onto what they had. Life was hard for all but the top 15%. It was especially hard on the beggars.
You didn’t have to be a beggar to know what they looked like, smelled like and felt like to be around in Jesus’ day. Lying in the street, outside the synagogue, just beyond the gates of the wealthy, they were all around with their rags and sores and pitiful pleading eyes.
One in every 10 people was a destitute beggar. Theirs was the lowest rung on the social ladder, but nearly 40% of the population was only one accident… one family death… one debilitating disease… one bad crop season away…
Passersby looked upon wretched beggars with some combination of pity, compassion, disgust and fear.
The beggar in this story had a name – Lazarus – in Hebrew it means: the one whom God helps. Maybe that was his given name – or maybe that was what people said when they walked past him – and every miserable creature like him: God help him.
On the other side of the gate where Lazarus was laid every day, lived a rich man. We don’t know his name, although over the centuries and particularly in medieval art he is referred to as Dives – that’s just “rich man” in Latin.
Day after day Dives and Lazarus were within a stone’s throw of each other, yet their worlds were light years apart. Dives and the others in his class had all the resources and power. They controlled the whole economy.
If they were honorable, they didn’t seek to acquire more than their station in life afforded, but there were a whole lot of dishonorable people who multiplied their wealth by the exploitation and oppression of others.
Lazarus and the others in his class had nothing – no ability to fend for themselves – they were completely beholden to the help and charity of others.
The rich regularly threw parties. They invited people of the ruling class to rub shoulders, make deals and taste a little luxury. Kind and charitable wealthy people asked their household servants to share dinner party leftovers with the hungry and the needy outside their door. Dishonorable hosts ordered them to give the scraps to the dogs.
Which wealthy people were honorable and which were tyrants wasn’t a secret. Everybody in the system was impacted by their character. Dishonorable ones used all the tools available to them to work the economy to their advantage: they squeezed the people who worked their lands and hired as few laborers as possible, nearly working them to death. They treated their household staff harshly and their business practices were ruthless. If you were special enough to be invited to one of their lavish parties, you were expected to attend and to publicly show your gratitude. They couldn’t be trusted and wouldn’t be ignored. They were feared but not well liked.
In first century Palestine, stations in life were fixed. People worked hard to hold on to what they had. The tone of each little kingdom was set by those at the top: charitable or manipulative… trusting or fearful… abundance or scarcity… More often than not, it was like hell in “The Chopsticks Story”:a culture where people fought for their own interests and most struggled to make ends meet.
The Chopsticks Story:
And on top of all this, everyone from every station in life believed God’s hand was behind everything – from blessings to suffering. Material blessings were signs of God’s favor and suffering, a sign of sin.
Look again at your roles. When Jesus begins to tell us this story, we know who the rich man is – maybe you work for him, or you sell him his purple cloth. Maybe you were just at his house the night before for a party. Maybe you farm some of his land. Maybe you are the rich man.
And we know Lazarus – we see him – every day we see him. And we walk pass him. It’s hard enough to put food on our tables let alone share scraps with him After all, but for the grace of God, we could surely be him. Maybe you are him. God help you.
When Jesus begins to talk about the deaths of the two men, we imagine the great divide between the elaborate funeral bier and parade for the rich man and the unmarked mound just outside of town for poor Lazarus… pitiful… sad.
Then everything turns on its head in the story as Lazarus is lifted to the bosom of Abraham and Dives is tormented in flames. How many of us actually like this twist? Like it a lot! This is what that cruel and merciless man who sat at the top of all of our lives, lording over us every chance he got deserves. And good for Lazarus! Redemption at last!
As the story goes on, we’re surprised to learn that the rich man actually knew Lazarus’ name. We weren’t sure he ever even saw him. But what audacity! Even while he burns, he demands respect. Abraham, send Lazarus to cool my tongue. There is no self-reflection — no humility — no acknowledgement of his neglect — no apology.
Abraham speaks of the great divide fixed between them, but the great divide of classes and category and privilege is fixed in the rich man’s mind and heart – even after death. He cannot conceive of any other way.
Having heard this story, how does each one of us as listeners walk away? Challenged by the possibility that God’s favor is not linked to material resource or to health or to societal status, but to compassion and to comfort… that God lifts up the lowly, reserving for the most disregarded a seat of honor – Abraham’s bosom?? Aren’t we encouraged by the thought – the hope that God sees even me?
And don’t we rejoice that God is finally a God of justice, that the ones who profited by the exploitation, abuse and dishonest treatment of others are exposed and punished? Ah, but don’t we also fall down on our knees praying for mercy as we reflect on our own complicity?
What will happen the next time we encounter a beggar on the street?
When next we’re told to craft a dishonest business deal on behalf of the rich man we work for, what will we do?
When one of our neighbors falls on bad times and we have the opportunity to provide a meal or a warm place to stay, will we look out for our own interests first, or will we think differently?
What will this mean for our sense of security? Our understanding of real value and place in the world?
We’ll return to our homes thinking about this won’t we? Remembering that God sees each one of us – sees beyond our station – to our hearts. The chasm may be fixed in the afterlife, but is it in the land of the living? Aren’t there ways to cross the great divide here and now – to meet one another, human to human?
Can we conceive of living differently? Of seeing one another apart from station or category or box or label?
What about today? What about you and me? What about the great divides of our day? How does this parable play today?
Scripture: Luke 15 (The Voice)
Sermon: A Good Excuse for a Party
After years of wartime misery, it was time to party and party well, and Esquire magazine produced a book to teach men how. Handbook for Hosts, it was called, and it hit the stands in 1949. It had recipes and parlor games and clothing advice and etiquette tips… The more you browse, one review said, the more great information you’ll find – all vintage 1950s, when the perfect host was king.
There was even a chapter entitled: 365 Excuses for a Party: Here’s your new line on parties and why to throw them. There’s an excuse for every day of the year and every one authentic.
Authentic meant that almost every day there was a celebration of an actual event in history.
It included anniversaries of things like: Paul Revere’s Ride, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the opening of the NY World’s Fair, historical battles and amendments to the Constitution. It had the anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment and the Pony Express and the assembly of the parts of the Statue of Liberty … and there were birthdays of poets, actors, artists and other cultural icons.
These celebrations shaped a nation’s identity by teaching and reinforcing history. They were parties with purpose.
Today there’s a website called partyexcuses.com.
On it, you’ll also find a calendar of 365 days with thousands of excuses to party – sometimes up to 10 options in a given day. And oh how they’ve changed. Now the list is peppered with things like: national nap day and mint julep day…macaroon day and something on a stick day…smoke and mirrors day and “OK” day. There’s even a make up your own holiday day.
All of the official national holidays are there too, but with days for Melba toast, waffles, whisky, French bread, California strawberries, chocolate covered raisins and every other kind of food and drink you can think of, there’s clearly been an infiltration of marketing and product lobbying and a loss of unified identity.
Why do we celebrate? What do we celebrate? When do we celebrate? Not every party is planned – in fact, some of the best ones pop up out of unforeseen circumstances or spontaneous joy – like finding something lost.
All of us have lost things – we lose things all the time. According to US News and World Report, average Americans spend one year of their lives looking for misplaced items. Newsweek says we spend on average 55 minutes every day looking for things. Forbes says the typical executive wastes 150 hours a year searching for lost information – and on an annual salary of $50,000, that’s $3800 in lost productivity.
Purses, wallets, socks, reading glasses, debit cards, phones, remote controls, keys…
My dad’s been under a lot of stress lately with my mom’s move to memory care. Last week he lost his keys. He knew he drove home with them but like the woman with the lost coin, he had turned over his entire apartment – all three small rooms of it – no keys. He even called AAA to open his car and he looked everywhere in it – he locks it from the inside –no keys. He was beside himself thinking about all of the keys he’d have to replace: the car, his apartment, my mom’s room, the mailbox.
He had a spare set of keys – but he hid that somewhere special – and he couldn’t remember where.
The next day – desperate to find those keys – he thought of one final place to look. As he was coming in the day before, there was (in his words) an elderly couple coming in at the same time. My dad’s 89. They were heavily laden with bags. My dad jumped in to help and carried their things to their apartment for them. He knocked on their door. Did you happen to find my keys? He asked. The woman pointed to a pile of canes leaning against the wall. I don’t need a cane, thank you – but do you have my keys? She didn’t know. When they brought everything in, they put it all in a pile. But she went to look. Are these your keys? She asked as she returned.
