Sermon: Imitators of Me

Sunday 17 March 2019
The Second Sunday in Lent

Philippians 3:17-4:1

There are three phrases that jump out at me from the passage we have this morning in Philippians. “Be imitators of me,” “enemies of the cross,” and “citizenship in heaven.” So I want to take a little time considering each of them.

It’s always struck me as a little strange, the advice that Paul gives at the beginning of the passage we have today from the Epistle to Philippians. “Be imitators of me.” We might expect him to advise his readers to imitate Jesus, right? We even have a Latin term for that, the imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ. But instead, here we have the imitatio Pauli, the imitation of Paul. That’s a fair bit of hubris to come right out and say, “You all should imitate me!”

But of course Paul has never really had a problem with self-esteem. Or at least he has never had trouble promoting himself. One of his many self-promoting speeches appears a little earlier in the letter to the Philippians. He’s arguing against his opponents, Christians who want new Gentile converts to be circumcised into the Jewish community. He says, “We don’t put our confidence in rituals performed on the body, though I have good reason to have this kind of confidence. If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more: I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.” Paul saying that he is better than the people who oppose him. They say that you can only get right with God if you follow the biblical laws, if you stay Kosher and have your men circumcised. Paul rejects those standards, but at the same time he says that no one is better at fulfilling those standards than he is. There is no one who follows the biblical laws more zealously than Paul does. There is no one who is a more perfect Jew than Paul is.

So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Paul tells the Philippians to imitate him. He’s pretty confident about himself and his own abilities. He’s pretty sure that he is beyond reproach. So why not recommend that other Christians imitate him?

But what is it about his life that Paul wants people to imitate? He doesn’t want the Philippians to imitate his perfect observance of the biblical law. He’s pretty clear about that. Just after the section where he’s praising his own observance of the law, he writes, “These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings.”

And that is interesting. Paul says that his righteousness, his very identity comes from participating in Christ’s sufferings. What does that mean, to participate in Christ’s suffering?

Well, that leads us even farther back in to the letter to the Philippians, to the second chapter, and the most famous verses of the letter. They probably aren’t written by Paul at all. He’s quoting a very early Christian hymn, likely among the most ancient of Christian words that we have.

Paul tells his readers to adopt for themselves the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, and then he quotes the hymn: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

For Paul, the story of Jesus is not all about glory. Yes, there is glory in the message of Jesus Christ, but it is glory that is always born out of weakness, vulnerability, and even suffering. The story of Jesus is a story of self-emptying, a story of vulnerability, a story of solidarity with human beings. And not just any human beings. It is important the Jesus is God incarnate in human form. But the particular human form is also important. He did not come as one with great earthly authority. In fact, Jesus made a point of rejecting earthly authority, of rejecting wealth and power. He came from backwater Galilee and wandered the countryside with nowhere to lay his head. The incarnation of Jesus is a sign of God’s solidarity with humanity, but it is especially a sign of God’s solidarity with people who are on the margins, people who have been left aside and counted out.

And that is a reality that Paul is very mindful of. It is important to know that when Paul tells the Philippians “Be imitators of me,” he is writing them a letter from prison. Paul is in jail for preaching of the gospel. That is the example that he hopes they will follow. Because Paul himself is following the self-emptying example of Christ. He is being emptied himself. He tells the Phillipians, “Even if I am poured out like a drink offering on the altar of service for your faith, I am glad.” He is happy even to face death if he is doing it for the benefit of others.

So when Paul tells the Philippians that they should imitate him, he is also saying that they should imitate Christ. They should resist the praise of the world and instead align themselves with all who are suffering, just as Christ did. They should be in solidarity with those who are on the margins, with those whose story is not told, with those who are taken advantage of by the powerful. Because that is what Jesus did, and that is also what Paul has done, finding himself among the prisoners, those who have run afoul of the powerful.

In doing so, Paul aligns himself with the cross. He is following the same path that led Jesus to the cross, a path of solidarity with the weak and suffering, a path of self-emptying love. It’s Jesus’s solidarity with those on the margins of society, those on the outside, that leads him to the cross. Were he not crossing societal boundaries and flouting societal norms and upending the power structures, he would not have needed to die. But it is that solidarity with the suffering that leads him to the cross.

In today’s passage, Paul talks about those who are enemies of the cross. And when I first heard that phrase, I thought it was just a way of talking about people who aren’t Christians, that it was just a way of Paul excluding people who have not claimed Jesus as savior. But as I thought about it more, something else occurred to me. You know, the cross is scandalous. The idea that God, the perfect and all powerful, could come humbly in human form, that is scandalous. And the idea that that incarnate God could not only live as a human, but also die as a human, that is more scandalous still. And the idea the God could die in such a humiliating way, nailed to a cross, that is scandal upon scandal. It isn’t right. It’s not the way a God should behave. It is beneath God’s dignity. It is shameful, scandalous.

And that’s the point, Paul says. That is what makes the revelation in Jesus so remarkable. God in Jesus was completely shameless, no sense of dignity or decorum whatsoever. God in Jesus endured the utter humiliation of death on a cross. Why? For you and for me. To show us that there is no place that we can go that will separate us from God’s love. There is nothing we can do that can shame God. There is no pain we can endure that is too much for God to understand. There is no amount of guilt or shame that we can feel that will hinder God’s ability to love us. That is the scandal and the miracle of the cross.

And to be an enemy of the cross is to deny God’s incredible, shameless love. To be an enemy of the cross is to deny that God can care for us even when were are in the depths of sin, even when we are in the depths of pain, even when were are in the depths of guilt, even when we are in the depths of humiliation and shame. God in Jesus has already been to the depths on the cross. God in Jesus has never been afraid to claim the sinner, the leper, the outcast, the orphan, the widow, the tax collector. God in Jesus has never found a human being that is unworthy of divine love. Never. There is nothing you can do that will put you outside of God’s love. No matter how unworthy you might feel or how hard you might try to hide from God’s love, God will seek you out.

And recognizing that fact, and accepting that love makes us what Paul calls citizen’s of heaven. Being a citizen of heaven means that we belong, even when we don’t feel like we belong here on earth. Even when we feel alienated from the world, from our families, from the people at work or the kids at school, we aren’t alienated from God. In God’s Kingdom, we belong. We are citizens of heaven. Even when we feel like we are disempowered, like our voices don’t matter, like we are pawns in someone else’s game, we are not disempowered in God. In God’s Kingdom, we have the full rights of citizenship. We are full members. Our voices matter. Our gifts and service are needed. We are citizens of heaven.

Paul invites us to follow him on the Jesus Way, to walk in solidarity will all those who are suffering, in pain, excluded, or unheard. He invites us to surrender our sense of propriety, our delusions of self-mastery, our endless quest to make ourselves worthy of love, to surrender all of that in the absolute assurance of God’s love. Because it is when we walk the way of the cross, it is when we surrender all, that God’s power is able to work in and among us. It is when we surrender our striving to be perfect that God’s perfection is manifest in our weakness. It is when we surrender our guild and our shame that God’s grace can fully embrace us.

Melissa and I just got back last night from a conference for adoptive and foster parents. It’s called Refresh, and it’s hosted by Overlake Christian Church near Seattle. The theme this year happens to fit perfectly with the text we have before us this morning: Beautiful Surrender. It comes from a contemporary Christian song of the same name by Melissa and Jonathan David Helser. And I want to close this time today by sharing it with you. I didn’t give anyone any warning, so there won’t be any words on the screen, but if you start to catch on to it, I’d love to have you sing with me. Beautiful Surrender.

Sermon: The Test

Sunday 10 March 2019
The First Sunday in Lent

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, after his baptism, is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. He spends forty days and forty nights out there in the desert. It’s reminiscent of the forty days that Noah and his family spent on the ark, and of the forty years that the Hebrew people spent in the wilderness. During the whole forty days, Jesus doesn’t eat anything. At the end of the time, we are told, he was starving. And while the devil has been testing him the whole forty days, at the end of that time he appears with a series of tests for Jesus.

There are three tests. First, the devil encourages Jesus to use his power to transform a stone into bread, so that he won’t have to be hungry. Then, the devil offers Jesus control over all the nations of the world if he will simply acknowledge the devil’s authority. And finally, the devil suggests that Jesus prove his status as the Son of God by throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple so that the angels will appear to save him and his identity will be revealed.

Now, I’ve often thought that Jesus was weakened by his time in the wilderness, that his energy was sapped by his lack of food and lack of companionship. And that’s the way this text is usually taught and preached.  Jesus was at his weakest, and so the temptation that the devil delivers is especially effective. That means it is a sign of Jesus’s exceptional fortitude that he is able to withstand the devil’s wiles.

But it occurs to me that perhaps we’ve gotten that backward. Maybe all the fasting, all the time out in the wilderness, maybe it doesn’t make Jesus weaker. Maybe it makes him stronger.

Let’s take a look at that first test. After forty days, Jesus is starving. The devil appears and says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” If fasting makes Jesus weak, then the devil is trying to exploit this weakness in order to easily tempt him. But if fasting actually makes Jesus stronger, then the devil is trying to eliminate his strength, to break him down so that he’ll be more vulnerable later.

