Sermon: Widow’s Mite, Widow’s Might

Sunday 11 November 2018
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 32B

Mark 12:38-441 Kings 17:8-16

It’s a fairly well-known story. Jesus is in Jerusalem with his disciples. It’s the week leading up to the crucifixion. They are in the temple courtyard, watching as people bring their offerings for the temple treasury. There are plenty of flashy givers around. But there are no debit cards, no checks, and no paper money, so you can hear the sound of each and every coin as it’s put in. Some of the bigger givers are making a show of their offerings. Some must have been a bit more humble, but one could hardly avoid attracting attention with a particularly large gift.

Ancient Judea was what we call an honor-shame society. Someone’s standing in the community was based on the amount of honor they were perceived to have. Honor could be based on the family you came from, your gender, your class, your ethnicity, your generosity in public, whether you were known to be honest and fair, how much power you wielded in society. Honor could be gained or lost. Honorable actions or circumstances increased your honor. Shameful actions or circumstances decreased your honor.

It’s not how our society tends to function these days, but there is one good modern example of honor-shame dynamics. Online, multiuser commercial communities have an honor-shame system. Airbnb, Uber, eBay. These are markets in which individual sellers and buyers, who don’t know each other personally, have to be able to trust each other in order to do business together. How do I know that it’s safe to stay at this particular Airbnb or ride in this particular Uber car or buy from this particular eBay seller. I know because of their rating. After every previous transaction, they get a rating from the person they did business with. And good ratings accrue as honor. If someone has a 4.9 star rating based on over 1000 different transactions, then I can be pretty sure that they are safe to deal with. They have great honor in their particular society. If someone has low ratings, I might be more apprehensive to work with them. Or if they are a new provider and have no ratings, I might not want to take the risk.

But these ratings are not based on any kind of objective test. They are just based on other people’s impressions. And people’s impressions include their implicit biases. Studies clearly show that  ratings and service are effected by a person’s race and gender. If you are black, it will be harder to get a ride on Uber than if you are white, and you will likely have to wait longer and have a higher chance of being cancelled on. Though I should note, racial discrimination on ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft is much less pronounced than racial discrimination in the taxi industry. Honor and shame are based on more than one’s competence and ability, though. They are effected by all of the factors that influence how we understand and classify other people.

When people are gathering around the temple to bring their offerings, everyone is aware of all of the markers of honor and shame. Those wealthy worshipers who come and bring large gifts: they would likely have exceptional honor in the community. Others would notice when they came by. They might have various clients and retainers following them around, attesting to their impact and influence in the community. Everyone would know that they were people worth looking up to. They would be the ones drawing attention, drawing admiration.

But Jesus notices someone else entirely, someone who was generally unnoticeable. A poor widow. Widows are a particular type of character in the bible. When a biblical writer wants to talk about people who are vulnerable and marginal, people existing right on the edge of survival, they talk about widows and orphans. What both widows and orphans lack is a male protector. They meant that they had no means of support and also no one to protect them from physical and legal threats. It is almost unnecessary to indicate that she is poor. Simply saying that she is a widow implies that she must be poor.

This didn’t necessarily mean that she would be reviled. A widow was not shameful in that way. She simply would have been invisible, the kind of person you might avoid making eye contact with. She could have walked through that courtyard and dropped her two, small copper coins in the collection bin without anyone taking notice at all or remembering that she had been there.

But Jesus notices her, an unnoticeable woman. He doesn’t just notice her, though, he praises her. He says that she has given the greatest gift. He ascribes honor to her. She would have had no honor. She is an unnoticed, poor widow. But Jesus, completely counterintuitively, says that in God’s eyes she has more honor than anyone else gathered there. Completely unthinkable, boggling.

That’s not so hard to understand. Two pennies don’t get your name on a memorial plaque, do they. Two pennies don’t get your name on a college building. Two pennies don’t make you a philanthropist. In order to have that kind of honor, in order to have that kind of prestige, you have to give monumental amounts of money.

Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Bill and Melinda Gates. One doesn’t get a reputation like that with small donations. Bill and Melinda Gates have given $27 billion to charitable causes, making them by some accounts the most generous people alive. But of course, they still have $84 billion to keep them comfortable. Perhaps instead we should look to Chuck Feeney. He has given away only $6.3 billion, but, on the other hand, he has only $1.5 million for himself. His charitable gifts are 420,000% of his net worth.1 According to one Forbes article, “no one at his wealth level has ever given their fortune away so completely during their lifetime.”2 Perhaps we should consider him to be the most generous person alive.

But you will never find an article in Forbes profiling a poor widow who donates two pennies to her local church. No one would even consider such a thing. The church that accepted that donation probably wouldn’t even record such an offering, it’s so small.

And yet Jesus says that her small gift is worth more than the gifts of Bill Gates or Chuck Feeney. Her gift is bigger because, “All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.” She has a tremendous faith in God that allows her to give everything she has even when she doesn’t no where her next meal is coming from.

We have similar story in the lesson from 1 Kings this morning. We have another widow, with only enough flour to make a last meal for her son and herself before they die. But she has the incredible faith to instead make bread for the prophet Elijah when he asks, even when she has nothing left to live on.

And here is the point in the sermon when I’m supposed to make a stewardship appeal. This is when I’m supposed to encourage you to have faith like the widow, to make a sacrificial donation, to give until it hurts. If you have enough faith, then you won’t worry where your next meal is coming from. If you just give all you have to the church, then God will give you a blessing. You’ve heard that sermon before, haven’t you? I know I have.

But that’s not what I’m going to do this morning. Instead, I want to go back to the first half the gospel lesson this morning, the part we haven’t talked about yet.

Jesus says, “Watch out for the scholars. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.” In other words, Jesus warns you not to trust people like me. Beware of those scribes, those scholars who are the keepers of the biblical text. They love to wear long robes. They like to be recognized in the community. They pray wordy prayers. That is a description of a clergy person that is surprisingly accurate even today.

But none of that is the most important warning that Jesus has for the people. What is more important is that scribes are the ones who devour widow’s houses. In other words, they cheat the most vulnerable out of their livelihoods. Watch out, Jesus says. Don’t trust them.

Right here in the same passage we have praise of sacrificial giving and a warning against those who call for sacrificial giving. What about that widow at the temple? Are we supposed to imagine that she is among those being cheated out of their houses? What else can be happening if she is giving everything she has to live on? Is she someone we should emulate? Or is she someone we should pity? Or is she someone we should protect?

The bible does call for generosity. Jesus, in particular, calls for extreme generosity. He says, “No one can be my disciple unless they give up everything they own” (Luke 14:33). But at the same time, Jesus calls for the poor to be lifted up out of poverty. He does not want people to live in destitution. Yet here he praises an already poor widow who gives her last pennies to a bloated religious institution. What are we supposed to do with that?

Well, we have to hold a few different things in tension. Jesus does call for a faith that is stronger than fear, a faith that is willing to give even to the degree that it radically changes someone’s economic circumstances. And it is incumbent upon every follower of Jesus to consider Jesus’s call for radical generosity. At the same time, Jesus calls for the poor to be lifted out of poverty. At the same time, Jesus warns against those religious figures who exploit the poor and take their last penny in order to support the institution. At the same time Jesus praises the widow who in her poverty gives everything.

And yet, those can all be true at the same time. Jesus does call on all, especially those of means, to display a radical generosity, and at the same time he can say that the most generous philanthropist is not as generous as a poor widow. They deserve no extra praise for their large sums of money, because the poor widow’s mite was more dearly given. And Jesus can admire the might of the widow’s gift while still warning against the leader who would accept such a gift. It is often true that the poor are more generous than the rich, more willing to share from their meager means than the rich are willing to share from their abundance. And it is right that Jesus honors that generosity. But it would also be wrong to exploit that generosity.

I don’t know what your giving habits are. Some pastors do keep track of such things, but I don’t. I don’t know how much you give to the church, and I certainly don’t know how much you give to other charities and causes. Giving is an important part of every Christian’s spiritual life. We each have a God-given need to give. And those of us who are blessed with more are called to give more. To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48). But it shouldn’t be grounds for boasting. Having more money to give does not make you more worthy in God’s eyes. Jesus says that the tiniest gift of a poor person is more praiseworthy.