In that moment, my dad couldn’t have been happier. But he did not begin knocking on every door on the hall and inviting his neighbors to a party to celebrate finding his keys.
Wouldn’t you call together your friends and neighbors? Wouldn’t you say, “Come over and celebrate with me, because I’ve found what I lost?” Jesus asked.
And we wouldn’t, would we? We all know – all too well the anxiety, stress, frustration of losing things and the absolute pure joy and relief in finding things – but we’ve already lost time in the looking and we’re likely running late, and it’s not so easy to gather up our friends and neighbors these days, and losing stuff is so common place we’d feel silly throwing a party over finding something.
But when Jesus told these stories – the truth is that in the first two stories, they absolutely would have thrown parties – without question.
Shepherds didn’t own flocks, they were hired to care for them. They were constantly counting sheep–because they knew a lost sheep was a dead sheep if not found and found quickly. Even with a flock as big as 100 sheep, a shepherd didn’t want to come back at night with only 99.
Every night the villagers gathered together to share stories about their day. One shepherd coming home late because he went to find a lost sheep was a story everybody understood and everybody celebrated.
Likewise, a woman who lost one of 10 coins – that’s a part of her dowry- a treasure to her. Cash in a peasant society was rare. And peasant women not only didn’t leave the house with their coins – they usually wore them as necklaces around their necks. If one coin went missing, she’d know it was in the house somewhere and she absolutely wouldn’t quit looking until she found it. And without question, the other women would rejoice with her when she found it – they all knew the value and the anxiety.
Jesus used these two stories as a setup. Of course there would be parties and of course everyone would be called and of course everyone would celebrate. So, if for a sheep and for a coin – how much more for a lost son, found.
Oh – but wait. Now it’s complicated. Now we’re talking about family dynamics and insult and wasteful choices and what is right and what is deserved and not deserved.
Now we’re talking about resentment and loyalty and betrayal and favoritism and anger and unreliability and broken trust and day after day dependability. This story is not so easy – not so given – not so sure.
By the time Jesus gets to the question at the end of this third story – the one the father asks the eldest son: Isn’t it right to join in the celebration and be happy?
The irony is – for many who heard Jesus tell that story – in their culture of honor and shame – in their religion of right and wrong—in their families where good children obeyed and respected parents – for many who heard Jesus tell that story then and hear it now, the celebration itself is anything but right and joining it is tough to swallow and being happy about it is out of the question.
That the story is called the Prodigal Son is interesting. In English, to be prodigal is to spend resources freely, recklessly, wastefully, abundantly. In the Latin, it means literally to drive away. Who is the prodigal one?
The son who took his inheritance early and traveled far away– the one who squandered it all – scattered it to the wind—the one who returned intending to spend his whole life working back what he had lost, only to be met by the abundant grace of his father?
Who is the prodigal one?
The father who threw his reputation to the wind and ran unashamedly down the lane to meet his son – the one he’d prayed for night after night after night — eyes straining as he looked down that road day after day after day? The father who recklessly laid his heart open again with freely given grace? Wouldn’t some call that prodigal? lavish welcome wasted on one who after all he’d done,
didn’t deserve it?
Who is the prodigal one?
The son who remained at a distance? The one who was always there – always working – always reliable and dependable – the older brother, who now faced with the return of his younger brother, is bitter, destroyed by resentment, jealousy, anger- dwelling in his self-isolating hurt and driving away his family with every backward step he takes?
Both sons are welcome– they always have been and always will be. Both are loved equally but differently; both reside deeply in the Father’s heart.
This story is what Jesus lived for and what Jesus died for: that every one lost would be found – that every one would join the feast where he, the real perfect host, is king.
As children of God, why do we celebrate? We celebrate because every one of us is a prodigal welcomed home. Whether we wandered far and never felt we deserved grace or never left and don’t understand grace. The father’s joy is not complete without all of us there. I love the last snowflake in Dr. Clark’s exhibit. It’s the post story hope and yearning that both brothers come together under the same roof- reconciled in the father’s love.
What do we celebrate? We celebrate unending, abundant grace – for me, for you, for every one.
When do we celebrate? 365 days a year – Who needs another excuse? This is the very best excuse for a party – What once was lost has now been found – what once was dead is alive again- it’s a cause for spontaneous and abundant joy — you can not get any more authentic than that.
Wouldn’t you call together your friends and neighbors and say: Come celebrate with me??
Isn’t it right – oh so right – to join in the celebration and be happy?
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost and now am found, was blind but now I see. Thanks be to God.
Scripture: Luke 13:1-9,31-35 (The Message)
Sermon: Too Busy to Bother with Foxes
Less than 20 years after the death of Jesus, Akiva ben Yosef was born. From humble roots, he grew to be one of the most beloved Rabbis in Jewish history. He was a sage and a storyteller. His faith and commitment to the Torah inspire many to this day. The Talmud includes this story about Rabbi Akiva:
After the bar Kokhba rebellion of 132AD, the evil empire of Rome decreed that Israel may not engage in the study and practice of Torah. Pappos ben Yehuda came and found Rabbi Akiva, who was convening assemblies in public and engaging in Torah study. Pappos said to him: Akiva, are you not afraid of the empire?
Rabbi Akiva answered him: I will relate a parable.
To what can this be compared?
It is like a fox walking along a riverbank when he sees fish gathering and fleeing from place to place.
The fox said to them: From what are you fleeing?
The fish said to the fox: We are fleeing from the nets that people cast upon us.
The fox said to them: Do you wish to come up onto dry land, and we will reside together just as my ancestors resided with your ancestors?
The fish said to him: You are the one of whom they say, he is the cleverest of animals? You are not clever; you are a fool.
If we are afraid in the water, our natural habitat which gives us life, then in a habitat that causes our death, all the more so.
The moral is: So too, we Jews, now that we sit and engage in Torah study, about which it is written: “For that is your life, and the length of your days” (Deuteronomy 30:20), we fear the empire to this extent; if we proceed to sit idle from its study, as its abandonment is the habitat that causes our death, all the more so will we fear the empire.
Too busy to bother with foxes… Rabbi Akiva was too busy studying and teaching God’s way to bother with the threat of the empire.
Jesus was too busy healing and breaking the chains of evil – doing meaningful, life-giving work – on his way to the real confrontation in Jerusalem – too busy, far too busy to bother with foxes.
Cultures around the world depict foxes as crafty, cunning, conniving characters. Tricksters, they tease and taunt, distract and deceive. What they lack in physical power, they make up in mind games.
There’s an old Spanish saying: the fox knows well with whom he plays tricks.
Not when it comes to Jesus. Foxes are aplenty in today’s strange and hard text – spinning their tales – nipping at Jesus’ heels. In the crowd, in politics, even in religion – they test him – but Jesus is a master – his face is set toward Jerusalem and he will not be moved.
There’s an old Welsh saying: A fox does not smell his own stench.
Some people came up…
and told Jesus about this heinous massacre of Galileans who, while they were worshipping in Jerusalem, were slain by Pontius Pilate. Their blood mixed with the blood of their sacrifices on the altar, they say. It’s awful! Sacrilege! A religious hate crime! And not true. Very likely, it never happened.
Pilate did some bad things and historians weren’t particularly kind to him, but there is no historical record of a massacre like this.
Fake news isn’t new. There are wars and rumors of wars – and that’s always been the case. It’s part of the strategy. Torturous fictional tales are interwoven with facts in order to heighten anxiety and stoke a fevered response.
Maybe this group of justice-seekers didn’t start the rumor, maybe they simply spread it – so sure it must be true – so filled with righteous anger and indignation against Pilate and Rome. They were convinced that if they told Jesus and his Galilean followers about this ungodly act of terror that he and all of them would join the zealots in armed revolution against Pilate… against Caesar…against Rome.
These foxes can’t smell their own stench.
But Jesus does, and turning his attention on them rather than on Pilate he calls them to examine their own hearts: Unless you turn to God, you too will die.
These days we can’t get on the internet or even use our phones without being interrupted with the next outrageous news story. And the ones we click on feed algorithms so that we’ll get more of what we like — and we become further and further entrenched in our attitudes until we can’t smell our own stench.
Middle-Eastern biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey cautions: Among those who struggle for justice develops this attitude: we are the angels and they are the devils. Blessed is the movement willing to listen to a courageous voice, quietly insisting: there are devils among us and there are angels among them – we must repent.
Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards—for our vineyards are in blossom. – Song of Solomon 2:15
What’s going on here? the man asked the gardener in the parable Jesus told. Why no fruit on the tree?