Jesus answers the devil, saying, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” It’s a quotation from the 8th chapter of Deuteronomy. And the context here is important. Moses is warning the Hebrew people about the importance of following the commandments that they have been given, even after they have entered the promised land and become a mighty nation. This is while the Hebrews are still in the wilderness, but they are about to enter the land of Israel. The text says:

Remember the long road on which the Lord your God led you during these forty years in the desert so he could humble you, testing you to find out what was in your heart: whether you would keep his commandments or not. He humbled you by making you hungry and then feeding you the manna that neither you nor your ancestors had ever experienced, so he could teach you that people don’t live on bread alone. No, they live based on whatever the Lord says. (Deut 8:2-3)

The text Jesus quotes comes directly from the time when the Hebrews were in the wilderness, being tested, enduring hunger. It seems clear that there is a connection between these two stories. There is a connection between the Hebrews being humbled by hunger and Jesus being humbled by hunger. And what is more, by looking at the larger context of the story in Deuteronomy, we can gain even more insight into Jesus’s situation.

Moses warns the people not to grow slack in their faith once they have an easier life in Israel:

But watch yourself! Don’t forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commands or his case laws or his regulations that I am commanding you right now. When you eat, get full, build nice houses, and settle down, and when your herds and your flocks are growing large, your silver and gold are multiplying, and everything you have is thriving, don’t become arrogant, forgetting the Lord your God:
the one who rescued you from Egypt, from the house of slavery;
the one who led you through this vast and terrifying desert of poisonous snakes and scorpions, of cracked ground with no water;
the one who made water flow for you out of a hard rock;
the one who fed you manna in the wilderness, which your ancestors had never experienced, in order to humble and test you, but in order to do good to you in the end.
Don’t think to yourself, My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me. Remember the Lord your God! He’s the one who gives you the strength to be prosperous in order to establish the covenant he made with your ancestors—and that’s how things stand right now.(Deut 8:11-18)

It seems clear from this text that while their time spent in the desert was hard, it was actually good for them. It was easier for the people to recognize the power of God when they had to rely on it each day for their very survival. But Moses is afraid that once the people get settled, once they get a taste of security and even of luxury, then they will no longer recognize their need for God. They will forget that everything in this world is a gift from God. They will begin to think that they have earned their wealth and prosperity through their own power, and they will forget about the God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness.

So in a way, the wilderness, the hardship of being refugees, of having to rely on God for everything, has made the faith of the Hebrews stronger. And since Jesus quotes from this story, we may assume that the same is true for Jesus. His hunger allows him to stay closer to God. It is not through power, but through humility that Jesus stays connected to God. Fasting allows him to remember that he is dependent upon God. It helps him to keep from trying to usurp God by forgetting his place in God’s plan and showing off his own power.

Most of us here today live pretty secure lives. For the most part, we don’t have to worry about whether we will have enough food to eat or whether we will have a place to sleep at night. Most of us have plenty of possessions and plenty of leisure time. We rarely have to worry about our survival.

And as Moses warns, this comparative luxury puts us in danger of forgetting the importance of God in our lives. When times are good, it’s easy for us to forget our need for God. We start to trust in our own abilities, to rely on ourselves. We start to think that we don’t really need God, that we can do just fine on our own.

And that is precisely why we have the season of Lent. It is a chance for us to do precisely what Jesus did, to spend time in fasting and prayer. It’s not an exercise in spiritual machismo, as we often assume. It’s not about proving how much we can give up or sacrificing things just so that we can endure suffering. Fasting during Lent is a spiritual discipline designed to help us get closer to God, to give up some physical strength in order to gain spiritual strength, to give up our own willing so that we might be open to the will of God.

I go back and forth on whether or not it is a good idea to compare Lent with a physical fitness plan. I think sometimes that analogy can lead us astray. Because Lenten discipline is often connected with our diet, sometimes we end up focusing on gaining physical benefits instead of spiritual ones. Giving up dessert becomes more bout losing 10 pounds in 46 days than about anything spiritual.

But I think in general, the analogy is an apt one. Lent is like a spiritual fitness program. Taking on a Lenten discipline is a way of improving our spiritual health, of strengthening our spiritual muscles. It should help us to be in closer relationship with God and our neighbors. It’s a reminder that we do not need all of our stuff in order to be happy and fulfilled. In fact, sometimes that stuff gets in the way of our happiness. Lent is an opportunity to strip away the distractions and focus on what is important.

Lent shouldn’t be depressing. It’s not supposed to be about beating ourselves up or about denying ourselves any happiness. I know that’s often the direction that we tend to take it, but I don’t think that’s right. Lent is about stripping away what is unimportant so that we focus on what is important. And what is important is quite simple: love God, love people. That’s it. That’s what Lent should be driving us toward: loving God and loving people.

And so, I invite you to the observance of Lenten discipline, with these traditional words:

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
the early Christians observed with great devotion
the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection,
and it became the custom of the Church that before the Easter celebration
there should be a forty-day season of spiritual preparation.
During this season converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism.
It was also a time when persons who had committed serious sins
and had separated themselves from the community of faith
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness,
and restored to participation in the life of the Church.
In this way the whole congregation was reminded
of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ
and the need we all have to renew our faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church,
to observe a holy Lent:
by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial;
and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.
That your faith might be strengthened
and your connection to God confirmed.

Sermon: Who Was I?

Sunday 3 March 2019
Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9:28-36, Acts 10:1-11:18

In the story from Luke today, Peter and James and John see Jesus transformed before their eyes. They see him shining like the sun and accompanied by Moses and Elijah. They see him looking like nothing they have ever seen before, and they are terrified by it.

Of course, it’s not Jesus that changed. He has always been shining with the light of his glory. It’s just that most of the time they can’t see it. Jesus has always been the glorious Son of God, it’s just that most of the time that is hid from their eyes. It’s when they see him shining that they see the truth. And they are terrified.

My sermon topic changed midweek. As many of you already know, there was news in the United Methodist world this week. The church’s General Conference, the legislative gathering of the whole denomination, met in St. Louis. This was a special session of the General Conference, with delegates coming from around the world to debate the church’s understanding of human sexuality. And for those of us who were hoping for a move toward greater inclusivity for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, it was a disappointing week.

The United Methodist Church is a global denomination, with congregations in the United States, Africa, the Philippines, Russia, and parts of Europe. That is a very broad spectrum of cultural contexts, and it makes it hard to find consensus. There were hopes that the General Conference would have voted to allow for regional differences in the church’s understanding of sexuality, just like the ELCA did in 2009. But instead the conference chose more of the same: prohibitions on same-sex weddings and the ordination of gay clergy.

The church has been struggling with these issues for longer than I have been alive. The first reference to homosexuality appeared in the church’s law book, The Book of Discipline, in 1972. And since then, it has been a topic of conversation and controversy every four years when General Conference rolls around.

I remember when I first became aware of the issue. It would have been 1992. I was in middle school, and we were pretty new members at West Salem United Methodist Church.

Our pastor, La Vernae Hohnbaum, had died while she was serving there. A retired pastor who was in the congregation served as an interim. But then it came time for a new pastor to be appointed. And the bishop appointed Rev. Jeanne Knepper.

Now, I didn’t meet Jeanne back then. But I remember that her name was used almost like a curse word. You see, she was… a lesbian. Always in that hushed tone. Lesbian. And that was all that we needed to know about her. Clearly she was unacceptable. Clearly she was not a real Christian. Clearly she was a liar and a cheat, and certainly a sinner. Clearly the bishop was trying to destroy our little church.

There was a huge uproar in the congregation. There was a meeting with the bishop, and the superintendent, and Rev. Knepper. I remember that I wanted to go. I had already been confirmed, so I was a full, voting member of the congregation. I should be there. But my parents went without me. In retrospect, I’m pretty glad I wasn’t there. It got pretty ugly, I gather. I’m pretty sure there were some people there who weren’t living their Christian values, but probably not the ones I thought at the time.

The appointment was rescinded. All I knew about Jeanne back then was her sexual orientation. What I didn’t know was that she was a highly-gifted, massively overqualified pastor and advocate. She had her doctorate, because although she had been a qualified pastor for ten years at that point, she could not find an appointment. She was qualified, but she couldn’t find a congregation, so she got more schooling.

What the Book of Discipline said, both then and now, I believe, was this: “While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world.” Okay, that’s a high bar. But we should be aiming high, right? It continues: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” That’s the bit there. That’s the provision that she was supposedly violating.

It’s interesting, though. It says pastors are subject to human frailty, and it says that pastors should nonetheless maintain the highest moral standards. But it only lists one activity that should bar a person from ordination. Only one. Nothing in there about adultery, fraud, embezzling church funds, domestic abuse, gambling, drug or alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, participation in a hate group… none of that. Just one thing. Self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Strange.

As you can imagine, there has been a fair amount of wrangling over what that phrase means: self-avowed practicing homosexual. It has been the subject of eight separate rulings from The UMC’s highest legal authority, the Judicial Council, kind of like the Supreme Court of The UMC. They offered this clarification. “Self-avowed practicing homosexual is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual.” So, if you’re gay but you’re celibate, you’re fine. If you’re gay but you’re closeted, you’re fine. You’re only violating the clause if you’re gay, you’re in a relationship, and you announce that publicly and officially to a particular set of church authorities. By that definition, by the way, Rev. Knepper had done nothing wrong.

