Go and Do Likewise

Sunday 14 July 2019
The Fifth Sunday of Pentecost

Luke 10:25-37

The scene opens on Jesus as he is on his way to Jerusalem. He has sent out his seventy disciples already to spread the good news and heal, and they have returned with their reports. And now something happens that seems a bit strange to us, but it must have been quite ordinary for people at the time.

Someone comes up and asks Jesus a question. Most bible translations call him a lawyer or a legal expert., and that is accurate to some degree, but it is also a bit confusing. What he is is an expert in the bible. He knows the words of scripture inside and out, and it’s his job to know the bible and interpret it for the people in his community, in his village.

So this bible expert comes up to Jesus and asks him a question. Luke tells us that he asks the question in order to test Jesus. That’s the part that seems a bit strange to us modern readers. Why would someone who is otherwise a stranger come and ask Jesus a question in order to test him? He must be one of the people who is trying to bring down Jesus. Maybe he is even part of the conspiracy to get Jesus killed. It’s difficult to think of any other motivation this lawyer would have to test Jesus, and so we often jump to cast him in the role of villain.

In fact, he is not a villain, and people at the time would have had no such confusion. They would have immediately understood, without even thinking about it, what was going on. It was quite common, and is still common today in cultures that highly value honor, for men to engage in these sorts of verbal battles. Scholars today call them “challenge and riposte.” It’s a sort of game of wits in which the two participants put their honor on the line, and the winner comes out with more honor, the loser with less.

When the bible expert comes up and asks a question of Jesus in order to test him, he is making a challenge to Jesus’s honor, but it isn’t necessarily hostile or malevolent. This is simply what people did. It was a sort of game, and anyone who thought they knew the scriptures well might have come up and challenged this traveling rabbi with a question simply to prove which one of them had a better command of the bible.

So let’s get into what they actually say. The bible expert challenges Jesus with the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus accepts the challenge and counter-challenges by turning the question back on the questioner, “You’re a bible expert. What does the bible say? What do you read there?”

You see, now our young lawyer thinks he’s got the upper hand in this argument. He has a textbook answer ready to go and once he gives it, Jesus won’t be able to say anything back. He will have won. So he gives his flawless answer, quoted from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all you mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Nothing Jesus can say to that, or so he thinks.

Jesus concedes that the bible expert has gotten it right. Normally this would mean that Jesus had lost the battle of wits. But instead, Jesus counter-challenges not with a technical question, but with a call to action: “Do this, and you will live.”

The bible expert is caught by surprise. He had been on top in their little competition, but now Jesus has upped the stakes by implying that he, an expert in the scripture, has not been living out the scriptural call to love God and neighbor that he has been preaching. He can’t leave it at that. He’s got to respond. And so he asks Jesus another question, “And who is my neighbor?”

He seems to be trying to trip Jesus up again. Whom will Jesus include as neighbor, and who will Jesus leave out? According to the bible, it’s other members of the household of Israel who are neighbors, and maybe sojourners in the land of Israel, but no one else. Foreign merchants and tax collectors weren’t neighbors. The Roman soldiers and government officials weren’t neighbors. And certainly those heretics in Samaria were not neighbors. They were enemies, and there was no need to love them. They should only be hated and resisted.

Jesus, of course, has a very different answer. But he doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead, he tells a story. A man is traveling the sometimes dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho when he is robbed, stripped, and beaten half to death. A priest goes by, a levite goes by, but a Samaritan stops and helps.

Now, priests and levites were at the top of the Jewish religious hierarchy. They were people set apart to be pure and holy for God, and as such, they had several purity laws spelled out in the bible that they were bound to keep. They had to stay holy and undefiled so that when they served in God’s temple, the offerings they made would be pure and undefiled. They were not allowed to come into contact with human blood, and they certainly were not allowed to touch a corpse. The only time a priest could touch a corpse would be to bury his own parent, and even then he would be made ritually unclean and would be barred from serving in the temple for some time until he was purified. It would have been a major breach of protocol for a priest or a Levite to approach what would have looked to them like a naked corpse. It would have been an abomination before God to allow one of God’s priests to be defiled in such a way.

