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The Holy Detour

The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:6-15
Psalm 67
John 14:23-29
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Caine

16: 6They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.9 “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.” (Acts 16:9-15, NRSV)

Let us pray: Gracious God, through a vision you sent Paul to preach the gospel and called the women to the place of prayer. Grant that we may be like Paul and Lydia, our hearts responsive to your word and open to go where you lead us. Amen.

I remember it very distinctly. It is one of those moments that adds perspective to life, to work, and to faith. It was nothing particularly earth shattering. As a matter of fact it happened in a meeting of all things. Imagine that something worth remembering happening in a church meeting!
It was a community meeting of the local clergy, civic groups and service agencies to discuss the growing need of hungry children in the County I used to live in Tennessee. No one knew the exact number, because there are never exact numbers when people are in need. This was seven years ago, in a county of roughly 30,000 people. It was reported that there were something like 50 children who were homeless. This was in addition to the staggering number of students in the city and county schools who received free and reduced lunch. There were 15 schools in the system and over 90% of the students in each school qualified for federal aid and free or reduced lunch. For many of these students these were the only meals they ate each day; the free breakfast and lunch they ate at school. So, they had nothing to eat when school was not in session.

Many of the churches partnered together and started a backpack program for the school system so these at risk children were given a backpack filled with food to take home for the weekend and over holidays.

The harsh reality of these statistics only told part of the story. A school teacher spoke in the meeting and shared how difficult it was each day to see the faces of these hungry students in her classroom. She went on to state that even the best teacher in the world cannot teach a hungry child. Later in this same meeting she made a very insightful revelation: “what was going to happen this summer when these hungry children aren’t going to be in school getting at least breakfast and lunch five days a week?” Her revelation hit us all, the magnitude of the situation and the need suddenly was overwhelming.

As silence filled the meeting room, her statement hung in the air. All of the usual suspects, educators, civic leaders, clergy, and government officials, used to talking and having answers were stunned, sitting there with our pads of paper and pens ready to plan out a strategy of how to solve this problem. But nothing! Sitting in the meeting was an African American woman, who had been quiet and then she said that feeding hungry children was on her heart. All on her own, she had been working on this problem of hunger of serval years. She applied for and received a grant, for feeding about 200 children every day all summer long for the past few years. The rest of us in the room sat in stunned silence until finally someone asked her how she did it.

“Well I just knew there were hungry kids who needed to be fed and I decided I wanted to do something about it. So I did.”

The rest of us in the room, we organized and by the book, educators, civic leaders, clergy, and government officials started trying to figure out how we could get involved. People started throwing out options and ideas only to be shot down the cynical realization on why this option or that idea wouldn’t work.
• We don’t have the money for it
• It would too hard to organize
• We have to run it by legal first
• We don’t have enough volunteers
• We can’t possibly do that

These were all very real and very legitimate concerns. And here was this get it done lady just listening. We with our pens and papers trying to calculate how many kids we thought we can realistically feed. We discussed the safety of the small kitchen and room where she fed them was, what would the Fire Marshall do if he saw it? What about safe church training and background checks on the volunteers? Someone looked at the lady as we are all planning and thinking and calculating, “So how many kids would you like to feed?”

Without skipping a beat she says simply, “Oh I’ve never thought about a number. I just want to feed every child who is hungry. However many that is.”

And that is when it happened, it hit me, this woman of faith had it right. She had a vision and passion and the faith to make it happen. I am not sure how it all came about. I don’t know if she had a dream, or a conversation with a child who was hungry, or if it was the Holy Spirit coming alive in her as she was reading her Bible, but I truly believe listening to her and watching her that the Holy Spirit was working through her to feed hungry children in that community. That is often how God works, we plan and we calculate and we prepare to go this way while the Holy Spirit works through someone such as this dear lady of faith goes that way. And she simply did it, she started to feed hungry children. She just trusted and did it.

Visions come in many forms and fashions. Visions are all over the Book of Acts. Our story today begins with a vision. Paul and his companions Silas and Timothy are at a loss for where to go next with the gospel. They stumble around the region, running into one barrier after another set up by God. Barred by the Spirit from going south and west into Asia or from going north into Bythinia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.

Don’t you wonder why? Why didn’t they go? I don’t know. No one knows. All we know is whatever happened they attributed it to the work of the Spirit. The spirit opened the doors that needed opening and shut the doors that needed shutting. There is something comforting about such trust in the spirit. A trust so real that if we have faith the Spirit will lead us where we need to go and we will be where we need to be.

So for whatever reason, Paul and his disciples went to Macedonia instead. Because they had faith in and followed God – Christianity came to Europe and down through the ages to you and to me.

God had something greater in mind than Paul did. God can imagine things that we cannot, and God, invites us to be a part of it.

Much like the lady feeding hungry children. “I don’t know how many kids I want to feed. I see hungry children and I feed them.”

So, here we are, the Indian Hill Church two millennia later, about to receive names for a new Rector to lead our church. We will also be looking for a new church secretary to replace Karen Pauly, who is following and trusting in God in her own life. Change seems to be the one constant we have. Who will the search committee call? What kind of leader will they be? Who will be the new welcoming presence of the church now that Karen is leaving?

Then we read a story like this that call into question our attempts at control, to plan so perfectly, that we lose sight of the work of the Holy Spirit and where we are being lead to go?

This is really a hard message for a church full of planners; now please understand me; I truly believe that planning is good. We need plans and we need to be organized to keep the chaos to a minimum. But… it is often that the Spirit of God works in spite of our best laid plans, our preparation, and our meetings and deliberations. Just when we think we are supposed to go right, the Spirit in whatever ways the spirit works pushes us instead to go the left or to go up instead of down. Maybe it’s an urging or a pushing or a prodding. Maybe the Spirit is disquieting and unsettling our comfortable existence. It is the most difficult aspect of this endeavor called faith…it is trust. But if we trust that urging, that prodding, trust that the correct doors will be opened and the wrong doors will be closed, then we can trust and know that God is leading us every step of the way. To be still and know that God is God!
And how truly terrifying to is to think about trusting someone else or something else, to trust God or is it?

I will close with this quick example. I hope that each of you has had the opportunity to introduce yourself to our new youth Director, Randall Davidson. He is not exactly what we were looking for to replace Michelle as our youth leader. He is quiet and reflective, he is outdoorsy and a vegetarian, and he is bald and has a beard. He is not an Episcopalian nor a Presbyterian but he is exactly who we need even though he was not who we thought we needed. He is very engaging and has quickly made connections with the staff but most importantly with our youth.

So you see we just might find that it is actually extremely freeing to trust and to rest secure that God is in charge and we don’t have to have control over everything.

Thanks be to God for it. Amen.

Let us pray:

A Fleeting Moment

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Luke 19:29-40

 

19:29 “When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:29-40, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Holy One, you are our strength in suffering and our hope for salvation, we pray that you will lift up your Word of life and pour out your Spirit of grace so that we may follow faithfully on the way to the cross; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

 

Today is Palm Sunday—the day when HOPE paraded into Jerusalem riding on a colt.  World-shattering Hope rides into Jerusalem and the world will never be the same.  Jesus is that hope and we just read about how he arrived in a parade, on that first Palm Sunday.   Remember parades.   Everybody loves a parade.  People gather on the sides of the street to watch the bands march by, to welcome heroes’ home from war, to celebrate champions and often they are an excuse to have a good time.  While other parades are to mourn, like last summer’s huge motorcade of law enforcement from all over the region, who came to follow the hearse as it processed up Montgomery Road mourning the death of Cincinnati Police Officer Sunny Kim.

 

Remember the last parade you went to. Was it the Opening Day Parade last year? Or was it St. Patrick’s Day Parade? Or Bokfest? Or maybe it was Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City or the Village Fourth of July Parade. Remember all the people, all the excitement, the pomp and circumstance?

 

Now, the story of Palm Sunday is a parade of sorts for Jesus.  It is a story we know all too well.  The story of Jesus coming to Jerusalem and huge crowds joyfully welcoming him into the city as the long awaited king, as their Messiah.  This parade was more the celebratory type, people shouting, singing, welcoming Jesus. They sang from Psalm 118 about the one coming in the name of their beloved King David. They sang praises to God for giving them this promised king, the one who would lead them.