It puts our LGBTQ clergy in a terrible situation. We tell them we are happy to have their service. We just want them to be celibate. But if they aren’t celibate, that’s okay too, just don’t tell us anything about it. But in the mean time, we’ll discriminate against you, call you names, refuse you positions, because we have this complicated language that allows us to use you and abuse you, whichever we choose, and whenever we choose.

When Rev. Knepper’s appointment was cancelled, I felt like that was a great step forward for good Christian values. My church had been saved from sin and corruption. You see, I knew that homosexuality was wrong. I knew that it was condemned in the Bible as an abomination. I knew that  it was unnatural. I knew that none of my friends or family members was gay or lesbian.

Except that I was wrong about every single one of the those things. But it took me a while to realize it. And I want to tell you how God changed my mind.

Temperamentally, I’m pretty conservative. I don’t like pushing the boundaries. I don’t like causing a fuss. I am not a radical. I don’t like stirring up controversy. I like following the rules. I know that sometimes rules have to be broken, but I don’t like doing it unless there is a really good reason. I’m the kind of person who has their own copy of Robert’s Rules of Order and has actually read the whole thing. I don’t change my mind just on a whim.

So what changed me? It was two things. One was a personal encounter, and one was the bible.

Now I’m college. I think it’s the summer between freshman and sophomore year. It would have been 1998. I was a youth delegate to Annual Conference in Boise, Idaho. After sessions were over one night, I was walking with a friend of mine from college. I’ll call her Sarah. Sarah was a few years older than me, and I really looked up to her. She was one of the most gracious people I knew, someone who had been a model to me of Christian living. I knew that she was planning to pursue ordination as a pastor, and I was sure she would be a great one.

In Methodism, when we talk about whether someone is called to ordained ministry or not, sometimes we talk about “the gifts and graces for ministry.” It’s more than just asking if someone has the skill to be a pastor. It’s more than whether they have the qualifications. When we talk about gifts and graces, we’re asking if there is evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in someone’s life. The evidence that God has called someone should be visible in that person’s gifts and graces, or rather, the gifts and graces that the Holy Spirit is working in them. Sarah had the gifts and graces. It was clear that the Holy Spirit was working in her. I had no doubt of it.

That night, as we were walking across campus, Sarah came out to me. No one had ever done that to me before. I was no longer quite so naïve as to think that I didn’t know anyone who was gay or lesbian. And I was beginning to realize that gay people seemed to be very much like straight people. But this friend coming out to me was something new.

I don’t remember what I said to her. Probably not what I should have. I think I at least had the grace to listen more than to speak. I remember thinking it was brave of Sarah to be so vulnerable. I remember feeling a sense of embarrassment, though I wouldn’t have been able to explain exactly why. And I was anxious and confused. This did not fit with the truth I thought I knew.

But it didn’t change my mind, not on it’s own, not right away. What changed my mind was the bible. And the text that God gave to me was from the Book of Acts, the 10th chapter. It’s a long story, the story of the Apostle Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Now, the centurion is a Gentile, which means that Peter, as a good follower of the Bible, is not supposed to consort with him. An encounter in public would be one thing, but he certainly should not enter the house of a Gentile or accept hospitality from a Gentile. That is because the Bible says that Gentiles are sinful. They are, by definition sinful. They are unrepentant sinners. Peter knows that they cannot be part of God’s people, not as long as they remain as Gentiles.

And yet, God is about to do something new. God is about to do something that will violate the faith that Peter knows, something that will violate the precepts of the Bible. God is about to pour out the Holy Spirit on Gentiles. God is about to adopt Gentiles into God’s family. They won’t have to change first. They won’t have to repent of their sinful ways. They will keep on violating the commands of the Bible, commands about circumcision, dietary rules, and purity. They will keep on in their unrepentant, sinful ways, but God will accept them anyway. And God wants Peter to welcome them into God’s family.

But God needs to prepare Peter first. So while Peter is praying, God grants him a vision. He sees a tablecloth being lowered down by its four corners from heaven. And inside the tablecloth, he sees all of the different animals that the Bible says are unclean, all of the animals the Bible says it is sin to eat. Peter knows that it is a sin to eat them. But he hears a voice, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!”

“Absolutely not!” Peter replies. “I’ve never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

But the voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter has the same vision and the same conversation three times. Never consider unclean what God has made pure.

And it’s just as the vision is ending that messengers knock on Peter’s door. Cornelius has also had a vision from God that led his people to come and find Peter. Peter hears a voice telling him not to ask any questions and to go with them. Despite the prohibition, Peter invites these Gentiles in as guests, and the next day he goes to visit Cornelius. After Peter enters the house, he tells them, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean.” After Cornelius explains the vision he has had from God, Peter continues, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships and does what is right is acceptable to God.” And he begins to preach the story of Jesus.

And as he’s preaching, the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles who are listening. Just like had happened with all of those Jews at Pentecost, now Gentiles are speaking in tongues by the power of the Holy Spirit. Peter and his fellow Jews are confronted with evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in people that they thought were impure, unholy, outside of God’s love. They see something they thought was impossible: the Holy Spirit at work in a Gentile sinner.

And they change their minds. It takes a while for them to convince others in the Jesus community, but eventually they do. They decide that God has done a new thing and that they should go against the Bible and include these new followers of Jesus even though they have no intention of following any of the bible’s rules about diet or circumcision or purity. They go against the Bible because they see the Holy Spirit at work in a way they did not think possible. Peter explains to the other church leaders what had happened and how they saw the Spirit working in these Gentiles, and he closes, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

I heard that story, and my heart burned. I felt convicted. I felt like I was Peter. I was sure I knew who was inside of God’s plan and who was outside, who was a saint and who was a sinner. But I had been presented with evidence to the contrary. I had seen the Holy Spirit at work in Sarah. I had seen that she had the gifts and graces for ministry. And I felt just like Peter. Who was I that I could hinder God? That’s how God changed my mind.

It wasn’t until later that I learned that those six passages I had been taught condemned homosexuality really had very little to do with a loving, committed relationship between two people of the same sex. They had to do with rape, temple prostitution, the abuse of slaves and children, but not about same-sex marriage. But even without that, my mind was changed. The bible says that eating shellfish is an abomination, but we don’t bar people from ordination for eating shellfish. The bible says that mixed fabrics are an abomination, but we don’t bar people from ordination for wearing poly-cotton blends. More telling, we don’t bar people from ordination for succumbing to greed, even though Jesus preaches more about greed than any other subject and more than 2000 verses of the Bible are devoted to the subject. All I needed to know was that God was doing a new thing and that I could not presume to hinder God.

Of course, in truth, God was working among LGBTQ people the whole time. It was not something new. But I had failed to see it before.

I am grieved that the General Conference again told our LGBTQ sisters and brothers that we know better than God and that they are not full participants in our community. I am thankful for the many brave LGBTQ pastors and deacons who have served faithful for years in this church and for those who have been brave enough to tell their stories. I give thanks for those who have continued their ministry in The UMC, and I wish well to the many, like Sarah, who eventually felt they had to go somewhere else to fulfill their call from God. I ask forgiveness for the ways that I have hindered God. I am grateful that our Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and our Western Jurisdiction are continuing to insist on full inclusion and are gladly welcoming the ministry of our LGBTQ clergy. I know that there continue to be complex cultural and social issues surrounding this topic, and I know that some of you may be in a different place than I am. I pray for the unity of the church and that we might find a way to continue to be in ministry with each other even when we disagree. But as for my part, I know what God has shown me, and I will do my best to love with the unimaginably expansive love with which God loves us.

Sermon: Love Your Enemies

Sunday 24 February 2019
The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 6:27-38

Most every week I get together with a group of local clergy in a gathering we call Reflectionary. On Wednesday afternoon, everyone comes over to the Spirit of Grace office building, and we spend a little time checking in with one another, and then we read through the Bible passages that are assigned for the coming Sunday and talk about our reactions to them. Pastors come from Hood River, Odell, Parkdale, White Salmon and The Dalles, and from six different denomination to participate.

The lectionary assigns at least four different bible passages for every Sunday, and sometimes there can be eight or even twelve to choose from. So most weeks not everyone is preaching on the same text. Usually there are two or three different lectionary readings that different pastors are preaching on. Sometimes most everyone is preaching on one text, but just one or two have chosen a different text to preach from that week.

But not this week. This week everyone is preaching from the same text. I can’t remember the last time that happened. But this week none of us could avoid what may be Jesus’s most radical teaching of all, Luke 6:27: “I say to those of you who are listening, Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you.” Easy right? Just love your enemies. No problem.

So what is that supposed to mean? Is it like what Michelle Obama says, “When they go low, we go high”? Does it have that sense of not being dragged into the mud by other people? That’s definitely part of it. Just because someone treats you inappropriately, it doesn’t mean that it gives you an excuse to treat that person in an inappropriate way.

That sounds a lot like the advice that you might give a child, right? Well, he hit me first. She called me a name first. Okay, but that doesn’t mean that you are allowed to hit or to call names.

So part of the message here is about integrity. Don’t let your values be compromised by what other people are doing. If you know it’s not right to hurt other people, then don’t hurt other people, even if they might be trying to hurt you. 

But that’s not all of it. Jesus doesn’t say, Don’t hate people who hate you. That would be hard enough, right? But that’s not what he says. He says, Love people who hate you. And that’s a lot more difficult. What would that be like?