A Samaritan, on the other hand, would not have had the same concerns about staying pure, but no self-respecting Israelite would have wanted to be touched by a Samaritan. They were believers in God, and they read the bible just like Israelites, but both Israel and Samaria considered each other to be hopeless heretics and enemies. The last person this man on the roadside would have expected to help him was a Samaritan.

Jesus rejects the premise of the question, “Who is my neighbor?” and instead proposes another question, “Who acts as a neighbor?” Love in the spirit of God is not about asking, “Who is worthy of love?” It is about asking, “Who has the grace to love another, even an enemy?”

It’s easy for us to put up barriers between ourselves and others. It’s easy for us to draw lines between those who are inside and those who are outside, those whom we are willing to love and those whom we are not. This person isn’t religious enough. She’s too liberal. He’s too conservative. He’s too old. She’s too young. They look different than we do. They speak a different language. They have a different religion. They come from a different country. They aren’t worthy. They don’t belong. They are outsiders. It’s easy for us to say, “I’m willing to go this far, but that is simply too much.”

But if we are to take Jesus’s words seriously, then we have to challenge those ideas. We have to challenge the idea that there are some people who are outside the love of God, some people whom we can simply discount, ignore, or marginalize. For those who seek to follow Jesus, that simply is not the case. Jesus calls us to love God and to love our neighbors—all of our neighbors, even the ones we don’t like very much. As Jesus tells us, we are to love even our enemies.

And is that easy? No, it’s not. There are some people that we have good reason to be wary of. And we each hold prejudices that we have collected over a lifetime, some of which have been handed down to us from generations past. It is not easy to love people whom we find different, or offensive, or even dangerous. But with the help of God, we can go beyond tolerance, we can go beyond acceptance, and we can love all of God’s children with the love of God, just as we ourselves have first been loved by God.

Sermon: Why Are You Here?

Sunday 23 June 2019
The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 12C

1 Kings 19:1-15a

Not this last week, but the week before, I was at the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. We met in the same hotel as the Lutheran Oregon Synod meeting last month. The Oregon Synod Assembly in May was singularly focused on the election of a bishop, and we celebrate the election of Rev. Laurie Larson Caesar, the synod’s first female bishop. The Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference was singularly focused on the church’s General Conference last February in St. Louis.

As many of you know, the global United Methodist Church called a special meeting to deal with issues of human sexuality, particularly with regard to LGBTQ persons in the church. For several decades now, there has been a struggle in the church. The controversy mainly hinges on whether gays and lesbians can serve as clergy and whether the church can perform same-sex weddings.

Many Christian denominations have been dealing with similar controversies. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America made a landmark change in 2009, when the Churchwide Assembly voted to allow synods to lift restrictions on LGBTQ clergy. ELCA synods and bishops are still allowed to bar candidates for ministry based on their sexuality, but they are no longer required to. Our own Oregon Synod has taken a strong stand on being inclusive of LGBTQ persons in all areas of church leadership, including as clergy.

The situation in The United Methodist Church is a bit more complicated, unfortunately. The UMC started as a denomination in the USA, but it grew to include Methodist churches in other parts of the world. The UMC doesn’t include all of world Methodism. For example, none of the Methodist churches in Latin America are part of the UMC, nor is the massive Korean Methodist Church. But The UMC does include the Methodist churches in the Philippines, along with many Methodist churches in Africa and eastern Europe.

This means a church that is very culturally diverse. The church has long recognized this cultural diversity. We’ve understood that churches in rural Africa operate in a different environment than those in Portland. We’ve recognized that churches in Manilla have a different context than churches in the Columbia Gorge. So there is one book that governs the operations of The United Methodist Church. It’s called the Book of Discipline. But churches in jurisdictions outside the United States are able to make some changes and adjustments based on their local contexts.

However, churches in the United States don’t have that same flexibility. We are required to abide by every part of the Discipline. However, when it comes deciding what goes in the Book of Discipline, delegates from everywhere get to vote. This means that delegates from outside the US get to vote for rules that are binding in the US, but they themselves are not necessarily bound by the same rules.