 

Because it is a familiar story to us it is hard to realize how unlikely this procession into Jerusalem really is.   It was a strange event.  Strange because the crowd gets it right as they hail Jesus as the Messiah.   Strange because even as the crowd is correct in celebrating the entrance of the Messiah, they also miss the point — the crowds want him to be a Messiah who leads them to victory without pain or sacrifice.  But the strangest aspect of this story is that Jesus seems to have deliberately orchestrated this procession himself.

 

It is strange because it seems so out of character for him.  Why would Jesus draw all the attention to himself?  When so much of his ministry he commands people to tell no one about what they have witnessed or seen.  So why does Jesus encourage the crowd to worship him when they really have no understanding why they were doing it?  Why would he set the stage to be hailed as the Messiah, when he knows what is ahead of him in the days to come.  Jesus surely knew what was in their hearts.  He surely knew their lack of understanding.   He certainly knew what lay ahead of him in the week ahead.

 

It strikes me that we are not so different from that first Palm Sunday crowd. We focus on the parade, Jesus triumphal entry and the palm branches …because it spares us the agony of what lies ahead for Jesus.  The sorrow of knowing that Judas will betray him for money.  The disappointment that Peter, the rock, the beloved disciple, will deny that he even knows Jesus three times.  We focus on the parade because it spares us the sight of his closest followers, the disciples fleeing when he is arrested.  We focus on the parade because it feels much better than the horror of the week ahead.  We focus on the parade so we can stay happy and skip to the glory of Easter.  It would be so nice and tidy if Jesus just stopped here at the parade and basked in the glory of this day!

 

So, Jesus, the great teacher, is helping them and by extension us to learn something important.  Even though they did not understand the full significance of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem that day, maybe by participating they may come to understand.  W. H. Auden once wrote: “Human beings are by nature actors, who cannot become something until first they have pretended to be it. They are therefore to be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane, who know they are acting, and the mad who do not.”[1]  As he entered Jerusalem that fateful day Jesus may not have been so concerned with rooting out hypocrisy or with rewarding sincerity, but instead with showing the truth.  Jesus may have been providing this crowd of people the opportunity to be part of something so that they could in return become it.  Perhaps they were pretending to be his disciples, his followers, his worshipers, all celebrating his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and into their hearts.

 

You know that we are no different.   Every Sunday we stage a little drama here in worship.   We begin, as this Holy Week begins, with praise and worship of God.  We call each other to worship, and we sing the praises of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   Then we also speak words of confession.   We act out our penitence and we affirm our forgiveness.  We share with one another the peace of Christ in a ritualized, dramatic way — extending the hand of fellowship and even speaking the words, “the peace of Christ, be with you and also with you.”  Then we sit quietly and listen — or at least act as if we’re listening — to the reading of scripture and sermon (the teaching) of the Word of God.  We show our thankfulness as we place offerings in the offering plate.   We sing of our commitment and of our changed lives.   We gather around the Lord’s Table and break bread and share one cup.   Every Sunday is full of drama.

 

Some weeks you may not exactly understand what you are saying or singing.  Some weeks your heart may not be in some parts of the service.   But, just as Auden wrote, “human beings are by nature actors, who cannot become something until first they have pretended to be it.”  Pretend.  Act the part.  Play at praising, at repenting, at committing.   Keep on pretending or acting because we learn to worship God by worshiping[2].

 

But Just like Palm Sunday is not the end of the story for Jesus we too must complete the drama.   It’s easy to move through the praise section and drop out when it comes to the costly acts of confession, making peace, hearing the Word, giving money, making promises.   If you want to become Jesus’ faithful disciples, you have to stay in the drama until the end.  You have to play your part all the way through.  You have to keep pretending until someday it’s not pretend anymore.  That day when we become what we were pretending to be.

 

Let us pray:

 

[1] Reverend Laura Smit, A Sermon on Luke 19:28-40 for Palm/Passion Sunday preached at First Presbyterian Church of Clayton, New Jersey on April 9, 1995.

[2] Reverend Laura Smit, A Sermon on Luke 19:28-40 for Palm/Passion Sunday preached at First Presbyterian Church of Clayton, New Jersey on April 9, 1995.

A Question of Extravagance

 

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

 

12:1 “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” (John 12:1-11, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of the covenant, in the glory of the cross your Son embraced the power of death and broke its hold over your people. In this time of repentance, we pray that you would draw all people to yourself, that we who confess Jesus as Lord may put aside the deeds of death and accept the life of your kingdom. Amen.

 

Smells stay with you a lifetime.   Some say it is the most powerful of all the senses.  Most of us have experienced a smell that floods our minds with overwhelming us and transporting us directly to memories of a person, place, or event.  Our Olfactory receptors share the same closely networked area of the brain’s limbic system as emotion, and memory.  So, our sense of smell closely relates to how we experience life and process significant memories.  I am sure you have had that experience of smelling something and it takes you back to a time, a place, and a person.

 

What is it about smell? There are smells that please and those that repulse? Smells that delight and those that distance?  Smells that invite and those that repel? I have had foul odors from an unseen dumpster conjure sights and sounds I experienced on a mission trip to Guatemala.  I cannot tell most perfumes apart until I’m in a crowd and someone is wearing the same fragrance my wife wears and I look for her.

 

Smells stay with you a lifetime.

 

When I have to go to parent teacher conferences for my children and I walk down the halls in their schools, I am hit with that smell, whatever it is in schools, no matter what school it is, whatever that smell is that permeates a school that seems to always be there and it takes me back.  Back to those old feelings of nervousness and anxiety of being in school as a kid.

 

Smells are deeply tied to our memories.

 

I wish I could use scents to make my point but we don’t want to get into burning incense in worship.  For example, if you want to remember home, the smell of homemade bread or the scent of a freshly baked batch chocolate chips cookies will make your taste buds water and make your stomach growl with hunger!

 

Not all smells are happy and pleasant ones.  I remember when I was working as a hospital chaplain, in our training the nurses told us about “the smell”.   The veteran nurses could simply smell when death was approaching.  Obviously they weren’t always right, but more often than not they were.  The smell of impending death.

 

Smells permeate our passage for today.  We find Jesus in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Jerusalem, outside of Bethany.  Jesus loved them.  These were good friends.  Just before this passage Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus to tell him that his friend Lazarus was dead.  Jesus goes to the tomb to see for himself.  When he gets there he smells the stench of death.  This is not the smell of approaching death, this is the smell of real death.  Dead death.   Realizing that his friend is dead Jesus stands at the tomb and weeps.

 

The smell of death and the reality of death overtook him.

 

Then Jesus performs his most amazing miracle to date and raises his dear friend Lazarus from the dead.  Lazarus is alive.  Live and joy, and happiness and the smell of celebration take over the scene.  In response to Jesus raising her brother from the dead Mary and Martha throw him a celebratory dinner.  It is during this celebration that Mary anoints Jesus with costly perfume.  The smell of this expensive perfume, costing almost a year’s wages, permeating every nook and cranny of that room. It is a sharp contrast to the smell of death that we last experienced when she called Jesus to raise her brother Lazarus. Now as she anoints Jesus, he bother Lazarus is reclining on Jesus at the table.  The smell of death is met with this sweet and costly perfume to smell at the same time.

 

The smell of extravagant love.  Mary knew exactly what she was doing.  She was the only one in the room who really got it.  She honors Jesus, anointing him with extravagant perfume, she prepares him for the journey to Jerusalem.  This smell of expensive perfume, is a smell not to counteract death, or to erase death’s smell, or try to overpower its stench.   Instead it is a scent to smell at the same time – you can smell the scent of death. I wonder if this is the point. Smells don’t replace – they contrast, they tell the truth about our human existence. The simultaneous smells of life and death.  The smell of love in the face of certain betrayal.

 

The fact that this story takes place in the midst of Judas’ struggle, in the midst of the death of Lazarus and the plot to kill Jesus, is a reminder that following Jesus and loving Jesus does not take place in a vacuum but in the real world.  We are not called to be faithful in a vacuum but in the real world where people make choices that hurt others, where death and disease are a reality, where pain and suffering exist, a world where Jesus lived and died and then rose again, showing that none of these real world experiences will have the final word.