Well, let’s look at some of the examples that Jesus gives. What does he say? “It someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either.” Matthew’s version of this same text also adds, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with them two.”

This is a really dangerous passage, because it can be very easily misinterpreted. It often leads to a kind of doormat theology. People who are without power are encouraged to let people with power hurt them, over and over, without putting up any resistance or protest. You’ve certainly heard these words used that way, right? Turn the other cheek. Just don’t let it bother you when someone abuses you. Just be quiet and put up with it. These words have been used, especially against women and oppressed minorities, to keep them down. If you are being abused by your husband, just be quiet and take it. If you are being brutalized by society, just be quiet and take it.

But I want to tell you today, that is not what Jesus is saying here, not by a long shot. Jesus does not say to just be quiet and take it. He does not say that if you are abuse you should do nothing. He says that if you are abused, you should do something. And what you should do is shame the person who is abusing you.

In ancient Mediterranean culture, and to some degree today, there is a difference between a backhanded slap and a forehanded slap. The backhanded slap is considered more shaming to the person who is hit. A forehanded slap is what you might use on an equal. A backhanded slap implies that the person being slapped is inferior. It’s a bit more clear in Matthew’s version of this saying, where Jesus says to turn the left cheek if you are struck on the right. Doing so would force your assailant to slap you forehanded, to acknowledge that you are a person of equal humanity.

But even if we forget about the left and right thing, turning the other cheek is not an act of submission, it’s an act of defiance. The normal reaction to getting hit, especially if you are hit by someone who has power over you, is to cower, to shrink away. Or the other reaction would be to hit back. Be a victim, or fight back. But Jesus suggests a third option. Protest the act of violence that has been committed. Imagine what that looks like to get hit and turn the other cheek. “You want to hit me? You missed a spot!” That is defiance! And it shames your abuser. Everyone will know that they are one who resorted to violence, not you. Everyone will know that they were wrong, and everyone will see you weren’t afraid.

It’s the same thing with the coat and the shirt. Your typical Judean peasant only had two articles of clothing: a sort of tunic, called a χιτῶν (chiton), and a cloak that went over it, called a ἱμάτιον (himation). Jesus says if they take your cloak, you should give them your tunic also. Again, this is not just standing by while someone abuses you, this is defying that abuse and shaming the person who has done it. They take your cloak. If you give them your shirt, you’ll be standing their naked. It brings attention to the wrong that has been done to you. They can’t get away with taking your coat without suffering the shame of having caused your nakedness. It is defiance, not submission. It is a form a protest.

In fact, we have a name for this kind of protest. It’s called nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance was famously taught by Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. They all came upon this strategy through their study of Jesus and each other. Nonviolent resistance is a strategy that refuses to engage in the violent tactics of the oppressor, and instead defies them. It points out the injustice of the situation and highlights the humanity of the person being injured. It attempts to make the abuse public, so that it cannot escape notice. That should engage the abusers shame. They will see that what they are doing is wrong and stop. But even if the abuser is shameless, having made the harm public should inspire the outrage of other people. Once the abuse is exposed to the rest of the world, in a way in which it cannot be ignored, then there should be pressure to make things right.

Nonviolent resistance is not easy. It requires people to endure abuse and to make that abuse public. And it usually doesn’t work right away. It takes time to convince enough people of the virtue of your cause so that those in power will be forced, through shame or through other political pressure, to change. But it is the sort of activity that Jesus recommends here. It’s not meeting violence with violence. But it’s not being a doormat, either. It is an act of defiance in the face of violence.

But that isn’t all that Jesus is talking about. What Jesus calls for is even more radical than that. It’s not just about refraining from harming those who are against you. Jesus says that we should love our enemies, do good for those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us. So part of that is going high when others go low. Part of it is nonviolent resistance to abuse. But there is still more.

How can I love my enemy? What does it do if I try to love my enemy? Obviously I’m never going to be able to love an enemy in the same way that I love someone who is dear to me. It’s going to be hard to have affection for someone who hates me. That’s not the kind of love we’re talking about.

You may remember a few weeks ago we talked about agape love. It’s not like the love between spouses, or the love between friends or the love between parents and children. Agape love, the kind of love we’re talking about here, is the kind of love that God has for us. It is unconditional love, not based on any merit at all. It is a love that is based on grace. In fact, the passage today says as much. It says, if you love the people who love you, what credit is that to you. What it actually says in Greek is, what grace is that to you. In other words, it doesn’t take grace to love someone who loves you, but it does take grace to love someone who doesn’t love you.

So if I try to love my enemy, what happens? Well, first I would try to wish good things for them. I would want them to have a happy and fulfilling life. Of course, having a happy and fulfilling life does not include abusing other people. But nonetheless, I would wish good things for them. And then I might start to think about the circumstances of their life. What would a happy and fulfilling life look like for a person in their situation? What are the things in their life that bring joy? I would wish them more of that. And what are the things in their life that bring discomfort and pain, fear and anxiety? I would wish them relief from that.

And in the process, I might find that I am starting to see my enemy not as some heartless foe, but as a human being. And human beings are complicated. If I am loving my enemy, then I start to be able to see things from their perspective. It doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree with them, but perhaps I can begin to understand. When people hurt others, it’s usually not because they are just evil to the core and enjoy inflicting harm on others. There are usually motivations behind their actions. Those motivations may not justify their actions, but they might explain some things. Because behind destructive behavior, there is usually some need that is not being fulfilled, some hurt that is not being tended, some fear that is not being addressed. Fear is often at the core. Fear of change. Fear of losing power. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the loss of identity. And as Master Yoda has taught us, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Behind that hate and suffering, there is usually some fear. And if I am trying to love my enemy, I can begin to see the fear or the hurt that lies behind their hatred for me.

And like Yoda, Jesus warns against a dark-side response to suffering. Jesus encourages us to break the cycle of hatred and violence with a godly love. To love our enemies and do good to those who hurt us.

And again, it doesn’t mean simply submitting quietly to continued abuse. But we can wish well for someone even if that person is hurting us. Sometimes our act of love for an enemy is enough to transform the situation. How do you react when you heap abuse on someone and they return it with love? It can be disarming. It can lead us to see the wrong that we have been doing and make a change.

But things don’t always work out that well. Sometimes our love for an enemy does nothing to lessen their hatred for us. And even in that case, it is still worthwhile to love. It is good for us, because otherwise we can be consumed by our own fear and hatred. It is good for those around us, because it sets an example for how to be made free of hatred. And it is good for the world, because evil can never be defeated with more evil.

Our Buddhist sisters and brothers have a word for a concept that is not dissimilar to our agape love: Metta. Metta can be defined as benevolence, loving-kindness, friendliness, amity, good will, and active interest in others. And many Buddhists spend time in meditation, seeking to cultivate this Metta compassion. Many of you will know the Ven. Kozen Sampson, who is the monk in charge of Buddhist temple at Trout Lake Abbey. Whenever we have events together, if Kozen is asked to give a benediction, he uses a Metta prayer. And it’s very simple. It is: may you be well. May you be happy. May you know joy. May you know peace. But he always likes to lead us in it together, so I’d like to lead you through it now. We always start with ourselves and move out. So repeat after me:

May I be well. May I be happy. May I know joy. May I know peace.

And now we’ll move beyond ourselves and address those who are around us.

May you be well. May you be happy. May you know joy. May you know peace.

And now think of someone who is dear to you, but someone who is not in the room here with you now. And direct this blessing to them.

May you be well. May you be happy. May you know joy. May you know peace.

This time we’re going to try to stretch like Jesus asks us to. Call to mind the person or people you would call enemy, rival, the thorn in your side, and direct this blessing toward them.

May you be well. May you be happy. May you know joy. May you know peace.

And finally, think of all the world’s people, in our great variety and diversity. And with the whole global community in mind, let us say,

May we be well. May we be happy. May we know joy. May we know peace.

This is the kind of love Jesus is calling for. He says that when we have that kind of love for our enemies we will be greatly rewarded, because, he says, we are acting like children of the Most High, because God is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Jesus says: “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” This is what Jesus calls us to, a transformative love in the face of hatred. It is not easy. It is a gift of God. So may we be empowered, along with all of God’s children everywhere, to see each other with the eyes of compassion, to wish well and do good even for those who are against us, to love our enemies, because God has offered us unconditional love.

Sermon: Level Ground

Sunday 17 February 2019
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 6C

Luke 6:17-26

Today’s passage from Luke is the beginning of what we call the Sermon on the Plain. What is the Sermon on the Plain? you might be thinking. I’m glad you asked.

Most of you have heard of the Sermon on the Mount. In the Gospel of Matthew, toward the beginning, but after Jesus has begun his ministry, great crowds of people come flocking to Jesus for exorcism and healing, and he climbs up onto a high place and begins to preach to them. He gives a series of blessings that we call the beatitudes, which is just a fancy way of saying blessings. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. And he goes on preaching for three chapters, talking mostly about ethical issues. For some groups of Christians, particularly Mennonites and other Anabaptists, those three chapters of Matthew are the most important words in the entire bible. The Sermon on the Mount is the lens through which they look at every other part of the bible. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Love your enemy. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or your body, what you will wear. Don’t judge, lest you be judged. Take the log out of your own eye so you can see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Ask and you will receive, knock and the door will be opened. Go in through the narrow gate. Watch out for false prophets. The house built on a rock. Almost every word of the Sermon on the Mount would be familiar to most of you. It has a key part of Christian teaching for two thousand years.