For many years now, the Discipline has affirmed that gays and lesbians are of sacred worth, but it has also ruled that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” shall not be ordained. It also forbids same-sex weddings.

By rule, the General Conference of the UMC meets every four years, the same years as the Summer Olympics. It gathers about 1000 delegates from all over the world. For the last few decades, every four years, sexuality has been at the heart of the debate. And while Methodists in the US have been shifting toward inclusion, the demographics of The UMC have been shifting away from the US. As a result, the position of The UMC has been gradually becoming more conservative.

For at least a decade, our Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference, along with several other regional conferences, have been declining to enforce the church’s restrictions on LGBTQ clergy. In response, the more conservative parts of the church have tried to close loopholes. Every four years, the two sides have battled it out at General Conference.

After the 2016 General Conference in Portland, the Council of Bishops decided it was time for a new approach. They called for a special meeting of the General Conference, to be held in 2019, with the single purpose of dealing with issues of sexuality. The sponsored a special Commission on the Way Forward, with members from all over the world. Over three years, they met to try to develop a solution to what had become an intractable problem. Eventually they proposed a plan called the One Church Plan. It sought to do basically what the ELCA did in 2009, to acknowledge the disagreement in the church and to allow conferences, local churches, and clergy to act according to their own conscience.

However, that is not the plan that carried the day in February. Instead, a plan was introduced from the floor, called the Traditional Plan. It held the line against LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage, and it introduced several new punitive measures on those violated those restrictions. This is the plan that narrowly passed. Were the vote taken only among US delegates, the One Church Plan would have easily passed.

Which brings us to last week in Eugene, at the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. There can be no doubt that Conference was dominated by the momentous action in February. We engaged in a series of small group conversations on the issue. We passed several resolutions affirming our baptismal covenant to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. We stated that we find the church’s current position to be inconsistent with the gospel, and we reaffirmed our commitment to resist the exclusion of our LGBTQ siblings. We elected delegates to the 2020 General Conference. Both of our delegates are members of the LGBTQ community, as is one of our two alternates. We voted to become a safe harbor conference, where LGBTQ clergy who feel at risk can transfer their membership. We commissioned and ordained new pastors and deacons. We worshiped together. We felt the movement of the Holy Spirit.

It is not clear what will come next. The new restrictive provisions of the Discipline will come into effect on January 1. It is possible that after that date, United Methodists from other conferences will try to bring complaints against our clergy. General Conference will happen again, on its regular schedule, in May of next year. Certainly these issues will be re-litigated there. It’s possible that it will result in a more moderate stance. It’s possible that things will stay basically the same, with a continuing impasse.

It’s also possible that there will be a division in the church. Methodists have split before. We split over slavery in the 19th century before coming back together in the 1930’s. It could happen again. If that were to happen, you can be sure that Oregon-Idaho, along with every other conference in the western US, would go with the side that favors inclusion.

When Elijah the prophet is feeling discouraged, when he feels like he has enemies on every side, when he thinks that everything he is striving for is amounting to nothing, he travels to God’s mountain. God asks him, “Why are you hear, Elijah?” And Elijah recounts his tale of woe. But then God reveals Godself to Elijah, not in the strong wind, not in the violent earthquake, not in the searing fire, but in the silence, in the still small voice.

Many in the church who have been striving for justice feel discouraged like Elijah. After all this work, after all this prayer, after all this organizing, it never seems to make a difference. And we are asked, “What are you doing here?” We have been passionate for the Lord God. We have been called to proclaim the radically liberating message of Jesus Christ. We have been called to announce good news. And though it may be hard to find God’s presence in the windy speech, or in the rattling tremors, or in the fiery tempers, we can still find God in the silence. We can still find God in the still small voice. We can still find God in the whisper of freedom.

And that may be enough to give us the strength to continue on. We do not know what the future may hold. We do not know where or how God might act. But we know that when we listen, God’s voice is there. We know that we are called to do our part. And we pray that God will give us the wisdom and the strength to live out the gospel, today, tomorrow, and always.

