Sermon: Metamorphosis

Sunday 23 February 2020
Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17:1-9

And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. He was transfigured. It’s not a word that we use very often: transfigure. Pretty much only when we’re talking about this particular event in Jesus’s life. It comes to us from Old French and from latin, and it means, to transform into something more beautiful or elevated. In other words, we get our definition of this word from the Biblical event. So that doesn’t help us very much in understanding what it means.

But the word from the original Greek might actually be more familiar: μετεμορφώθη, metamorphosis. It’s a compound word in Greek. Meta: to change. Morph: form or shape or substance. Metamorph: to change form or shape or substance.

In science, we use the word metamorphosis to describe a transformation that takes place in insects and amphibians. Metamorphosis: the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages. Like a tadpole transforming into a frog or a caterpillar transforming into a chrysalis and then transforming into a butterfly. It’s a process of maturing, but the end result, the adult form, is wholly unlike the form that came before. The tadpole goes from breathing water with gills to breathing air with lungs. The caterpillar goes from crawling around eating leaves to flying through the sky eating nectar from flowers.

Another definition for metamorphosis is “a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one, by natural or supernatural means.” Similar to what we saw with the insects and amphibians, one thing changes into something completely different. And yet it still remains the same being. It is still the same creature, still the same person, even though the new form may not be recognizable at all from the first.

So Jesus, a first-century Palestinian Jew in his early thirties, a traveling preacher, a healer, a rabbi. He goes up on the mountain with a few of his followers, away from everyone else, and he is transfigured, he is metamorphosed. He is transformed before their eyes from one form, to something completely different. Matthew tells us that Jesus’s face shone like the sun, and that his robe was as white as pure light. In other words, his appearance was completely indescribable. He was unlike anything they had ever seen before.

You might recognize this description of Jesus. It’s similar to the way Jesus is described in the first chapter of Revelation. “I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed in a long robe. His head and his hair were white as wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire… and his face was like the sun shining at full force.”

Peter and James and John, up on that mountain, get to see on earth what even the very select few only get to see in a heavenly vision. They see Jesus Christ in his glory, the heavenly Christ, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Jesus that stands beyond the cross, beyond the grave, having conquered the powers of both sin and death. They see as the earthly Jesus is transformed into the cosmic Christ, full of grace, and power, and truth. Something that looks completely different, almost unrecognizable, and yet is still the same being, is still the same person.

Now that is what I call a mountaintop experience. It’s definitely one of the most magical moments in the Bible, and it’s probably where we get the very term, mountaintop experience. These three disciples are witness to an amazing revelation of the glory and majesty of God. They get to experience God’s power and beauty firsthand, directly, with their own eyes.

Not many people get to have an experience like that. Moses does on Mount Sinai. Elijah does on Mount Horeb. And Peter, James, and John do on this unnamed mountain. But these days, those kinds of mystical experiences are few and far between. Not many people alive today can claim to have had such a vivid experience of the living Christ.

And yet, there are those times, aren’t there. There are those mountaintop experiences. Those times when the veil that separates the earthly realm from the divine realm seems particularly thin. There are those times when our hearts feel absolutely assured of the love and presence of God.

For many Christians, the moment of conversion, that time when they first accept Jesus into their hearts, is a mountaintop experience. They feel, almost physically, the presence of Christ in their lives in a way that is indescribably real.

Many people have mountaintop experiences when they are out in nature. Seeing the awesome beauty of the Gorge, watching the whitewater power of the Hood or White Salmon rivers, experiencing, the mossy explosion of life in the forest, looking up at the striking presence of Mt. Hood or Mt. Adams, or even seeing the view from those impressive mountaintops. These types of experiences somehow remind us of the awesomeness, the absolute enormity of God, and the profound complexity of God’s creation. And we can find ourselves truly resting in God’s presence, fully aware of the nearness of God.

And many encounter the real presence of God in the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, when by the power of the Holy Spirit, simple bread and ordinary wine and grape juice are transformed, metamorphosed, into the Body and Blood of Christ for us. It can be a profoundly mystical experience, receiving this blessed sacrament, and encountering Christ, in the flesh, as it were.

Mountaintop experiences, no matter what form they take, can be absolutely mind-blowing and earth-shaking. But what happens when the experience is over? What do we do when it’s time to come down from the mountain? Is it over? Are we left with nothing but a memory of what we had seen, heard, or tasted of God’s presence? Is it just something to look fondly back on when we are feeling down?

No. Because a mountaintop experience is not just about viewing some manifestation of God, it isn’t just about experiencing God’s presence. No, a mountaintop experience is about allowing the real presence of God to transform you. It’s about allowing the experience of God to metamorphose you. Because it will. Your experience of the living Christ can and will transform you. It might change the form or nature of you into a completely new one. It might transform your immature form into an adult form, in two or more distinct phases, just like the butterfly.

You see, the transfiguration of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus. It continues. It moves beyond that event on a Palestinian hilltop to transfigure us, to transfigure you and me. It takes our incomplete form, and it transforms us, it metamorphoses us into something new, something that might be almost unrecognizable from our former selves, but is still the same being, still the same person. Made new, washed clean, sanctified, and reformed into the image we were created with, the very image of God.

Sermon: Each One Had a Role

Sunday 16 February 2020
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

It seems like Paul is calling for unity. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow,” he says. In other words, why are you dividing yourselves into factions, some who say they’re following me and some who say they’re following Apollos? Don’t you realize that we’re both doing God’s work? There isn’t a difference. Don’t divide yourselves on our accounts. We both have the same message. We’re both saying the same thing. Don’t make a decision between me and Apollos. There’s no difference between us.

That’s what it seems like Paul is doing. It seems like he’s being generous, magnanimous. It seems like he’s saying “Can’t we all just get along?”

That’s not what he’s doing. He’s not asking everyone to hold hands and sing Kumbayah. What he’s actually doing is much more cunning.

Over the last several Sundays, we’ve been reading through the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The story of the church in Corinth is a story of division. Paul has heard reports that there are several factions developing in the congregation. Some say that they’re part of Paul’s faction. Some say that they’re part of Apollos’s faction. Some say they are part of Peter’s faction. Others say that they are the only one’s who are actually following Christ. However, the main conflict seems to be between those who are following Paul and those who are following Apollos. Paul had been in Corinth first. He had founded the Christian community. After Paul went on to start churches in other communities, a new missionary named Apollos had come to town. And he had perhaps brought different views than Paul’s. We know very little about the actual message of Apollos. What we do know is that the messages of Paul and Apollos have become part of a reason for discord in Corinth.

From what we can tell, the church in Corinth is divided largely over class and status. Those known as the strong are generally upper-class people, those who own property and have relative control over their economic lives. They are educated, trained in philosophy, and are patrons. Those known as the weak come from the lower classes of society. They are slaves, peasants, or poor laborers. In general, they are uneducated and have little control over their economic lives.

The strong have a powerful sense of their freedom in Christ. They claim to have great wisdom and spiritual gifts. Their freedom in Christ means that they don’t pay much attention to issues of purity. They don’t believe that the traditional gods exist, so they don’t worry about the appearance that they might be worshipping idols during certain political and cultural activities.

This is pretty scandalous to the weak, though. They take the traditional gods very seriously. Before they had become Christians, they had worshipped the Roman gods, and now they consider them to be demons. They are very careful not to show any appearance of worshipping these idols. This means that they can’t take part in many of the cultural and political activities of the time.

In the section of First Corinthians today, Paul sounds like he’s asking the two sides to sort out their differences and get along. He’s actually taking sides. He is appealing to the strong on their own terms, but he is taking the side of the weak.

The strong are very proud of their wisdom, their education, and their spiritual prowess. They can display their elevated status with impressive spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues. Paul begins chapter 3 by cutting them down to size. He mocks their supposed wisdom and their spiritual enlightenment. Paul tells them that they are so unspiritual that he had to treat them like babies. He couldn’t even share his true spiritual wisdom with them because their faith was so infantile. They wouldn’t have been able to process it. Paul’s wisdom would have made them sick.

The strong in Corinth no doubt think that they have progressed a long way since their beginnings in the faith when Paul was with them. But Paul insists that they have not. Paul tells them that they are still spiritual babies. Paul can’t even share his elevated spiritual wisdom with them because their delicate spiritual constitutions couldn’t handle it.

Paul goes on to tell the strong that their supposed wisdom and spiritual enlightenment are completely meaningless. They think that they are wise, but Paul is much wiser. Paul receives his wisdom directly from God. Paul gets revelations directly from the Holy Spirit. The reason that they aren’t already seeing things from Paul’s point of view is because they don’t have access to the Holy Spirit. They are so clueless that they can’t even realize that Paul has access to the greatest wisdom that there is.