It is so popular that almost everyone forgets about the Sermon on the Plain. It’s found not in the Gospel of Matthew, but in the Gospel of Luke. It happens at just about the same part of the story, early in Jesus’s ministry, as great crowds of people are flocking to him for exorcism and healing. And again, he prepares to address the crowd. But instead of climbing up to a high place, like Matthew tells the story, Jesus descends from a high place and comes down to the level ground, comes down to the plain, before he begins to speak.

The Sermon on the Plain is shorter, but it covers some of the same ground as the Sermon on the Mount. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. Take the log out of your own eye. The house built on a rock. But although the both sermons hit some of the same key notes, they are not the same. And since the Sermon on the Mount has been so much more central to Christian teaching, few of us have taken the time to notice what it is that Jesus has to say in Luke’s version of the story. In fact, just this week I was reading a modern-day retelling of the Gospel of Luke, called Esperanza Reyes, when it came time for the Christ character to deliver this sermon, the author substituted in some of the words from Matthew rather than staying true to the words in Luke. So let’s take a closer look at what it is that Luke’s Jesus has to say, and what Luke’s Jesus leaves out.

So, this is the Beatitudes. And in Luke, they sound like this: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are weeping now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for this is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”

And that should sound a little bit similar and a little bit different to the version that you have running around in your head. Both Matthew and Luke have that extra-long beatitude at the end that talks about being hated because of Jesus, but I want to set that aside for right now and look and the rest of the beatitudes.

Luke has only three. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep. In the same place, Matthew has eight beatitudes. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Luke keeps things simpler and more to the point.

But that’s not the only difference. In Matthew, Jesus blesses people in the third person. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers. But Luke’s Jesus blesses people directly, blesses people in the second person. Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. In Luke, Jesus isn’t making a philosophical speech, he’s talking directly to people who are hurting, directly to people who are in trouble.

But that may not be the biggest difference. The biggest difference isn’t in what Luke’s Jesus says, it’s in what he doesn’t say. You know the familiar version from Matthew, right? “Blessed are the poor… in spirit.” Who are the poor in spirit? People who have weak faith? Or maybe people who have strong faith? People who are simple? It’s hard to say for sure. But one thing we can say is that it probably doesn’t have anything to do with people who are actually poor. If I talk about the poor in spirit, chances are you will not think about people who are in actual economic trouble. You’ll be thinking about their prayer life or their attitude to God, not about whether they can afford to pay their rent, or feed their kids, or pay for their medicine. Matthew talks about the poor in spirit.

But Luke talks about the actual poor. Blessed are you who are poor. There’s no metaphor here. It is just what it says. Jesus is talking about people who are worried because they can’t pay all of their bills, or because they’re not sure where their next meal is coming from, or because they have to choose between their kids prescription and the electric bill. Jesus is talking about actual poverty, about real, tangible, physical, in-the-real-world need. Blessed are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom belongs to you.

And it’s the same with Luke’s second blessing. Matthew’s version is “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst… for righteousness.” What does that mean? Someone who tries extra hard to be holy? Or maybe someone who is an activist for social justice? Maybe just someone who hopes for a more just or a more righteous society in the future? It’s hard to say. But it doesn’t mean someone who is actually hungry. Matthew talks about some kind of metaphorical hunger for righteousness.

But Luke talks about actual hunger. Blessed are you who are hungry now. There’s no metaphor. Jesus is talking about people who have been skipping their own meals so they can feed their kids, about people who aren’t sure whether they will have food tomorrow, about people who have to choose unhealthy food because it’s cheaper. Jesus is talking about actual hunger, about real, tangible, physical, in-the-real-world hunger. Blessed are you who are poor now, because you will be filled.

Luke’s third beatitude is a bit less tangible, but it is no less real. Blessed are you who are weeping now. Jesus is talking about real grief, real pain, real anxiety and distress. There’s nothing philosophical or metaphorical about. Blessed are you who are in pain, who have been battered and abused, who have been kicked aside or left behind, who are at your wit’s ends. Blessed are you who are weeping now, because you will laugh.

That’s a big difference. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth; blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” It’s all a bit etherial, isn’t it? Scholars call the difference between Matthew and Luke spiritualiztion. Matthew spiritualizes the beatitudes. They stop being about real, everyday pain, and they become something that only happens in the mind. There’s a big difference between being poor in spirit and actually being poor.

Even someone who is very rich can convince themselves that they are poor in spirit, and so they can receive the blessing from Jesus. It’s not that easy to convince yourself that you’re poor when you aren’t. And that’s the way with most of Matthew’s beatitudes. If I put myself in the right mind, then I can receive all of the blessings. Sure, I’m poor in spirit sometimes. Sometimes I’m meek. Sometimes I mourn. Sometimes I’m merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker. I can receive all of those blessings, and they don’t imply that anything about my life will be changed. They don’t challenge me or even much about my society. They make me feel good.

But Luke’s beatitudes are a lot more real. And they don’t leave me or my society unchallenged. They call for a change, for an effort to eradicate poverty, an effort to eradicate hunger, an effort to eradicate emotional trauma.

And it’s all the more challenging because Luke’s Jesus doesn’t just offer blessings, he gives curses as well. We usually call them the woes. Woe to you who… But who talks like that? We know what the opposite of a blessing is, right? It’s a curse.

Cursed are you who are rich. Why? Because you have already received your reward. Cursed are you who are full now, because you will be hungry. Cursed are you who are laughing now, because you will mourn and weep. Cursed are you when everyone speaks well of you. Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.

And that is challenging, isn’t it? It’s challenging because Jesus takes a side, and it’s not always our side. Jesus takes a side—with the poor, with the hungry, with the oppressed and hurting. Jesus takes a side—against the rich, against the well-fed, against those who have it easy. And that is challenging. Jesus wants to lift up some and bring others down. Like his mother, Mary, said back in chapter one: God has pulled down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. God is showing a preference. And it’s not a preference for the holy people. It’s not a preference for those who spend the most time praying. It’s not even a preference for those who have the most faith. God shows a preference for those who have the most need. It’s clear, over and over again in Luke. For God, the last are first and the first are last.

What is that about? Is it about revenge? Is it about penalizing people who have done well for themselves? Is it about punishing success?

I don’t think so. You know what I think it’s about? It’s about level ground. In Matthew, Jesus stands on the mountain like Moses and gives the people the law. But here in Luke, Jesus doesn’t stand up high above everyone else. He comes down to our level. He stands with us on level ground, and he says, “Blessed are you who are poor; because God wants to give you everything he has. Blessed are you who are hungry, because God wants you to be full. Blessed are you who are crying, because God wants to wipe away every tear and bring you joy.” And who is God’s action for? It is first for those who have the greatest need.

God doesn’t want anyone to languish in poverty. God doesn’t want anyone to worry about where their next meal is coming from. God doesn’t want anyone to cry in despair. What God wants is level ground. And that may mean that some need to have less so that everyone has enough.

It’s a radical Jesus that we get in the Gospel of Luke. If you want a religion that stays out of politics, then don’t read this gospel. Here, Jesus shows up on the scene and gives his mission statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he doesn’t deviate from that mission. Good news for the poor. Release for the captives. Liberation for the oppressed. That is how Jesus defines the Kingdom of God. It’s not some far-away place off in heaven. The Kingdom of God is good news for the poor, release for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed.

Blessed are you who are poor, because the Kingdom of God belongs to you. And every time we feed the hungry, that is the Kingdom of God. Every time we offer help to the poor, that is the Kingdom of God. Every time we comfort someone who is crying or afraid, that is the Kingdom of God. Every time we offer healing, that is the Kingdom of God. Every time we work for the liberation of the oppressed, that is the Kingdom of God. Not the dark of buildings confining, not a some heaven light years away, but here in this place, as new light is shining. Now is the Kingdom! Now is the Day!

Jesus comes to level ground, and he proclaims, The Kingdom of God has come near. Thanks be to God. And let us live as citizens of that Kingdom, not high above those whom we think are outside, but down on level ground, face to face, brothers and sisters because we are all children of the same God, a God who calls us to live out the Kingdom, here and now, and wherever we may go.

Home Worship for February 10

Worship and all activities are cancelled for Sunday, February 10.

 +Pastor David

For worship and discussion at home:

Read Luke 5:1-11

What would you think if someone came to your work and told you they knew how to do it better?

On the Sea of Galilee, they fish at night because the fish have a harder time seeing the nets at night. Why do you think Simon Peter was willing to go out again during the day after they had caught nothing all night?

How do you think they felt when they caught so many fish that the nets were breaking and the boats were starting to sink?

Jesus tells the fishers to go out into the deep water, a place that has a chance for greater reward, but also a place that is more dangerous. If Jesus told you to go out into the deep water, what would that look like in your life?

What might Jesus be calling you to leave behind in order to follow him?

Sing “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore”

 

Lord, you have come to the lakeshore
Looking neither for wealthy or wise ones;
You only asked me to follow humbly.
O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,
And while smiling have spoken my name;
Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me;
By your side, I will seek other seas. 