We each have our gifts to give. And it can be hard to recognize true generosity when we see it. But God recognizes it. God sees the widow’s mite and knows that it is a mighty gift. And sees your gifts, even if no one else notices. God sees your gifts, even if they seem insignificant to others. God sees. So let us give as we called, remembering that the largest gift is not always the mightiest gift.

Sermon: Now My Eyes Have Seen

Sunday 28 October 2018
Reformation Sunday, The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 30B

Job 38:1-17, 34-41. Job 42:1-6

During the month of October, the lectionary has been following the Book of Job. We haven’t heard any of it until today. We usually read three of the four lectionary lessons in worship, and this month Job has gotten the short end of the stick. So we’re making up for it today by reading two of them together.

The story of Job is ancient, a story that was likely shared among many of the peoples of the ancient near east, not just Jews. It is set, so far as we can tell, from a time even before Abraham and Sarah, from a time when Satan was still a part of God’s court. Satan believes he can convince God that humans are faithless. He makes a wager with God that even the most faithful person would lose faith if they endured enough suffering.

The most faithful person on earth is Job, and he is allowed to endure all kinds of hardship. At the beginning of the story, he seems very blessed, with seven sons, three daughters, 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 1000 oxen, 500 donkeys, and many servants. He is the richest person around.

But through a series of very unfortunate events, he loses it all. Job’s oxen and donkeys are taken by the Sabeans, a meteor kills all of his sheep, the Babylonians take all of his camels, and all but four of his servants are killed. At the same time, a wind storm comes and knocks down the house killing all of his children. But Job does not lose his faith; he does not curse God. Then Job becomes very ill, and his body becomes covered with sores. But he does not lose faith. His wife encourages him to commit suicide, but he does not.

Most of the book of Job is taken up with a conversation between Job and three of his friends. The friends try to convince him that God must be angry with him. He must have done something in order to have brought so much suffering on himself. God must be punishing him for something. If he would only admit his faults and ask God for forgiveness, then God would forgive him and things would get better. Or they encourage him to curse God for everything that has happened to him. But he won’t. He insists that he hasn’t done anything that would warrant the kind of suffering he has endured. He is not being punished by God, and he will not curse God. He wails. He laments. He asks God over and over why? Why? Why? But for a very long time, there is no answer.

And that is the same question we often ask of God. Why? And I’d like to talk about four different why’s today. The first is, why doesn’t life seem to be fair? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do cruel people prosper while right-living people endure hardship?

If we are good, if we treat others with respect and compassion, wouldn’t it make sense for God to reward us? If we go to all of the trouble to follow God’s commandments, shouldn’t we get something for it? Shouldn’t we experience a blessing that it is proportion to our faithfulness?

That mindset leads to something we call the Prosperity Gospel. It’s fairly popular right now in America, and among the televangelists. If you have faith, if you put your trust in God, if you give money to the right ministries, then God will bless you with material possessions.  Christians are entitled to well-being, and since physical and spiritual realities are inseparable, Christians are entitled to both physical health and economic prosperity. Christians have been given power over creation because we are made in the image of God. We can exercise dominion over our souls and over the material objects around us. The power of the atonement can destroy sickness, poverty, and spiritual corruption. If we just have faith, God will give us not just everything we need, but everything we want as well. Conspicuous consumption is a sign of God’s blessing.

Of course, that’s not how things work, is it? Faithful people don’t always become rich. Not all rich people are faithful. But it is a common impulse to think that it’s true, that a powerful faith is reward with worldly blessings. We ask the question: why isn’t life fair?

Which leads to the second why: Why is God punishing me? If I am experiencing some kind of hardship, it must be because I did something wrong. It must be because I didn’t pray enough, I wasn’t faithful enough. It must be because there is something wrong with me. It must be because God is punishing me. This is what Job’s friends think. Bad things don’t happen to good people. So if bad things are happening, you must be doing something wrong. 

But that isn’t how it works, either. When someone experiences a tragedy, it’s not because they did something wrong and God is punishing them. When a fire, or a hurricane, or a tsunami destroys a city, it’s not because that is a particularly sinful city. When someone contracts a terminal illness, it’s not because that person is sinful. Sure, sometimes bad things happen to us that are a natural consequence of something we’ve done, but not always. Sometimes tragedies happen. Sometimes terrible things happen to you that you did nothing to invite and there is nothing you could have done to avoid them. Why is God punishing me? Maybe God isn’t.

The third why: Why does God let evil things happen? If God is good, then why is there evil? If God really were good, then God wouldn’t let evil happen.

This is one of the harder questions, isn’t it? Especially in a week like this week, when we live in the wake of terrorism. Eleven people gunned down during worship at Tree of Life Synagogue outside Pittsburg, the deadliest attack ever on Jews in the US. The terrorist blamed Jews with helping the migrant caravan coming from Central America. Before that, 14 bombs sent in the mail to two former presidents and other politicians, activists, and government officials. This terrorist apparently acted out of a desire to advance his political beliefs. Fortunately, police and security personnel acted swiftly and no one was injured. But both of these are real terrorist attacks, right here in America, committed by Americans against other Americans. Why? Why poverty? Why war? Why violence? Why does God allow evil if God is supposed to be good?

Which brings us to the fourth and final why: Why does God seem so far away? Why doesn’t God answer me? I pray, and I ask God. And I don’t hear anything in response. Or maybe I am so frustrated and disappointed with God that I. Don’t even want to try. Why has God abandoned me? Why isn’t God listening? Why doesn’t God answer me?

This is what Job asks. And for a very, very long time, there is no answer.

There is no answer until chapter 38 when God appears in person to Job, speaking to him from a whirlwind. That’s where we picked up in our reading of the story today. God shows up and basically tells Job, “Who do you think you are?” It goes on for three chapters, pointing out how small Job is in comparison to God. “Have you surveyed earth’s expanses? Tell me if you know everything about it. Where’s the road to the place where light dwells; darkness, where is it located? Can you take it to its territory; do you know the paths to its house? Have you gone to snow’s storehouses, seen the storerooms of hail? Can you guide the stars at their proper times, lead the Bear with her cubs? Do you know heaven’s laws. or can you impose its rule on earth? Will the ox agree to be your slave, or will it spend the night in your crib? Can you bind it with a rope to a plowed row; will it plow the valley behind you? Did you give strength to the horse, clothe his neck with a mane, cause him to leap like a locust, his majestic snorting, a fright? Can you draw out Leviathan with a hook, restrain his tongue with a rope?”

It’s really quite unsettling. Here Job has been pouring his heart out, and when God shows up, it is as if his concerns aren’t taken seriously. Who are you to question me and my wisdom?

When God finally finishes the rant and calms down, it is Job’s turn to respond. At first he is speechless. He is overcome with awe for God, and he tries to get away without answering God. “Look, I’m of little worth. What can I answer you? I’ll put my hand over my mouth. I have spoken once, I won’t answer; twice, I won’t do it again.” But God won’t accept that answer. The whole argument gets wound up again.

Finally Job answers, “I am convinced: You can do anything and everything. Nothing and no one can upset your plans. You asked, ‘Who is this muddying the water, ignorantly confusing the issue, second-guessing my purposes? I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me, made small talk about wonders far over my head.” Job is overcome with amazement and wonder.

He says something very interesting. “My ears had heard about you, but now my eyes have seen you.” I used to just know by word of mouth, from what someone else told me about you. But now I have had an actual experience of you. Now I have seen.

It amazing how much of a difference that can make. It doesn’t always come when we want it, but when it does come, it can be incredibly powerful. When you have that sense that you really have caught a glimpse of God, that you have heard a word from God, that you have felt, deep in your soul, the presence of God. Just that presence makes a difference, the sense that whatever I am facing, I am not facing it alone, because God is here with me.

And we never do face it alone. Wherever we go, whatever we do, no matter what trial we may be facing, we don’t face it alone.

The last line from today’s text is a very hard one. It is notoriously difficult to translate. The NRSV says “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job seems to shrivel up in self-loathing. But it can just as easily be translated, “Therefore I relent and find comfort in dust and ashes.” In this case, Job gives up his angst and finds peace in his lament. He is comforted in knowing that even in his grief, even in his dust and ashes, God is there, close by, never farther away than his own breath.

Job doesn’t get answers to all of his questions. But he is vindicated by God. God confirms that Job spoke the truth. Job wasn’t being punished. That’s not how God works.