 

As you breathe in the smell of coming Spring, as you soak in the fragrances of the sweet fragrance of the daffodils trying to bloom and greening grass and trees and shrubs will be growing new buds and getting ready to flower.  I invite you to think of Mary as she commingled the smell of impending death with the smell of new life, fragrance of new life.

 

Jesus is going to start his fateful journey to Jerusalem after this meal with his friends.  It will not be a pretty.  It will be painful and sad and lonely at times.  It won’t deny real life.  But it also won’t be the end of his journey.  His journey doesn’t end on a cross or in a tomb but it will continue because life conquers death and joy defeats despair.  This is the fragrance of new life.  Take a deep breath and you might smell it.  Extravagant, sweet, beautiful new life.

 

Let us pray:

Repentance, Figs and Failing Towers

 

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
Luke 13:1-9

 

13:1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'” (Luke 13:1-9, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of infinite goodness, throughout the ages you have persevered in claiming and reclaiming your people. Renew for us your call to repentance, surround us with witnesses to aid us in our journey, and grant us the courage to fashion our lives anew, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen

 

At first reading, this passage from the Gospel of Luke is scary.   No one wants to hear that if we do not bear fruit or that we don’t measure up and please God, then God will take out the axe and cut us down.   Which leads to the question how do we measure up? How do we produce fruit that will please the landowner…God?   I am getting ahead of myself.  So let’s go back and look at the whole passage.

 

In this passage Jesus refers to two calamities that were probably familiar to ancient audiences.  The first horrific event involves Pilate and his state-sanctioned violence in the killing of the Galileans in the temple.  The second event, the collapse of tower of Siloam was a random accident.   However, in both of these events people died for no apparent reason.   These two ghastly instances are reminders of just how precarious life is.

 

Then Jesus gets to the heart of the story when he poses the questions that must have been on everyone’s minds.  Were those Galileans, who were killed by Pilate, worse sinners than others?   Were the people killed by the collapse of the tower worse sinners than everyone else living in Jerusalem?   Then Jesus, quickly answers his own question, “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  He clearly states that the victims did nothing to warrant their deaths but his answer includes a curious statement.

 

It seems is if Jesus is sending a mixed message, here.  He says, “No … but.” As in, “No they weren’t worse sinners, and no they weren’t worse offenders. Their sin did not cause their deaths, but you will meet the same fate if you don’t repent.” Well, which is it?   His statement is confusing.   He seems to be contradicting himself.  First, Jesus makes it clear that there is no rational explanation for these tragedies.  He doesn’t say, “It was God’s will that this Galileans were killed by Pilate.”   Instead it seems as if the Galileans, who were killed by Pilate were victims of the Roman government’s blood thirsty desire for control.  Because, it could have been anybody who was in the temple that day offering sacrifices.  And the people killed by the collapse of the tower?  It could have been anyone who happened to be standing there.  Instead what, Jesus is saying is, don’t look for cause and effect explanation.  It may be what we want, is a cause-and-effect, karma-type scenario that explains why things like this happen, Jesus is saying that is not how God operates.   No, they weren’t worse sinners, but you and I, sinners, will meet the same fate unless we repent and accept the gift of abundant life that Christ is offering.

 

Look at your life?  Look at my life?  We can spend so much time trying to explain things—so much time worrying about why tragedies happen—that we forget to pay attention to how we are living our own our own lives.

 

I know that this is not a satisfying answer because we want to be able to explain why people suffer and die as a way to distance ourselves from it.  Or we want to believe in – works righteousness, we live right to earn God’s favor – even when we say we believe in grace.

 

The problem with making our relationship with God a transactional one rather than a covenantal one is that at some point the math just won’t work.  We will be persecuted by Pilate or those like him – for no reason other than Pilate chooses to persecute us.  Or, the tower will fall on us for no other reason than we were at the wrong place at the wrong time.  We will look for a reason, some logical explanation, some underlying purpose and it simply will not be there.  Then what?  Are we simply bad people who get what we deserve?  Are we sinners in the hand of an angry God?

 

As people of faith, catastrophes and violence raise all sorts of questions that challenge our faith and cause us to question God.  Trying to explain the complexities of life and the horrific events that happen is something we all do— it is a form of protection.   If we can explain it then we can make sure it won’t happen to us.   But, Jesus’ message gets right to the heart of our desire to do so.

 

Jesus is teaching that the outcome is the same if we build our lives upon those well-meaning rationalizations that we use to get us through the day: stating that we are blessed, safe, and able to claim our better fortune than the victims of these events because we have won God’s favor, then we are mistaken.  To focus on this point, share with you an article I read recently in the New York Times.  It was from Sunday February 13, 2016 in the NY Times Review Opinion page, an article written by Kate Bowler, entitled, Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me. Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School and the author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.”

 

She researched and wrote about the prosperity gospel and its theology.  A theology that claims being good and living a righteous life equates to being blessed by God.  She has recently been diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35.   She wrestles with this theology and her own experience. She writes:

Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith…

Tragedies are simply tests of character.

It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.

“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.

“Pardon?” she said, startled.

“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.

My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.

In other words, is she a worse sinner? Did she smoke? Eat poorly? Bad genes? If the answer is no, then what will keep the wolf from my door?

 

Kate Bowler continues:

Cancer has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential…Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.

 

She continues:

But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from my Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.[1]

 

It sounds like Jesus: Life is so beautiful.  Life is so hard.   Life in relationship with the Triune God and with one another is a gift to be received and cherished even when it isn’t fair or reasonable.   So, perhaps, who sinned or who is the worse sinner is irrelevant when Jesus came to save sinners.   So, today we have a precious gift of Life, an opportunity to change our focus from rationalizing suffering and horrific events to focus on the suffering One, Jesus the Christ, who intercedes for us, tends to us and stays with us in all of life and its circumstances.[2]

 

Let us pray:

[1] As found online on Facebook and summarized in an email from Jill Duffield February 28, 3rd Sunday in Lent. Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9 Presbyterian Outlook

(http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html)

 

[2] Jill Duffield February 28, 3rd Sunday in Lent. Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9 Presbyterian Outlook

Do you know who you are?

 

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Luke 4:1-13

 

4: 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ “13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:1-13, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of wilderness and water, your Son was baptized and tempted as we are. Guide us through this season of Lent, that we may not avoid struggle, but open ourselves to blessing, through the cleansing depths of repentance and the life-giving words of the Spirit. Amen.

 

In his autobiography, the actor Kirk Douglas tells about an experience he had as a young actor.  At the time, he was already a well-known Hollywood star.  On this day he was driving along the California coast when he noticed a young man in a naval uniform standing on the side of the road hitchhiking.  Douglas pulled over and gave the young sailor a ride.  He did not tell the young sailor who he was, but the sailor recognized Kirk Douglas immediately.

 

They talked about where the young sailor was stationed, where he was headed, and what he planned to do with his life after the Navy.  The conversation carried on but after a while, the young sailor couldn’t bite his tongue any longer and he asked, “Mister, do you know who you are?”[1]

 

Do you know who you are? It is the underlying question of our scripture passages for this First Sunday in the Season of Lent.  The Lenten season is a time to retell the stories of our faith, particularly the stories of our Lord, his teachings, his ministry on the way to Jerusalem, and his passion.   Telling stories— the stories of faith— reminds us who and whose we are.  The stories of our faith help to shape our identity and give us purpose and direction in life.  Because there is more to our identity than our name, our family background and our DNA.  Our identity is greatly influenced by the stories and the narratives that have influenced our lives.