Paul appears to be striking a note of conciliation when he says that he himself planted their faith and that Apollos watered it, but that it is God who made it grow. Each of us had our role. But there is an edge to Paul’s comparison of himself and Apollos. Planting and watering aren’t of equal importance. Planting the seed is more important, more meaningful. The actual content of the faith comes in the planted seed. Watering only aides in the growth of the thing has already been planted. It’s the one who plants who has control over what kind of plant is going to grow. The one watering has no control over that.

The point becomes even more clear as Paul shifts metaphors in the second half of chapter 3. He describes himself as a master builder who built the foundation of the faith of the church in Corinth. No one else can build a new foundation that is other than the foundation that Paul has built. Many other people can try to build on top of Paul’s foundation, but each one of them will be judged by the quality of their work. And Paul implies that the building that Apollos and others are doing is not sound. He says, “Whether someone builds on top of the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, or hay, each one’s work will be clearly shown. The day will make it clear, because it will be revealed with fire—the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work survives, they’ll get a reward. But if anyone’s work goes up in flames, they’ll lose it. However, they themselves will be saved as if they had gone through a fire.” Paul has built a strong foundation of stone, but anyone who tries to build on top of it with straw, well, their shoddy work will be revealed and ultimately destroyed.

It is quite remarkable how Paul can use very friendly-sounding words in a way that is designed to prove himself right against his detractors. But he isn’t just doing it for his ego. Paul isn’t just being crafty with his words because he wants to be right. He’s doing it because he’s defending the weak. Paul is doing this because he is concerned with justice.

Paul knows that the weak in Corinth are being mistreated and left behind. Just as one example, when it is time to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, something that at the time involved an entire meal, the strong come early with lots of fine food to share. The weak can only come after they have finished working, and by then all of the food is gone. The strong want the weak to stay in their place and to be happy with the scraps that are left over.

Paul isn’t calling for peace here, he’s calling for justice. It’s not that hard to have peace without justice. So long as the oppressed stay in their place, it’s easy to have peace. If the powerful are taking advantage of the powerless and there is no recourse, it’s easy to have peace. It’s much harder to have peace with justice.

I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” While he and many others were in jail for protesting segregation in Birmingham, several high-ranking white clergymen, including two Methodist bishops, wrote a letter called “A Call for Unity” that was published in local newspapers. In it, they urged that demonstrations cease and that those seeking racial equality use other, less disruptive means to get their point across.

From his jail cell, Dr. King wrote a response that included these words: “I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection….

“You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist…. But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice? — “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? — “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist? — “Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.”… Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? — “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

Too often those who are relatively comfortable wish for peace instead of justice. Too often we prefer a calm status quo than a noisy and disruptive movement toward the Kingdom of God. We shouldn’t be misled by Paul’s clever rhetoric. He is not calling for a thin peace; he is calling for a robust justice in which the weak are no longer abused by the strong.

We too, if we have the courage, can follow Jesus’s radical call for justice. We too can stand up for those who are being abused, for those who are being mistreated, for those who are being excluded and minimized and brushed aside. We can choose not to be content with a false unity that hides injustice, but to embrace the struggle for a justice that leads to true peace. That is the imperative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is our calling as Christians. That is the work of the Kingdom of God. Not to be happy with quiet injustice, but to work for true peace with justice. May God give us the courage to follow.

Sermon: I Came in Weakness

Sunday 9 February 2020
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Corinthians 2:1-12

Paul tells the Corinthians: when I came to you, I came in weakness. I stood in front of you with weakness. This passage is actually used when a new bishop comes to their cathedral for the first time. I’m thinking of the Episcopal Church here, but it might be true in the Roman Catholic Church, as well. The bishop comes to the front door of the church, which is closed. They take the shepherd’s staff that is the symbol of their office—it’s called a crozier—and they bang on the door with it. Someone lets them in and asks them who they are and what they are doing there. Part of the bishop’s response is “I come to you in weakness, determined to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified.” It gives the sense of the leader being humble. It gives the impression that the bishop doesn’t want to lord over the people with any sort of superior knowledge. It’s a nice sentiment. It affirms the priesthood of all believers, the ministry of all Christians, the idea that everyone has an equal ability to understand the faith, that no Christian is any better or more wise than any other. I came to you in weakness.

However, it doesn’t actually have much to do with what Paul seems to be talking about in this letter. When Paul talks about weakness, he means something very specific. In fact, this is one of the keys to understanding all of 1 Corinthians. For Paul, the problems in the church in Corinth have to do with a division between two groups of people. And he refers to those two groups of people as the weak and the strong. We don’t know the exact definition of these two groups. Both Paul and the people of Corinth already know who it is that Paul is talking about. He doesn’t have to explain. We are reading other people’s mail 2000 years later, so we have to make some guesses about what was going on. But here’s our best guess about what Paul means by weak and strong.

As best as we can tell, the people Paul refers to as strong are people of means. They might own their own farms and business ventures. They generally don’t have to do physical labor for their living. They are educated, and education in the Roman world means rhetoric and philosophy. They know Plato and Aristotle. But that doesn’t mean that they are philosophers themselves. Instead, they hire philosophers to instruct them in wisdom, but those philosophers are their social inferiors, like the private tutors in the house of a wealthy or noble person. The strong think of themselves as above superstition, especially when it comes to the practice of their new Christian faith. Through discipline, they think they can control their wills and also their bodies. Through physical and spiritual exercise, they can sculpt themselves into better people. Because of their training in philosophy, they tend to think of the traditional Roman gods—like Jupiter, Mars, and Minerva—as more mythology than reality. So when they statues of the gods in temples and shrines, they think of them as just statues, not the embodiment of real, spiritual beings. In the ancient world, meat was usually sacrificed to a god before it was distributed to people. Since the strong don’t think those gods exist, they aren’t worried about eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Since they don’t really believe in the traditional gods, and since they think they can control their own bodies, they aren’t worried about being polluted by things like idol meat or sex with prostitutes. They tend not to be very impressed by the idea of a bodily resurrection. Instead, they favor the Greek philosophical understanding of the afterlife, the idea that the spirit leaves the body and is joined with God. When they come together for the Lord’s Supper, they bring plenty of fancy food to eat. They also tend to be very interested in spiritual gifts, and are the sorts of folks who are likely to speak in tongues and have ecstatic visions.

The weak, on the other hand, are from the lower classes of society. They would include slaves, laborers, and maybe some small-time tradespeople. They don’t own much. Often they themselves are owned. Their time is not their own, and they spend nearly all of it working. They aren’t educated and are probably illiterate. Few can even write their own names. At least before they hear the message of Christ, they had believed in and been devoted to the traditional Roman gods: Apollo, Minerva, Mars, Jupiter. They understand the world to be inhabited by all kinds of spirits, both good spirits and evil spirits. They don’t have the kinds of resources, leisure, or freedom to try to sculpt their bodies and minds. In fact, many don’t even own their bodies. If their masters decide to use them for sex, they have no choice in the matter. Because everything in the world is filled with spiritual power, they are scared of being polluted by things like meat that has been sacrificed to idols. They probably can’t afford to eat meat that isn’t sacrificed to idols, so they don’t eat meat at all. They don’t have a concept of an immortal soul, so they are very interested in the idea of bodily resurrection. They don’t have the freedom of their time, so by the time they are able to make it to the Lord’s Supper, all of the food has already been eaten. They are unlikely to be interested in the showier of the spiritual gifts. They are common people.

These are overgeneralizations, but it should give you some sense of the conflict in Corinth. The strong are people of privilege who are used to controlling their destinies and having their own ways. They aren’t at the uppermost levels of Roman society, but in Corinth they are patrons. They demand respect. In general, the poor work for them, or for other higher-class people. They are workers or slaves.

Paul has a very interesting stance regarding this division between the weak and the strong. He insists to the strong that he is even stronger than they are. He doesn’t need them to give him a salary because he doesn’t need a patron. He’s not like some hired tutor. He has his own authority. He is educated in philosophy and rhetoric. He has spiritual gifts that are even more impressive than those displayed by the strong of Corinth. He has complete spiritual control of himself. If they want to have a competition about who is stronger, then Paul insists that he far exceeds anyone else at Corinth.

However, at the same time, Paul insists that he comes as one who is weak. That’s what he’s doing in this part of the letter. Paul sets aside his strength and becomes weak, for the sake of the weak. This is Paul’s refrain throughout the letter. Although he is strong, he sets it all aside and shows solidarity with the weak. He tells the strong in Corinth that they should imitate him in doing this.