Why isn’t life fair? Why is God punishing me? Why does a good God allow evil? Why does God seem so far away? There aren’t easy answers. There is a great deal of mystery. God’s universe is a very big and very complicated place, and God created it with lots of room for human will and independent action. God is not a puppeteer. God is not vindictive. And while there is evil in the world, God is always there in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the trouble. God is there with comfort. God is there with transformation. God is there with hope.

Notes-N-News

Good morning! This Sunday is Reformation Day: wear red, if you like! During service we will get to enjoy our choir and a voice solo by Victoria Hustman.

Weekly Reflection Hebrews 5:2 Is there a wound or weakness in your past that gives you special insight into the hurt and struggle of others?

Worship Duties
Usher/Greeter- Donna & Scott Fitch
Reader- Pat Pettit
Coffee Hour- Dottie Gilbertson & Bette Lou Yenne

If you would like to help with November Coffee Hour, the sign up is on the bulletin board.

++ So you didn’t win the billion-dollar lottery?! Try and win the next best thing: the Golden Spatula for the 2018 Chili Cook-Off!
When: This Saturday October 27 @ 5pm in the FISH Community Room. Cost: $5 to enter your chili + a goodwill offering to eat!
The church board will supply cornbread and fixings. Money collected will go into our scholarship fund for graduating seniors. We’ll also have games and fun for all ages.

++ Warming Shelter Training Tonight from 6-8pm at Riverside Community Church in Hood River.

++ Our Fellowship Hall is now under construction! The front entrance is also closed as framing work has begun on the new offices. Any groups needing to use the FISH Community Room for meetings has to reserve the room with Jennifer in the office, as the room is booked with several groups throughout the week. The meeting room is also available in the church office. Happy Hands: I already have you scheduled for Mondays in the community room.

Sermon: The Order of Melchizedek

Sunday 21 October 2018
The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 29B

Hebrews 5:1-10

Last week I mentioned that Hebrews is erroneously labeled in some Bibles as Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews. However, it is not written by Paul. It’s an anonymous work and no one really has a clue who wrote it. It’s not an epistle, either, which is just a funny word for a letter. And, since it’s not really a letter, it’s not addressed to the Hebrews either, whoever they might be. Instead, it’s a sort of theological treatise, with no particular known audience, and no known author. In this sense, it is unique among the books of the New Testament.

In addition to that, Hebrews is fairly unique in terms of its content. It is the only book of the New Testament to refer to Jesus as a priest, more specifically as a high priest. Hebrews goes on for several chapters talking about Jesus as a high priest. And since this is a rather unusual way to talk about Jesus, perhaps we should take a few minutes to explore that image further.

In ancient Israelite religious practice, priests served in the temple, offering the sacrifices of the people to God. By tradition, they were all descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses, or at least of his ancestor, Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob. You might remember that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was a priest who was serving in the temple when he received a revelation about the birth of his prophetic son.

First among these priests was a high priest, which traditionally was also a hereditary position. In addition to being in charge of the temple and the other priests, the high priest had a very special duty to perform. Once a year, and only once a year, the high priest performed a very special sacrifice.

The temple was divided into sections that became increasingly more holy and more restrictive as one got closer to the center. There was an outer courtyard where anyone could come. This is where the moneychangers were, and the people who sold animals for the sacrifices. The next level was the court of the women. No gentiles could enter here, but any Israelite women or men could. Next was the court of the Israelites. Women could not go into this section. Then there was another area where one had to be at least a Levite to enter. Then an area where only Aaronic priests could enter.

The innermost sanctum of the temple was the Holy of Holies. That’s where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. It was supposed to be the dwelling place of God on earth, the footstool of God’s heavenly throne. The earthly temple was thought to be a copy of the real temple in heaven. The holy of holies is where those two temples met, with God seated in the heavenly temple and God’s feet resting in the earthly temple.

Only the high priest could enter into the Holy of Holies, and then only once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. When it was time, he would dress in special priestly garments and perform special cleansing rituals to get ready. The other priests would tie a rope around his ankle, and he would enter into the most sacred place on earth. There, he would offer special blood sacrifices for the sins of the people. The rope was on his ankle in case he died while he was in there. No one would be able to go in after him. They’d have to drag him out with the rope.

By the time that the Book of Hebrews was written, there was no temple in Jerusalem. It had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, by armies led by the new Emperor Vespasian and his son, the future Emperor Titus. They conquered Jerusalem, leveled the temple, and took it’s treasures away to Rome, installing them in the new pagan Temple of Peace. They issued coins celebrating the destruction of Jerusalem and the pillaging of the temple. They also ruled that they would never allow the temple to be rebuilt. Without a temple, there were no sacrifices. And without sacrifices, there was no way to atone for the sins of the people. There was no Holy of Holies, and no high priest to enter it once a year, on behalf of the people of Israel, to make a sacrifice for the atonement of their sins.

It’s strange for us to think about. We don’t live in a culture that practices blood sacrifice. But in the ancient world, every religious tradition practiced blood sacrifice, including God’s chosen people, the Judeans. Everyone thought that the gods required animal sacrifices, including sacrifices of blood, in order to keep humanity on their side. That’s why it was such a big deal that the Romans forbade the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple. It meant that Jews would never have any means of getting right with God. Without a temple, without sacrifices, without a high priest, there could be no forgiveness of sins, and the sins of the people would just keep piling up, bringing down curses on them. It was a huge theological crisis. How could God’s people worship God without the temple? How could the people get right with God?

This is the question that the Book of Hebrews seeks to answer. And the answer that it proposes is a new high priest: Jesus. Jesus becomes the high priest for all of humanity. Through his death, Jesus passes into the heavens, into the heavenly temple. And there, carrying his own blood with him, he goes into the inner sanctum of the heavenly temple, the Holy of Holies, the throne room of God, and offers his own blood, a perfect sacrifice, for the sins of the entire world. There might not be a temple on earth in which to offer sacrifices, but there is still a perfect temple in heaven. And there may not be a high priest in Jerusalem to offer that sacrifice, but there is a perfect high priest, Jesus Christ, who can enter into the heavenly sanctuary to offer a sacrifice, once and for all, for the forgiveness of the world.

Now, Jesus wasn’t a priest in his earthly life. He wasn’t even born of a priestly family. But Hebrews insists that he is a priest; he is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is only mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible. Back in Genesis, he is mentioned briefly in the Abram story. Melchizedek isn’t even an Israelite. He’s one of the Canaanites in the land. Specifically, he is the King of Salem, that is, Jerusalem, centuries before Jerusalem ever becomes an Israelite city. In addition to being king of the city, he is also a priest of the God of Salem, El Elyon, which translated means God Most High. So just to reiterate, Melchizedek is an ancient king and priest, he’s from Jerusalem, but from long before Jerusalem was a Jewish city, and it’s not even clear that he worships the same god that Abraham worships; he worships a god named El Elyon, God-Most-High.

After Abram has won a battle against several rival kings, this Melchizedek shows up and blesses Abram in the name of El Elyon. In response, Abram gives Melchizedek one-tenth of the booty that he has won in the battle, as an offering to El Elyon. Abram tithes his loot. And it is Melchizedek, the King and Priest of Salem, who offers that tithe to God on Abram’s behalf. Before Aaron, before Levi, before any Israelite priest, there is Melchizedek.

Melchizedek is mentioned one more time, in Psalm 110. The psalmist, who is presumably talking about the Messiah, records God saying, “You are a priest forever, according the order of Melchizedek.”

By the time Hebrews was written, Melchizedek had become a kind of mythical figure. Traditions had grown up around him, saying that he had no beginning and no end—that is to say, he had no parents and he did not die. And this is the figure with whom Hebrews identifies Jesus: Melchizedek, the King and Priest of Salem, one who has no beginning and no end, one who is a great high priest. King, priest, immortal.

Hebrews goes on to say that Jesus is even superior to the high priests of the old temple. After all, it argues, the high priests in the Jerusalem temple had to offer sacrifices for their own sins before they could offer sacrifices for the sins of the people. But Jesus was sinless. He didn’t need to atone for his own sins. This made him the perfect high priest, according to the order of Melchizedek, who alone could enter the perfect temple, and who alone could offer the perfect sacrifice, his own blood, for the forgiveness of the sins of the entire world.