You know so well my possessions;
My boat carries no gold and no weapons,
You will find there my nets and labor.
O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,
And while smiling have spoken my name;
Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me;
By your side, I will seek other seas. 

You need my hands, full of caring
Through my labors to give others rest,
And constant love that keeps on loving.
O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,
And while smiling have spoken my name;
Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me;
By your side, I will seek other seas. 

You, who have fished other oceans,
Ever longed for by souls who are waiting,
My loving friend, as thus you call me.
O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,
And while smiling have spoken my name;
Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me;
By your side, I will seek other seas.

What is one risk you are ready to take to follow Jesus?

Sermon: Luv

Sunday 3 February 2019
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the presence of these witnesses, to join together these two people in holy matrimony…. Wait a minute… that’s not right. I guess I heard the reading from 1 Corinthians 13 and got a little carried away. We hardly ever read that text at a regular church service, but it seems like whenever there is a wedding, this is the text that they choose. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…. Love never ends.” It sounds so romantic, doesn’t it? Just reading through it I can almost hear Pachelbel’s Canon in D played by a string quartet in my head, which, by the way, is not actually a canon at all—it’s a ground bass—but that is another story. 1 Corinthians 13, like Pachelbel’s Canon, is just one of those things that we expect to hear at weddings.

Now, I hate to burst anyone’s bubble here, but despite all of the wonderful language about love, and despite the fact that it get’s read at virtually every wedding, and despite the fact that we’ve all heard several wedding sermons about it, this text has virtually nothing to do with marriage or with romantic love.

In fact, marriage was the last thing on Paul’s mind when he wrote this particular passage. Paul, you see, is not a great fan of marriage. If you don’t believe me, just turn back a few pages in your bible to 1 Corinthians 7. Paul basically says, “It’s alright to get married if you think that you have to, if you’re too weak to be able to handle being celibate, but everyone would really be better off if they were single.” Here are a few of the highlights:

“If you marry, you do not sin…. [but] those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that… I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided…. So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.”

That’s what Paul actually thinks about marriage. It’s okay if it’s the only thing that will save you from fornication, but it is best avoided. Not quite as romantic as 1 Corinthians 13, though, is it? I suppose that’s why we don’t read that bit at weddings.

As you may already know, while in English we really just have one word for love, the Greeks have several different words to describe what they think of as different types of love. The word that refers to romantic love is ἔρος (eros), from which we get the word erotic. It is never once used in the New Testament. That’s right, the New Testament never mentions romantic love. It’s just not a concern of the New Testament writers. Another Greek word for love is στοργή (storgē). It usually refers to the love between parents and children, sometimes to the love between husband and wife. Again, this word is never mentioned in the New Testament. One word for love that we do find in the New Testament is φίλος (philos). This is most often translated as the love between friends. It’s the kind of love Jesus has for his disciples. It is a deep and personal affection. Another related word is φιλαδελφία (philadelphia), that is, brotherly love. This is the kind of love that members of the church are supposed to have for one another. And, of course, this is why the American city, Philadelphia, is known as the city of brotherly love.

But none of these is the type of love that Paul is talking about. Paul is talking about ἀγάπη (agapē). Ἀγάπη is the kind of love that God has for humanity or the kind of love that humanity has for God. It is also the kind of love that we humans might have for other humans on the basis of our love for God. That is to say that it is not a love that is based on affection, but a love that is based on principles. I love my wife because I like and respect her and enjoy spending time with her; that is not ἀγάπη. I love the people of Syria not because I have any particular affection for Syria or because I know any Syrians, but because my principles tell me that I should love all of my human brothers and sisters, especially those who are suffering; that is ἀπάπη.

As one commentator puts it, ἀγάπη is “the kind of love we have for someone or something upon which we are willing to base our principles for determining right and wrong; it includes the intention to act upon those principles regardless of what the consequences may be. This kind of love is the deep and abiding respect that we have for another. It is the kind of love that commands our intentions and directs our daily decisions.”  In other words, ἀγάπη is the kind of love that defines our morality and our ethics and has very little to do with whether we like or dislike a person or a thing.

And Paul tells the Corinthians, “You don’t have anything if you don’t have ἀγάπη.” You see, some of the Corinthian Christians were rather caught up with the idea of spiritual gifts—healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues, wisdom—that sort of thing. And many of them were quite proud of themselves for the types of spiritual gifts they possessed. Not only that, they thought of themselves as superior to other members of the church who didn’t display those kinds of gifts. And on top of that, this division in the church tended to express itself along lines of class. It was the well-to-do people who could afford an education who were focussed on these special gifts of the Spirit. And it was the uneducated peasants, slaves, and working folk who found these spiritual gifts to be a bit strange. The upperclass folks, Paul calls the strong, and the lower-class folks he calls the weak.

And Paul wants to say to the strong, “Get over yourselves. There are more important things than those spiritual gifts. So you have the power to heal people, what does that matter? So you can speak in tongues, big deal. So what if you have so much faith that you can perform miracles. It all amounts to absolutely nothing if you don’t have ἀγάπη.

 

The Corinthians had a hard time loving each other across difference. We still have the same sorts of troubles today. And often it’s over the same issues. The conflict in Corinth had to do with class and education. And we may have a hard time relating to someone from a lower social class than ours.

It is a part of our American mythology that a person’s place in society is based on their own effort. Anyone can achieve whatever they set their mind to. And so if some achieve little and others achieve much, it must be because there was a difference in effort. Which, of course, means that anyone who is below me in society must be there because they were lazy. They must not have worked as hard as I did, or they would be where I am.

But the myth of the American Dream conceals a much more complicated truth. While our society does provide the opportunity for social advancement, it is certainly not a level playing field. Despite our stories about an egalitarian society, your parents’ social class is still the most likely thing to predict your own social class. If we are born in the upper class, we are likely to stay there. If we are born in the middle class, we are likely to stay there. If we are born in poverty, we are likely to stay there. Race, gender, and immigration all have an effect on social mobility, making it easier for certain groups of people to succeed and harder for others.

But despite this reality, we often blame the poor for their own poverty. And that often leads to a kind of dehumanization. If their predicament is because of their own choices, then I don’t have to worry about it. They brought it on themselves. They are somehow inferior people. They are different. They are other. I have no responsibility to them. All they do is bring me and my people down.

But how different is God’s ἀγάπη love? “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth.” Ἀγάπε insists that we overcome our societal divisions. It insists that we treat the other not as an alien, or as stranger, or even as friend, but as a member of our own family. It insists that we put ourselves in the place of the other, that we see the other as God sees them. And what a difference it makes.

I want you to take a moment with me now. Close your eyes. And think about the love that God has for you. God sees you as a beloved child. God wants to be in deeper relationship with you. When you are doing well, God is right there celebrating with you. When you make a mistake, God is always there, ready to forgive. When you face difficulties in your life, God walks through them with you, giving you strength, giving you comfort, giving you peace. Rest there in God’s love. Rest in God’s ἀγάπη love.

Now we’re going to move somewhere else. Bring to your mind someone you see as other. It might be a particular person, or it might be a group or class of people. Whoever it is, it is someone who inspires a negative feeling in you, a feeling of fear, or anger, or distrust, or resentment, or disgust. Imagine that person now. Call their image to your mind. And feel for a moment the feeling that that person inspires in you.

And then bring back your memory of God’s ἀγάπη love. And remember what God thinks of that person. They are God’s beloved child. God wants to be in deeper relationship with them. When things are going well for them, God is right there celebrating with them. When they make a mistake, God is always there, ready to forgive. When they face difficulties in their life, God walks alongside them, offering strength, offering comfort, offering peace.

What would it mean for you to love that person with God’s love? What would it feel like to have patience? To be kind? To be free of jealousy or envy or rudeness? What would it mean to erase the record of your complaints? What would it mean to ache for true justice? What would it mean to love as God loves? How would that change the way you feel about this person? How would it change the way you treat them?

And when you’re ready, come back to this room and slowly open your eyes.

Knowledge will pass away, Paul says. Power will pass away. Prophesy will pass away. All of those spiritual gifts will pass away. If you have the charisma to inspire millions, if you have the talent to impress everyone, the ability to make things happen, the fame to make everyone jealous, the money to buy and sell whatever you like… it’s nothing. It’s not worth striving for. The one thing worth striving for is to love the way that God loves. That is the true gift, that is the true power, that is the true wealth. To love the way that God loves. When everything else passes away, only three things remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

Sermon: The Body Is One

Sunday 27 January 2018
The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 3C

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball—I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me—I am part or particle of God.

Those of you who are more familiar with literature than I am will recognize that as the poetry of the 19th-century Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I don’t remember much from Mrs. McCann’s junior American Literature class, but one thing I do remember is that transparent eyeball.  What a strange image. But an apt one. The idea that I can never truly observe the beauty and mystery of nature because nature will always be effected and disturbed by my attempts to watch it. But if I could become a transparent eyeball, an invisible observer, then I could achieve full communion with God, become part and particle with the Divine.

It’s true that we often experience God best in nature. It’s especially true in a place as beautiful as the Columbia Gorge. The grandeur of Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams. The misty mystery of the forests. The joy of hundreds of waterfalls. The power of the Columbia river. You don’t even have to leave the freeway to be blown away by the incredible beauty of God’s creation. And yet, if you take the time to get out there with your hiking boots, kayak, mountain bike, skis, paddle board, or snow shoes, it is all the more overpowering, all the more consuming.