So when Paul says to the Corinthians, “I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified. I stood in front of you with weakness.”  When he says that, he is simultaneously saying that he is not beholden to the strong and that he stands with the weak. He is not like some philosopher who dazzles with fancy words and wisdom and expects to be hired on in the houses of the wealthy. He is not going to be afraid to upset their refined sensibilities about the scandal of the cross. And he is going to identify himself with the weak, not because he can only be weak, but because he chooses, from a position of strength, to be weak. He knows that idols are not really gods, but he still won’t eat meat sacrificed to idols, because he doesn’t want to create a spiritual crisis for the weak. But neither will he bow to the strong and their puffed-up sense of self-justification.

This is what Paul thinks is the difference between Godly wisdom and worldly wisdom. The world honors the accomplishments of the rich. The world respects people who have enough means to live at leisure. The world is impressed by those who can exercise power in the world. But God isn’t impressed with any of that. God honors those who have nothing. God respects those that have to work to survive. God is impressed by those who have no power to exert, not even power over their own bodies.

That is, after all, how Jesus achieved the victory, by giving over his own body to be tortured and killed. That is why Paul preaches Christ crucified, the very image of powerlessness, and yet, the profoundest expression of God’s power. Because it is in weakness that God finds strength. It is among the powerless that God finds power. It is among the poor that God finds the greatest riches.

Sermon: Not with Eloquent Words

Sunday 26 January 2020
The Third Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

They were no better than we are. Did you notice? Even in Paul’s time there was division in the church. There’s been division in the church from the beginning. Sometimes we have a tendency to look back fondly on the time of the early church and to imagine that they had everything figured out, that they were pure, and righteous, and united in a way that we are not. In the beginning, they had the real message, they were real disciples, and their church had not yet been perverted by the world, like our church is now.

Nope. According to Paul, that’s not how things went. From the very beginning, there were arguments. There were disagreements over doctrine. There were fights over what the Christian message meant and what it meant to be a good Christian. There were fights over rituals and practice. There were fights over who was in and who was out, who was blessed and who was unredeemable.

According to Paul, there seem to be at least four different factions or parties of Christians in the church at Corinth, each identifying themselves with a different early Christian leader. Some have chosen Paul as their hero. Others have chosen the famously eloquent Christian, Apollos. Still others have rallied around Cephas—which is the Aramaic name for Peter. We know from other biblical writings that Paul and Peter had their fair share of disagreements about what it meant to follow Christ and how those who follow Jesus should live. Finally, some partisans have claimed that they are the only people who are truly following Christ, not some later apostle.

It’s no wonder we have so many disagreements amongst churches today, no wonder we have so many denominations and arguments and divisions. Even in the first generation of the church, Christians couldn’t agree on what the whole Christian message and mission were all about.

I know a lot of us are anxious about the unity of The United Methodist Church. I’ve heard some of you calling it the Divided Methodist Church. There has been division in our denomination over the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the church. And it is beginning to look as though the only way to include all people in the church is to divide it. In fact, listen to the name of one of the more popular plans. It’s called the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” Reconciliation through Separation. That sounds like an oxymoron. And yet, at the same time, it is in many ways an accurate description of the current crisis and its proposed solutions. Which is more true to Christ gospel: to maintain one denomination and exclude LGBTQ+ persons, or to divide the church so that part of it can be inclusive?

Of course, if The United Methodist Church does divide, there won’t be two different Methodist denominations in the United States. Don’t forget, there is also Free Methodist Church, the Christian Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion, the Nazarenes, the Wesleyans… There are, in fact, already at least 23 Methodist denominations just in the United States, twenty four, if we include Canada. Twenty-four. How much more divided would things be if there were 25 instead?

It’s not the same in the Lutheran Church, as I’m sure you know. Lutherans in North America aren’t divided up into 24 different denominations. No, Lutherans are divided up into more than 40 different denominations. And again, that’s only in the US and Canada. Worldwide, the numbers are almost incalculable.

My group follows Paul. No, my group follows Apollos; he’s an amazing preacher. No, my group follows Peter, the first of the disciples. No, all of you are wrong. My group is the only one that really follows Christ. Division and schism certainly didn’t start with us. It was there from the beginning. And while our brokenness is painful, while it is sinful, it is at least understandable.

Paul does warn the church in Corinth against these kinds of divisions, against this kind of schism. Mocking their factionalism, he asks them, “Paul wasn’t crucified for you, was he? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” He wants everyone to focus on the saving message of the Messiah. That’s why he goes into that whole convoluted argument about how he wasn’t sent to baptize. He’s not very successful at it, though. He boldly declares: “I thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you!”  He’s trying to say that no one in Corinth can claim special authority because they were baptized personally by Paul. But then he seems to remember that, in fact, he did baptize two people. He baptized Crispus and Gaius. And after he has remembered the two of them, it occurs to him that he also baptized the entire household of Stephanas. Finally he says that and he’s not sure if he might have baptized a few other people while he was there. Nevertheless, he doesn’t want anyone to be able to use him as an excuse for breaking the church into parts.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Truth be told, Paul wants everyone to agree with him. He’s really not about to give an inch. You’re never going to hear him say, “You know, Peter and I disagree on a few things, but it’s fine if you do things Peter’s way.” Never. In fact, we can check the transcript. Peter and Paul also disagreed on the subject of inclusion. And here’s what Paul has to say about it in Galatians 2. (Remember, when Paul refers to Peter, he uses his Aramaic name: Cephas.) Here’s what he writes:

“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong. He had been eating with the Gentiles before certain people came from James. But when they came, he began to back out and separate himself, because he was afraid of the people who promote circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy os that even Barnabas got carried away with them in their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they weren’t acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, ‘If you, though you’re Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?’”

Yeah. Paul isn’t really about bend when it comes to theological disagreements. He’s not the live-and-let-live sort. But he still insists that he should not be the grounds for division. He is nothing more than a messenger of Jesus’s pure message. No one should accuse him of being a partisan.

In particular, Paul says that he was not sent as an apostle in order to baptize. That’s kind of funny, because we know from the Book of Acts that Paul and Apollos had different understandings of baptism, at least for a time. But Paul seems to want to sidestep that difference. Paul wasn’t sent to baptize. Instead, he was sent as an apostle in order to preach. The Greek word is εὐαγγελίζεσθαι—evangelize. It means to bring the good news. It’s often used when talking about imperial announcements. If the emperor won a battle or if the emperor had a son or if the emperor was deified: that was the subject of typical good news. That’s what evangelism was.

But Paul has a very different kind of good news to share. He says something very strange about it: he proclaims the good news “not with eloquent words, so that the cross of Christ might not be drained of its power.” What on earth is that about?

Well, let’s think again about the usual good news: imperial proclamations. They would always be proclaimed with eloquent words. Rhetoric was a highly prized skill in the Greco-Roman world. It was the most important part of Roman education, by far. Court cases were usually decided based on the skill of the rhetoric, not on the weight of the evidence. In many cases, the eloquence of words was everything.

But Paul says that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the eloquence of words. Again, this might be a dig at Apollos, who was known as an eloquent speaker. But Paul doesn’t want to be judged on the power of his rhetoric. He thinks that the power of his message comes from something else. It comes from the cross.

Now, that might not sound very strange to you and me. We are trained to think of the cross as powerful. But it would have been completely unthinkable in Paul’s time. Remember, good news usually meant news about the victories of the emperor. Good news was about raw, military power, the ability of Rome to utterly crush any opposition, whether foreign or domestic. Crucifixion was one of the ways that they enforced that power. Rome crucified thousands of people. It was a form of execution that was reserved for rebels and political dissidents. It was meant to be humiliating.  It was meant to show just what happens to those who dare to stand up to Rome: they die utterly powerless, nailed up on a cross like a piece of meat. It was completely dehumanizing.

So you can imagine, a cross was never associated with power, at least, not with the power of the one being crucified. The cross quite literally drained its victims of power. But Paul has a completely unbelievable message about the cross. It is the exact opposite of what anyone would ever expect.

Paul says that he is a messenger of good news, but his good news doesn’t need any fancy rhetoric or eloquent words. Just look at the fact of the cross, Paul says, that’s all the power that you need. For Paul, the cross means exactly the opposite of what it usually means. It is usually a means of humiliation. But in the case of Jesus it means something different. You see, Jesus overcame the humiliation of the cross. Jesus overcame the crushing power of the cross. Jesus overcame the ultimate death of the cross. What had been a sign of humiliation became a sign of glory. What had been an instrument of torture became a means of grace. What had been the power of death became the power of everlasting life.

Because that is the unlikely, counterintuitive message of the gospel. The Kingdom of God is not about political power or military might. The Son of God chooses to come to us not as a warrior or as a king, but as a teacher and a healer. The Messiah chooses to spend his time not with the rich and the righteous, but with the poor and with sinners. The Christ chooses to take on our frail human form and to take the road that leads to the cross. God’s greatest power is made perfect in weakness. It is through dying that Jesus breaks the power of death. It is through the scandal of the humiliation of the cross that Christ’s glory is revealed. It is Christ’s self-emptying that we see his power.