This solves the theological problem of the loss of the temple. God’s people need no longer be afraid that sins are piling up with no means of atoning for them. The earthly temple has been destroyed by Rome, but the heavenly temple still stands tall, and Jesus has entered it to make the perfect sacrifice of atonement.

But it also spoke to another problem: the problem of Rome. Remember that Hebrews says that Jesus is like Melchizedek, the immortal and divine King and Priest of Salem. Well, there was someone else who could fit that description: the Roman Emperor. King was not his official title, but he was treated like a king. He was an autocrat. What’s more, he was a priest. He held the title pontifex maximus: high priest. And he was an immortal god. Like many other emperors before them, both Emperor Vespasian and Emperor Titus were deified after their death, and worshipped as gods. The emperor was even king and priest of Salem. Salem, salam, shalom—it means peace. After Vespasian conquered Jerusalem, he built a new Temple of Peace in Rome, and that’s where he put all of the treasures that he had stolen from the Jerusalem temple. He took the tithes they paid for the temple in Jerusalem and used them to build a pagan temple in Rome. He tried to obliterate every last reminder of God and God’s people and replace them with himself. Caesar would be their king. Caesar would be their high priest. The temples that they would use would be Caesar’s temples. Even the god they would worship would be Caesar. King, priest, temple, god: all of these were Caesar…

But the Book of Hebrews defies that narrative. They know that God’s temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed and there is unlikely to be another temple any time soon. They know that the religious treasures of the temple have been carted off to Rome to ornament the temple of a foreign god. They know that Emperor Vespasian intends to obliterate the Jewish people, to obliterate their temple, to obliterate their priesthood, to obliterate their city and transform it into a Roman colony, even to obliterate their God.

And Hebrews says, “No!” Despite all evidence to the contrary, our God lives. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we have a temple in heaven. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we have a great high priest who has made a perfect sacrifice for our sins. God has taken the ruins the Romans left in Jerusalem and transformed them into a perfect and eternal temple. God has taken a cross—a Roman instrument of execution—and transformed it into an alter. God has taken an executed criminal and transformed him into a perfect high priest who offers the perfect sacrifice of himself for all the world. This world does not belong to Caesar, it belongs to God. We do not belong to Caesar, we belong to God. Caesar is not our savior, our savior is the Lord Jesus Christ. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but remember that all things belong to God.

On the front of the bulletin, you can see an icon depicting Jesus as he is described here in the Book of Hebrews. Like Melchizedek, he is both priest and king. On the top of the image are Jesus’s initials: I-S, X-S, which stand for Jesus Christ.  To the left of his head, it says, ὁ Βασιλεύς τῶν Βασιλευόντων: which means, The King of Kings. On the right are the words, καί μέγας ἀρχιερεύς: which means, and the Great High Priest. He is dressed in the vestments of an Eastern Orthodox priest and wears the crown of a Byzantine emperor.

He is the King and Priest of Salem, the King and Priest of Peace, then, now, and forever, and his offering in the heavenly temple is once and for all, for the forgiveness of my sins, and your sins, and the sins of the entire world. Amen.

Sermon: Draw Near with Confidence

Sunday 14 October 2018
The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 28B

Hebrews 4:12-16

This week and next week, we’re going to be looking a little more closely at the readings from Hebrews. Just a little bit of background. This book is sometimes referred to as Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews. However, it definitely isn’t written by Paul, it is not an epistle, and it isn’t addressed to the Hebrews. It is written by an anonymous author, it seems to be roughly in the form of a long sermon, and it never explicitly says who it might be addressed to. It’s kind of it’s own thing.

And the theology in Hebrews is unlike any other book that we have in the New Testament. There is nowhere else that Jesus is ever described as a priest, but in Hebrews, the main image used for Jesus is that of priest. When Hebrews talks about a great high priest, it’s talking about Jesus.

But before we explore that idea more, let’s get to the beginning of the passage that we read this morning. “God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow.” Sometimes this passage is read as something very fearsome. God confronts us with a sword, an instrument of war and death, and tool of dismemberment. The judgement of God’s word cuts deep into us, leaving us utterly powerless, completely exposed.

But the word used for sword here, μαχαιραν, doesn’t necessarily mean sword. It can be used for any kind of dagger or knife. In fact, when it is used to describe a sword, it almost always refers to a single-edged sword, a sword that is used for slashing, rather than a sword that is used for stabbing. More likely we’re talking about some kind of knife.

Which for some reason makes me think of an infomercial. “And just check out the unparalleled sharpness of the Logoblade. It cuts through meat. It cuts through vegetables. It even cuts through this coffee can and still stays sharp. And it’s so precise, it can even separate joints from marrow. It can even separate soul from spirit. Order now while supplies last.”

But it’s the word of God we’re talking about here. What is that supposed to mean that the word of God is like a sharp knife that divides soul from spirit, divides joint from marrow? The following verse helps. “It is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart. No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we give an answer.”

This two-sided blade, this word of God is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It is able to lay things bare. Which is all the more reason to think that we are not talking about a sword here. What we are talking about is a scalpel. Archeologists have discovered scalpels from this period. Surgical tools with a handle in the middle and a blade on each side, a bit like a modern dental tool with a different hook on each side, to be used for different applications.

The word of God is a scalpel. It is so sharp it can divide joint from marrow. It lays things bare. It pierces straight to the heart, separates the soul from the spirit, separates life from breath. It exposes our true self, leaves nothing hidden, puts our deepest secrets on full display.

It is the word of God that does this. It is the word of God that lays us bare. The word of God both as we read it in the bible, but also as we experience it in the proclamation of the community.

In Lutheran theology, we use two words to talk about the function of scripture: law and gospel. Sometimes people use law and gospel to distinguish between the Old Testament and the New Testament, but that’s an oversimplification. The Old Testament contains both law and gospel. The New Testament contains both law and gospel.

The law is rules, guidelines, commandments, instructions for how to live. Law shows us the ways of God. It gives us a framework for how to live a holy life. And it tends to operate on a few different levels. It often first works through fear. We receive commandments, we are afraid of God’s punishment, and that helps to keep us from evil actions. But that is only the most base function of the law. It can also work as a mirror. It allows us to compare our lives to the perfect standard of God. We can see exactly who we are, with all of our faults, failings, weaknesses, and wounds. In the traditional language, the law makes us aware of our own sin. It holds us up to the mirror so we can see ourselves as God sees us.

And it is in this second sense of the law that the word of God seems to be operating in this passage. The word of God, as we read it in the bible, as we proclaim it in preaching, as we experience it through our study together and through prophetic words, it cuts through our defenses, our disguises, right to the heart of the matter. It discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It leaves nothing hidden. It shows us exactly who we are, with our weakness and our wounds. It exposes us to God. It provides that mirror. It reveals our true selves.

But that is not all. It does not leave us exposed, humiliated, and hopeless. The word of God is not only law. It is also gospel. The gospel, the good news, is the promise of grace through Jesus Christ. It acknowledges that we do not meet God’s standard, but asserts that God’s law is overwhelmed by God’s grace. According to the law, we are convicted. According to the gospel, we are pardoned and liberated.

Here in Hebrews, the gospel message of grace comes in two forms. It comes most obviously in Jesus’s role as a cosmic high priest. God has raised up Jesus to act as a priest, a priest who is both priest and sacrifice. He offers his own blood for the redemption of the world. This act of extreme love gives us hope in God. Jesus knows our human condition because he became human himself, like us. And his sacrifice of love proves God’s grace for us, a grace that justifies us. We’ll explore this image of Jesus as high priest a bit more next week.

But there is also a second, less obvious way that the gospel of grace is present in this passage. And it’s back in the section with that double-edged blade. In the verses leading up to this section, the author has been talking about hardness of heart. A hardness of heart, a resistance to God, keeps us from responding to God’s call and bars us from accepting God’s grace. You might remember in the story of Moses that pharaoh suffers from a hardness of heart. Every time Moses asks him to let the Hebrew people go free, pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and he can’t respond to God’s movement. He says no to God, over and over, until it destroys him and his kingdom. It’s that kind of hardness of heart that effects us too, that makes us resistant God, unwilling to accept God’s movement in our lives.