Sermon: Trouble Produces Endurance

Sunday 16 June 2019
Trinity Sunday

Romans 5:1-5

One of the great moral philosophers of our time has said, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” That philosopher, of course, is Master Yoda. He tells about something like a slippery slope. One thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another, and before you know it, things have gotten a whole lot worse. So if you want to avoid suffering, then you should avoid hate. If you want to avoid hate, then you should avoid anger. If you want to avoid anger, you should avoid fear. It is a lesson in mindfulness. Beware of where your thoughts wander, because when your mind becomes comfortable with fear, it will more easily move to anger. And when it becomes comfortable with anger, it will more easily move to hate. And when your mind becomes comfortable with hate, it will be comfortable with suffering, more specifically, with inflicting suffering on others. So be mindful of your hatred. Be mindful of your anger. Be mindful of your fear.

In the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans today, we hear about another kind of progression. And interestingly, it starts in the same place that Yoda ends. Hate leads to suffering, Yoda said. Paul begins with suffering. The translation we read this morning uses the word trouble. We even take pride in our sufferings, Paul says, because we know that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Rather than sliding down a slippery slope, Paul finds that suffering and trouble actually lead, step by step, to something better. How does he make it to that conclusion?

He starts with trouble, suffering. The Greek word is θλῖψις. It literally means pressure, like physical pressure. The feeling of something weighing down, something pressing in. From that sense of compression, it has a metaphorical sense of oppression. It is generally something that comes from outside. It’s not an interior strife. It’s something from outside that puts pressure on your life. For Paul, it probably meant the added pressure that came along with being a Christian, or with being a missionary, in his time—the threat of persecution from the government, the pain of being excluded from family and friends who don’t understand, the suspicion from neighbors.

Some of those pressures are still relevant today. Here in the United States we aren’t under any threat from the government for being Christian. But we do still run the risk of looking strange, looking foolish for our faith. We live in a culture in which participation in a faith community is not the norm. And living by our Christian values, standing up for justice for marginalized peoples can land one in prison. Several of our Lutheran and Methodist sisters and brothers were arrested recently, protesting for humane treatment and access to legal services for those who are being indefinitely detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They put their own freedom on the line to fight for those whose freedom has been taken away altogether. Living out your Christian values can be risky. Living your Christian values can put you at risk. Living your Christian values can put you under pressure.

But pressure, suffering, might come from other sources. The suffering of grief, the suffering of medical issues, family strife, poverty, prejudice, discrimination, intolerance, hunger, homelessness. Any of these can add weight to your life, can add pressure. Pressure that splits a family in two, puts people on streets..

Paul knows that that kind of pressure can be destructive. He does not encourage people to go out looking for suffering. He does not suggest that people should remain in a state of oppression, but that they should struggle against it.

But he also knows that, by God’s grace, sometimes even suffering can be redeemed. Sometimes suffering can lead to something good.

And the next step on that road of transformation is endurance. Suffering produces endurance. This is a tough one. Endurance. Does it mean simply that you endure suffering, that you survive even though you are in a state of suffering? Does it mean quietly putting up with oppression?

I don’t think so. The Greek word is ὑπομονὴ. It literally means remaining behind, but it is commonly used as endurance, patience—those both sound pretty passive. But it also means perseverance, patient expectation, even obstinance.

Endurance is not passive. It is not simply taking pain. Endurance is about seeing the struggle through to the end. Endurance is not about laying down in the midst of struggle. Endurance is about standing up in the midst of struggle, getting up every time you fall down, moving forward, forward, forward, even in the face of opposition.

When you are in the midst of the struggle, it might not seem like endurance is a good thing. You might feel overwhelmed. You might feel as though no good could ever come out of your situation. You might well feel as though you wish you weren’t in the situation. And like I said, you shouldn’t go out looking for suffering just so you can develop endurance. But when you are in a situation of suffering, it just might be that your endurance is strengthened. It just might be that God pulls good out of the situation of your troubles, in the form of endurance, perseverance, even obstinance.