I can stand here all day preaching my most finely crafted words, or someone more eloquent than I could do the same. We would never speak a word as profound as the grace and love that is revealed in the cross of Jesus. He became human for us. He died for us. He is resurrected for us. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: Light to the Nations

Sunday 19 January 2020
The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 49:1-7

Most scholars agree that the Book of the Prophet Isaiah isn’t written by just one author. In fact, it was probably written over the span of a few hundred years. Scholars usually divide it into three sections, and each section is thought to have been written in a different historical context. The first section, called First Isaiah, was likely written in Judah during the time of the historical prophet named Isaiah. It was just as the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires were expanding and threatening the independence of the two Jewish kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Israel fell first to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Judah held out longer. They sustained several attacks from the Assyrians and then the Babylonians who replaced them, but Jerusalem finally fell to the Babylonians in 597 BCE. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and many Jews were deported to Babylon. The so-called Babylonian Captivity lasted for seventy years. This is the period when Second Isaiah was written, during the crisis when there was no temple in which to worship God, and many of God’s people were exiled from their homeland. The final section of the prophetic book, referred to as Third Isaiah, was written after the Babylonian captivity, when the Persians had conquered Babylonian, Jews were allowed to return to Palestine, and the temple was being rebuilt.

The passage that we have today from the Book of Isaiah is from Second Isaiah. So this is during the time when there is no temple in Jerusalem and many of God’s people are in captivity in Babylon. It is hard to overstate what a huge crisis this is for the people of Israel. For as long as anyone could remember, their religious practiced had been focussed on the temple and on the land. Now they didn’t have either. How could they worship God if they had no temple to worship in? How could they even talk about God if they were no longer in the land that God had promised them? Did their God even exist any more? Had the God of Israel been defeated by Marduk, the god of the Babylonians? Was this the end?

But it wasn’t the end. In fact, it is during this period of captivity that much of the bible came to be written. Stories that had been floating around and scraps of writings were collected, edited, brought together, and producing into something that was the beginning of our bible. If religion could not be practiced in the promised land, and if God could not be worshiped in the temple, then something else would have to take its place. And that something was scripture. That something was story and song, law code and myth, poetry and prophecy. If they could not build a temple out of stone, they would build a temple of parchment and ink. If they could not worship their God with burnt sacrifices, then they would worship their God with song and study. If they could not return to their homeland, then the stories of their faith would be their home.

This is the context from which our reading today springs. The people are looking forward to a time when, they pray, they will be able to return home, bring back the people who have been scattered, rebuild a temple, and perhaps return to life as it was meant to be. But that time has not yet come, and no one is sure if it ever will. But they long for it. They long for a return to the way things used to be.

And that’s a feeling the church can identify with in this age, isn’t it? We often long for a return to the way things used to be. We sometimes feel like we’ve been taken away from the place that felt like home. A good portion of the people here grew up in a time when church dominated society. For many of you, the church was the center of the town that you grew up in. Church activities came first, and everything else had to be scheduled around them. Church was the place people came not only to worship and also for social activity. It was expected that every upright citizen be connected to a church. It was expected that everyone come to church every Sunday. It was expected that every child would be baptized, that every wedding happen in the church, that every funeral happen in the church.

That’s not the reality that we live in anymore. Especially in this part of the country, church is not at the top of most people’s priorities. Instead of church being the expected thing, now church is the exceptional thing. Most people don’t go to church at all, ever. The people who are connected to a church tend not to come as often as they used to. Church is not the primary thing defining people’s schedules. It is not the driving moral force in every community. It is not the center of social activity. It is not the thing that everyone is simply expected to do. The world has changed in a way that is beyond our control. And sometimes we simply feel left behind.

And so it’s normal to want to get back to where we were. It’s normal to try to figure out how we can bring everyone back. It’s normal to want to make things like they used to be.

That’s what the Jews in Babylon want to do. They want to bring everyone back to Jerusalem. They want to go back to how it used to be.

But God will not let them be content with just getting back to the way things used to be. That would be a hard enough job on its own. But God is still not satisfied with it. “It is not enough, since you are my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel.” It’s not enough to gather up all of the Jews who have been scattered by war and famine and forced migration. What else could God possibly expect from them? Even that task seems impossible. But no. “It is not enough to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel. I will also appoint you as a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth!” I will also appoint you as a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth!

It’s not enough to just bring the Jews back to Jerusalem. What is needed is to do something new. What is needed is to spread the message to those who have never heard it before. What is needed is to cross uncrossable social boundaries and share God’s message of liberating grace with the world. It’s not just for Jews any more. The good news has to be shared with the Gentiles. The good news has to be shared with the nations.

You know, they never do get things back to the way they used to be. Some Jews do return to Jerusalem, but more stay behind in Babylon, and they continue to develop the scriptural tradition. A temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem, but it is never as grand as it had been before. After a few more centuries it is destroyed again, never to be rebuilt. They never get back to where they had been before. They never make things the way they used to be.

But they do do something new. They develop a scriptural tradition that will eventually transcend the need for a temple. They develop a moral tradition that inspires and attracts Gentiles, both common people and philosophers. And eventually they extend the message of God’s liberating grace to a much wider circle of people, a circle that now includes close to four billion people worldwide. The people of Israel become a light to the nations. According to Isaiah, Israel becomes God’s secret weapon:

“The Lord called me before my birth,

called my name when I was in my mother’s womb.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword,

and hid me in the shadow of God’s own hand.

He made me a sharpened arrow,

and concealed me in God’s quiver,

saying to me, “You are my servant,

Israel, in whom I show my glory.”

I really like that image of God’s servant as a finely honed weapon, hidden away by God. I’m not always a fan of military imagery when it comes to God. It can often be very problematic, especially when it is preached by the powerful against the weak. But it’s important to notice here that the only weapon that is mentioned is words. “God made my mouth like a sharp sword, and hid me in the shadow of God’s own hand.” The weapon that God wields is the message of freedom, spoken by God’s servant. The weapon that God wields is the message of God’s own grace with humanity.

And what if God has known our names since before we were born? What if God has been honing us like a sword, hidden away for the right time? What if God is preparing to do something new with us in this world, not to get us back to the way things used to be, but to use us as a light to the nations?

For most of my time as your pastor, my office has been hidden snuggly away on the back of the lot where no one knows where to look for it, and the front doors of the church have remained locked most days. Now my office is right up front. Like, right up front. If I’m there, everyone can see it. It’s forward facing. Jennifer and I have both noticed a dramatic increase in the number of people who come in to talk to us. It is at least double, and perhaps quite a bit more than that. It’s both church people and people from the community. It makes a difference that we are forward facing.

Before we had our Open House and Building Dedication last week, a couple of you went out to invite folk in the houses that are nearest to us. It’s much of a walking neighborhood, but you made the effort to do it. I know that knocking on doors was not something that you were looking forward to doing. It’s not something we were ever trained for back when church was the center of the community. But afterward, I heard you say how meaningful the experience of knocking on doors had been for you. People wanted to hear from you. They wanted to be invited. They wanted to be heard by you. You took a risk, you let your light shine, and it made a difference. It made a difference to the people you talked with, and it made a difference to you, as well.

In the next year, I want us to think about what it means to be forward-facing with our faith. When we made our offices forward facing, it made a difference in how we connected with people. When some of you put your faith forward to knock on the doors of strangers, it made a difference. What else could happen if we face our faith forward? It’s not about getting back to where we used to be, it’s about looking ahead, facing forward in faith, and living as if we are God’s secret weapon, finely honed for such a time as this. That’s what a church called Spirit of Grace is called to do: to speak grace, to extend grace, to lead with grace. You’ve already begun. May God continue to lead you forward in faith, empower you as messengers of grace, and make you a light to the nations.

Sermon: As He Came Up from the Water

Sunday 12 January 2020
Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3:13-17

Today we celebrate the holiday called Baptism of the Lord. It’s based on one of the key stories of the life and ministry of Jesus. It’s one of the few stories that is alluded to in all four of the gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John don’t agree on much, but they all agree that Jesus was baptized, and they’re all pretty sure that it was John who did it. But the details, and the relationship between John and Jesus are different in each gospel.