But according to Hebrews, the blade of God’s word penetrates through to the heart. And it lays it bare. That is, it cuts away the hardness. God’s scalpel does not only expose, it also heals. It is not judgmental so much as it is therapeutic. It cuts away the hardness so that the heart can be responsive to God. It is, as Hebrews says, both living and effective. It is living, it brings life. It is effective, it cuts away our hardness of heart and opens us up to God.

The truth is, we all have parts of ourselves that we try to hide from the world. We have scar tissue built up around deep emotional wounds. Every mistake we have made, every poor choice, every person we have hurt, every resource we have wasted, every relationship we have harmed, every promise we have broken, every wrong we have done, and every good we have left undone. To protect ourselves, we try to keep them hidden. We try to lock them away. We try to make them disappear, but they don’t disappear. Our grief, our fear, our anxiety, our despair, our hopelessness, our anger, our wrath, our greed, our envy, our lust, our indifference… they don’t go away, even when we try to deny them, to hide them.

But we can’t hide them from God. God’s word pierces to the heart. It exposes the things we try to keep hidden. God sees every part of us. And seeing every part of us, even the ugly parts, God loves us. God forgives us. God embraces us, claims us, celebrates us. Even knowing the things we try to hide, God accepts us. The gospel of God’s grace is so profound that it cuts away any barrier we try to put between ourselves and God.

So profound is God’s acceptance of us, Hebrews says, that we don’t even need to fear entering the throne room of God, the holy of holies, the undefiled sanctuary. So profound is God’s acceptance of us that we can approach God’s throne, not with fear, not with uneasiness, not with anxiety—we can approach God’s throne with confidence. With confidence. So profound is God’s gospel of grace, that the law stops being an object of fear and becomes instead a focus for our love, a standard that we strain for, not out of fear of punishment, but out of love for God and God’s life-giving grace. We seek to be bound to God’s direction, because in being bound to God we are set free.

God’s word cuts straight to the heart, separating even soul from spirit, even life from breath. But it does not pierce us to wound. God’s word pierces us to heal, that being cured of our hardness of heart, we might be able to accept the full embrace of God’s love and grace. Thanks be to God.


 See: Gene R. Smillie, “Ὁ λογος του θεου in Hebrews 4:12-13,”  Novum Testamentum 46 (2004): 338-359.

Sermon: Queen Esther

Sunday 30 September 2018
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 26B

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

The story of Esther is one of my favorite bible stories. But it’s a bit hard to tell what’s going on when we only hear the short snippet of the story that was assigned for us this morning. So let’s give ourselves a little more context, tell a bit more of the story. I’m going to need your help. You see, the book of Esther tells the story of one of the greatest festivals in the Jewish calendar. It’s called Purim, and every year on the 14th of Adar, which is coming this year on the 20th of March, Jews all over the world gather together to hear the story of Esther read and acted out. It’s a real celebration, almost like Carnival, and the reading of the story requires raucous audience participation. When Melissa and I attended at a temple in Denver, they performed Esther as a musical, in the style of Grease. Unfortunately, today you’ll have to do with just me telling the story, but we can still have you involved with some audience participation.

So here is how it works. There are four main characters in the story: King Ahasuerus,  Mordecai, Queen Esther, and Haman. Whenever I mention King Ahasuerus, I’m going to need you to give me a trumpet fanfare, “Do-do-do doooo.” Alright, let’s practice. KING AHASUERUS. Good. And whenever I mention Mordecai, you say, “Mordecai, what a guy.” Alright. MORDECAI. Now, when I say Queen Esther, you cheer. Okay. ESTHER. And finally, the villain: Haman. When I mention Haman, you boo. Also, you might find a noisemaker of some kind at the end of your pew. So, when I say Haman, you say “Boooo!” and shake your noisemaker, or you stomp your feet, or you drum on a hymnal, because we need to drown out the sound of villain’s name. Ready? HAMAN. Great. Now here we go.

After the time that the Jews had been deported and spread all over the known world by the Babylonians, and after the Babylonians had been conquered by the Persians, there was a ruler of the Persian Empire named KING AHASUERUS. KING AHASUERUS was very powerful and very wealthy. He threw a huge party for all of his nobles that lasted 180 days. At the end, when he was good and drunk, KING AHASUERUS ordered Queen Vashti to leave the dinner she was hosting for the women and to come in to the men’s party and show off her beauty to his guests, but she refused. KING AHASUERUS was furious. He consulted with his advisers and decided to depose Queen Vashti and look for a new queen. They couldn’t have the women of the empire looking at Vashti’s example and thinking that they could disobey their husbands. That would cause the societal structure to fall apart. And so word went out to all the land that all the pretty young virgins should come to the palace to compete in Persia’s best new reality TV show, “Persia’s Next Top Royal,” and the best of the best would get a chance to be a part of the harem of KING AHASUERUS. So beautiful women from all over the empire came to compete, including a Jewish woman named ESTHER.

Now ESTHER was an orphan, and she had been adopted by her cousin, MORDECAI. MORDECAI signed her up for the competition, and ESTHER went off to harem boot camp for a whole year, preparing and making herself beautiful before she met KING AHASUERUS. When it came time for ESTHER to appear before KING AHASUERUS, she went, and he fell in love with her at first sight. KING AHASUERUS declared that ESTHER should be queen, and he put the royal crown on her head. But ESTHER never told anyone that she was a Jew, because her cousin MORDECAI had warned her not to.

Meanwhile, MORDECAI found out that two of the servants of KING AHASUERUS were plotting to kill KING AHASUERUS. MORDECAI reported the assassination plot to ESTHER, and ESTHER told KING AHASUERUS, and the police arrested the assassins before they were able to hurt KING AHASUERUS.

About that same time, KING AHASUERUS appointed a man named HAMAN to be his chief deputy. HAMAN was a very vain and power-hungry little man. Whenever HAMAN went out in public, he demanded that everyone bow down to him. And everyone did, because they were afraid of HAMAN and what he might do to them. Everyone, that is, except for MORDECAI.

When HAMAN noticed that MORDECAI wasn’t showing him the proper respect, he was infuriated, and he plotted how to get back at MORDECAI. HAMAN decided to convince KING AHASUERUS that the Jews, the people of MORDECAI, were a deviant people who didn’t follow the royal laws and needed to be exterminated. And HAMAN did just that. HAMAN sent letters out with the royal seal to every province that on a certain day, the 14th of Adar, every Jew in the world should be slaughtered.

When the Jews started to hear the news, they were terrified of HAMAN, and of his evil orders, and they began to fast and pray. MORDECAI also fasted and prayed, wearing sackcloth and ashes. He sent word to QUEEN ESTHER telling her about the news and asking her to convince KING AHASUERUS to rescind the order.

But ESTHER could not go, because no one was allowed to visit KING AHASUERUS unless they were invited by KING AHASUERUS, and ESTHER had not been invited in over a month. She prayed and fasted for three days. Then she put on her best royal robe, took a deep breath, and knocked on king’s door, knowing that it could mean her death.

But when KING AHASUERUS saw QUEEN ESTHER, he was happy to see her, and he promised to grant any wish that QUEEN ESTHER might ask of him. ESTHER invited KING AHASUERUS and HAMAN to come to a banquet that she would host. And they did.

Meanwhile, HAMAN was preparing for the execution of the Jews, and he constructed a gallows seventy feet high especially for the execution of MORDECAI.

At the end of the banquet, KING AHASUERUS again asked QUEEN ESTHER what wish she wanted him to grant. And again ESTHER invited KING AHASUERUS and HAMAN to another banquet the following night, and they agreed. After another sumptuous meal, KING AHASUERUS asked ESTHER a third time, “What do you want me to give you?”

That’s when ESTHER finally told him. “Give me my life,” she said “and the lives of my people. For this wicked HAMAN has plotted against us to kill us.” KING AHASUERUS was enraged, and he ordered that HAMAN be hanged on the same gallows that HAMAN had constructed for MORDECAI. KING AHASUERUS promoted MORDECAI to take the place of HAMAN as his chief deputy, and ESTHER and MORDECAI declared a day of celebration for all Jews everywhere, because the plot of HAMAN was turned against him. And MORDECAI and ESTHER and KING AHASUERUS lived happily ever after, because QUEEN ESTHER had the courage to speak out for what was right. THE END.