And the Body of Christ needs people who can seek to be those transparent eyeballs, people who can really appreciate God’s majesty. But according to today’s letter from Paul, the Body of Christ is about more than just passive, awe-inspiring observation. It is more than a transparent eyeball.

The apostle tells us that the Church, Christ’s Body in the World, is made up of all kinds of different and diverse parts. Sometimes it can be a little hard to believe. We sometimes fall into thinking that there is one right and true way to be Christian. We think that we could take any situation and determine the proper “Christian” thing to do. But according to Paul, that’s not true. Different Christians have different gifts, and they function in different roles, and so there is no one right way to be a Christian. Some will spend their lives as that transparent eyeball, shut away from society, marveling in the awesome creative power of God. But others have little use for that kind of contemplation. They might be an ear, listening to the need and pain of the world. They might be a hand, reaching out in love to those who need aid. They might be a foot, spreading the message of God’s grace across the globe.

But those are still really the glamorous jobs, aren’t they? Paul doesn’t just tell us that Body is made up of hands and feet and eyes and ears. No, for Paul, even the Body of Christ has its—unmentionable parts. Did you notice that?

Nearly half of the expletives in the English language are crude names for body parts, and you can bet the same was true in Greek. Paul knew what he was talking about when he said, “Those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor.” We can’t get away with dismissing or disassociating ourselves from those Christians that we consider unclean, or crude, or even vulgar. These are just as much a part of the Body of Christ as any other, and whether we like it or not, the Body is One, inseparable, indivisible.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to divide Christ’s Body. And in general, we’re getting pretty good at it. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are now over 33,000 different denominations of Christianity in the world. Of course, some of those groups get along pretty well with one another. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada are different denominations, but there isn’t a whole lot that divides us. Even so, we’re still talking about 33,000 different factions of Christianity, many of which really don’t want to associate with most of the others. Some would love to slice up Christ’s Body into 33,000 little pieces, and pretend that theirs is the only one that matters. That’s one of the reasons I think the work of this congregation, and others like it, is so important. We are a visible witness that Christians from different traditions can not only work together, but even come together in organic unity. We are a witness to the re-membering of the Body of Christ. And that is such a powerful sign for the world. I hope you understand that. The dual relationship that we have here is special and worth celebrating.

But let’s get back to the body. Sometimes we have a hard time believing that the Body of Christ has both a right hand and a left hand. That right hand is trying really hard to cut off those liberals over there on the left causing trouble. And the left hand is just as ready to cut off those conservatives over on the right with all of their misconceptions. But let me tell you, neither one of them, the left nor the right, is complete on its own. Both are indispensable to the body of Christ.  Neither one of them has everything figured out, and both of them have things they could learn from the other.

There are many ways that we Christian try to exclude people that we don’t approve of. We have all sorts of methods for performing amputations on the Body of Christ. But according to Paul, it doesn’t matter how much the eye might hate the toe, or how much the appendix might hate the colon, whether we like it or not, we are stuck together. There is no way around it. The Body is One. No matter what we might try to do to make it otherwise. Through the mystical power or Christ, we are one.

The Body of Christ needs us all. The Body needs people who will think and study and ponder. The Body needs those who will share the transformative gospel of Jesus Christ with those who most need to hear it. The Body needs those who will point out the ways that the church is failing or causing harm, and call for change and renewal. The Body needs those who will listen and care and bind up those who are hurting. The Body needs those who will strive for justice, who will work to correct the inequalities in our world. The Body needs people to calm things down, to make peace and bring understanding. And the Body also needs people to stir things up, to wake us from our complacency. The Body needs people who listen. And the Body also needs people who speak. The Body needs people who pray. And the Body also needs people who act. We all have difference skills, different gifts, and different functions. But without each of us, the Body of Christ would be incomplete, would be less than it could be.

And sometimes our place in the Body will change during the different seasons of our lives. I may play a different role as a child than I do as a youth, than I do as a young adult, as an established adult, as a retiree, as an elder. Sometimes those transitions are exciting. I can’t believe I’m old enough to light the candles. I’m really glad that I finished my work with that one ministry so that I can focus on this other one. And sometimes it’s nice to be in a different role at church than I am in my job or in my family. Just because I’m a CPA doesn’t mean that all I can do is finance stuff. Sometimes transitions are hard, though. It’s hard to let go of what you used to do after you’ve moved on to something else. Or it’s hard to admit that you’re just not able to do some of the things that you used to. If you’re feeling down about not being able to do the things you used to, I want you to know that you are a valuable member of the Body of Christ, a valuable member of this congregation. The things you do now are valuable, and this is just a different season of your service in Christ, and we need you just as you are right now.

Sometimes church people are really good at doing things for others and terrible about receiving themselves. If you feel a sense of fulfillment at doing something to help others, can you also let someone else experience that fulfillment when it’s your turn to receive? If the heart won’t accept oxygen from the lungs, there’s going to be a problem. And if the brain won’t accept blood from the heart, there’s going to be a problem. In the Body of Christ, there is chance enough for all of us to be servants, and there is chance enough for all of us to graciously accept service. Even Jesus did the same, accepted hospitality. And so can we. When we do, we acknowledge that the Body of Christ is one.

And because we are all one in the Body of Christ, we all rejoice together and we all suffer together. If one member is in pain, we are all effected by it. If one member is diseased, we are all in danger. If one member is poisoned, we all suffer the consequences.

And right now, the Body of Christ is suffering quite a few afflictions. The Body of Christ is Hungry. 13.2% of Washingtonians and 16.4% of Oregonians live below the poverty line. In Hood River County, 8.5% of people are food insecure, 11.8% in Wasco County, 13.4% in Klickitat County, and 13.9% in Skamania County. The Body of Christ is Hungry.

The Body of Christ is Sick. Depression rates went up 33% between 2013 and 2016. Obesity and suicide are up, as well. High-school vaping is up 75% in the last year. According the to CDC, 60% of US adults live with a chronic disease and 40% live with two or more. The deadliest is heart disease, which causes 2,300 deaths every day. Many others are living with cancer, lung disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and kidney disease, including some of us in this room. 115 people die every day in the US from an opioid overdose. There’s even a comeback in measles, with more than 220 cases in the US in 2018, and currently 31 cases in and around Vancouver. The Body of Christ is Sick.

The Body of Christ is at War. Nearly 36,000 people died in Afghanistan last year, as many as 23,000 in Syria, more than 25,000 in Yemen, all places where the US is involved. 0.4% of Americans currently serve active duty in the military, while 7.3% of Americans have ever served. Many have died in war. Many more come back wounded in body, mind, and spirit. The Body of Christ is at War.

And because the Body of Christ is One, we are all in it together.  Whether or not we have enough to eat each day, we are effected by hunger. Whether or not we are laid up in bed, we are effected by illness and disease. Whether or not we wear a uniform or live in a war zone, we are effected by war. Whether I am a hand, a foot, a tongue, a spleen, a tooth, an artery, a white blood cell, or a kidney, I am effected.

And as members of the Body of Christ, we have choices to make. We choose how we spend our money, and which causes we support. We choose how we vote and how we lobby our representatives. We choose whom we pray for, whom we listen to, how we reach out. And when we realize that the Body of Christ is One, and that we are all effected by the safety and health of every other member, then the choices we make will reflect that unity.

The Body is One.  If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. If one member celebrates, we all celebrate together with it. So let all the members of Christ’s Body reach out together in love.

Let me close with the words of a 16th-century Christian mystic, Teresa of Avila. She said:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours;
no hands but yours; no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world.
Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.

Sermon: Do Whatever He Tells You

Sunday 20 January 2018
The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 2C

John 2:1-11

In the Gospel of John, things are never as they seem. The story is never as simple as it appears on first reading. Every detail seems to hold a hidden and metaphorical meaning. John always seems to be operating at two different levels, the story on the surface that is just ordinary details of the narrative, and the deeper story that holds the real, symbolic meaning, which sometimes has very little to do with the surface story.

If we are interested in the story on the surface, we would ask different questions of the text than if we are interested in the deeper, symbolic story. And we can take it detail by detail.

The passage starts out, “On the third day.” That is, it’s been three days since Jesus was down with John the Baptist by the Jordan River in the south. If we’re reading on the surface, the level of the narrative, we might ask, “How did Jesus make it all the way from the south up to this wedding in the north so quickly?” And we could try to explain the large geographic shift. But if we’re trying to read at the deeper level, the symbolic level, we would ask a different question: “What does three days symbolize?” On the third day, that sounds like Easter morning. John must want us to be thinking about Jesus’s resurrection while we’re hearing this story. Three days. Does it have to do with three actual days, or does it have to do with the symbolic value of three days?

Next we have the detail that Jesus’s mother (who is never named in the Gospel of John), and Jesus, and his disciples are invited to a wedding? If we are reading on the surface, we might ask, Why are they invited to this wedding? Are they family? Maybe they are, since Mary seems to feel some responsibility when the wine runs out. But if we are trying to read below the surface, at the metaphorical level, we might ask, When else do we see Jesus gathered together with his mother and disciples? Oh, it happens again while Jesus is on the cross and he connects his mother with his beloved disciple. Maybe John wants us to think about Jesus crucifixion while we hear this story. Is there anything similar between Jesus’s crucifixion and a wedding? Yes, for John there is. For John, the crucifixion is when Jesus is glorified, when his glory is revealed, just as the bride and groom are in their moment of greatest glory at a wedding.