In Matthew’s gospel it goes like this: Jesus has already been introduced in the first two chapters. We know that he was born by his mother Mary and that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. We know that his earthly father, Joseph, is descended from King David. We know that he and his family were from Bethlehem. They actually lived there—they didn’t travel there for a census. We know that they were visited by wise men from Iran within two years of Jesus’s birth. We know that they left their home in Bethlehem and fled as refugees to Egypt when they heard that King Herod was trying to find him and kill him. And we know that when Herod died, they came back, but they didn’t stay in their old home in Bethlehem, they moved to a different region, Galilee, and to a new town, Nazareth. But we haven’t heard anything else about Jesus. He hasn’t had any lines yet. We haven’t seen him grow up. We only know him as a child who was moved from place to place by his parents.

John, though, we have heard a bit more about. Matthew hasn’t told us anything about his parents or his childhood. There is no indication in Matthew that he has any previous relationship with Jesus. But John has at least gotten some lines. He appears in the story, fully formed, out in the wilderness near the Jordan River, preaching a fire-and-brimstone message and baptizing the masses. “Repent,” he says, “because the Reign of God is near!” And when the religious authorities, the Saddudees and Pharisees, come out to be baptized by him, he he does not welcome them. He gives them quite the dressing down. He calls them snake spawn, and he preaches about axes chopping down trees and chaff being burnt with unquenchable fire. He says that a new way is come, a new leadership is coming, and their old ways will be destroyed. He might say that he’s putting the fear of God into them.

With very little introduction, the adult Jesus appears on the scene for the first time. He travels down from Galilee, like many others who were attracted by John’s rebellious message, and he wants to be baptized. Only Matthew has the next detail, that John tries to keep Jesus from being baptized, that John tells Jesus their places should be reversed, that Jesus should be baptizing John. We aren’t told how he knows this. According to Matthew, they’ve never met before. No one knows who Jesus is. He hasn’t done anything remarkable in the story yet. At this point, he still hasn’t even spoken. But that is about to change. His first words in the Gospel of Matthew are, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.” My lectionary group spent quite a bit of time talking about this verse, verse 15. It’s kind of hard to translate. We finally settled on “Jesus answered, ‘Let me be baptized now to fulfill all righteousness.’ And John let it be.” Though I’ve always associated Let It Be more with Paul than with John.

So John finally agrees to baptize Jesus. He lets it be. But when Jesus is coming up out of the water, that’s when the real miracle happens. Jesus emerges from the water, he looks up at the sky, and he sees something extraordinary. The heavens have opened up. The sky has been torn apart. The ancients had quite a different conception of how the universe was ordered, so it’s hard to say what they imagined when they heard this detail read. Did it look like a lightning storm? Could Jesus see angels flying around up in the divine realm? Did it just mean that it started raining like when God opened the windows of the heavens during the flood in the time of Noah? The heavens were opened. And Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove and landing on him. We aren’t told that anyone else could see these things, just Jesus.

There is also a voice from heaven. In Mark and Luke, the voice speaks to Jesus. It says “You are my beloved son.” But not in Matthew. In Matthew the voice speaks to the entire crowd, everyone who has been gathering around John. The voice says, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”

It is miracle. A divine voice rumbles out of heaven and tells everyone the truth about Jesus. He is God’s son. He is God’s beloved. It makes Jesus special. It marks him as unique.

Or does it? According to all four gospels, Jesus never performs a baptism. Not once does he baptize someone else. But he does receive baptism. And so do we. Jesus commands that all of his followers be baptized. But what does it mean?

The baptisms John performed were generally considered to be a sign a repentance, a sign of the forgiveness of sin. But is that what baptism is for Jesus? Don’t we generally think of Jesus as being free of sin? So why does Jesus need to be baptized? That seems to be the same question that John is asking.

Well, for Matthew at least, Jesus’s baptism has something to do with his identity as son of God.  It serves to make that identity clear, not only to Jesus himself, but to everyone who witnesses Jesus’s baptism. “This is my son,” says the voice from heaven.

What we don’t always admit, though, is what happens in our baptism. If our baptism were just for the forgiveness of sins, then we wouldn’t baptize babies. Presumably they haven’t done anything that they need to be cleansed. Certainly, most of the sinning days lie ahead of them, not behind. In early Christianity, sometimes people would wait to be baptized until they were near death so that they wouldn’t have a chance after their baptism of getting all dirty with sin again. But, of course, that’s not how we do it. We regularly baptize babies, children, and youth, and we don’t worry about the possibility that they might sin afterward. We know that they will. Cleansing from sin isn’t the main thing that’s happening in baptism, nor is baptism the once and only means of cleansing sin.

So what happens when we are baptized? It might seem a bit strange, but baptism for you and me may not be that different from what happens when Jesus is baptized. We may not hear a voice from heaven. But even if we don’t hear it, we know that when one of us is baptized, God says, “This is my beloved daughter, this is my beloved son, in whom I take delight.”

Baptism is a symbol and sign to us that we are part of God’s family. It is the sign of our adoption. It is the covenant and proof that we are children of the living God.

And as God’s children, we are called to behave accordingly. We are called to reject the spiritual forces of wickedness in our world. We are called to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. We are called to put, not just some, but all of our trust in God. We are called to serve as Christ’s own representatives in the world, to be Christ’s own hands and feet, doing good to all. This is the obligation of our baptismal covenant.  This is the call that is laid upon us as children of God, who have symbolically died with Christ and then been raised with Christ, our brother and forbear in the faith.

And today, as is our tradition each year on this holiday, we will reaffirm the covenant that was made at our baptism. We will say again the holy words, make again the promises. We will remember through words and signs who we are… and whose we are. We are God’s children, beloved and chosen, and we belong to God.

Sermon: Adopted through Jesus Christ

Ephesians 1:3-14

Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, the last day in the Christmas season. Tonight is twelfth night, a phrase that is known to us today mostly because of Shakespeare’s play called Twelfth Night. But in Shakespeare’s time, twelfth night, or Epiphany Eve, was a much bigger deal than Christmas Eve. It capped off an entire twelve-day season of the celebration of Christmas. It feels a little out of step with the commercial calendar that is ready to chuck out the Christmas decorations on the morning of December the 26th in order to make room for the celebration of New Year. But for quite a while, this was the height of the Christmas season. So we still have the tree up. We still have the nativity scenes out. This is the last day of Christmas, and tomorrow is Epiphany, the celebration of the magi visiting Jesus and his parents and offering him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Normally on this Sunday we would just look ahead to Epiphany and the story of the magi. And I did choose to read that story story from the gospel today just to make sure that we heard it this year. But we read that story every year, and I think you’ve heard me preach on it at least four times.

And there was something that jumped out at me from one of the other readings assigned for today. In fact, it’s really just one word that jumped out at me: adoption. We spend a lot of time this season talking about babies being born. And that is one way that new people enter into a family. But it isn’t the only way. And it certainly isn’t the only way that people enter into God’s family. In the opening section of the Letter to the Ephesians, we hear about something else. We hear about adoption.

And you know me well enough to know that I’m going to give you the Greek word. The Greek word is υἱοθεσίαν. It literally translates as “to make into a son.” Greek is, like many languages, a structurally sexist language. There would not really be a gender inclusive word to use here such as “to make into a child.” But we can guess here that the author isn’t speaking only of men, but of all Christians, when he says that God adopts us as children through Jesus Christ. It is an interesting image, though, isn’t it, being adopted by God. We usually think of God’s parenthood of us as a birthright, something that we get because we are created by God. We are God’s children because God made us. But the author of Ephesians tells us not that we are born of God, but rather, that we are adopted by God.

As you know, our family has had some experience with adoption. All three of our kids here have come to us through adoption. We are incredibly grateful to be able to claim them as our own son and daughters and we are incredibly grateful to have them claim us as their own mother and father. Adoption is every bit as real as birth, every bit as meaningful.

I know some of you have experience with adoption, as well. Some of you are parents through adoption. Some of you are children or siblings through adoption. You know that it’s sometimes hard to remind others that adoption is real. I like this little cartoon Melissa came across a few years ago. You see the pregnant woman on the left, and the couple on the right saying, “Oh I’m sorry… you couldn’t adopt?” It’s just a way of illustrating the point. Adoption is real.

However, the process of adoption is quite different than the process of conception, pregnancy, and birth. It can be a very long process, much longer than 9 months. And it can be a very difficult process. At the same time that we were working on adoption, we had friends about our age who were having children through birth. For some of them, it was a very thought-out decision to have children. Some even had to seek medical help in order to conceive. But for others, pregnancy was an accident. Of course, many who become parents accidentally still take the role of parenting very seriously. But unfortunately, there are a few who see parenting as only an unwanted burden brought on by an accident.

With adoption, though, there are no accidents. No one wakes up with a hangover and realizes that they’ve accidentally filled out hundreds of pages of forms and written essays; accidentally had their fingerprints taken and had criminal background checks; accidentally completed home study interviews and given references; accidentally taken the required physicals exams, retinal scans, DNA testing and met the financial requirements. No, adoption has to be a very conscious, very deliberate decision, and it takes quite a bit of perseverance. You have to choose to adopt a child.