 

The biblical narratives are one such influence. Take Moses, for example, He believed that remembering where he and the Israelites had been and their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land would help to keep them faithful to God. So, Moses challenged the Israelites to remember that journey when they brought the first fruits of their harvest as an offering in the Temple.  Moses said, “You say this before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.  He went down to Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and then he became a great nation, mighty and populous. And when his Egyptian captors were harsh on him, he cried out to God and God heard his cry and delivered him and brought us out of bondage.’” Moses encouraged the Israelites to recite this history that was both a confession of their faith, and a statement of thanksgiving to provide boundaries and purpose to their lives.  To this day observant Jews continue to celebrate this history as they say, “Tell it again and again, so we will always remember who and whose, are.” These stories continue to form their collective identity and their faith.[2]

 

In Luke’s gospel we learn that Jesus’ identity is challenged in the wilderness by Satan.  You notice that Satan or the devil tempts or tests Jesus three times in this story.  You will also notice the devil doesn’t ask Jesus to do anything particularity bad.  The devil simply invites Jesus to forget who he is and whose he is.  Jesus has just been confirmed in his identity by the voice of God at his baptism. “You are my chosen, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.”[3]  Jesus had been called to live out a story of service for others out of love for God.  And the devil is inviting him to betray his identity and misuse his power.

 

That is the most insidious aspect of temptation.   It is not always an enticement to do something we shouldn’t do because it is bad or wrong.  Temptation can also lure us away from something – namely, our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship and Baptism.[4]

Too often, we Christians, have focused on all the things we shouldn’t do, instead of pointing us to the gift and grace of our identity as children of God.  But the devil knows better.  Notice how each of the temptations seeks to erode and undercut Jesus’ identity.  Which is why this passage is really about identity theft.

 

Because all three of these temptations— and as best that I understand, all temptations— are fundamentally intended to shift our trust away from God and onto ourselves.  We see that very subtly in the language that sets up each temptation. Each one centers on the little word, “you.”[5]

If you are the Son of God…

To you I will give all these kingdoms…

If you are the Son of God…

 

This is one reason why we gather for worship each and every week to remind us of our identity as children of God.  We are under constant assault, maybe not as straight forward as Jesus and the devil in this story, but much more covert ways each and every day.

 

We are tempted in so many ways to lose our faith in God and confidence in ourselves.  So, we come to church to be reminded of our identity as beloved children of God. In the face of so many assaults on our identity we come to church to have that identity renewed and restored that we might live in the confidence of God’s abundant life and unending love.[6]

 

Tom Long, Presbyterian preacher tells the story about Hugh Thompson.  Do you remember Hugh Thompson?  On March 16, 1968, Thompson was a young helicopter pilot flying on patrol over the countryside of Vietnam.  When he and his crew flew over the village of My Lai, they saw something horrific taking place below.  The troops of US Army Charlie Company, under the constant pressure of danger and the madness of war, had lost control and their discipline, and their humanity, and they had begun slaughtering unarmed civilians in the village, most of them women, children and elderly men.

 

Seeing this Thompson had to respond. So, he landed his helicopter down between the troops and the remaining villagers.  Then at great risk to himself, he got out of the helicopter and confronted the officer in charge, Lt. William Calley.  Following this confrontation, he and his crew airlifted the few villagers who were still alive out of My Lai.  He then radioed a report of the scene and in doing so saved many civilian lives.

 

Thompson’s action went unnoticed for year’s even decades, until finally he was publically recognized. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Emory University in Atlanta.  Standing on the platform at the University’s commencement, Thompson spoke, and he told how he found the courage and the strength to do what he did on March 16, 1968?  His statement to the graduates and the audience both shocked them and brought them to a thoughtful silence.

 

He said, “I’d to like to thank my mother and father for trying to instill in me the difference between right and wrong.”   “We were country people.  We didn’t have much.  I was born and raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and we had very little, but one thing we did have was the Golden Rule.  My parents taught me early on, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’  That’s why I did what I did that day.  It’s hard to put certain things into words.  You graduates are going to have to make decisions in your life.  Please make the right decisions, because we’re depending on yon. God bless you all.”

 

Why did he do what he did?  Where did he find the strength and courage?  Words taught to him in childhood and repeated over and over: “Do unto others…, Do unto others…, Do unto others….” Jesus said, “It is written …, it is written …, it is written …One does not live by bread alone.” There is a script to help you remember who you are.[7]

 

You are a child of God, created and claimed by the Creator of heaven and earth.  You have been claimed and redeemed so that you can live out your life by faith.

 

Let us pray: Holy God, you have claimed us as your own. May we rest secure in our identity as children of God. Amen.

[1] The Reverend Joseph S. Harvard. “Who Are You?” A sermon preached on February 29, 2004 at First Presbyterian Church, Durham, North Carolina. Based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13.

[2] Ibid

[3] Matthew 3:17, NRSV.

[4] The Reverend Dr. David Lose. Lent 1 C: Identity Theft, Luke 4: 1-13 found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-1-c-identity-theft

 

[5] The Reverend Robert Montgomery. “Facing Temptation” A sermon preached on February 21, 2010, First Sunday of Lent at First Presbyterian Church, Pulaski, TN. Based on Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 and Luke 4: 1 -13.

[6] The Reverend Dr. David Lose. Lent 1 C: Identity Theft, Luke 4: 1-13 found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-1-c-identity-theft

 

[7] The Reverend Joseph S. Harvard. “WHO ARE YOU?” A sermon preached on February 29, 2004 at First Presbyterian Church, Durham, North Carolina. Based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13.

Listen to what your Mama Says

 

 

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
John 2:1-11

 

2:1 “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now. 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:1-11, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O God of steadfast love, at the wedding in Cana your Son Jesus turned water into wine, delighting all who were there. Transform our hearts by your Spirit, that we may use our varied gifts to show forth the light of your love as one body in Christ. Amen.

 

Every wedding ceremony is special and different.  All the people involved work hard to create a joyous and a memorable moment.  Couples often spend six months to a year planning, preparing, and going through pre-marital counseling in order to get to the wedding ceremony.  When the big day finally arrives and all of those years of dreaming, months of planning, decades of saving and a lifetime of praying come together as two become one.

 

As, the congregation stands and the organ begins to play the wedding march.  The Bride starts her procession wearing her beautiful wedding dress. The groom standing tall at the front of the church, watching as his bride is escorted down the aisle looking more beautiful than he has ever seen her look.  It is a glorious moment,[1] setting the stage for today’s Gospel reading.

 

Our wedding story took place at Cana in Galilee.  Jesus, his mother and the 12 disciples were all there.   This wedding was a glorious occasion as well that is until they ran out of wine.  Running out of wine threatened to ruin the joy of the event.  To run out of wine was an act of inhospitality.  Running out of wine would reflect poorly on the family of the bride and it would cause a great deal of embarrassment for them.   So, Jesus’ mother tells him about it.   Jesus responds with a very puzzling and downright rude statement to his own mother, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?”   Wow!  What does that mean?  Is he scolding his own mother?   Is he rejecting her?   Undeterred by his declaration, Mary turns and tells the servants to do whatever he tells them to do.

 

There were six large vessels of water at the wedding and Jesus turns those six jars of water into wine.  The wedding party was saved.  It is a great story Jesus saves a wedding party from great embarrassment.  It seems like a very superficial and unimportant thing to do, turn water into wine.   And yes, this passage is about a wedding, but it is about so much more.

 

A wedding is a fitting place for Jesus to begin his miracles.  Weddings are all about commitment, the participant’s commitment to each other and to God, the congregation’s commitment to support the new couple, and God’s commitment to be with them in their marriage.  Jesus begins his ministry by showing his commitment to humanity.  Another reason that this is a great beginning to Jesus miracles is it is an example of God’s grace upon grace.  It is a story of abundance!

 

The abundance is found in the details of this seemingly superficial miracle.   It is meant to show us what God’s grace is like.  What it looks like, what it smells like, what it tastes like, and what it feels like.  Jesus is changing 120-180 gallons of water into the best wine. This is not just a bottle or two of wine but more like 63 cases of wine.

 

So, if a standard bottle of wine is 750 milliliters (ml), and a case of wine is 12 bottles or 2.378 gallons.  At 150 gallons per ton, a ton of grapes becomes 150/2.378 gallons per case, or a little more than 63 cases of wine. With 12 bottles per case, we have 756 bottles in total.”[2]

 

And since we are talking about God, let’s round up and assume 180 gallons for the miracle at Cana.   It is close to a 1000 bottles of wine.   And how many grapes per bottle of wine?  According to Conversion Factors, a website, 2.6 pounds of grapes yields one bottle of wine.  So, yes, we really are talking about a ton of grapes – over a ton.   What difference do these details make?   When we consider the details, in ways we might understand, it is a ton of grace.  It is an overabundance of grace, it is exaggerated grace, extravagant grace, and excessive grace.