Definitely an interesting story, if a bit gruesome in places. It would be worth reading just for the entertainment value. And when you have time, you should definitely read the whole story; it takes less than an hour and is quite well written.

But what are we supposed to take from this story? What are we supposed to learn?

There are a lot of social things going on here. There is gender and sexual violence. The order that the king gave was for Queen Vashti to come and display her body before a room of drunken men. Her quiet act of refusal to be victimized is met with swift and extreme punishment. The king and his officials are concerned that if the women of the empire hear that Queen Vashti disobeyed the king, they will realize that they can disobey their men, and there will be an uprising. The presumption is that all women are absolutely subject to their men. We’ve certainly made some progress since then, but not enough.

There’s also race and religion in this story. When Mordecai snubs Haman, it’s not just him that get punished. A single failure of someone from a marginalized group means that an entire people are painted with the accusations of treason. Somehow the refusal of Mordecai to bow leads to an order for the genocide of all Jews.

There is certainly plenty in this story to make us think about the injustices in our own society. The way public anger is expected when it comes from men but punished when it comes from women. The ways that scandals are attributed only to the guilty person when they come from the dominant group, but when they come a marginalized group, the failure of one is treated as a failure in the entire race. There is the question of who gets to speak, and whose permission they have to get to do it. 

But there is also reason for hope in this story, in the person of Queen Esther. She comes from nothing. She is a Jew living as a refugee in a foreign land. She is an orphan. She doesn’t come from means. But by a stroke of fate, because of her good looks, she is placed in a position of great affluence. When the order comes down that her people are to be killed, she doesn’t have to do anything. No one knows that she’s a Jew. She can pass for Persian. She could live on just fine as the king’s favored wife. And if she does try to do something, she risks banishment or even death. Her predecessor was deposed for far less. Even though she is a queen, she is, in her culture, only a woman. She would have to defy both the powerful Haman and the all-powerful king if she were going to stand up for her people. It’s clear from the story that she doesn’t expect to be successful. She expects to be executed simply for disturbing the king’s privacy, let alone for questioning his decrees.

And yet, even knowing, even expecting death, she summons her courage, and she tells her story. She stands up for what is right. She pleads the case of her people—not for herself, she is safe from the execution order—but for her sisters and brothers. She lays aside her own safety, lays aside her own life, simply for a chance to save a people who have no voice, who have no advocate except for her.

That is the kind of self-sacrifice that we expect only from Jesus, who also laid aside his life for the chance to save a people with no voice. And it is an example to us. It is an example that even the most lowly, the most overlooked, have the power to make great change. And it is an example of how someone who has gained a certain standing, a certain power in society, can use their power, must use their power, not to advance their own cause, but to look out for the people who have been left behind. It is a story of tremendous courage, and it shows us a way to live. It shows us not to cling to the things that we have, to the status that we have, but to use our influence, to use our status to help those who don’t have it, and to be willing to give it up for the sake of others. As the words of Jesus tell us, “Humankind has no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Sermon: Servant of All

Sunday 23 September 2018
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25B

Mark 9:30-37

In last week’s gospel passage, we found Jesus struggling with his identity as God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah, God’s Christ. He knew that he was the Messiah. His disciples agreed that he was the Messiah. But they didn’t agree on what the Messiah was. Peter and the other disciples were expecting Jesus to be a warrior, an insurrectionist. They knew that he had been gathering larger and larger crowds. He had been cultivating support in all of the towns and villages around Galilee. They expected that once he had enough support, he would call his followers to rise up in rebellion against Rome, that they would free Israel from Roman rule, that Jesus would become the new king in Jerusalem and usher in a golden age for the Jewish people. That’s why they keep spreading the news about Jesus, so that his support will grow and he can accomplish his mission.

But that is not what Jesus has in mind at all. He has a very different understanding about who the Messiah is supposed to be. He knows that whatever he does, Rome is going to see him as a potential rebel leader. That’s why he tells his disciples to keep quite about him. The quicker his fame grows, the quicker Rome is going to decide that he is too dangerous to allow to live. And Jesus isn’t planning to fight back. He’s going to keep on preaching the revolutionary message of God’s Kingdom, but he’s not going to take up arms. When the authorities finally come for him, he will make no resistance. He will allow himself to be betrayed, captured, tortured, and killed. He will die a martyr’s death. But then, to the surprise of everyone, he will be raised, proving that his message is stronger than Rome. His message is even stronger than death.

Of course, this is all nonsense to Jesus’s disciples. They seem to really think that he has lost sight of God’s mission for him. Peter takes him aside to privately correct him, to make sure that he doesn’t forget that he is supposed to bring God’s justice by establishing God’s Kingdom here on earth. How can one do that without an army and some military victories.

“Enough with all this crazy suffering and dying talk, Jesus,” Peter says. “You’re scaring the crowds. You’ve got to pull yourself together and get on with the business of revolution.”

But Jesus will have none of it. And he utters those immortal words to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You have your eyes on worldly things, not Godly things.” And so now in today’s reading, when Jesus starts up on his suicidal tirade again, everyone is too afraid to call him out on his absurd ideas.

So if Jesus can’t figure out his proper place in the world, at least the disciples can try to figure out theirs. And so they spend their time walking along the road trying to sort out their pecking order. If Jesus isn’t going to step up, then someone has got to get this movement going, at least until he comes to his senses. And so they need to know who their leader is, and who will be second in command, and who will look after the money, who will be in charge of rounding up new recruits, who will handle publicity. It’s a very reasonable thing to do. If this movement is going to grow, it’s going to need organization, it’s going to need leadership. And so they very naturally discuss among themselves who is the greatest.

But when Jesus asks them what they’re talking about, they all know right away that he’s not going to approve. And sure enough, he doesn’t. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” This is not the news they want to hear. I mean it’s one thing if Jesus wants to be a self-effacing nut, but now he’s trying to turn the whole world upside down. Whoever wants to be first has to be last? What kind of sense does that make? These are blue collar working men. They’ve spent enough time being last; now it’s finally time to be first.

But Jesus really is turning the world upside down, and he proves it with what he does next. He takes a little child in his arms and gives them an object lesson. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not only me but the one who sent me.”

To us today, this story sounds sweet. It sounds touching. It inspires all kinds of soft-focus paintings hung in church nurseries and Precious Moments cartoons on the covers of children’s bibles. We love putting children at the center of attention. We love hearing all the cute things they say and watching all the endearing things they do. Look at Jesus and the little children. Aren’t they sooo cute. Like. Share.

It was quite different in the ancient world. Children really were at the bottom of society. The Greek word used here for “child” is the diminutive form of the word used for slave. And children were considered slaves until they became adults. Children were property. With infant mortality rates at 30% and only 4 in ten children surviving to age 16, it was best not to get too emotionally invested. Children, while important for ensuring the family legacy, were essentially disposable. No one would bother with welcoming a child, or accepting a child, or offering hospitality to a child. It was simply not the way of things. In order to understand the meaning, we might need to think of someone who is at the bottom of our society. Perhaps imagining Jesus encouraging us to welcome a homeless person or an illegal immigrant in his name.

Jesus really is turning the world upside down. He’s telling anyone who wants to be first that they have to be last. And he’s telling his followers that if they want to do a favor for him, the very Son of God, then they should try serving the people at the very bottom of society, the outcastes, the powerless. The powerful being brought down, the powerless being lifted up.

We are often quite good at twisting Jesus’s words, though. I can just imagine Jesus’s disciples turning to one another after Jesus has walked on, and saying, “Well you know, I really am the humblest one here.” I can’t help but think of Weird Al’s song, “Amish Paradise,” and the lyric, “Think you’re really righteous, think you’re pure in heart?  Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art.” We really like being better than our neighbors, and if that means fighting over who is the most humble, we certainly will not let irony get in our way.

But perhaps the worst way that this text has been twisted is by using it to convince the powerless that they should be satisfied with their lot in life. It’s precisely the opposite of what Jesus is trying to say, but still we have too often convinced the oppressed that if they want to be first in God’s Kingdom, then they should be quiet about what they have to endure here on earth. And then it is used as an excuse and a means to exploit vulnerable people even more. Women and people of color in our society have been especially targeted with this false message of false piety, and many have suffered abuse in silence for years because someone like me told them that it was their cross to bear. My sisters and brothers, that is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus encourages his followers to become servants, not slaves. In fact, the word Jesus uses, διακονος, is where we get our English word “deacon.” Jesus calls his followers into a sacred service, a service that does not seek glory or praise, but a service that does not countenance the continued oppression of the underclasses, a service that does not abide the widening gap between the rich and the poor, a service that does not stand idly by as those with the most exploit those with the least in order to take even more for themselves.