And it’s the same way with God. God doesn’t just love us because of some obligation that goes along with being the creator. We aren’t God’s children because of an accident. God chooses to love us. God chooses to adopt us as children. God chooses to include us in the family. And God chooses to grant us the inheritance of sons and daughters of the Most High. And that is a powerful message. That is a powerful message about God’s intention for us, about God’s commitment to us, about God’s longing for us.

For early Christians, adoption was an important way of explaining how it is that Gentile Christians, like you and me, could be a part of God’s family if God’s chosen people are supposed to be the Jews. It was common to talk about Israel as being God’s children, or to talk about the king being a son of God. But other nations, Gentiles, were often considered to be outside of God’s grace, outside of God’s natural family. But through Jesus Christ, the author of Ephesians argues, Christians are adopted into God’s family, with a status in every way equal to their Jewish siblings. We, by the grace of God, are a part of God’s family. We are God’s own children.

That isn’t quite the end of the story. The historian in me cannot resist pointing out that back when this epistle to the Ephesians was written, adoption was very different than it is today. When we think of adoptions, we usually think of cute little babies, or maybe infants. The adoption of older children is less common. But in the Greco-Roman world, adoption was almost always limited to grown men. Let me say that again. In the Greco-Roman world, adoption was almost always limited to grown, adult men. Today, adoption is a means of providing a loving home for a child; then, adoption was a means of gaining an heir or clearly defining a succession. Many Roman emperors, including Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, were adopted for precisely this reason: to clearly establish inheritance and succession.

For this reason, those who were adopted had great responsibility. They were expected to carry on the family into the future. Since adoption—at least legal adoption—was generally confined to the upper ranks of Roman society, this meant that the adoptee would have to do things like administer the family business, carry out diplomacy, and represent the family in the political arena. Adoptees had to be models of Roman values and maintain the family’s good image in the community and around the world.

And again, it is not that different with God. Yes, God chooses to love us and does so unconditionally. But at the same time, we, as adoptees of God, have responsibilities. We are expected to continue the family business, to execute diplomatic relations on behalf of the family, and to represent the family in the political arena. Let me say that again: as adoptees of God, we are expected to continue the family business, to execute diplomatic relations on behalf of the family, and to represent the family in the political arena.

Which begs the question, what is God’s family business? What does it mean to be God’s diplomat, or to be God’s representative in politics? What would it mean to show a profit for God? Would it be to bring in lots of money into the church coffers, to have enough influence to control the government and make the rules for other peoples? Would making a profit for God mean making as many disciples as possible, mass-producing Christians as quickly and cheaply as we can? Would it mean building a church on every block and cornering the market on religious devotion?

What is God’s family business? What is God in the business of doing? Is it money, numbers, devotion? Or is God in the business of mercy, kindness, compassion, love, charity, peace, hope, joy, justice, forgiveness, and service to the lowest and the least? Certainly this world is in need of those things. Certainly this world is in need of mercy, kindness, compassion, love, charity, peace, hope, joy, justice, forgiveness, and service.

If you and I are adopted by God through Jesus Christ, because God chooses to love us as daughters and sons, then how will we carry out our familial responsibilities? How will we administer God’s business, carry out God’s diplomacy, and represent God’s politics? How will our status as children of God affect the way we make choices every day, the way that we interact with other people, the way that we use our money, the way that we vote and campaign and advocate? How will we be models of Godly values and maintain God’s good image in the community? How can we live so that others will say, “Look at those Christians—you can just tell that compassion and hope and joy are a part of their very being”? If we are adoptees of God, then what will we do to invite and welcome others into the family? What will we do to establish a safe home for folks who maybe haven’t experienced a safe spiritual home before? What can we do to help others claim that identity as beloved children of God, chosen and adored? How will we share the stories of how we have been accepted and lifted up by God so that others might be able to claim that acceptance for themselves?

Our world needs those stories. Our world needs to hear what difference it makes to you to be children of God. Our world needs to see how God’s values make a difference in the way you live your life. Our world needs to know that God welcomes all, God welcomes all into God’s family.

And so the question simply is, how will we live as daughters and sons, adopted by choice, in love,  through grace, by the Most High God?

Sermon: Refugee Jesus

Sunday 29 December 2019
The Fifth Day of Christmas, The First Sunday of Christmas

Matthew 2:13-23

The reading from Matthew that we have this morning comes at a bit of a strange time. Next week, on January 6th, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, when we remember how the magi came from the east to find Jesus, whom they understood to be the newborn King of the Jews. But even though we haven’t gotten to that reading yet, this week, we have the section of Matthew that comes right after it. The magi have already met with Herod and told him of their search for a newborn king. They have already learned from Herod’s scholars that the messiah should be born in Bethlehem. They have already followed the star to find Jesus. They have already worshiped him and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They have already heard the warning of the angel and returned to their homes by another way, leaving King Herod to wonder what has happened to them and what to make of their story of a child who is a rival to his power. It is in the aftermath of all of those things that we get the story assigned to us this morning.

It’s King Herod the Great that we’re talking about. From 37 BCE until 4 BCE he ruled the entire Jewish homeland on behalf of the Romans: Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Idumea, the Decapolis, Transjordan. His official title, granted to him by the Senate of Rome, was “King of the Jews.”

In Herod’s lifetime, Judea had gone from being an independent kingdom to civil war to Roman control. Then his immediate predecessor as King of the Jews, Antigonus II, had led a successful revolution against the Romans and become king under the protection of the Parthian Empire, Rome’s greatest enemy at the time. Herod came to power by leading a Roman army to retake Judea for the Romans. Upon his victory, he handed Antigonus over to the Romans for execution.

Herod had no previous claim to the throne. He wasn’t a royal. He wasn’t even Jewish; he was Idumean. But with the backing of the Roman state and their legions, Herod became the most powerful king the Jewish people had known in generations. He built new cities. He built new fortresses. He built a technologically state-of-the-art port at Caesarea Philippi. He made a massive remodel of the temple in Jerusalem. He made Judea great again.

And he ruled with an iron fist. He did not hesitate to kill in order to maintain his power. He had one rival claimant to his throne assassinated in 35 BCE. He put down rebellions and riots. He employed a secret police force to monitor the loyalty of his own people. He kept 2,000 soldiers as a personal bodyguard. Shortly before his death, worried that people would not miss him, he ordered that when he died, several prominent Jews should be executed so that there would be greater mourning. Herod achieved a huge amount as king, but he was also capable of incredible violence and cruelty to maintain his rule. Judea was always on the edge of violence, always on the edge of rebellion, but Herod kept things under control. Herod maintained order. He was not a king who was loved; he was a king who was feared.

And toward the end of his reign, Matthew tells us, Herod was confronted with another threat to his authority: a child born in Bethlehem. A child whose birth was predicted by a strange celestial phenomenon. A child who was being sought by religious scholars from Rome’s greatest enemy, the Parthian Empire. A child whom they were calling the newborn King of the Jews.

Herod’s first response was to use these Parthian wizards, these magi, as agents to help him find this potential threat to his power. One way or another, this child would have to be dealt with. The easiest way would be to let these magi lead him to him. But when the magi double-crossed him and his plan failed, Herod decided on another plan. If he could not identify the one child who was a threat to his authority, he would simply eliminate every child who could possibly be the one he was looking for. He would kill every male child in Bethlehem under two years of age. If Jesus poses a threat to empire, then through Herod, the empire strikes back.

This is supposed to remind us of another story, of another child who was born to save his people, of another child who narrowly escaped genocide. In the time of Moses, the Pharaoh of Egypt ordered that all male children born to the Hebrew people be immediately killed, because he feared that the enslaved Hebrew people were becoming too strong to be controlled. However, several women from different social stations conspired together to save the life of baby Moses and have him raised as a prince of Egypt. Moses would later lead his people out of slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea. He would go on the be the lawgiver for Israel, the greatest of the prophets, the architect of the people of Israel.

In a kind of reverse of the Moses story, Jesus must escape Herod’s kill order on young boys by fleeing to Egypt for safety. An angel visits Joseph in his sleep and warns him about the impending slaughter. Jesus and his family flee political violence in their homeland, like so many others, and become refugees in Egypt. Separated from family, separated from property, separated from their means of livelihood, they have to make a home in a foreign land. They have to learn a new language, adapt to a new culture, and try to find a way of supporting themselves in a new society.

As a United Methodist, I’m familiar with the work of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in all sorts of situations of violence, dislocation, and poverty around the world. And I know that services to refugees is a part of the work that UMCOR does. I also know that Lutheran World Relief serves a somewhat similar function for Lutheran churches.