 

Six vessels, twenty to thirty gallons each, filled to the brim, with the best wine, when you least expect it.  Think about what that looks like – six tall stone vessels.  Think about what that smells like.  Stick your nose deep in that unexpected glass of a lovely wine, because it’s that first smell that anticipates that first taste.  Think about what that tastes like, what flavors you might detect, how does it finish?  Think about how that feels, that unexpected deliciousness of a well-aged, top-shelf wine, when there is no reason to anticipate such a moment.  The wine ran out – and you expect nothing but what you get, instead is the best wine.  One would assume it should be served first.

 

But this miracle is really not about the wine.  Jesus’ miracle points towards God’s abundance in our lives, God’s abundant grace, God’s abundant mercy, and God’s abundant goodness.   Jesus does not merely give just enough wine for the party to continue – he turned enough water into wine for the whole village to enjoy.  He gave abundantly.  It is always that way with Jesus.  There is enough of Jesus for everyone.  There is enough love and grace and mercy for all God’s children.  There is nothing – not our biggest mistake, not our darkest sin, not our greatest sin, nothing in all of creation that will make God love us any less.

 

And as much as we want to think this grace is only for us, this Epiphany also shows us that God’s grace is to be shared with others.  The setting of this first sign is essential – a wedding.   All the guests will get to experience this act of grace.  All will watch the steward pour wine in their glasses when they thought their cups would stay empty.   All will get that first smell and be surprised.   All will take that first sip.  All will have the opportunity to respond to Jesus’ voice and know life.  Because God’s grace is for all and it’s impossible, to restrain God’s abundance.

Grace upon grace is the tangible experience of God’s love; not something to be kept to ourselves but to go about testifying because God loves the world – which is, the real heart of Epiphany.

 

Happiness and joy are all the appropriate responses at a wedding ceremony and they are suitable responses to God’s abundant love and God’s amazing grace.   So, friends let us rejoice and know that we are God’s delight both now and always.  Amen.

 

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. M. Craig Barnes, “A Reckless Miracle,” a sermon on John 2:1-11. Shadyside Presbyterian Church. June 5, 2005.

[2] The Reverend Dr. Karoline Lewis, Embodied Epiphanies, Sunday, January 10, 2016. Conversion Factors: From Vineyard to Bottle from Cornell University. www.workingpreacher.org

 

A Different Promise for a New Year

 

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:12-20
John 1: (1-9), 10-18

 

1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:10-18, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Gracious God, you have redeemed us through Jesus Christ, the first-born of all creation, whose birth we celebrate as the child of Bethlehem. Bless us with every spiritual blessing that we may live as your adopted children and witness to your glory with unending praise and thanksgiving. Amen.

 

Words. Words. Words. Our lives are full of words. There are written words, there are spoken words. We are bombarded by words. Some of these words are good and positive and helpful while others are not. While I was enjoying the multitude of bowl games over the last few days there were the endless beer commercials, numerous credit card and debit relief ads and the plethora of weight loss ads. By Saturday evening I was numb by all the words. In our world of words we have learned that when we speak we must be careful with our words, especially in our politically correct culture. What may seem like innocent words to one person can be hurtful and damaging to others. Words make a big difference. Words. Words. Words.

 

Words are important. This is the idea that John begins his Gospel and his daring theological claim that Jesus was “in the beginning” with God, that Jesus was “the Word of God” and “That all things came into being” through him. John begins with God who is the Word.

 

“In the beginning was the Word; the Word became flesh.”  The Greek word for Word is “logos” from which we get our word, logic.  “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” is then translated:  “In the beginning was the logic and the logic was with God and the logic was God.”

 

Before there was anything, before there was matter, before there was light and life, there was a plan.  In the beginning was the logic and the logic was with God and the logic was God.  The brilliance was God.  What John is saying is before something was created, there had to be a plan behind it; and from this logic, all light and life was created.

Words.

Words.

Words. Some words mean more than other words do…

 

John states that Jesus whom we know as Savior was the Word God uttered when God said, “Let there be light.” Jesus was the Word that came down the mountain when God spoke to Moses.  Jesus was the Word the prophets spoke when they said, “Thus says the Lord…”  Jesus was and is the Word. Words. Words. Words.  Some Words are more meaningful than others.

 

Jesus is not just the messenger from God; Jesus is the message.  Jesus does not simply teach us how to live; Jesus is life.  Jesus does not simply point to the Light; Jesus is the Light. Words. Words. Words.

 

The Bible, the Holy Word of God is full of wonderful and powerful words. But even those life-changing words are not enough.  Take music for example, music is so much more than notes on a page…when it is played with passion it can bring out our emotions, it can move us to tears, it can change our hearts and touch our deepest feelings.  Love is more than telling your spouse you love them; it is living it out each and every day of your relationship. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, the magnificent Word of God is more than just words written in this Holy book.

 

The Word of God is not simply good words to live by and rules to guide our lives. It is God Himself.  The Word become flesh.  The Word, which was in the beginning with God, the Word, which created all that is, the Word, which is light, and life, became flesh born of Mary in a manger in Bethlehem.

 

We in the church use Words each and every week to profess our faith.  We say we believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  We say the Apostle’s Creed, or the Nicene Creed, we affirm our belief in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yes, that is what we say when we combine those Words and say the Creed.  But are those just words for us?  Do we say them because the bulletin or the prayer book says that is what comes next?  Do we say them because we have memorized the Creed and it is rote to us, it just rolls off our tongues each week?  Words. Words. Words.

 

Do we really believe the Words we say?  Do we really believe that God in Christ is the Savior of the world? Do we really believe that God can make a difference? A difference in our lives, our families, our jobs, our financial situations, our broken hearts, your failing health, and our violent city?   Do we really believe that God cares about our community, our city, our state, our nation, our world, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine or any other nation?  Or are they just Words we say each Sunday?  Do we know what we say when we say these words? Do we really believe that God will forgive all our sins and save us from the relentless guilt that is part of our lives?  Do we really believe that can do all of that?  That is what it means to be a Savior.

Words.

Words.

Words.

Do we mean what we say when we say them?

Or are they just Words for us?

 

Years ago, when our children were much younger, bedtime was a challenge in our house.  Every night one of our three children had an issue with going to bed. Most every night one of them would plead for mama or daddy to lay with him or her because they were afraid. “Daddy I hear noises…” I responded by saying, “It is okay Mama and I are downstairs and you will be okay.” A few moments later and then we would hear that same voice pleading again, “Mama, I am scared please come and lay down with me…” Monnie would respond, “Don’t be afraid it is nothing, just go back to bed and close your eyes.” After a while the voice, even more sacred this time would return, “Mama, I can’t sleep, can I sleep in your bed?”  We would finally give in and say, yes.   The next morning we would ask the child what they were afraid of.  Our children would talk about the noises and sounds they heard.  We lived in a really old house that was on a busy street so it made sense.  But I realized that the words of comfort that Monnie and I offered to them were just that words.  What our children wanted was our presence with them, our flesh, and our warmth, something tangible to calm them and calm their fears and help them sleep.

 

That is the promise of God in these Words from John, the word became flesh and blood and lived among us.  Words. Words. Words.  Sometimes Words can give life and calm troubled hearts.  Words. Words. Words.  May Jesus the Word become flesh and live in your heart and in mine now and forever.

 

Let us pray:

Christmas Remembrances: Joy

 

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Luke 2:1-14

 

2: 1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:1-14, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of glory, your splendor shines from a manger in Bethlehem, where the Light of the world is humbly born into the darkness of human night. Through the telling of the Christmas story, let our lives be caught up in the story of the Christ child, that we too might join shepherds and all the heavenly host in praising the coming of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

 

The angel of the Lord boldly proclaims in verse 10:“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

 

What is Joy?  We talk about the joy of Christmas, and we hear about people who live joy-filled lives.  We know that there are moments of joy even in the darkest of lives. We’ve seen them: video clips of joyous families welcoming loved ones home from war; the ecstatic joy in the Olympics when an athlete wins a gold medal; the eruption of laughter and tears and the outburst of joy at the birth of a child, or the joy of children on Christmas morning.  Is this the sort of joy the angel is speaking of?