We’ve let them in, these sneaky little foxes: fears about scarcity, anxieties about the future, political disagreements, differences among friends… Catch them – catch them all – we’ve got too much good and meaningful life to live together – too many among us deeply in need of healing – too much truth in need of being explored alongside each other – too much real community in need of being forged. We are too busy to bother with foxes that ruin relationships – leaving us barren… isolated… alone.
There’s an old Finnish saying: Foxes are caught with foxes.
Just then some Pharisees came up… to warn Jesus to run away from Herod. He wants to kill you, they said.
And that’s ironic, because they’re really the ones conspiring together to trap Jesus – to catch him breaking religious rules – to trick him with paradoxical questions. They have been from almost the very beginning.
They invite him to dinner, corner him in the market, challenge him in the synagogue… The Pharisees are the kings of mind games when it comes to Jesus.
They would like nothing better than for him to go back to where he came from – run away and take his defiant message of renewal with him.
The Pharisees never liked Herod much. He was Jewish-ish – but he regularly and unrepentantly sinned and sinned big. And Rome paid his paycheck, so under Herod’s rule, the Pharisees always felt their independent Jewish identity was at risk. When Caesar Augustus agreed to let him govern Galilee, it was like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. He was untrustworthy, vengeful, and petty. Universally disliked, he was, understandably paranoid. He governed like a fox – sly and manipulating.
So when the Pharisees came to Jesus to warn him about Herod, Jesus saw through it. You (foxes) tell that fox… I’m too busy to bother with any of you.
Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem – not afraid of the empire… not afraid of the Temple leadership… not afraid of Herod… not afraid. He was focused… resolute… determined to be – day after day — about the work of the kingdom, trusting God.
To what can this time be compared?
It is like a fox walking along a riverbank when he sees fish gathering and fleeing from place to place. The fox said to us: From what are you fleeing?
The onslaught of 24/7 news – piece by piece, word by word, breath by breath… we are inundated in minutia – wikileaks and wiretaps, rumors and half-truths — net after net trying to catch us up – and pull our attention away from the work that is right before us – the relationships that are right before us – the life giving water in which we swim.
I’m not advocating that we stick our heads in the sand or that we abdicate from our responsibility to the body politic. I am advocating for repentance. For acknowledgement of the devils in our own camps and the angels in others.
I’m advocating for humility and investment in each other and our families and those who are unjustly suffering and in need of our compassion, support and healing. I’m advocating for truth telling, yes, and also for truth exploring – for asking more questions and listening for quiet reality in the midst of noisy hysteria.
I’m advocating for peace and for justice… for conviction and for gentleness… for love and for faith. And most of all, I’m advocating that we abide in Christ, the one who gives us life.
There’s a 2nd century Jewish proverb:
Meet each man with friendly greeting; be the tail among lions rather than the head among foxes. It is far better to follow someone truly great than lead something negative and crooked.
Now is the time for focused following. We follow the One who walked with courage toward Jerusalem – the city that kills its prophets.
The day came when they seized Rabbi Akiva and incarcerated him in prison, and they seized Pappos ben Yehuda and incarcerated him alongside him. Rabbi Akiva said to him: Pappos, who brought you here? Pappos replied: Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, for you were arrested on the charge of engaging in Torah study. Woe unto Pappos who was seized on the charge of engaging in idle matters.
When they took Rabbi Akiva out to be executed, it was time for the recitation of Shema (Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One). And they were raking his flesh with iron combs, and he was reciting Shema, thereby accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven. His students said to him: Our teacher, even now, as you suffer, you recite Shema? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by the verse: With all your soul, meaning: Even if God takes your soul. I said to myself: When will the opportunity be afforded me to fulfill this verse? Now that it has been afforded me, shall I not fulfill it?
He prolonged his uttering of the word: One, until his soul left his body as he uttered his final word: One. A voice descended from heaven and said: Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, that your soul left your body as you uttered: One.
Be still and know. Be still and know.
Scripture: Luke 10:25-37
Sermon: The Cost of Walking Away
Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen was 20 and backpacking in India when she met an Israeli man who would become the protagonist of her book Waking Lions. He was just out of the military and on what should have been the adventure of his young life, but there was something wrong with him. He seemed frozen – often lingering in the guesthouse, laying in the hammock and staring into the sky.
One night he confessed. While riding his motorcycle, he’d hit a local Indian man and fled the scene.
When he told me this, Ayelet said, I thought– there’s no way he wouldn’t have stopped if he’d hit me – an Israeli woman, the same age as him.
She wrote Waking Lions ten years later – about Eitan, a wealthy Israeli neurosurgeon, who one night, simply to relieve stress, drove into the desert. Janis Joplin was on the radio – and he cranked it up. The road was his. How fast could his luxury SUV go? The race was exhilarating – exactly what he needed — and the moon was brilliant – in fact he was admiring the perfect fullness of it in his rearview mirror when he hit the man.
Out of the car, he saw him lying motionless in the road, an African migrant. As a doctor, he knew the head injury was fatal. Standing in the moonlight in that moment, Eitan, whose name in Hebrew means steady, was anything but.
No one knows I’m here. I cannot save his life. I can save my own.
He went back to his car and he drove away. And from that moment on Eitan’s life unraveled. Matters got substantially worse for him the next morning when the dead man’s widow knocked on his door to hand him the wallet he left behind at the scene of the accident.
NPR calls the book: a smart and disturbing exploration of the high price of walking away.
Luke 10:25-37New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The Lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, the Lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and (walked away), leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he (walked away), passing by on the other side.
So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, also walked away, passing by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Jesus asked: Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The Lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
This, too, is a smart and disturbing story about the cost of walking away.
By chance, the first man on the scene is a priest — on his way down from Jerusalem, having completed his Temple duties. He saw the man, but without clothes and unable to speak, the priest couldn’t tell his ethnicity or his religion. Nor could he know his moral condition. And these things mattered to the priest. He understood very well his responsibilities for his flock – for the devout Israelite people – but who was this unmarked man?
What if he was a thief or bandit himself and this was an act of retribution? Was he dead or alive? Maybe he could save his life, but if he were already dead, what could he do? He’d need to touch him to examine him and if he were already dead, touching him would make the priest impure. There were provisions for this, of course, to once again purify that which had become unclean, but they were time consuming, expensive and shameful.
And what if the bandits were still nearby?
The priest wasn’t a bad man, just conflicted by the number of rules and interpretations, and pressed by a sense of more important responsibilities given everything else. And so, he walks away.
But you know he thinks about it – his evening will be filled with what-if’s.
What if he was an Israelite and he was alive and he was brutally beaten on his way home from the Temple? What if he was someone he knew? Someone from his village? Someone’s kin? He could make a good legal argument for walking away, but what if he had stayed? Could he have saved the man’s life? Surely he prayed that someone had come along after him to help the poor man.
And by chance, someone did come along – a Levite – also on his way down from Jerusalem. Levites assisted the priests in the Temple. In fact, this Levite could have been this priest’s assistant. Several Middle-eastern scholars are convinced that the Levite would have been able to see the priest in front of him.
The contours of the road made it possible to see a good distance ahead. Regulations weren’t as strict for the Levite as the priest, but if the Levite saw the priest walk away, you know it would have influenced his decision.
On this, 19th century Anglican Archbishop Richard Trench wrote:
The Levite in his turn may have thought with himself, that it could not be incumbent on him to undertake a perilous office, from which the priest had just shrunk; duty it could not be, else that other would never have omitted it. For him to thrust himself upon it now would be a kind of affront to his superior, an implicit charging of him with inhumanity and hardness of heart.
In other words: if the priest didn’t stop, who am I to stop? And the Levite too must have prayed that someone would come along to help this poor man, if in fact, it was God’s will that he be helped.
He’s not a bad Levite, but the man is still in the ditch. And the cost of the first man’s choice to walk away has now multiplied with this second man’s choice.
We don’t know which direction the Samaritan is traveling. If he’s heading toward Jerusalem, he’s passed these two men.
If he’s coming from Jerusalem, he’s likely seen them from behind. He’s not bound to any of their rules or their social expectations. He has his own, but whatever they are, they take a backseat to his compassion for the beaten stranger.
Which is the point, after all.
This, Jesus says, is the way to life: Love of God and love of neighbor. Not just words, but merciful action – that’s the priority – over rules and laws, over boundaries and borders, over ritual, over social norms, over everything.