Struggle produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Doesn’t that sound like something a parent would say when their child complains about whatever it is that they are frustrated with? Oh, it builds character. Talking about character-building can be a bit dismissive of what it is that someone has endured. But Paul agrees with the common wisdom that persisting in the midst of suffering can produce character.

The Greek word is δοκιμὴ. It actually refers to a test or a proof, and then comes to refer to something that has been tested. It is the character of someone who has been proven because they have endured an ordeal.

When you sit down and think about yourself, about who you are as a person, as you think about what constitutes your character, your personality, what is it that produces that character, that personality? Perhaps some of it is just innate in who you are. But some of it comes from your experiences in life. And does your character flow from the experiences in your life that were easy? Or does your character flow from the experiences in your life that were hard? Some of both, I imagine, but likely the strongest parts of you were developed through your struggles, were the parts that were broken and then grew back stronger, like a bone or callus. There may also be tender places within you, the residue of old wounds, but even those tender places can be a source of strength. It is out of our own woundedness that we develop compassion. Sometimes enduring hardship can toughen you up. Sometimes enduring hardship can soften you up. Either of those might make you a stronger person. 

So suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character. But what comes next? What is the point of all of this suffering and persistence and character-building? What makes it all worthwhile? What does character lead to?

It’s not victory. It’s not dominance. It’s not safety or security. And it’s not resignation or apathy or despair. Paul tells us that character leads to hope.

And that may seem a bit unsatisfying. After all, hope is not fulfillment. Hope is not completion. Hope is still open and expectant.

Because the truth is that we can never ultimately fix our lives, and we can never ultimately fix our society. We can make progress, but there will always be more. There will always be another illness. There will always be another death. There will always be another broken relationship. There will always be another injustice.

And that can be very deflating. It can be very discouraging. Sometimes we feel so overwhelmed that we begin to think that nothing is worthwhile any more. Why even try if things are never going to be right? Why even try if things are always going wrong?

The why is, if we don’t try, things will never get better. But it’s also that if we don’t try, things can get a whole lot worse.

This is where the idea of the devil can actually be useful. Most of us probably don’t have a particularly strong sense of there being an actual being or person that is the devil. It’s not an essential part of the faith. It’s something we can disagree about and still be church together. I tend to think of the devil as more of a metaphor than an actual being. But that also means, especially in a society that is as stable as ours is, that things are always getting better. Technology advances, scientific discoveries advance. So should ethics and justice, right? But that also gives the impression that if we just leave things alone, the world will stay about the same.

If you believe in the devil, though, that doesn’t make any sense. The devil is intent on stirring up evil. The devil is working every day to make things worse. And that means that every day, people need to be resisting, need to be working to undo the evil that the devil is doing. And the truth is, new evil is always being stirred up in the world. If we just give up and do nothing, things won’t stay the same, things will get worse.

It’s a bit like laundry. No matter how hard I work at it, I can never get all of the laundry done. I can never make it so there is no dirty laundry. But if I get discouraged and start to think that there’s no point in doing laundry because the laundry never gets done, things won’t stay the same. Things will get worse. Things will get a whole lot worse, and very fast.

When we struggle to overcome suffering, injustice, and oppression, there is always going to be more work to do. It’s not like writing a paper or earning a degree, something that you can finish and it’s done. It’s like tending a garden or maintaining a house. The work is never done, because there is always something new to do. We can make things better. But if we stop the struggle, things won’t stay the same, things will get worse.

And that’s where hope comes into the picture. Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. The Greek is ἐλπὶς. It’s hope, but it’s not always positive. It can mean anxiety about the future. But it can also mean exception and the prospect of something new. Character produces hope, and hope gives us the strength to keep going. Hope inspires us. Hope gives us reason and purpose. Hope trusts that even when we cannot see it, the things that we do make a difference. Hope is the grace of God, the good that God draws out of suffering.