And so yes, we are called to serve others in the name of Jesus Christ, especially those who are most forgotten by society: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the alien. We are called to service, not to slavery. We are called to humility, not to humiliation. We are called to endure whatever may be necessary to follow Jesus, but not to seek out trouble in order to make ourselves appear more pious. And we are called to do all we can to advance the transformative and liberating power of the God’s Kingdom in our midst.

Not an easy thing to do. The first disciples didn’t understand it right away. And we also often get confused. But now is the time. Jesus is calling. If you want to be first, then become the servant of all.

Sermon: Who Do You Say that I Am?

Sunday 16 September 2018
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 24B

Mark 8:27-38

It’s not what we would normally expect from Jesus, but here in the Gospel of Mark today, Jesus seems to be having an identity crisis. We’re used to thinking that Jesus is all-knowing, that he has everything under complete control, that he is entirely sure about his own mission and already understands everything that is happening and will be happening around him. That is certainly how the Gospel of John describes Jesus. He knows everything. He is in absolute control.

But the Gospel of Mark tells a very different story. For Mark, Jesus is a much more human figure. He doesn’t always know what is going on around him. He shows a greater degree of human weakness. He seems to draw his power from the faith of the people he is interacting with.

In Mark, Jesus goes on a journey of faith. It starts when he is baptized by John. As he comes up out of the water, he sees a vision of the heavens being torn apart and the holy spirit coming on him like a dove, and he hears a voice saying, “You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased.” Immediately after that, the spirit drives him out into the wilderness for forty days, where his faith is tested. Having heard the words from heaven, Jesus suspects that he must be the Messiah. But he knows something that no one else in the story seems to know. He knows that the Messiah is not going to be a wildly successful king who will raise an army and throw out the Romans who are occupying Israel. That’s what people thought the Messiah would be: a glorious military leader. But Jesus knows that the Messiah is going to have to be betrayed, suffer, and die. The Messiah is going to have to be a failure before he his vindicated.

And it’s that reality that Jesus is struggling with in the first half of the Gospel of Mark. Am I really, really the Messiah? If I am, then I’m going to have to die.

This is why he’s asking the questions that he asks in the passage we read to today. He really is trying to sort things out. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks. “They say that you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah, or some other prophet.” That doesn’t match with Jesus’s self-understanding. He knows that he’s not just another prophet. The crowds have misunderstood him.

So he asks another question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers for the group: “You are the Christ. You are the Messiah. You are the anointed one.”

This confirms what Jesus knows about himself, but it immediately produces a conflict. Peter and the disciples are sure that the Messiah is going to be a military leader. They are ready to rise up with him. But Jesus knows it’s going to go the other way. That’s why he tells them to be quiet about his identity. That’s why he starts talking about suffering and death. Peter tries to talk him down, but Jesus knows who he is now. He is the Christ. He is going to suffer and die and then be raised. He understands his identity, and he has accepted it, along with all of its consequences.

Sociologists suggest that there three basic kinds of identity. There is our public identity: who do people say that I am? What is the version of you that people can see out in the world. That’s what Jesus asks about first.

Then there is in-group identity: who do my people say that I am? It could be your family, your close friends, your colleagues. That’s the second question Jesus asks: who do you say that I am?

Finally, there is personal identity: who do I say that I am? What is my self-understanding? How do I know that I am me?

And in this story, these are the three identities that Jesus is struggling with. He’s not who the world says he is. His public identity doesn’t match his private identity. He is what his disciples say that he is. His in-group identity matches his personal identity, at least so far as they both think that he is the Messiah. But they don’t entirely match, because Jesus and his disciples don’t agree about who and what the Messiah is.

Jesus isn’t the only one who struggles with identity. So do we. Sometimes—probably most of the time—there is some distance between our three types of identity.

For example, sometimes our personal, private identity doesn’t match with our in-group, family identity. As children grow up, there almost always comes a time when they struggle with their parents about who they are. Just like The Fresh Prince told us back in the 90’s, “Don’t try to argue, parents just don’t understand.” Part of parenting is releasing your grip on your child’s identity, letting them grow up to be what they will instead of trying to force them to be what you want them to be, or what you wish you would have been at their age.

And identity is even more complicated now than it was in the ancient world. For them, knowing who your family or knowing what city you came from was usually enough to understand who you were. In our world, the lines between personal, public, and in-group are blurred. When I post on Facebook or Twitter, who am talking to? Am I just reflecting my inner feelings to myself, like in a diary? Or am I talking to my family and friends, like in an intimate conversation? That’s what it often feels like. But in actuality, everything I post is ultimately public. Once it’s out there, it’s there for anyone to find, and it can’t be taken back. Now the employer I interview with ten years from now can find out things about my inner life that in previous generations would have been known only by my closest friends.

At the same time that the lines between our identities are being blurred, counterintuitively, our identities are becoming fractured. A few centuries ago, when most people grew up and lived in the same small town their entire lives, there wasn’t much ambiguity in someone’s public persona. Today, I can cultivate several different public identities and several different in-group identities. I can essentially be several different people depending on the context that I am in. I can be one person at home, a different person at school, a different person at work, a different person in the club that I am in in the next town over, a different person in my online role playing game, a different person in my political advocacy. The ability to travel and the ability to connect with others online means that I can cultivate just about as many different identities as I want to. I can have several different close friends who live in different places and don’t know each other. I can be a part of several different groups and present myself to them very differently. I can even have several different online aliases and change nearly anything about my representation of myself to the world.

But the reverse is also true. The world can impose several different identities on me. That simple question, “Who do people say that I am?” can be very complicated. Which people are we talking about? Where are they getting their information? The world is a big place, with lots of different viewpoints. And in our changing media environment, it is increasingly difficult to agree on anything. It is difficult even to agree on what facts are, let alone how we understand any given person.

So who does the world say that I am? Am I my job, my vocation? Am I the school that I went to, or my grades, or my SAT score? Am I my political party? Am I my race, my gender, my sexual orientation? Am I my nationality, my immigration status? Am I the club that I am in? Am I my bank account, my investment portfolio? Am I the sports team that I root for? Am I the clothes that I wear, the car that I drive? Am I the food I eat, the exercise that I do? Am I the music I listen to? And what will people think if I reference a lyric by Eminem, who says, “I am whatever you say I am, if I wasn’t then why would I say I am. In the paper, the news, every day I am. I don’t know, it’s just the way I am.” Who do people say that I am?

And who do my people say that I am? Who are my people? Who is my close, kin group? My parents, my siblings, my spouse, my children? Is it my friends, and if so, which ones? Is it the people at my work, the people at my church? Who do you say that I am? And what difference does my identity make in the way I live my life?

It can be a complicated question. Who am I? And who gets to decide who I am? Who does the world say that I am? Who do my people say that I am? What do I have to say about myself?

But there is a question of identity that we haven’t asked yet. Who does God say that I am? And that question brings us here, to the font. It brings us to the sacrament from which we derive our identity. It brings us to baptism.

Who does God say we are in baptism? God says that we are beloved children. The same words God speaks to Jesus, God speaks to us, as well, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” We are adopted into God’s own family. That means that we are sisters and brothers with one another, and with all who claim the name of Christian. We are connected to each other. We owe each other love and support. Each one of us, in baptism, is claimed by God, forgiven, accepted, and loved. And each of us, in baptism, is sent into the world, to share God’s love with others.

Who does the world say that you are? Who do your people say that you are? Who do you say that you are? Those are all important questions. But who does God say that you are? That answer is clear. You are God’s child, claimed and loved by God, accepted into God’s family, empowered to share God’s love with the world. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: Effervescent Faith

Sunday 9 September 2018
Gathering Sunday

John 4:7-14

We celebrate a lot of different new years. There’s the one that happens on January 1st. That’s the official New Year for the Gregorian Calendar. Why the first of January? It’s pretty arbitrary. It doesn’t align with anything in nature, like a solstice or equinox. It doesn’t have any religious significance. It’s simply the date when Roman consuls took office each year, as of 153 BCE. Though January 1st has only been the New Year in the English-speaking world since 1751. Before that, New Year was on March 25th.