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen said she wrote Waking Lions because she wanted readers to ask themselves:
What if this happened to me? Driving home to my family late at night, I hit somebody who looks different than me and I’m certain nobody has seen – am I absolutely sure I wouldn’t walk away?
Or- maybe I didn’t cause the accident at all… I came upon someone hurting and suffering… and no one else was around… am I absolutely sure I wouldn’t walk away?
A parable, according to theologian John Dominic Crossan is
a story that never happened but always does. We know this story. We’ve lived it. Not with these exact details, but there’s not one of us here who hasn’t walked away from someone in need and we have lots of reasons – good ones even:
We don’t want to enable. We have limited resources. Someone else is better equipped. We have very important other responsibilities – other priorities. It’s too risky – not safe for us. We don’t speak their language or understand their culture. We can’t relate to their life. We’re afraid. We hope and pray someone else comes along — someone more equipped, someone who knows better what to do… It’s easier to walk away. And it may be, but at what cost?
Jesus tells parables to invite listeners to examine their hearts and to adjust their seeing, their hearing, their being to live more fully in the kingdom of God.
In light of this story, what could that look like for us?
Instead of walking away, what if we stay with it just a little longer?
What if we ask a few more questions… try to understand the facts and circumstances of a neighbor’s life with more compassion and empathy?
What if we invest in the effort to learn about human and community systems – what works and what doesn’t – where the real gaps are and what role we might play to help those who suffer?
What if we widen the circle of support and establish a bigger resource base… develop relationships with others willing to help… share the load?
What if we set aside judgment and open our minds and our hearts to stories different than the one we live and know?
What if we pause in the everyday busyness of our lives long enough to hear the cries of the hurting, to see someone in pain, to come alongside our neighbor who is struggling and offer to carry some part of the load?
Jesus said: Do this, and you will live.
Do you think it’s possible that every time we walk away, we live a little less? And every time we walk toward we live a little more?
Scripture: Luke 7:36-50
Sermon: My Story
In first century Galilee, it’s likely that the Pharisee Simon lived in a house with an adjacent courtyard. Private dinner parties like this one were held in the paved courtyard, which had a roof supported by columns. It was like a terrace. No walls blocked the surrounding night, and it was customary that uninvited guests would hang around
outside the party.
For some, it was entertainment. They’d gather to see who made the guest list and who sat next to whom – to catch a glimpse of the rich and powerful at play.
Parties like these attracted the poor too. They waited until the dinner was over, and then the servants would feed them leftovers. In this way, the host fulfilled his charitable obligations and the hungry were fed. A win-win.
Still others — entertainers, artists, merchants, and street vendors made themselves and their wares available to the dinner party guests and the gathered crowds.
So in addition to the people sitting around the table inside the courtyard that night, there were many other watchers.
Whose life was changed that night by what was seen? Whose story didn’t make Luke’s gospel? Imagine… Imagine another woman in the shadows… If she could tell her story, maybe it would sound like this:
There I stood… in my usual place. I adjusted my shawl, ran my fingers through my hair and waited – hoping it wouldn’t be long. I scanned the crowd loitering in the streets…
I’d been in this business long enough to size them up pretty quickly. The over-eager ones were trouble – rough… the nervous ones were nice, but they never paid much – and I had too many mouths to feed to waste my time. I liked a confident man – sure of himself – a man who knows what he wants when he sees it – I like a man to be choosy.
There is some chemistry in this game… chemistry, but not love. A long time ago I thought maybe there could be love – that someone kind would come and he would see me for who I really am… and he would buy me things and be gentle with me and plead with me to come away with him. He’d make a new life possible for me … and he would never be with another woman and I would never be with another man again…
That was a long time ago… when I actually thought gifts meant something and I actually thought I meant something… that was a long time ago and a lot of men ago…
So there I stood… waiting and watching. Tonight a dinner party gathered down the road. Important looking men were talking excitedly with one another as they headed toward the house. I recognize those robes – religious men.
They walked by me without even a glance my way.
No surprise there… they’d be afraid to notice a woman like me in public. And, well, I guess I’d be afraid to be with one of them in private anyway. I know what they think of my kind. It’s better if I keep a good distance from them.
And then a man walked by I’d seen recently mingling with my crowd. He seemed out of place now with this crowd, and yet the man who lived in the house came out through his courtyard and personally greeted this man like he was invited – maybe even the guest of honor. How strange. But what happened next was stranger still…
I saw a woman I knew –not well – in fact, I don’t even know her name, but I’ve seen her around – she does what I do. So, it wasn’t strange to see her there… I was there… it’s a busy street with lots of wealthy men. The strange thing was — she was walking toward the house like she was going to the party. People like her – like me – we don’t go to parties like this – what was she doing?
Maybe she was looking for a place to stand and wait for the dinner to finish – you know, to take advantage of the men who came stumbling out … but like I said, these weren’t the kind of men to mess with – surely she knew that. So, what was she doing?
I moved closer to get a better look. The woman hesitated at the edge of the courtyard. Inside, the guests had all reclined around the dinner table. She just stood there, looking at the man I’d seen before – not trying to get his attention, just looking at him.
I watched for a bit, but this had nothing to do with me, and I had to get back to work… but as I began to turn away, she moved… quickly and purposefully into the courtyard.
What was she doing? She had no business there! But she pushed her way in and moved toward the man. He was seated next to the host and when she reached him, she fell at his feet.
I moved from the shadows to get a better view and when I did that, some of the men turned to look my way. Their hard looks of disapproval sent me quickly across the street and out of their sight, but I found a spot where I could see her. I watched as she pulled out a jar… I’d seen that jar before…
A wealthy Roman gave it to her – only a couple of weeks ago. I overheard her talking about it. She cradled her precious jar next to her heart, calling it her “promise of a new life”. She said she was sure the Roman would come back for her… thought he might actually love her… that this jar proved she was special to him…
I remember thinking– she’ll learn… promises are always broken and there’s no such thing as new life. And I wondered which Roman he was, because I sure wouldn’t mind an expensive box of perfume of my own…
But tonight I watched her take that same precious jar and smash it open, pouring its contents all over the man’s feet. He had his hand on her shoulder and she was crying… and then she was kissing his feet. All conversation had stopped. And I realized my breathing too had stopped…
Couldn’t she feel the eyes of each and every man around that table on her… boring into her… judging her… condemning her? Surely she knew all talking had stopped… as she had become the object of their fascination… their embarrassment… their contempt.
As I looked at each of their faces, I felt her shame – my heart was pounding… my stomach was churning, my flesh seemed on fire… I felt her shame because it was my shame… but she… somehow, she didn’t notice anyone in the room but him. He was the center of all of her attention… her hands, her tears, her hair, her eyes were only on him.
Leave now, I silently pleaded with her! Before it’s too late! I saw the way they all looked at her and began to whisper to each other. Please… leave! Now they cut you with their eyes. Soon it would be stones… why wouldn’t she leave? I couldn’t bear to see what would happen next, but I couldn’t bear to turn away.
And then, the host of the party shifted his gaze from the woman to the man… and his expression changed from disgust to what – disappointment? Pity? Superiority? But then the man turned to meet the eyes of the host, and as he did, he raised his hand to stop the whispering that had begun around the table. All attention was on him as he spoke. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the whole time he spoke, the woman continued massaging his feet with that expensive oil that only a couple of weeks ago had meant everything to her…
And then he turned to her. He took her hands in his hands and lifted her to her feet. Then he lifted her face to his face and spoke directly to her. I could see his face as he spoke and it was the kindest, warmest face I had ever seen, and his eyes held not a trace of hatred or disgust or contempt in them… and no lust or eager desire – I knew all of those looks well … No, in his eyes was something I had never seen – I had never known… and somehow, in that moment, even though he was looking at her, I felt like he was also looking at me.
Then the moment passed, and the woman turned and left the house. He watched her as she left, then he reclined again at the table. I was frozen in place, watching the scene, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the woman. I turned toward her and her eyes met mine. Quickly I looked away and began to move away but she was quicker still and she reached out for my arm. “This is the right man”, she said.
“He looked into my soul and he saw me … not the tricks I had turned… not the men I had known… not the lies I had told… but he saw me… and in his eyes I saw truth … I saw love… I saw new life.”
Tears were running down my face as I fell to my knees. I was so afraid to believe it… I had built such a thick wall to protect myself from disappointments and pain – and to hide from the truth of what I had become, and yet I felt it crumbling as her hand moved from my arm to my shoulder, and then she knelt beside me and she held me. Together we wept – tears of grief and of joy, of fear and of hope… and then she reached for both of my hands and raised me to my feet.