What I didn’t know until recently is the special affinity that many Lutherans have with immigration and refugee services. There is, in fact a separate institution that is devoted completely to that cause. The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has been operating in the United States for 80 years now. In those 80 years, they have resettled more than 500,000 refugees in the United States.

LIRS was originally formed in 1939 to help with the resettlement of Lutheran refugees from Europe. During and after WWII, a large number of European Lutherans found themselves expelled from or unsafe in their homes. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, LIRS resettled more than 30,000 displaced persons from Germany and Eastern Europe.

It originally started as a program to help fellow Lutherans, but it quickly expanded to include others. In 1956, LIRS resettled Hungarian refugees following a failed uprising against the Communist government in Budapest. In 1959, they assisted in the welcome of Cuban refugees on the ascension of Castro. In 1972, LIRS started welcoming Ugandan refugees who were fleeing the dictatorial government of Idi Amin. After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, LIRS resettled 16,000 refugees from Southeast Asia. In the 1990’s, LIRS welcomed refugees from Bosnia and Albania. In the first decade of this century, LIRS has been involved in resettling refugees from Sudan, Burma, Tibet, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Thailand.1

Currently, LIRS is working to put pressure on the US government to increase the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the United States each year. It’s the President who determines this cap, with consultation from Congress. “On average, since 1980, the annual Presidential Determination number has exceeded 95,000 persons. Since the year 2000, Presidential determinations have ranged from a low of 27,131 (in the year after the 9/11 attacks) to a high of 110,000 refugees. Although President Obama authorized 110,000 admissions for Fiscal Year 2017, President Trump later decreased that number to 50,000. Ultimately over 53,700 refugees were admitted in fiscal year 2017. For Fiscal Year 2018, President Trump authorized 45,000 refugee admissions. As of August 1, however, only 18,214 refugees had actually been admitted, and it is likely that the final admissions numbers will be no more than 20,000 persons–the lowest number ever in the history of the refugee program.” LIRS is lobbying for the ceiling to be raised to 95,000, which is the average ceiling over the last three decades.

LIRS states: “Aside from the obvious moral implications of closing our doors to refugees who have fled persecution and fear for their lives, the consequences of decreasing the refugee ceiling will directly impact America – economically, culturally, and geo-politically. With refugee arrivals at an unprecedented low, the communities and organizations that have formed around welcoming new Americans are feeling the repercussions. Economically, many small towns in America have come to rely on refugees as a key component of the local workforce; socially-speaking, cities and universities are missing out on the vibrant cultural contributions of refugees; and politically, U.S. allies are beginning to question our shared commitment to addressing international humanitarian crises.”

LIRS also notes that refugees have historically not posed a security risk to the US: “Refugees are subject to intensive screening and review before they are admitted to the United States. Each refugee is hand-selected by the Department of Homeland Security and screened by security agencies in an exhaustive process that involves DHS, FBI, DoD, DoS, HHS, and the US intelligence community. At the end of 2017, most refugees waited at least two years from the time of initial identification to arrival in the United States; that time has now stretched to 3 to 5 years because of new levels of processing and vetting requirements. There is no evidence that this extended time period has helped protect the United States and many experts believe it is unnecessarily exposing individuals to harm, separating families, and undermining U.S. interests abroad. Even before the high level of vetting that exists today, the refugee program has historically been a low-risk admissions program. In fact, a Cato Institute study assessing risks associated with immigrants and terrorism found that no refugees admitted to the United States after passage of the 1980 Refugee Act have committed a lethal terror attack on U.S. soil.”2

What is more, refugees often contribute significantly to the communities where they find a new home. “While there are some upfront costs associated with resettling refugees, numerous studies have found that refugees quickly begin to contribute more to the local economy than they receive in short-term federal assistance. In Cleveland, Ohio, for example, a long-term study of the impact of refugee resettlement in the area found positive economic contributions through consumer spending, payment of state and local taxes, entrepreneurship, home purchases, and job creation. A 2017 study by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that refugee households earned 77.2 billion dollars in 2015, resulting in 6.4 billion dollars in state and local taxes and 14.5 billion dollars in federal taxes. Big cities and small towns alike have often made refugee resettlement a priority as part of their plans for economic development because the investment in welcoming refugees nets a positive return in revenue, human capital, and cultural diversity.”

But in addition to all of this, we must remember that Jesus himself was a refugee of state violence. Jesus was an immigrant. He and Mary and Joseph certainly did not have legal permission from Egypt to enter their borders. Jesus, the one we call Lord of Life, Christ, Messiah, Son of God, was found among the most vulnerable people anywhere, among the refugees.

It is easy to dehumanize people who we don’t know personally. It is easy to paint immigrants and refugees as dangerous, risky, strange, other, foreign. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us that Jesus was a refugee, Jesus was an immigrant, and that we should see the face of Jesus in every refugee and immigrant. Because, as we are reminded in Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, wherever we encounter the hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant, the unclothed, the homeless, the sick, the prisoner, it is there that we encounter Christ: “When you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”

Welcome for the stranger is a part of our DNA as Christians. It finds a particularly strong voice in our heritage as Lutherans. Immigration is essential to the story of our nation. Even more, it is essential to the story of our faith. It is essential to the story of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And so, when we encounter the refugee, the immigrant, the sojourner, let us remember that it is then that we encounter the Christ.

Homily: There Was No Place for Him

Tuesday 24 December 2019
Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

The Gospel of Luke puts the story of Jesus’s birth within the context of empire. At the very beginning of the passage we hear about Caesar Augustus, who rules over and collects taxes from the entire Roman Empire. We hear about Quirinius, who was the Roman governor of Syria. And Luke doesn’t name these men by accident or just as a way of specifying the time of Jesus’s birth. Luke names Augustus and Quirinus for very important symbolic reasons.

The man called Caesar Augustus was born Gaius Octavius. His father was a middling Roman senator, but his mother was the niece of the famous Gaius Julius Caesar. For centuries, Rome had functioned as a Republic, with power shared among all of the aristocrats. They detested the idea of a king. But Julius Caesar sought to change all that and establish himself as perpetual ruler of Rome. Several of his colleagues and friends conspired together to murder him, to keep him from becoming a king. In his will, he named his grand-nephew, Gaius Octavius, as his heir and adoptive son. After a series of civil wars, Octavius achieved what Julius Caesar never could. He became the undisputed ruler of Rome. By the time of Jesus’s birth, his name had been changed to Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus. It means “Victorious General Caesar, Son of God, Almighty.” All across the empire, statues and temples were erected in honor of Emperor Augustus, and the people worshiped him like a god. Whenever he accomplished something great, or whenever a new member of his family was born, news would be sent out by official messengers to every corner of the empire. That news had a special name: Evangelium, Good News, Gospel.

Luke presents us with a competing message of Good News. Luke presents us with a competing Gospel. The child Jesus is born not in a palace, but in a stable. His first bed is not an ornate crib, but a feeing trough. He is the Son of God, not because he was adopted by a victorious general who was deified by the Senate, but because he is son of the one, true God of Israel. He is a king not because he dominates the people under his control, but because he transcends the power of human rulers. He is savior, not because he wields political authority, but because he heals the human heart. He brings peace, not at the point of a sword, but though the power of his words and deeds. He is victorious, not because he leads armies to conquer new peoples, but because through his resurrection, he has conquered death itself. His birth is announced not by royal messengers, but by heavenly beings. The news is announced not to wealthy aristocrats, but to common, ordinary shepherds out in the fields. Jesus is the head of a different kind of kingdom, a different kind of empire. God’s Empire is not led by a man who draws all power to himself and enforces his power with legions of soldiers, but by a child lying in a manger, child who will grow up to heal, to preach good news, to challenge the oppressive authorities, to overturn the tables of moneychangers, and to teach a radical love that breaks down the barriers between people.

The other Roman mentioned in our passage, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, is famous for two things. One is being mentioned here in the Gospel of Luke. The other is for performing a tax census that led to a Jewish revolt. A man called Judas of Galilee led the insurgency. His followers became known as Zealots, and he was thought of by many as a Messiah. The Gospel of Luke presents us with a different kind of Messiah. He does not encourage his followers to take up arms, but invites them to win their battles with the power of radical love, forgiveness, and generosity.

Jesus is an unlikely savior. One would think that the Son of God could do better. He wasn’t born in the center of power at Rome, but in a sleepy village in a backwater province on the edge of the civilized world. He wasn’t counted as the son of an aristocrat or a warrior or a priest, but as the son of a carpenter. His mother was not a princess or queen, but an unmarried girl from Galilee. And his birth was not attended by the nobility, but by shepherds and barnyard animals, because there was no room for them inside.