We also celebrate a liturgical new year. It happens each year toward the end of November or the beginning of December. The liturgical year starts with the beginning of Advent, which always begins four Sundays before Christmas Day. We start our liturgical year waiting for Christmas, looking forward to the coming of Christ into the world.

We have fiscal years, as well. Some organizations start the year on July 1st, some on October 1st, some on January 1st.

In The United Methodist Church, we have an appointment year. Every pastor and deacon is assigned to their place of ministry starting on July 1st. Every year between the last Sunday in June and the first Sunday in July, the roads are crowded with United Methodist clergy families in U-Haul trucks, making their way from one appointment to another.

But one of the more significant ways we mark a new year in our culture is with the new school year. It’s not always the same day in every place, starting anywhere from late July to late September. But at least for the first 20 or so years of our lives, these are the kinds of years that have significance. We measure our years by which grade we were in. Parents who have children in school tend to divide their time into the school year and summer break.

And in the church, we too align our programs to the school year. In the summer, most activities take a hiatus, just as most students and teachers take a break from the regular order of school. More so than the calendar year or the liturgical year, it is the school year by which most of us tend to measure our lives.

Which makes today a sort of New Year, the beginning of the program year. Choir is back in session. Sunday school is starting.

And at the beginning of this program year, we’re doing something we haven’t done before. We are adopting a theme for this year. It’s something they did in the church where I had my internship years ago, Calvary Baptist, in Denver. But I’ve never done it since then.

This is the longest I’ve ever spent pastoring a church. I’ve always stayed in a church for four years. But I’m in the beginning of my fifth year here now. And as the beginning of that fifth year was approaching, and as I was thinking about how to be an effective pastor in a church beyond a fourth year, God put it on my heart adopt a theme, an image that could focus us for this year together.

So I brought it our Board. I told them, “At the next meeting, I want us to adopt a theme for the coming year.” To which they responded, “What do you mean, a theme? What is this for?” “I’m not sure,” I answered. “Something short, like a slogan, something that can give us focus in the coming year.” “How will we use it?” They asked. “I haven’t figured that out yet,” I said. And I have to admit, I still haven’t. But I trust that God has some plan for us, and I trust that this is a part of that plan, and that the rest will be revealed as we live into it.

So we spent the better part of our next meeting trying to discern the theme that God had for us this year. Where have we been as a church? Where is God calling us?

The breakthrough came from Bob White. A single verb. To effervesce. Dictionary definition no. 1, (of a liquid) to give off bubbles. Definition no. 2, to be vivacious and enthusiastic. From there it was short trip: Effervescent Faith.

But what does that mean? you might ask. What does an Alka-Seltzer tablet have to do with faith? Plop, Plop, fizz, fizz, is not exactly a profound theological statement. Isn’t it a bit flighty, ephemeral. Well, effervescence might be more relevant to faith than it seems at first glance.

Let’s turn first to the thesaurus. So effervescence can refer to bubbling and fizzing in a liquid, but it can also refer to a human state of being. Effervescent: vivacious, lively, vital. All three of these words mean full of life. Here are two more synonyms: animated, high-spirited. Both of these mean full of spirit. These are theological words. Full of life. Full of spirit. That is how we describe a life lived in God. Filled with life that comes from the Lord of Life. Full with spirit that comes from God’s Holy Spirit. When we are living the Christian life, we are full of life, we are full of Spirit, we are effervescent in faith.

What else can effervescent mean? Bubbly, ebullient. These give the sense of motion, of action, of activity. If something is bubbling or boiling, there is energy behind it. There is life. There is potential. There is power. An effervescent faith is active, it is in motion, it is powerful.

What else? Effervescent: shining, sparkling, scintillating. These words catch the attention. They draw the eye. They provide light and beauty. An effervescent faith finds the beauty in every situation, finds the spark and the sparkle even in the midst dreariness and darkness.

What else? Effervescent: happy, jaunty, jolly, cheery, cheerful, perky, sunny, zestful, upbeat, peppy, bouncy. Contrary to what some of us were taught as children, it is okay for a Christian to be happy. It is not necessary to be always dour, pious, controlled, reverent. There are times for those things. But many times we Christians get stuck in that mode, and we forget about one very important fruit of the spirit. We forget about joy. I count myself as the worst offender. I spend so much time trying to be proper, reserved, measured, thoughtful, contemplative. That often sours into being judgmental, resentful, critical, condescending, disapproving, depressed. Those things are far, far away from faith. They forget about joy. An effervescent faith is joyful. It does not just ignore the struggles of life, but it also isn’t consumed by those struggles. An effervescent faith is not afraid to be joyful, not afraid to celebrate, not afraid to praise. An effervescent faith looks for the joy in any situation.

Alright, I’ve got two more words from the thesaurus. Effervescent: enthusiastic. Enthusiastic means excited, eager, passionate, fervent. We get the word enthusiastic from Greek: ἐνθουσιαστικός, Guess what the Greek word actually means. It literally means possessed by a god. Inspired. An effervescent faith means letting God live in you. It means letting God bubble up inside you. It means being yeasty, being productive. It means giving yourself over to God’s inspiration. An effervescent faith is enthusiastic.

And finally, an effervescent faith is irrepressible. It cannot be easily contained. If it is put under pressure, if it is agitated, it is likely to break free, it is likely to burst forth. It can destroy barriers. It can send things flying. It does not give up. It pushes back. It resists. An effervescent faith is irrepressible.

But what does this have to do with the Bible? you may ask. It’s all there in the lessons we read this morning. There is the irrepressible joy of Psalm 100. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing. It does not say, Make a well-refined noise unto the Lord. It does not say, Make a beautiful noise, make a harmonious noise unto the Lord. No. It says make a joyful noise unto the Lord! Worship God with gladness! Sometimes we get stuck on trying to do it right, trying to do it well, and we forget to do it joyfully.

And from Isaiah, You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation. You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation. A spring that bubbles up, that provides life. A spring that brings forth bubbling water, even in the midst of a desert, even in the midst of drought, still it gurgles forth. You will draw water with rejoicing from the burbling springs of salvation.

But most important this Sunday is the word from the Gospel of John. Jesus is alone with a foreign woman at a well. His disciples are off running errands. And Jesus asks her to draw a drink of water for him from the well. But she is confused by his request. She is a Samaritan. He is a Jew. They don’t get along. They both think the others are bunch of heretics. But for some reason, Jesus violates social convention and asks her anyway. He asks for a gift from her.

But, as it turns out, he has a gift to offer in return. Ask, and I will give you living water. Living water, in the ancient world, generally meant water that is moving. Spring water the bubbles up from the ground is living water. A bubbling brook that gurgles over stones is living water.

But Jesus has a different kind of living water in mind. Everyone who drinks this well water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.

A spring of living water that bubbles up into never-ending life. That is what faith in Jesus does in us. It is a spring of living water that bubbles up into never-ending life.

It is there in the good times, when it is easy to be joyful. In the celebrations. In the births, and weddings, and anniversaries, and graduations, new jobs, successes, first loves, triumphs. It is there, bubbling up, exuding joy.

But it is also there in the hard times, when nothing seems easy. In the struggles. In the deaths and breakups and illnesses, layoffs, failures, broken hearts, defeats. Even then, the spring does not run dry. In fact, it is in those moments that Jesus’s living water is most important. Like an oasis, a spring bubbling up in the desert, offering refreshment, coolness, life. It is always there, a deep reserve of God’s love, hope, and joy. An effervescent faith that stirs up within us, gives us the grace to forgive, the strength to endure, the hope that sees beauty even in the midst of ugliness, joy even in the midst of sorrow, life even in the midst of death.

Effervescent faith. What are we doing with these words this year? I don’t know. But I’m excited to find out. Carry this image with you. In our worship, in our meetings, in your daily lives. An effervescent faith, a spring of living water that bubbles up eternally in the soul. Let us see what it does in us. Let us find out how it changes us. Let us discover what it brings forth in us, as we reach for that living water that quenches our thirst, that cleanses our sin, that washes away our fear. Living water. Eternal spring. Effervescent faith.