 

Well, bookstores remind us there is: The Joy of Cooking, The Joy of Living, The Joy of Sex, The Joy of Parenthood, The Joy of Painting, So, what is joy? Where does joy come from?  Does joy come from something you have, or does joy come from something you do?  Is joy a pursuit or a paradox, or worse, is joy an illusion?  Is joy a fleeting moment or is joy a permanent state?  What is joy?

 

We find joy in our spouses, our children, our homes, our jobs, our favorite sports teams.  But the joy that angel of the Lord is speaking of is so much more than that.  The angel of the Lord is speaking of great joy is not merely the squeals of delight of children when they open their gifts tomorrow morning, but this joy is a deep and solid confidence that is built on something firm, real and long lasting.

 

The angel of the Lord spoke to the shepherds about this joy to come. The Shepherds hear this glorious promise from God that “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born a Savior.

 

But there is something that often prevents us from experiencing this deep, abiding joy.  Perhaps it is that we hear the angel of the Lord’s promise with skeptical ears—because we know too much.

 

Apparently, there are two types of joy: internal joy and external joy.  Internal joy comes from within, but external joy comes and goes with whatever is happening in our lives.  It is external because it comes from outside of our selves. When our circumstances change in one direction, joy comes.  When our fortune reverses, joy leaves.  External Joy is fleeting.

 

But internal joy is different.  The joy that lasts is not a fantasy that is out of touch with reality.  This joy is not just giddy happiness but something much deeper and so much stronger.  In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul talks a lot about “joy” and rejoicing.  His joy is more than the “I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything is going my way” kind of joy.  You may remember that he was imprisoned for his faith.  He even had joy when things were not going his way while he was in prison. The great theologian, Karl Barth, described joy this way, “Joy in this world is always in spite of something.”  It is, as he put it, joy in a “defiant nevertheless” kind of way.

 

This joy is more than happiness because of good times.  It’s joy in the face of, or joy in spite of the irritation, the disappointment, the frustration, and the aggravation of daily living.  It is the kind of joy Henri Nouwen concludes, “That does not separate happy days from sad days, successful moments from moments of failure.”  No, this joy is a divine gift that does not leave us during illness, grief, oppression, or persecution.  This joy does not depend on the circumstances of our lives, or even on our momentary feelings.  “The joy that lasts, that is not externally dependent, that is not dependent on the absence of sorrow and pain, the joy that lasts is rooted, grounded, cemented in the experience with God.[1]

 

A God who is with us.

So what does joy look like, feel like, sound like?

 

I think Joy looks like this.  A friend of mine loves the Christmas Eve service.  He never misses it.  He doesn’t love it because of the beauty of it or the music or the excitement of Christmas morning coming.  He loves it because it had changed his life.  My friend went through a really painful divorce.  He had screwed up—made some bad choices and alienated everyone, especially his wife and kids and she finally had enough and filed for divorce.  It was on Christmas Eve some 20 years ago that he found himself utterly alone, depressed and guilt ridden.  He didn’t know where to turn.  He said he felt like his life was falling apart.  So that evening he made himself get dressed and go to the Christmas Eve service all by himself.   He sat on the back row.  Looking at all the families piled in together.  But then something strange happened.  Someone spoke to him and told him Merry Christmas.  Someone else shook his hand and said good to see you.  The music started “O Come all Ye Faithful.  Joy to the World.  O Little Town of Bethlehem.” “The scripture started settling on his heart.  “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

 

He isn’t sure exactly when it happened, but he started feeling joy— not superficial, happy, joy, but deep abiding joy.  Joy in spite of.  Joy nevertheless.  Joy.  The joy that can only come from a tiny baby born in a manger.

 

My friend has never missed a Christmas Eve service since…and he will be there tonight. Just like you and just like me.  He will hear those familiar carols, he will hear the words of Scripture, “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  He will hold up his candle and sing silent night and yet again, it will be Christmas.  And his heart and his soul just like yours and mine will be transformed and set free to face life without fear and live with joy.

 

Let us pray: Good  and gracious God, on this holy night you gave us your  Son, the Lord of the universe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, the Savior of  all, lying in a manger. On this holy night draw us into the mystery of your love. Join our voices with the heavenly host that we may sing your glory on high. Give us a place among the shepherds that we may find the one for  whom we have waited, Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy  Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen

[1]The Reverend Dr. Ian Chapman “Don’t be Afraid” Program #3611 First broadcast December 20, 1992” http://www.30goodminutes.org/index.php/archives/23-member-archives/242-ian-chapman-program-3611

 

 

 

Christmas Remembrances: Home

Malachi 5:2-5
Psalm 80:1-7
Luke 1:39-55

1:39 “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:39-55, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of promise, you have given us a sign of your love through the gift of Jesus Christ, our Savior, who was promised from ages past.  We believe as Joseph did the message of your presence whispered by an angel, and offer our prayers for your world, confident of your care and mercy for all creation. Amen.

 

Music has always been important in the life of the church because it speaks to our hearts and it moves our souls, but music this time of year seems even more important.  Think about the Christmas carols we sing.  We know many of them by heart: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “O Come all ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Silent Night,” and “Joy to the World!” Just to name a few. Every one of us has our favorites and when we hear or sing those carols it makes Christmas for us.

 

It is not only sacred music and Christmas carols that touch our hearts and move our souls it is also popular music.  Apparently the number one song on the secular list of Christmas songs is “White Christmas.”  I learned this week that is the most popular song ever written; it has been recorded more, sung more, played more, listened to more than any other piece of music ever.   The most famous rendition of the song is Bing Crosby, singing “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”  It is that line that gets us: just like the ones I used to know…”  It takes us back in time, to those special Christmases of our past.  The great American composer, Irving Berlin, who was actually Jewish, wrote the song in 1941.  It became very popular during the Second World War, when so many young men were off at war separated from their families and loved ones, far away from home.  “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”

 

It is amazing the emotions and memories the song evokes, especially thoughts of home.  We remember Christmases past and what we did; decorating the tree, making cookies, cooking and eating a huge Christmas dinner, opening presents, visiting family, reading special books or watching “It’s a wonderful life.”  We all have memories.  You can close your eyes and still see certain people in certain places and remember what they did and what they said.  It is the power of memory.  The sights, sounds, and smells of Christmas, Christmas past, Christmas at Home.  “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”

 

Think about the songs we sing about Christmas at home.  There is Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas, if only in my dreams…”  Perry Como’s “There is no place like home for the Holidays.”

 

No matter what our situation in life, we all experience homesickness. Homesickness is built into us.  Saint Augustine prayed so long ago, “Our hearts are restless, O God, until we find rest in thee.”  There is a deep longing in each of us for a place we belong, a place to call home.  Scripture tells us that we are all wanderers, exiles, all of us looking for a future home.  Walter Brueggeman writes in his Old Testament commentary that the basic theme of the Old Testament is the people of God longing to go home.

Here we are a few days before Christmas, some of you are preparing to travel home, wherever home happens to be, others of you will have your family come home to you, and some of us can’t go home.  No matter which group you are in, we all have a longing for home.  We all want to be “Home for Christmas, if only in our dreams…”   It is more than a nostalgic journey to return to the home of our childhood, or a highly romanticized Norman Rockwell idea of Christmas past.   As attractive as that is for us this time of year to go back and savor those memories of the past, I suggest that our texts and the angel Gabriel is inviting us to look forward. Our home is before us.

 

Christmas is about God who is for us.  Christmas is about gifts we did not earn or work for or deserve.  Christmas is about the love of God who came to dwell among us and assures us that we have a home.  Christmas is about the conviction that in this birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem, born of a women who was scared to death when she was told that she would have this child; who was amazed that God would work through her, such a lowly person; that God came among us to show us the power and the reality of His love, that God came to forgive us for all we have done that we think is unforgivable; that God came to provide us a place where we know we belong, God came to give us a home –with him.