And it is with God’s hope, God’s expectation, that we live. It is in God’s hope that we are transformed. It is in God’s hope that we are made new. It is in God’s hope that we face whatever it is that we have to face. It is in God’s hope that we overcome. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: How Can Each of Us Hear?

Sunday 9 June 2019
Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21

Today is the festival of Pentecost. It is named Pentecost because it happens on the fiftieth and final day of the Season of Easter. It was already a festival in the Jewish Calendar, occurring 50 days after the Passover. In the Jewish tradition, it is known as the Festival of Weeks, because it happened seven weeks after Passover, that is, a week of weeks. It is a harvest festival, celebrating the maturing of the first crops, and also a commemoration of Moses receiving the Law from God on Mt. Sinai.

Christians know Pentecost as the birthday of the church. It is one of those stories that we hear every year. Every year, 49 days after Easter, we read the same passage from Acts 2. The city of Jerusalem is filled with Jewish pilgrims from around the known world. The disciples, both men and women, are gathered there, as well. Suddenly, they have a profound experience of the Holy Spirit. They hear a strong wind in the sky, that grows and comes into the house where they are gathered. They see the flicker of flames in the air, until each flame settles and lands on the head of one of the disciples. They feel like they are being filled with this holy wind, this holy breath, this holy spirit. Suddenly, they are outside of the house, and somehow, through the power of this holy wind, they are speaking in all of the languages of the known world, from Iran to Arabia to Libya to Rome. If we were talking about the same area of land today, we might say that they were speaking Italian, Romani, Sardinian, Catalan, Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Albanian, Armenian, Greek, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Romanian, Georgian, Azeri, Turkish, Kurdish, Turkmeni, Assyrian, Persian, Farsi, Tati, Talishi, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Raji, Qaqshqa’i, Berber, Djerbi, Nafusi, Sokna, Awjila, Siwa, Coptic, Hebrew, Nubian,  and at least 30 different dialects of Arabic. Everyone who is there, gathered for the festival, can hear the disciple speaking in their own native language.

Sometimes we say that the miracle of Pentecost is a miracle of speaking, and sometimes we say that it is a miracle of hearing. Is it a miracle that the disciples can speak different languages, or is it a miracle that the crowd can hear them in their own, native languages? Should we be imagining each disciple speaking in a particular language while all of the listeners struggle to find the disciple who is speaking the language they know? Or should we be imagining a sort of cacophonous sound coming from the disciples, but everyone in the crowd miraculously hears their own language being spoken? Our answer to this question will shape how we understand the significance of Pentecost.

I have tended to understand Pentecost as a miracle of hearing. It’s not so important that the disciples are given some kind of linguistic mastery, it’s important that everyone there can hear in their native language. They wouldn’t have needed to hear in their own languages in order to understand. Everyone gathered in Jerusalem would have spoken at least some Greek. That’s why Peter is able to talk to them all after the Pentecost experience; they can all speak the lingua franca of Greek.

The miracle, then, would have something to do with hospitality. People who hear in their own language can hear in the language of their heart. They do not have to strain to understand in a language that is not their own. They do not have to struggle to understand what is being said. They can have the message presented to them as if they were at home. It takes a people who are uncomfortable, far from home, and makes them comfortable.

I’ve preached that sermon to you before. God’s grace greets people with a radical hospitality. God tears down the barriers between people. God invites in those who were previously considered outsiders. And that is a good message.

This year, though, I read an interpretation of this story, from Willie Jennings, that presents quite a different message. Jennings insists that in the Pentecost story speaking is much more important than hearing. According to Jennings, the power of the Holy Spirit forces the disciples into a new action that they did not ask for or want. They prayed for power from the Holy Spirit. They were not asking for a gift of languages, but languages is what they got.