Next we hear that the wine has run out. If we’re reading on the surface, we want to know why. Wedding parties in the ancient middle east usually lasted seven days. Running out of wine would mean a loss of honor for the hosts. It would be a failure of hospitality, and it might indicate that the family was short on friends. Usually friends and extended family would send the family gifts of things like wine that would help them with the party. If they’ve run out, it might mean they don’t have many friends. But if we’re reading below the surface, we would ask different questions. We would want to know what wine symbolizes. Does this have something to do with communion? Are we supposed to be reminded of Jesus’s blood? Probably.

Next we have that very strange interaction between Jesus and his mother. She tells him the wine has run out. He, very snippily says, “Woman, what does that have to do with you and me? My hour hasn’t come yet.” And then she tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you to do.” What is going on there? If we’re reading on the surface, we want to know about the relationship between Jesus and his mother. Why are they talking to each other this way? Is Jesus being rude? Is Mary being nosy? Are they just engaging in some kind of silly, familial banter? But if we’re trying to read below the surface, we are drawn to a very different question. What does it mean that Jesus hour has not yet come? Is he talking about his crucifixion and resurrection? We’ve had lots of signs so far that he might be. What is John trying to say here about Jesus’s identity, about his glory and his role as Son of God and savior?

Then we move to the six giant stone jars that are used for the Jewish purification ritual. Again, if we’re reading on the level of the narrative, we want to understand the hard details. That’s a lot of stone jars. Usually a family would only have one. Have they borrowed from their neighbors? And that’s an awful lot of water that they hold. When Jesus turns it into wine, how much wine are we talking about? I did the calculations. In standard 750 ml wine bottles, it would be between 640 and 800 bottles of wine. That’s quite a lot. But if we’re trying to read on the metaphorical level, we don’t care about those hard details. What we want to know is how the stone jars function symbolically. Is there some connection to baptism? Or is John going to use these stone jars to make some kind of comparison between Jesus and the Jewish tradition that he comes from? Probably.

Then Jesus tells the servants to fill the jars with water and to take some to the head waiter. And the headwaiter doesn’t know where the water that has turned to wine came from, but the servants do know. If we are reading on the surface, we might think, didn’t that take an awfully long time for the servants to fill the jars with water? How could the head waiter not have noticed that? How exactly does Jesus turn the water into wine? Does it happen in the jars? Does it happen as the water is dipped out of the jars? But if we are trying to read below the surface, then differ details seem important. John is talking about insiders and outsiders. There are some people who understand, and there are other people who don’t understand. Maybe John is warning us not to stay on the surface. Maybe John is telling us that we need to read below the surface. Because we don’t want to be like the head waiter who doesn’t understand what’s really going on. We want to be like Mary and the servants who know exactly what’s going on. We want to know the hidden meaning. Is John trying to give us a wink and say, “If you’re reading below the surface, then you’re understanding my hidden meaning”?

Then we get the reaction of the head waiter, as he calls the groom over and says, “Everyone serves the good wine first. They bring out the inferior wine only when the guests are good and drunk. You kept the good wine until now.” If we’re reading on the surface, we might think, hey, that’s kind of cool. Jesus can make really good wine. Of course he can. He’s really powerful. And he also seems to like a good party. But if we’re trying to read below the surface, we want to know how the wine functions symbolically. Is John trying to compare Jesus with Judaism? Is he saying that Jesus’s wine of the new covenant is better than the rituals of the old covenant? Again, are we talking about Jesus’s blood, is this supposed to be connected with Jesus glorified on the cross?

Finally, we get a closing note from the narrator: “This was the first miraculous sign that Jesus did in Cana of Galilee. He revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” If we’re reading on the surface, this part is a little confusing. Sure, Jesus turned water into wine. That’s a cool trick. But did he really reveal his glory? That seems like a little much. But if we’re reading below the surface, this is where the story really makes sense. Yes, this is primarily a symbolic sign. It is the way that Jesus begins to reveal his glory. His real hour hasn’t come yet, when he will be lifted up on the cross and truly reveal his glory. But here in this sign we have all of the right pieces. We have the third day, that reminds us of Jesus’s death and resurrection. We have allusions to the last supper and to Jesus being lifted up on the cross. This sign tells us about Jesus’s identity. He is the creator and savior of the world. This sign reveals it. But only to the insiders, only to those who understand the secret signs.

So there you have it. Just one story, but two very different ways of understanding it. They almost  aren’t even the same story anymore. One story is about a wedding, and a work of power that changed water into wine. The other one is about Jesus’s glory, his self-revelation as the Incarnate Word of God, and divisions between those who understand and those who don’t.

I will be honest with you. I struggle with John. The Wedding at Cana is a really familiar story. But in seventeen years of study and ministry, I have never preached it, led a study on it, or written a paper on it before today. And it’s not just this particular story. I tend to avoid John in general. I have a hard time with it. It seems to me like Jesus is always running around, acting like a jerk, and constantly saying, “I’m the Son of God!”

I know that there are supposed to be levels of meaning in John, and I struggle with both of them. This story is no different. Take it on the surface level first. Sure, Jesus shows his power, but to what end? It’s not like he’s healing someone or doing something else to eliminate suffering. He’s basically showing up at the end of a party with six extra kegs. If we try to find meaning in this story on the surface level, we end up talking about weddings or wine at communion. At just about every Christian wedding you’ll hear some reference to this story. Jesus graced the wedding at Cana with his presence. It’s because Jesus ever actually says anything positive about marriage. It’s surprising to think about, but it’s true. In all four gospels, Jesus doesn’t ever suggest that people should get married. But remember, he did go to that wedding that one time. That’s something, isn’t it? It seems a bit silly to me.

Or we could talk about communion. Jesus turned water into wine, so we know he drank wine. But when Methodists and other prohibitionists argued against using wine in communion, they came to this story for justification. They were worried about the scourges of rampant alcoholism. So they cleverly argued that since Jesus turned water into wine, there’s no reason that water could not be used instead of wine in communion. They just reversed the process. Eventually a Methodist dentist and preacher applied the theories of Louis Pasteur to the vineyard and invented grape juice as a substitute for sacramental wine. That Methodist pioneer: Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch. In any case, that also seems to me like kind of a silly use for this bible story.

So what about the deeper, under the surface, symbolic meaning. Well, in that case, this story is all about Jesus’s glory. At the beginning of John, Jesus is introduced as the Word of God, that was there in the beginning, and created the universe, and then took on human form in Jesus. At the end of John, Jesus is crucified, but it has nothing to do with suffering. For John, Jesus’s crucifixion is like a coronation. He is lifted up with a crown and a purple robe. He reveals his glory. Here, early in the story, Jesus gives a first glimpse of that glory. The water turned to wine is a secret sign, that only some can see, that reveals Jesus to be the creator and savior of the world, nothing less than God, the only way to God, superior to all other revelations of God.

And I can see how that message could be very important. Especially thinking about when John is writing. The church is a relatively small sect, spread out across the empire. They are often the target of vicious persecution. They are seen as deviants and traitors. But John and his church know a secret. They know something the rest of the world can’t see. They know that Jesus wasn’t a failed Messiah who was executed on a Roman cross. They know that Jesus was actually the creator the world, the Son of God, actually and truly God, the only way to God. They know a secret that even though they are persecuted outcasts, in reality they are the only ones who have access to God. Everyone else is doomed to hell.

And that makes me uncomfortable. And it’s one thing to say that when the church is small and persecuted. It’s another thing to say it when the church is big and powerful. When Christian society became dominant, Christians started to become the persecutors. And Christians have been responsible for some great atrocities, often justifying themselves by saying that Christ is superior to all others, so Christians can treat all others however they please. And that causes me great concern. I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, the source of wisdom and truth. And at the very same moment, it makes me uncomfortable, because I do not want to stumble into a Christian arrogance in which I devalue the lives of those who aren’t Christian.

Maybe some of you struggle with the same kinds of questions. And probably some of you think that I’ve gotten it all wrong. And probably I have. I have a tendency to look right past much of the beauty in the Bible because I’m busy investigating the minutia.

But I’ll tell you this: I think the Bible is worthy of our struggle. Luther and the other reformers taught us that the Bible is open to the interpretation of every Christian believer, that we are all meant to read it and think about it for ourselves. And that means that sometimes we won’t understand it. And sometimes parts of it will make us uncomfortable. And sometimes we will struggle with how to make sense of the contradictions that we find there. But it is worthy of our struggle.

And Jesus is worthy of our worship and discipleship. The one who offers us adoption into God’s family through the ordinary element of water, the mystery of baptism. The one who offers us grace and forgiveness, his very body and blood, through the ordinary elements of bread and wine, the mystery of the eucharist. The one who reveals the glory of God in the ordinary elements of a human life, the mystery of the incarnation.

John is right. Things are not always as they seem. It is often in the ordinary things that God’s extraordinary glory is revealed. May God grant us all the eyes of faith, so that, like those servants at the wedding in Cana, we may see the glory of our Lord, hidden in plain sight, all around us, just waiting to be revealed.