 

A young couple, a man with a heavily pregnant fiancé, travel many miles to return home, and when they arrived, they made a home, a birthplace in a cow stall.  They transformed that manger into a home that you and I are invited to return.

 

Home is where Christ is.  That is the home we are invited to, regardless of where we are or what we are doing.  We are invited home. Home is there, that simple manger, it is where we know that we belong, where we know the strong, saving Grace of God, the One who created the heavens and the earth, He is the One who loves the world so much that he gave his only begotten son born into the world; loves the world so much that He never gave up on the world; loves us so much that he will never give up on us; and he continues to work for the redemption, the reconciliation and the peace of the world in unexpected and surprising ways.

 

That is where we are invited this Christmas.  We are invited to find our way home where we know that we are loved, where we are claimed and welcomed by God.  Finding our way home to that place where we will never be forgotten.

 

My friends, my hope and prayer for each of us this Christmas is that you and I will find our way home to Christ, who is our dwelling place, now and forever. Amen.

 

Let us pray:

Non- Superfluous Preparation

Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm (Luke 1:68-79)
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

 

3:1 “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:1-6, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of timeless grace, you fill us with joyful expectation. Make us ready for the message that prepares the way, that with open hearts and accepting minds we may eagerly await the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Those names are hard to pronounce.  They seem obscure and superfluous.  Those names at the beginning of our reading from Luke’s Gospel.  Couldn’t we just skip over them and get to the heart of the passage.  I didn’t know how to exactly pronounce each one and no one knows who some of them even are.  Why not just pick up after the names?

 

But, there is not much, if anything, that is superfluous and unnecessary about them.   Luke put those names in there for a reason.  Luke goes to great effort to place the earth changing birth of the Messiah into context.   Luke wants to anchor them in the larger political and historical scene of the world.  You see, these names, these people, are headline grabbers, the ones on the front page of every magazine at the check at the check-out counter.  They were people that everyone would know. It would be like saying:

In the fifteenth year of the twenty-first century, when Barack Obama was President of the United States, and John Kasich was governor of Ohio, and John Cranley mayor of Cincinnati, and Daniel J. Feigelson mayor of the Village of Indian Hill, Michael Curry was presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, and Grady Parsons was the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA and the word of the Lord came to The Indian Hill Church!

 

It would be as if in the year 2015 when all of these important people had positions of power and influence, the Word of the Lord did not come to them, but it came to a no name and not even in a big city like Paris, New York or Hong Kong or Washington DC or a place of religious significance like the Vatican, no the Word of the Lord came in the wilderness, the middle of nowhere.

 

So, you see, the names are important.  They are important, because God did not come to them to get his message out.  God chose a wild person, a strange person, an unconventional person, a person of little power and influence, John the Baptist, to prepare the way for Jesus.  John the Baptist, this no name came to prepare for the Messiah who would be born to a no name-virgin-teenager and would be born away from the glitz of the big city.   Instead will be born in a barn in the middle of nowhere.  It is how God works.  David Lose, Lutheran preacher says this:

So Luke begins his story by making the outrageous claim that God is at work in the weak and small – babies and barren women and unwed teenage mothers and wild-eyed prophets and itinerant preachers and executed criminals – to change the world.  And, to be quite honest, God’s not done yet. God continues to work through unlikely characters today – unpopular teens and out-of-work adults and corporate executives and stay-at-home parents and underpaid secretaries and night-shift workers and police officers and volunteer basketball coaches and even preachers – to announce the news of God’s redemption.[1]

 

So what’s John doing among Luke’s veritable list of “who’s who” in ancient Palestine?  Well, according to Luke, John the Baptist, this itinerant preacher preaching repentance out in the wilderness – you know, the place nobody goes, at least not by choice.  John the Baptist – a “nobody” by all other historical accounts – just happens to be the one to whom the Word of the Lord came. John. Not the Emperor, or governor, not a rulers, or the high priests, but John – a no count, a no body.

 

Oh, and the place, the wilderness is just as important.  God did not choose the oval office or the red carpet at the Oscars or Wall Street or in a sanctuary in a big beautiful church to make the pronouncement of the coming of a savior.   God chose John the Baptist an itinerant preacher out in the wilderness.  There is something about the wilderness that does away with all the pretense of life and gets to what really matters.   There is a gift that comes from the wilderness—in learning how to trust – God when all else falls away.

 

In the wilderness we get down to the core of who we are and who God created us to be.  That is why Advent always starts in the wilderness.  We have to get back to basics, to the core, to the powerlessness of each of us, in order to see the Christ child.  If we stay in the places of power and control, then we don’t know that we need the Christ child.  But, if we go to the wilderness where we discard the fluff of life and of ourselves, then we know how dependent we are on God and God alone.  Perhaps the word of the Lord came to the wilderness, because it was the only place that would listen and hear it— the noise of the city— the places of power and prominence drown it out.

 

So our challenge this the second week of Advent is to allow ourselves to go into the wilderness.  Go wherever the wilderness is in your life, where the fluff and securities and difficulties and stresses fade away and you get to that quiet place where you can hear, really hear the still small voice of the prophet.

 

The Voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.

And the really great news about Advent and getting ready is that it is not all up to us.  Advent reminds us that we do need to do our part in getting ready, but that will never be enough.  God will arrive despite us and God will get us ready.

 

It is the year 2015 and just maybe the voice of the Lord will be heard crying out in the wilderness of our lives.  May we tune our ears and our hearts and our souls so that we might hear it, because you just never know who God might choose to deliver God’s message.

It just might be you.

Amen.

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. David Lose, Working Preacher, December 2012.

What Kind of King?

 

2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-12
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

 

1:4b “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Revelation 1:4b-8, NRSV)

 

18:33 “Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  (John 18:33-37, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Most High God, majestic and almighty, our beginning and our end: We pray that you will rule in our hearts and guide us to be faithful in our daily actions, worshiping the one who comes as Savior and Sovereign, and who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

 

It seems like an election year already in the United States. We have had multiple debates that have been heated and vicious. Both Democrats and Republicans have gone off the rails by attacking each other, their backgrounds, their college applications, their religious affiliation and even their fantasy football league records.  And we have almost a full year to go.  All of this has me thinking about leadership and what it takes to be a ruler, president, a king.  Today is Christ the King Sunday (or Reign of Christ).  It is the end of our liturgical year. We are on the threshold of Advent, the season of hope for Christ’s coming again at the end of time. But before we start the journey to Jesus’ birth, we end this year with Jesus as king, exalted to rule over the whole universe.

 

So, we can just imagine Pilate’s frustration as he is trying to understand that Jesus is a different kind of king.  Pilate, a governor of a remote Palestinian outpost of the Roman Empire, was a long way from Rome, so he worked very hard to placate Caesar. So, he certainly knew what it was like to deal with a king.  But this Jesus, this “King of the Jews,” was different.  No earthly king would dare to stand in front of a governor in chains with any measure of defiance, nor would an earthly king ever be willing to face the fate Jesus knew was coming.

 

It started out as any other Friday evening begins in the city of light.  But this Friday evening would be anything but ordinary.  This was Friday the 13th of November.  Beginning at 9:20 PM in Paris, there were three separate suicide bombings outside of a stadium, followed by four mass shootings in central Paris, and then four separate suicide bombings at four different locations. The deadliest of those attacks took place at a theatre, where a large crowd was gathered for a concert.

 

According to news reports, over 130 innocent victims were killed and a further 415 were admitted to hospital with injuries sustained in the attacks, including 80 people described as being seriously injured.  In addition to the victims, seven of the extremists’ attackers died.

 

Fear abounds all across the world and I am tired of the violence that is carried out in the name of God or Allah, or Yahweh! I am tired of trying to understand extremists who give a religion a bad name.  Where is a leader to take decisive action and put an end to this terror and violence?   I am tired of waiting for an all-powerful king to come.  There is a part of me that really wants that king to come now and seek vengeance on those who go against his will.  I am ready for a powerful and vengeful God to redeem his name.

 

But that is not how God works.

All of this has me thinking about leadership and what it takes to be a ruler, president, a king.  So, I wonder what we would do if we were in charge of the world today?  If we were faced with making some of the difficult decisions our world faces in these days.