And she said, “Follow him with me.”
Story after gospel story are lessons of contrast: some see and others are blind… some know the need for forgiveness and others hold on tightly to self-righteousness and judgment… some withhold hospitality and others love extravagantly… some play it safe and others risk it all…
Where are you?
In every story, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
In every story is a life-changing invitation: Come and See.
Scripture: Luke 7:18-35
Sermon: What did you expect?
It’s almost Valentine’s Day and I’m reminded again of this little box of chocolates my parents gave me for Valentine’s Day – when I was maybe 7 years old. It was about the same time a Sunday school teacher told our class about the importance of inviting Jesus into our hearts. She referenced the picture we had in our church of Jesus knocking on the door of a heart– waiting to be welcomed in, and she talked about how Jesus wants to make his home with us – each one of us. How he loves us each so much he wants to live inside our hearts – and never leave us.
And all we have to do is open the door and invite him in.
That night as I lay in my bed I prayed and I asked Jesus to come into my heart and make his home there. And to symbolize what I had done, I finished the last chocolate out of my heart candy box and placed his picture inside. Then I put the box under my bed. And when I climbed back into bed that night – and I still remember this – I felt good. I believed my heart was filled with Jesus – his love, his friendship, his safety and his peace.
35 years later I got out of bed in the middle of the night and with my golden retriever at my side I went out into the backyard and sat down and cried. It was the night after my ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church. In the quiet and dark of that night I was overwhelmed. I’m sure some of the tears were from exhaustion: house guests, my mom was sick, it was a really long day- an emotionally exhilarating and draining service… but I cried and cried that night – tears I’m still interpreting.
This following Jesus thing is a costly enterprise.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who sacrificed his life resisting the evils of Nazi Germany, that was literally true.
Part of the reason I cried was because I didn’t know what lay ahead for me. What would following Jesus look like for me? And each time this call as pastor has been hard and heartbreaking, I’ve understood the tears a little more.
What did you expect when you said yes to following Jesus?
I knew more at 42 than I did at 7, but paradoxically I also knew the magnitude of what I didn’t know and sometimes even now I long to return to that childlike sleep when there were no hard truths and knowing he loved me was enough.
What did you expect when you went out to the wilderness? Jesus asked the crowd – when they began their journey to a new life. Surely they didn’t travel all that way to see a reed blowing in the wind – nor did they go to that place of desolation expecting to get rich.
But what did they expect would happen when they let a prophet of God take them under the Jordan River?
What do we expect when we stand before the baptismal font and commit to renouncing evil and all that defies God’s purpose in the world and commit to turning fully toward Jesus, accepting him as Lord and Savior? What change do we expect to see or feel in our own lives? What difference do we expect it to make in the world?
Both of our children went to a private Christian school for a while. I remember one day after school – after one of the chapels, Courtney – who at the time was probably about 7 – was upset.
They talk about how if we don’t pray to accept Jesus we’ll go to Hell, she said, And I pray every time but I don’t feel any different – what if I’m not doing it right?? And Alex said – You only have to do it once, Courtney – you’re fine. But she expected there was more…
Later Alex asked a different question: Which is better, Mom – to accept Jesus and be a bad person or be a good person and not accept Jesus? How about that for a loaded question?
Imagine me pulling up a chair next to his bed and trying to explain that it’s not that simple… not black and white: first of all – there are no such things as straight up good people and bad people – and better – is a value judgment – better for who – the person, the rest of the world? And what does it really mean to accept Jesus? Accept him as what? If we say we accept him as Lord – Lord of what? Of me? of the world? yes to both? Then what difference does that make in our lives? Why do we accept him in the first place? In order to guarantee a place in heaven after this life or in order to reorient the way we live our lives here and now?
And here’s Alex – probably like 10 or 11 – just wondering why there were mean kids in a Christian school, when he took his WWJD bracelet seriously.
Remember WWJD bracelets? Back in the 90’s—-
They started when youth group leader Janie Tinklenberg, of Calvary Reformed Church in Holland Michigan wanted a catchy way to remind her teens to stop and consider what Jesus would do when confronted with whatever it is a teen might face.
“We looked at T-shirts and hats, Janie recalls, But this was the time when kids were making braid friendship bracelets with colored thread. So bracelets it had to be. And we just used the abbreviation because kids wouldn’t have time to read the four words and they wouldn’t fit on the bracelet.”
She asked a friend to make a few hundred of them to give to the kids from her church to wear for 30 days and remember their commitment to God and good Christian behavior. They were immediately popular with the kids who asked for more to give to their friends and so on and so on. When Paul Harvey mentioned WWJD bracelets every day for a whole week in 1997, they became a sensation.
They were everywhere – on the wrists of athletes and business people, politicians and actors. Estimates of sales in the US during the 1990’s range from 15-52 million bracelets.
What would Jesus do?
Over the years the question has evolved into more specific questions: In 2002, Christians concerned about the environment launched the campaign What would Jesus drive? to help people understand the relationship between transportation choices, oil dependence and global warming.
Some are convinced Jesus would cruise in an old Plymouth because the Bible says,“God drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden in a Fury.” But other scholars insist he drove a Honda, citing John 12: 49 “For I did not speak of my own Accord…” And see here– his apostles followed their master’s lead –check out Acts 5:12 “The Apostles were in one Accord.” –they even carpooled!
What would Jesus buy? was a documentary released in 2007 profiling Rev. Billy and his church of Stop Shopping. It focused on the commercialization of Christmas, materialism and addictions to over-consumption. Rev. Billy continues to preach and teach sing about what he calls the Shopocalypse.
In 2011, Dr. Don Colbert wrote the book What would Jesus eat? It came with a companion cookbook and espoused the dietary benefits of a middle-eastern diet.
An Internet conversation emerged in 2014 on the question: What would Jesus pack? Meaning – what gun would Jesus carry.
Some argue that if Jesus had access to a gun when he went into the temple to chase out the evil money changers, instead of a whip, he would have chosen an old-fashioned cowboy six-shooter as a symbol of justice. Others lobby for the .44 Remington Magnum – the gun of choice for Dirty Harry, saying:
“Jesus is a God of love who expects the best of us. He literally wants each and every one of us to ‘make His day.’”
And there’s a Facebook page that’s become popular just in the last couple of months: Who would Jesus deport?
These questions may trigger thoughtful and faithful reflection, and to the extent that they drive us back to the Scriptures to engage in meaningful theology, they’re helpful, but the truth is we can never claim to know what Jesus would actually do. Even his closest followers were continuously surprised. He defied expectation.
John the Baptist asked if Jesus was the One they’d waited for because he wasn’t doing what John expected him to do.
Tell John, said Jesus, the blind are seeing, the lame are walking, the lepers are clean, the deaf hear, the dead live again, and good news is preached to the poor, but according to scholar Amy Jill Levine, Jewish sources do not traditionally speak of the Messiah as a miracle worker. They expected the Messiah to bring about God’s justice by defeating all agents of oppression. He would occupy the throne and establish a new kingdom of peace and prosperity. That meant overthrowing Rome.
But Jesus’ script was different. Even the Pharisees and religious scholars didn’t accept him as Messiah – and they’d spent a lifetime studying exactly what they should be looking for. Jesus didn’t fit in a box then and he doesn’t fit in a box now.
Even a pretty heart-shaped box.
In 2017, Jesus remains an enigmatic figure. But saying we’ll follow him is more than just words, it’s a call to action – to due diligence in study and reflection and prayer… to honest and earnest engagement of the mind, heart and hands…
To a raised level of expectation that our lives here and now will change and the world too will change, and it’s a call to deep humility. My last entry in Alex’s baby journal was in 2005. He was 13 and in his last year at the Christian school before entering public High School. Reading it again recently, it seems as relevant now as it was 12 years ago:
“Families have different understandings of what it is to live faithfully. That’s really the thing – there is no single, uniform Christian walk because we are all unique people. We all come out of different families, different communities, different experiences – we all see things slightly differently – sometimes not so slightly. Yet, we are all called to respond to Jesus when he says “Follow me”.
Alex, this call is not an easy one, but it is one that will fill your life and your heart with joy – even if at times (or when at times) it also involves pain and struggle. Your convictions on what it means to “Follow Christ” may lead you to stand in different places than some of your Christian friends. When you do this, be humble and full of grace—speak the truth in love not harsh judgment.