It is worth remembering that the one we call Wonderful Counsellor, Almighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace, Christ, Messiah, Savior, Son of God had no wealth or power in his lifetime, and he seems to have had no ambition for them either. He stood in solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable. He healed illnesses and cast out demons. He touched those who were considered untouchable. He spoke and ate with outcasts. He challenged the political authorities and called for justice: justice for the poor, justice for the oppressed, justice for the imprisoned, justice for the immigrant, justice for the weak, justice for the homeless, justice for the foreigner, justice for the excluded, justice for the marginalized. He called us to love our neighbors and to love our enemies, to practice a love that is so powerful it casts out all fear.

In a media environment that is built on fear, anger, and outrage, Jesus offers forgiveness, compassion, and love. In a political environment that is built on division, prejudice, and exclusion, Jesus offers acceptance and inclusion. In an economic environment that is built on acquisition and profit, Jesus offers gratitude and generosity. In a social environment that is built on anxiety and competition, Jesus offers assurance and solidarity. That is the miracle of the unlikely savior.

There was no place for him in the house in Bethlehem, but let us make a place for him now. Make a place for him in your home. Make a place for him in your family. Make a place for him in your work. Make a place for him in your relationships. Make a place for him in your finances. Make a place for him in your life, in your time, each day. Make a place for the unlikely savior and experience his healing, his compassion, his grace, his love. Make a place for Jesus the Christ, born to poor Mary in a stable, yet Son of the Almighty God. Amen.

Sermon: They Will Call Him Emmanuel

Sunday 22 December 2019
The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25

“A young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanual.” These are famous words of the Prophet Isaiah, made famous largely because they are quoted by the Gospel of Matthew in relation to the birth of Jesus. For Matthew, it’s about the virgin birth of Jesus and Jesus’s status as God-with-Us. But these words were around long before Matthew, 800 years before, in fact. And before they were ever applied to Jesus, they meant something else.

The context for this pronouncement is given in the first part of chapter 7 of Isaiah. The dominant force at the time is the Assyrian Empire, headquartered in what is now the Kurdish territory of northern Iraq, not far from Mosel. The Hebrew people are divided into two different kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel in the north with its capital in Samaria and the Kingdom of Judah in the south with its capital in Jerusalem. Both, to one degree or another, are under the influence of the Assyrian Empire. The northern Kingdom of Israel has made an alliance with the neighboring Kingdom of Aram, headquartered in Damascus in modern Syria. These two kingdoms want to launch a rebellion against the Assyrian Empire, but they don’t think they can succeed without the help of the Kingdom of Judah. However, King Ahaz of Judah does not want to join the rebellion, so the rebel alliance of Israel and Aram decide to attack Judah first, kill King Ahaz, and put someone else on the throne of Judah, someone who will go along with their rebellion.

King Ahaz is afraid. He does not think that his little kingdom can stand up to the combined military power of his two neighbors. And he is afraid for himself, that he will be deposed or killed and his kingdom taken away from him. Because he thinks that his kingdom cannot stand on its own, he is contemplating asking for help from a much larger entity. He is contemplating inviting the Assyrian Empire to come in and protect him from Israel and Aram. But, of course, this is a tremendous risk. Ahaz’s potential ally could be much more dangerous to him than his enemies. Asking Assyria to enter the conflict would be like a chicken asking a wolf to come protect it from a goose and a duck.

Isaiah advises patience and faith. Do not be afraid, he says. Have faith in God. Don’t put your trust in Assyria. God has promised to protect you, and God will fulfill that promise. Be calm. Face your enemies without fear, because God will be at your side. But King Ahaz is still afraid. He still thinks he needs to reach out to a powerful empire in order to protect himself.

At the beginning of our passage from Isaiah, Ahaz is preparing for the attack on Judah, and the Prophet Isaiah goes to King Ahaz of Judah in order to reassure him. God speaks to King Ahaz and says, “Ask for a sign from YHWH your God. Make it as deep as the underworld or as high as the heavens.” That’s pretty unusual, isn’t it? God offers to give Ahaz any sign that he wants. There are no limits to what God is willing to do to prove God’s point to Ahaz.

Imagine that for a moment. Have you ever had a situation where you asked God for a sign? You were trying to make a difficult decision or to face a truth that you didn’t want to face, and you asked God to give you a sign about it. I’m usually happy to get a beautiful sunset, or a bird in a tree, or just a certain sense of a feeling. Many times I don’t really get anything. Here God directly offers to give Ahaz any sign that he asks for, no limits.

Ahaz responds, “I won’t ask; I won’t test the Lord.” It sounds like it might be a very pious answer. It sounds a lot like what Jesus says to the devil when he is being tested in the wilderness. Ahaz doesn’t wanted to put God to the test. However, that’s probably not what is happening here. Ahaz isn’t too pious to ask God for a sign. Rather, Ahaz does not want to hear what God has to say. If he doesn’t get a sign, then he won’t have proof of what God is saying.

Which explains why Isaiah hits him with such a snide response: “Is it not enough for you to be tiresome for people that you must also be tiresome for my God?” Isaiah isn’t going to take it. God has offered to give the sign of Ahaz’s choosing, and he’s not going to get out of hearing God’s word just by refusing to name a sign. The king is going to get a sign anyway.

“Look! The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.”

So here’s what’s happening. Isaiah is saying that there is already a young woman who is pregnant. The Hebrew doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s a virgin, just that she is young. She’s pregnant. She’s about to give birth to a son. She’s going to name the son Immanuel. It is not explicitly stated, but this young woman is probably Isaiah’s wife, and the son who will be born is his son. Prophets sometimes made a point by giving their children a meaningful name. Isaiah named his first son Shear-jashub, which means “a remnant shall return.” He named his youngest son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. This must have been a pretty tough name to live with. A lot of people complain about the names that their parents give them, but at least most of them weren’t named Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. It means, “spoil quickly, plunder speedily.” Hopefully he used a nickname.

Isaiah’s middle son, though, he gave the name Immanuel. It’s a compound word. Im means with. Nu is a first-person plural suffix. So Immanu means with us. The last part of the name is the general semitic word for God. It gets used in lots of Hebrew names. Israel, Ishmael, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha. So all together, Immanuel means with-us God. But it can also be translated a little differently. In Hebrew, when you write a sentence without a verb, then the to-be verb is implied. So Immanuel would mean God is with us. Or if we were following the Hebrew word order, it would be “With us God is.”

So Isaiah’s own son, Immanuel, God-is-with-us, is supposed to be a sign for King Ahaz. But what is this sign? What is it supposed to mean? “Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.” Isaiah means that by the time his about-to-be-born son is able to do basic moral reasoning, the threat to Judah will be over. Both Israel and Aram will be defeated. By the time this child is 2 or 3 years old, Judah will no longer be in danger from its neighboring kingdoms. In other words, King Ahaz should trust God. Ahaz should trust that God is in fact with him, and with all of the people of Judah. He does not need to seek protection from somewhere else. He does not need to ask for help from Assyria or from Egypt. He should let go of his fear and have faith that God will provide, that God will protect. Only two or three more years, and it will all be over. God is with him. God will see him through. Do not be afraid. Trust in God. Do not be led by fear. Have faith in God’s love.

Nearly eight centuries later, the author of the Gospel of Matthew came to this text again and found new meaning in it. He wasn’t reading it in Hebrew, though. He was reading a Greek translation known as the Septuagint. And the Greek translation changed the meaning a bit. Rather than talking about a young woman who is currently pregnant the Septuagint speaks of a virgin who will become pregnant. Matthew saw that and immediately thought of Jesus. “Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel, God-with-us.”

The gift of Jesus as Emmanuel, God-with-us, is a gift of God’s love. God cares so much for us, and for our wellbeing, that God sends Jesus to live among us, to become one of us, to show divine solidarity with us fragile human beings.

And the gift of God’s love in Jesus, our Emmanuel, presents us with the same choice that King Ahaz faced. Will we choose fear, or will we choose faith? Will we live a life that is built on suspicion and anxiety, or will we live a life that is built on trust and compassion?

Where will we look for security? Will we look for it in the endless quest for more money and possessions? Will we look for it in a prejudice that separates us from those we see as enemies and outsiders? Will we look for it through membership in a tribe that promises to be superior to everyone else?

Or will we look for our security in the God who loves us enough to live with us? Will we look for it in the inner peace and assurance that comes from time spent with God in prayer, worship, and devotion? Will we look for it in the community of people in which we live and love and move. Will we look for it in our Emmanuel who crosses social boundaries and calls us to do the same?

That is choice for our lives: fear or faith. If we know that God is with us, if we experience God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, if we find that our lives expand when we choose love, then it is not a question at all. Emmanuel is here. We don’t need to be afraid. God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.