 

Here is Pilate, who knew all about difficult decisions.  It is up to him to choose whether Jesus lives or dies.  You almost get the feeling that Pilate really liked and respected Jesus.  He kind of, sort of, thought he might be the King of the Jews and he apparently couldn’t quite understand why the crowds wanted to kill Jesus.  The crowds just want him dead.  You get a sense that Pilate, this governor, this man of power with the mighty empire of Rome backing him, is anxious and agitated as he wonders what to do with Jesus.

 

So, he takes Jesus into his inner chamber to try to understand him. Just for a moment at least it appears that Pilate has a conscience and is confused about what to do.  You get the sense his heart was telling him one thing but then there were those crowds, the noises from outside, the pressure to be what people expected him to be.

 

A professor I had in seminary describes Pilate’s behavior as “typical of a person or institution who is confronted with a critical decision who has instincts in one direction but is pressured by the circumstances or a crowd to move reluctantly in the opposite direction.”  (Charles Cousar as quoted by Kate Huey on internet sermon).

 

What strikes me about Pilate is that he knew that Jesus really didn’t deserve to die, but he didn’t have the guts to say it and to stand up for what he believed.  The crowds would have been furious.  But even still, Pilate knew and he didn’t have the guts to live it.

 

We see politicians do it all the time—base their decisions not on their conscience but instead on what will get them the most votes.

 

We see kids do it all the time—follow the crowd who is doing something they know they shouldn’t be doing because it is so much easier to just go along and fit in rather than buck the crowd and say no.

 

And we do it in our own lives.  Don’t you sometimes get that knot in the pit of your stomach when you see that something is clearly wrong but you just can’t quite bring yourself to take a stand, stand up and say something?  It’s easier to just keep quiet and not disrupt the status quo and go with the flow. All of this has me thinking about leadership and what it takes to be a ruler, president, a king

 

So here are these two men, Pilate and Jesus.  One a ruler and the other a king. One filled with the power of this world, caught up with success and maintaining order and gaining power and pleasing Caesar.   And the other, calmly, quietly, knowing what is coming, standing there speaking of a different kind of kingdom.  In a strange twist they are now both on trial.  What will Pilate do with the information he has?   What will Pilate do with what his heart and his conscience tell him?  What will he do with what his heart tells him?  Will he listen to his heart or to the crowds?

 

God does things differently. Our God does the unexpected — sends his son, Jesus born to an unwed virgin, in a manger, raised by a carpenter.  Lead people to believe and follow him. He taught that servanthood and love and justice are much more important than riches, power and strength.  He is the kind of king who comes riding in on the back of a donkey, who befriended prostitutes and sinners, who cares about the least, the last, the lost.   Not exactly the kind of leadership, president or king we are looking for today. Can you imagine how Jesus would do in a political debate?

 

So here we are on Christ the King Sunday, looking for a leader, a Savior, a King…Come, Lord Jesus.  We just can’t wait.  Christ is King, but not the king we expect.  The King with a crown of thorns.  The King with non-violent followers.  The King of gifts of love.     May we have the strength and the courage and the faith to put all of our lives subject to this King of Kinds and Lord of Lords.  All of this has me thinking about leadership and what it takes to be a ruler, president, a king

 

We pray, Come Lord Jesus, Come.  Amen.

 

Let us pray:

The Reversal of Fortunes

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
Mark 12:38-44

 

12: 38As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  (Mark 12:38-44, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of widows and strangers, you protect the oppressed and forgotten and feed the hungry with good things. You stand among us in Christ, offering life to all. Give us open hearts and minds to respond with love to the world, caring for those for whom you care. Amen.

 

This is not a Stewardship Sermon! But it is a sermon about giving.

 

We are privy to a very common transaction, a person making a donation, a woman making her offering.  But this woman caught Jesus’ attention and this transaction stood out to him.   So much so that he tells his followers about her and what she gave.  Did anybody else notice her or what she gave?  Probably not?  So, Jesus tells them.  She gave, “her whole life.” Not a portion. Not a tithe. Not a percentage. She gave her whole living.

 

Her whole living?  That should give us reason to pause and reflect on what is happening here.  Nobody can give everything.  Not even to the church, nor should we give that much to the church, or to anyone or any organization.  So, let’s move away from the stewardship interpretation of this Gospel story because we cannot reduce the widows’ donation to a percentage or a portion or a pledge. She gave her whole life to God.

 

She gave her whole life.  Why?  Was it out of obligation?  Was it out of respect?  Was it because of her religiosity?  Her piety?  Was it all of the above?  She gave her whole life because she had no other options.  She gave her whole life because that’s what was expected of her.  She gave her whole life because her life depended on it.  She was captive and caught in a system of exchange, trapped in expectations that demanded more from her than she could essentially give.  She had to do what she did.  She had no choice but to give her whole life.[1]

 

This is not an indictment of her or even the practice of Judaism.  This was the way it was back then.  This was reality.  Like death and taxes.  She had to give.  So, for Jesus to make such an important observation and notice her and single her out and raise her up as an example of the corruption of the system, was a huge risk.  Jesus speaks the truth, trying to show that God was up to something new — not a new doctrine, not a new ritual, not a new sacrifice, or even a new God, but instead it was Jesus telling how God is/was committed to being in relationship with the world.

 

Jesus is attacking the Temple establishment.  The Temple was not only a religious institution and the earthly home of God but it was an economic institution as well.  The Temple had hundreds of employees, and Jerusalem was a “company town.”  The Temple performed many financial functions, including operating as a central bank and treasury.

 

The Temple priests and scribes lived high on the hog.  They received a cut from every Temple sacrifice and were the beneficiaries of a five-shekel tax on every first-born child.  This generated great revenue for the priests, but even this was not all they took in.  There were several other offerings — or perhaps better, taxes —that brought in even greater wealth, so much so that priests got into the business of lending money, which means that they also were in a position to foreclose on property if the debt was not paid. Remember this passage began with a scathing indictment of the scribes, the Temple lawyers, who like to walk around in their long robes and pretty vestments and say long prayers that mean nothing, they devour widows’ houses…So for Jesus to say these things against the Temple and the religious establishment he was setting himself over and against them.

 

Jesus was trying to offer new ways to think about God to show how God was not easy to capture or contain or make into our own.  Jesus is saying that God is more than ritual and transaction.  God is about relationship.  So, the widow and her offering is a foreshadowing of what God was up to in being in relationship with humanity.  That is why Jesus and his ministry was counter to everything people knew about faith and about God.

 

That is why this is not a stewardship sermon but it is a sermon about giving because we can’t reduce the widow’s giving to a message of stewardship or as an example for us to follow in giving to the church, to do so is to miss the point of this story entirely.  The Bible does not allow us to boil down every character we meet into a sermon illustration or a stewardship example.  They cannot always be reduced to an example, “Wow, I need to be more like this widow (her)…”  She is instead a multi-dimensional character, an invitation to embody what it means to follow Jesus.

 

So, Jesus points her out because he sees in her what he must do on the cross.  Jesus will have to give his life for the world. That is how God acts.  That is God’s character.  God knows nothing else than to give God’s whole life for the world, for all of us. God has shown that time and time again to God’s people in the Hebrew Scriptures and it is no different now. This is the essence of God – to give God’s whole self.

 

The widow tossed the only shred of independence she had in to the offering plate, but she kept intact her complete dependence on God and neighbor.  Her way was a life of faith grounded in the trust of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit.  It’s a life lived in the conviction that we are dependent upon God and others in all things.

 

Jesus shows us that our dependence on God leads to joy and thanksgiving. If God is running the universe and ruling all of life, then we no longer have to save ourselves, prove ourselves or justify ourselves.  We are the work of God’s hands. We live and move and have our being in those hands and we will die in those hands. Jesus through this story of the widow’s mite tells us that we can trust in the one who will reverse our fortune from lost to found from slave to free from sinful and broken to forgiven and whole. It is God who will reverse our fortunes. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Let us pray:

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. Karoline Lewis, Whole Life Living, Sunday, November 01, 2015, www.workingpreacher.org