Seek to follow the way of Jesus—the way of peace, gentleness and love. Allow yourself to develop convictions—led by the Spirit, and remember that the Spirit speaks through others too—so let your convictions not be so inflexible that you are unable to hear a word of truth spoken by another. Don’t allow your heart to close to new realities that the Spirit has for you.”
And in all things remember you’re loved. For when everything else may feel uncertain, that is the truth.
Scripture: Luke 7:1-17
Sermon: Cross Culture
Abraham Lincoln once said: Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.
Power, according to Merriam Webster, is the possession of control, authority or influence over others.
This morning we have two gospel stories – told back to back in Luke: the powerful and the powerless… and Jesus is in both.
I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them, Jesus said to his disciples just before they entered Capernaum where they were met by a delegation of Jewish elders:
He deserves this, they say to Jesus. And hearing the word deserves, I’m thinking Jesus raised an eyebrow.
The he they’re talking about is a Roman centurion. Centurions were powerful people – officers with as many as 100 men under them. This one’s a good Roman, they say, and by that they mean he’s been good to them.
He loves our people, they say. He paid for our synagogue, they say. That, in their estimation, made him worthy of Jesus’ attention.
Jews of the first century had a strong nationalistic identity. As a people set apart by God and for God, they took great pride in their religious traditions and culture. At the center of most villages with observant Jewish communities stood a synagogue. They gathered there to honor and celebrate their ancient heritage through rites and rituals. Archaeologists have found stones in some of these synagogue ruins with the names of Roman patrons inscribed. Perhaps the name of this centurion was lauded in such a way.
His beloved servant was sick and near death. Having heard of the healing power of this Rabbi Jesus, he sent Jewish negotiators to plead his case.
He deserves this, they say. He loves our nation.
And Jesus went with them toward the Roman man’s house.
I don’t deserve this, the centurion says, in a message delivered to Jesus by a second delegation — this time the centurion’s friends – probably other Romans – who met them on the way.
Here is a figure who holds one of the highest political offices in the region. Technically, he could have pulled rank and ordered Jesus to come to his house, but he does exactly the opposite: in a dramatic public display, he empties himself of all cultural authority.
` I don’t deserve to have you under my roof, he says.
And the Jewish synagogue leaders of the first delegation undoubtedly agree– it’s further testimony of how great this Roman is – he even knows his real place compared to the people of Israel.
You — you don’t need to come here, he says, say the word from where you are and it will be done. – From a man who knows authority and the power of words – complete deference, respect and honor for Jesus.
I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them, Jesus said. This Roman centurion had all political authority, and he laid it down, humbling himself before the One he recognized as True Authority.
And that’s why he deserves it – the good, true, humble, noble character of his heart.
But to underscore the point, Jesus says: I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. Now he’s gone too far – offending the Jewish leadership—a nationalist people by suggesting a Roman had stronger faith… Madness.
Next, Jesus meets a funeral procession. An only son died and his mother mourns. She’s a widow – the epitome of powerlessness in her culture. What a contrast from the first story. Jesus sees her weeping – for all that she has lost: a present and a future, security, welfare, life, love… Despite the crowds of mourners, she is utterly alone – and Jesus is moved with compassion. Literally his gut wrenches. And without being asked, he awakens the dead man.
What is this?
Nothing in her society says she deserved this – that she was worthy of this grace. But it is his call:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind.
to let the oppressed go free.
Within first century Palestinian culture, widows were the poorest, most vulnerable and voiceless. No claim to property, no protection, no hope.
What manner of injustice leaves people like this? What laws, what decisions, what norms, assumptions and traditions? Jesus acts out of compassion and with defiance against every systemic evil and structural injustice that creates and supports this widow’s plight.
I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them, Jesus said.
We have before us this day power and powerlessness.
Using 50 factors to determine a country’s Power index, the Global Firepower 2016 list ranks the United States number 1 out of the top 40 most powerful countries. This ranking is not simply based on the most weapons, but considers weapon diversity, natural and human resources, logistical flexibility and local industry.
Economically, we rank number one out of 190 countries in GDP – the total market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given year.
When asked if the United States has a moral responsibility to be a force for good in the world, 71% of the people who live in a five mile radius of Tecumseh said yes, 1% more than the United States as a whole, and 72% of the people of Tecumseh believe Americans act increasingly irresponsibly to the detriment of the common good – 2% higher than the United States as a whole.
In 2012 when MissionInsight prepared the report, we believed overwhelmingly that we are to use our power and our world influence to be a force for good and we also believed overwhelmingly that we were acting increasingly irresponsibly…
Wouldn’t it be good to know what people meant when they answered those questions? What if we sponsored a forum to listen and learn and reflect on global and local issues in our day and in light of Christ’s call to compassion, justice and love?
On the day after President Trump’s inauguration hundreds of thousands of people in cities around the world in Australia and Belarus, Botswana and Brazil, Chile and the Congo, Costa Rica and Latvia and Madagascar and Poland… in Israel and Saudi Arabia, Serbia and South Korea – even in the Antarctic Peninsula hit the streets and marched. Including those in the US, the number is now estimated at close to 5 million people: Be a force for good in the world was the message – Use your power compassionately – to build up – to reach out – to pursue freedom and dignity and humanity – for all. The world is watching.
In his Inauguration Speech, President Trump said: From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first… Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families…We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.
Jesus didn’t teach a self-first ethic, but rather an other-first, self-sacrificing – laying down of power in the interest of lifting up another in need – neighbor to neighbor… people to people. What about nation to nation?
For now the world looks on and our nation’s character is revealed as we shut the door on refugees seeking sanctuary – victims of terrorism, genocide, religious and gender based violence and civil war – many of whom have been fully vetted by a legal refugee entry process. These are the truly powerless – forced to leave their homes and their villages – burying their children and their futures – and we who could offer life – out of our abundance, do not.
For fear. But people on the front line of refugee resettlement ministries like Matthew Soerens, co-author of Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis and the U.S. director of church mobilization at World Relief, say this policy will not make us safer while devastating so many.
Is one child more worthy than another? More deserving than another of full and abundant life? Who is our neighbor? Only those who live inside our borders? our walls? Practice our religion?
Last week I got together with a couple of other pastors in this town. Not surprisingly, politics came up. I listened to them talk about how they were navigating the waters in these turbulent times within their congregations. Both of them said: I’m staying out of it and just preaching Jesus.
I don’t understand how preaching Jesus can be anything but in it. Jesus said: From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. What does that mean for you and for me and for the church and for the nation and for the world?
Scripture: Luke 6:1-11
Sermon: At the Intersection of Love, Faith and Holy Outrage
A man with a withered right hand went to the synagogue that Sabbath day. That’s how he was known: The man whose right hand was withered.
In his faith tradition, the Right Hand was more than the five digited appendage at the end of the right arm. It was the primary point of physical touch, and as such, it symbolized the whole of a person’s actions, intentions and strength. Spiritual power transferred through the right hand for blessings and anointings – then and now. Greetings were exchanged through the right hand of fellowship. Often Jewish prayers called on the Mighty Right Hand of God, symbolizing all of God’s strength, power and enduring providence.
So what did it really mean that his right hand was withered? What did it mean to him? What did it mean to others in his faith community?
It didn’t ban him from worship. He could tuck his shrunken, weak and useless right hand into his cloak and enter the synagogue to sing and pray and listen to the Scriptures, as they were read and taught. But when the people turned to greet one another – or lifted their hands in the air to pray as was their custom, it was awkward and probably shameful for him.
He was a one-handed man in all aspects of life. He couldn’t push or pull or lift or embrace with full strength. His employment options were limited. It was difficult to provide for his family or contribute to the physical needs of the community. In his own eyes and in the eyes of others, he was not a whole person. Not dying, not bleeding, not uninvited to worship, just weak and diminished… less than.
If there was a cure for his condition, it was against Jewish law to administer it on the Sabbath – because it would require work and work was forbidden. Healing on the Sabbath Day was only lawful for people in life-threatening circumstances.
But who is to say what threatens full and abundant life?
The Pharisees and scribes went to the synagogue that Sabbath day too. They were always there — the elite worshippers. They knew the religious Law inside and out and oversaw its application in the faith community. They were smart and esteemed; the teachers … the local authority on all things holy. They were not only there, they held seats of honor.
Jesus saw the man with the withered hand. He has a habit of seeing people. And the Pharisees took note.
Come and stand here, he said to the man here– front and center – next to them.
This is the kind of thing that gets Jesus in trouble, over and over again. The gospels tell story after story like this. Jesus sees someone or something that’s just not right and he doesn’t wait until coffee hour – he stops everything to address it. Here he sees someone who believes he’s less than… and he sees people who believe they’re more than enforcing religious laws and practices to keep it that way … and he calls it out.
He loves to do it on the Sabbath day and particularly in the sanctuary. What better time; what better place. If Sabbath is about freedom and justice and wholeness doing good not harm… saving life not destroying it– if the sanctuary is a sacred space set apart – holy before God – then what better time, what better place to reveal God’s love and grace for every person? But not everybody saw it that way.
Stretch out your hand… Jesus said to the man Put right out in the open that part you’ve kept hidden in shame– stretch it out in the open before God and all of these people…
Can you imagine? All eyes were on him. How he must have trusted Jesus at that moment to risk bringing into the light that shadowed part of himself before his whole community. And as he does so, only as he does so, is he restored.
The weird thing is that everybody isn’t filled with joy.
As the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Scribes– those considered by the community to be the credentialed holy ones looked on, they were filled with something else.
Not anger. Not fury. Not rage – it’s actually something else. The Greek word that describes what they’re filled with only appears one other time in the whole of the New Testament –
in 2 Timothy chapter 3:
You must understand this, pens the writer of 2 Timothy ch 3, in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them! For among them are those who make their way into households and captivate vulnerable women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth… these people of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, also oppose the truth. But they will not make much progress, because… their folly will become plain to everyone.
That’s a mouthful. And I don’t know if these are the last days or the first days, but there’s something in here for us —
Folly is what the Pharisees and Scribes were filled with when they saw the man’s hand restored that Sabbath day. Folly – the complete absence of wisdom, reason and sober judgment – as if their minds had become infected with a corrupting virus making them incapable of discerning truth and goodness and light and life.
The King James calls it madness.
The truth is, Jesus didn’t break any Sabbath laws that day. He didn’t touch the man. He didn’t work. He did nothing wrong and everything right: he saved a life. But that’s not what they saw and not what they would say and not what they would use to conspire against him.
This is what Jesus was up against. The folly – the madness of these people of pedigree and power was dangerous. They sat on councils and planned and plotted his demise.
Yet over and over again, in story after story, Jesus stood out in the open– with defiance and conviction and challenge – in the synagogue and on the Sabbath – in the marketplace and in dinner parties – he stood for love and he stood for justice; he stood for truth and he stood for life – he exposed madness and he calls his followers to do the same.
One of the speakers at the Women’s March in our nation’s capital last week, Rabbi Sharon Brous said this:
Sometimes—maybe once in a generation—a spirit of resistance is awakened at the intersection of love, faith and holy outrage. In those moments, we are reminded what we’re fighting for, what our armed forces are willing to die for, what this country was built for and what our flag flies for: liberty and justice, for all. This is one of those sacred moments. Today, around the country, we, the people, stand together in protest, proclaiming our fidelity to love over hate, progress over regress, and inclusion over exclusion.
One of the criticisms I heard upon my return from the march in DC last weekend was that it wouldn’t amount to much – not really have an impact – because it wasn’t unified in purpose. It’s true, there were lots of different reasons people marched – lots of different hand-made signs and lots of different causes. But in the midst of all the diversity, there were common themes.
Rabbi Brous hit on some of them: liberty and justice for all, love, progress, inclusion. I made a sign that said: We will hope, We will love, We will stand, We will speak. Those themes were represented broadly too: steadfast and persistent hope… relentless love… courageous stands… silence turning to voice.
I didn’t march against President Trump as a person. I didn’t march against democracy or the election results. I didn’t march against a political party or because I was upset my candidate didn’t win.
Fundamentally I marched against madness. Today’s Scripture helped me name it. And in reading this Scripture I’ve learned something else:
More than march against folly, he stood his ground before it – and he faced it full on with love and faith and truth and holy outrage.
Because folly is a corrupting virus, and it infects us all. It is rationalization and projection and objectification and the exploitation of power. It’s the seduction of privilege and fear of scarcity. It’s believing in absolute dualities like winners and losers and the misguided striving after trophies and accolades – the proof that one has and is more than… it’s the suffocating dread of being less than. It blights the soul, deprives the mind of rational thought and drains the heart of compassion. It’s madness – a sickness unto death.
And when exposed, it doesn’t go gently into the night.
Come here and stand, Jesus said. Come into the light – into the center – into full view. Stretch out your withered and reluctant and fearful and intimidated and atrophied and nervous right hand. Stretch it out in full view and join it with another and another and another – here at the intersection of Love, Faith and Holy Outrage. Come and stand here. And lo, he said, I will be with you always, day after day after day.
Scripture: Luke 4:14-33
Sermon: The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me
Jesus was coming home! And they were so proud. The villagers of Nazareth had raised him after all. And now everybody throughout Galilee was talking about him – their Jesus!
Imagine their excitement. They watched with great expectation as he stood that day in the synagogue to read the scroll. All eyes were on him as he unrolled it and looked it over. Then, with a clear, strong voice he read:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…
he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…
sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind…
to let the oppressed go free…
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
They knew those verses – they’d heard them many, many times. They’re words of hope spoken by the prophet Isaiah to a people living in exile – proclaiming a long-awaited return.
They’re from the 61st chapter of the book of Isaiah, which continues: they shall build up ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities… everlasting joy shall be theirs… their descendants shall 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…
The people of the synagogue of Nazareth clung to words like this. Life was challenging under Herod’s rule. They saw his loyalty to Rome as idolatry and his personal antics and ethics as abhorrent. In fact it was Herod’s corruption that drove many faithful Jewish families to leave Judea and settle in the hills of Nazareth. There they formed a tight community and waited for God to deliver them.
Jesus didn’t read the whole scroll. He sat down after reading the line:
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…
and he said: Today. Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
And that was exactly what they longed to hear! What they had waited for! God’s deliverance was at hand! And it was their Jesus – their hometown son — who proclaimed it! What a day!! This was not just good news – it was great news.
And then Jesus kept talking. And they stopped clapping each other on the backs and their smiles froze and began to fade… and their eyes – shining just moments before, clouded over… their hearts hammered against their chests and their fists began to clench – and just like that, they were filled with rage and drove him out of town.
This is a preacher’s worst nightmare.
Everything changed after he said those three little words:
the truth is…
Jesus returned to Galilee filled with the power of the Spirit – courageous, inspired, fearless and ready to speak truth. And they did not like it.
Because the truth was not what they believed it to be.
Who are the poor?
Who are the captives?
Who are the blind?
Who are the oppressed?
The faithful people of Nazareth assumed they were God’s chosen people – that the promises were exclusive. They couldn’t conceive of anyone else getting God’s favor in the way it was meant for them. And here’s Jesus – one of them. They trained him for goodness sake. His religious training came from their synagogue – their rabbis. They knew his parents – where did he get these crazy notions?
And what was so crazy about what he said?
When there were tons of widows in Israel, God sent Elijah to a Gentile widow… when there were lepers all over Israel, God sent Elisha to heal a Syrian.
Jesus had the audacity to proclaim God’s freedom to move past human categories of privilege and religious pedigree to love outsiders and heal the ritually impure and free all kinds of captives.
He had the nerve to suggest that human understandings of “chosenness” are not the same as God’s.
And that is disturbing.
Preaching professor Dr. Paul Scherer wrote: It is necessary first of all…to quit covering over the offense of the gospel in an effort to do people good. Nothing can do them good without disturbing them, and nothing will disturb them to any lasting effect unless it disturbs them deeply.
That kind of preaching marked Jesus’ short career as his message and his ministry over and over again met with hostility and opposition. People don’t like to be disturbed.
But the truth is…
Often unpopular – especially if it’s demanding or unexpected or uncomfortable or risky or painful or challenges deep-set convictions.
Who are the poor –
Who are the captives –
Who are the blind –
Who are the oppressed – in our midst?
And what is our responsibility, our risk, our call as followers of Jesus – to be liberators, reconcilers, healers, peacemakers – in his name? in this day? in this place?
Last Saturday was training day. Our elders and deacons – the leaders of this church – came together to review the tasks of ministry they are set apart to do. After watching a short video reviewing the call of elder and deacon, the room was quiet.
Comments? Questions? Thoughts? I asked.
It’s overwhelming… daunting, some said. You should review these things with us before we say yes.
If you didn’t feel that way, I’d be worried, I said. And then I said:
It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we – any of us – are able to do what we are called to do.
The saying goes: God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called.
In a few moments we will be inviting all of the new elders and deacons forward to be ordained and installed. And we will lay hands on them as we pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon them and equip them for the service to which they are called.
Together this leadership team will discern what it will mean to be church in this place, in this time – Tecumseh, Lenawee County, Michigan, the United States of America — 2017.
Our decision-making process in the Presbyterian Church is representative, and by that we mean our leaders represent the congregation demographically – the leadership should mirror the congregation in such categories as age, gender, etc.
We don’t represent the will of the people in our decisions, but rather together we seek to discern the will of God. From time to time, that may mean that we make decisions that some don’t like or find uncomfortable or challenging. It will be our responsibility to communicate clearly, honestly, faithfully and with integrity to the gospel all of our decisions to you and to listen to your responses, even as we seek to lead through the discomfort.
We won’t always get it right.
But by God’s grace we will learn and we will grow and our efforts and decisions will honor the One we call Lord.
The gospel of Luke, more than any of the other gospels emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in the ministry and mission of Jesus. From his baptism in the river Jordan, into the wilderness where he was tempted for 40 days, to his ministry in Galilee, and all the way to the cross, the Holy Spirit fills Jesus with power and courage and determined faith. And Luke’s sequel, the book of Acts, tells of the gift and strength of the Holy Spirit empowering the church into its mission in the world.
As we turn now to our service of ordination and installation, let us pray in song for the Spirit to fall upon us – all of us – that we may serve the living Christ with grace and truth.
Scripture: Luke 3:1-22
Sermon: What Shall We Do?
Every new year is a chance to change your life. Actually, every new day – every new minute is a chance to change your life, but culturally and traditionally, we wax nostalgic as each calendar year draws to a close, and with annual vigor and passion we set the course – mapping personal improvement plans through New Year’s resolutions.
January 2 of every year our family drives the 15 or so hours home from Hilton Head South Carolina where we have vacationed for the last 24 years. Sometime along that drive – and usually its in the Ohio wastelands north of Dayton on I75 – when its dark and late– and we’re talking to keep whoever is driving awake – the conversation begins:
So – what changes are you going to make this year?
Exercise more, eat less, read more, talk less, clean out the closets, invest in important relationships, pray more, practice mindfulness, live greener, buy leaner – starting tomorrow.
We always say it out loud to each other. Witnesses help.
These days there are also apps to help us keep our resolutions. For example: I got a Fitbit for Christmas and I downloaded the Fitbit app. Now my wrist buzzes when I’ve been sitting too long and it buzzes when I’ve reached my 10,000 step/day goal. It measures my sleep patterns, how many calories I burn each day and my heart rate. It even guides me through a deep breathing relaxation exercise if I’m stressed.
This will be the year of tidying up, I said – somewhere around Lima. And sure enough, there’s an app to help me. Daily tips, guides and insights, tidying challenges and checklists – all available with a simple swipe of my finger.
There are budgeting apps, mindfulness apps, nutrition and organizational apps. Your phone can remind you to pray and give you prayers to say. If this is the year you want to learn a second language, there’s an app for that, and there’s even an app to help you break away from addictions to your mobile devices.
Even with all this, a US News and World Report study concludes that 80% of New Year’s resolution-ers return to old habits by the first week of February. Unless you first change your mind, the study says, don’t expect your goals to materialize. It’s not the gym, Pilates class or diet that will change you – it’s your mind.
Metanoia, is the Greek word for a changed mind, and it was John the Baptist’s rallying cry: Repent! Re-orient your thinking, your heart and the direction of your life. Turn from what was and turn toward what will be – a life lived in right relationships – with God, with neighbor and with self.
Crowds of people came to this charismatic prophet on the edge of the Jordan River.
One by one he led them down into the water and back out again. His wasn’t a ritual cleansing like the others – but a one-time immersion – John’s intention was clear — when you come up out of the water, you’re permanently changed.
Nicander’s recipe for pickles is helpful here. This Greek poet and physician from around 200 BC said: there’s a two-step process for making a pickle: First dip the vegetable in boiling water and then baptize it in vinegar. Step one is temporary but step two leads to permanent change.
John wasn’t messing around. He proclaimed a new kingdom of world change. Everybody was welcome to join it, but joining meant more than just talking about it.
Every person has a part to play – every life matters. Be in for the in or don’t bother playing – the stakes are too high. The kingdom of God is near – now is the time.
An interesting mix of folks came to the River Jordan to answer John’s urgent and provocative call: there were the common people – the masses – the farmers and peasants, merchants and working class — aka the general public, but there were tax collectors too. They were an altogether different breed.
Nobody liked tax collectors. They were greedy two-bit hoodlums. They ripped people off above and below. They were notoriously dishonest and slick. Why did they come?
Some soldiers came too – representatives of the oppressive empire – servants of the war machine. Their reputation was unsavory too. Yet there they were.
What shall we do? Each asked in turn – what is expected of us in this God movement?
To each type of person who asked, there was an answer:
Share… don’t take advantage of others… charge what’s right and reasonable – and no more… never exploit or manipulate another… your power, your social, political or religious position is not a tool for intimidation – so don’t use it that way… Don’t defraud or extort another… turn from corruption… Whatever your station in life… whatever your vocation… you are called to do what’s right.
Be honest and genuine and just and fair. Treat your neighbor with respect and honor. Clear your junk out of the way so the path to God is clear.
Jesus was in the crowd too. Jesus, a carpenter’s son from Nazareth. He came to the wilderness to the edge of the Jordan River as did so many – shoulder to shoulder seeking freedom, justice, peace, an end to all that was wrong with the world.
Luke tells of Jesus’ baptism almost as if it’s a P.S.: P.S. before John was locked up, he also baptized Jesus – along with the tax collectors, Roman soldiers, and all of the masses.
Jesus went out to the River Jordan to join the movement – to give his life new purpose. Joining was his first step. Leading came after.
I’m imagining a long line of people… crowds streaming from the villages and towns… and somewhere in the middle of it all is Jesus – just another guy in line – refusing to claim superiority or privilege… waiting patiently, humbly, thoughtfully – taking it all in.
A long time ago I saw a print on the wall of a homeless shelter that came to my mind as I thought about this scene in the Judean wilderness. The artist was a Quaker named Fritz Eichenberg.
The Christ of the Breadlines, it’s called.
Writer Paul Luikart describes it this way:
Jesus Christ standing in line…waiting with the rest of the down-and-outers for His turn… In front of Him and behind Him are other raggedy people, hands in their pockets, wrapped up in shawls, anxiously waiting… They’re all together nomads, riff-raff, vagrants, human dreck, homeless.
He’s wrapped in rags. He’s entirely in shadow. No bulging abs, no mountainous biceps.
And the figures in the painting with Him are still. They stand, with the Lord of the universe in their midst, motionless in their deep poverty and hunger, wanting the same thing He wants—rest, fulfillment, an end to suffering.
The figure of Jesus is literally in the middle of the piece, but the details—the stuff that Eichenberg pays such close attention to—are of those in the line with Jesus and not Jesus Himself. However, they can only be seen by the light of His crown.
This is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: he comes to the River Jordan to stand alongside the masses – one with them – together joining a movement to change the world.
What shall I do? Jesus may very well have asked in prayer as the heavens split open, the Holy Spirit descended and the voice spoke– not about what he would do, but about who he is:
You are My Son… My Beloved Son… In whom I am so pleased.
Every child we baptize – young and old – we mark with a cross – the sign of Christ and we say:
You are God’s beloved child, marked and sealed with God’s grace by the Holy Spirit now and always. And we pray that that child – whatever age – will grow into the fullness of that identity – with courage, strength, wisdom and joy.
As we begin this new year – 2017 – may we make another kind of resolution. May we resolve to hear that call from the wilderness from the edge of the River Jordan to change our lives – to really change our heart orientation toward God, following the way of Jesus. May each of us ask:
What shall I do to bear the fruit of a baptized life?
Whatever the particular circumstances and vocations of each of our lives, from that unique place, we are to live more justly, more honestly, more openly and more compassionately toward our neighbor and toward ourselves.
There’s not an app for this kind of change. This is the work of the Holy Spirit upon and within each of our lives, changing us, transforming our minds, more and more into the likeness of Christ.
This is where the journey begins for Jesus and this is where it begins for us: call, promise, belovedness, grace, new identity.
What shall we do? Who shall we be?
Today as we come forward to celebrate the Lord’s Supper for the first time in a new year, let us come with joy – remembering his baptism and our baptisms… remembering who and whose we are… thankful for yet another chance to examine and change our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.