“The miracles are not merely in ears. They are also in mouths and in bodies. God, like a lead dancer, is taking hold of her partners, drawing them close and saying, ‘Step this way and now this direction.’ The gesture of speaking another language is born not of the desire of the disciples but of God, and it signifies all that is essential to learning a language. It bears repeating: this is not what the disciples imagined or hoped would manifest the power of the Holy Spirit. To learn a language requires submission to a people. Even if in the person of a single teacher, the learner must submit to that single voice, learning what the words mean as they are bound to events, songs, sayings, jokes, everyday practices, habits of mind and body, all within a land and the journey of a people. Anyone who has learned a language other than their native tongue knows how humbling learning can actually be. An adult in the slow and often arduous efforts of pronunciation maybe reduced to a child, and a child at home in that language may become the teacher of an adult. There comes a crucial moment in the learning of any language, if one wishes to reach fluency, that enunciation requirements and repetition must give way to sheer wanting. Some people learn a language out of gut-wrenching determination born of necessity. Most, however, who enter a lifetime of fluency, do so because at some point in time they learn to love it.

“They fall in love with the sounds. The language sounds beautiful to them. And if that love is complete, they fall in love with its original signifiers. They come to love the people—the food, the faces, the plans, the practices, the songs, the poetry, the happiness, the sadness, the ambiguity, the truth—and they love the place, that is, the circled earth those people call their land, their landscapes, their home. Speak a language, speak a people. God speaks people, fluently. And God, with all the urgency that is with the Holy Spirit, wants the disciples of his only begotten Son to speak people fluently too.” (Jennings, Acts, 29-30)

So, in just the way that we can talk about God’s grace making the hearers comfortable, we can also talk about the speakers being made uncomfortable. They have to speak in a language that is not their own. They have to become familiar with the idioms and stories of a foreign culture. They have to learn to submit themselves to forms and ideas that do not come naturally.

And that is also a gift of the holy spirit. It is God’s gift to nudge us away from that which is familiar. It is God’s gift to decenter us from a sense of mastery or privilege. It is God’s gift to break us open to new peoples, new ideas, new experiences.

It is a gift of God to welcome us in on our own terms, to speak to us in the language of our hearts. Each of us is welcomed, through the waters of baptism, just as we are. Each of us is incorporated into the Body of Christ on our own terms.

And yet, it is also a gift of God to push and stretch and change us. Each of us is transformed, through the waters of baptism, into a new creation. Each of us is called to learn and grow. Each of us is challenged to see from the point of view of another, to struggle through the discomfort of trying to speak to another on their own terms.

Jennings writes, “The same Spirit that was there from the beginning, hovering, brooding in the joy of creation of the universe and of each one of us, who knows us together and separately in our most intimate places, has announced the divine intention through the Son to reach into our lives and make each life a site of speaking glory. But this will require bodies that reach across massive and real boundaries, cultural, religious, and ethnic. It will require a commitment born of Israel’s faith, but reaching to depths of relating beyond what any devotion to Israel’s God had heretofore been recognized as requiring: devotion to peoples unknown and undesired. What God had always spoken to Israel now God speaks even more loudly in the voices of the many to the many: join them ! Now love of neighbor will take on pneumatological dimensions. It will be love that builds directly out of the resurrected body of Jesus. It will be love, as Karl Barth says, that goes into the far country. This is love that cannot be tamed, controlled, or planned, and once unleashed it will drive the disciples forward into the world and drive a question into their lives: Where is the Holy Spirit taking us and into whose lives?” (Jennings 32)

The Spirit of God, does not just translate words, it translates lives. Are we willing to be translated, to risk looking silly as we seek to speak in a language not our own, to be changed by the experience of the other? Because this is the gift of the holy spirit: granting us power that we did not ask for, sending us where we did not ask to go, among people we do not know, speaking words through us that we did not plan to speak, changing us in ways that we did not plan. This is gift of Holy Spirit. This is the miracle of Pentecost. It is not only that some are made comfortable as they are welcomed. It is also that some are made uncomfortable as they are called.

May we be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. May our lives be translated through our interactions with neighbors and strangers, that we might learn to love that which seems foreign and those who seem strange. May we be broken open by God that we might learn to speak people with a fluency not our own. May we not be content to remain comfortable among the things and people that we know well and call our own, but may we be encouraged to step outside of our familiar surroundings and be transformed by our experience of the great diversity of God’s people.

Jennings, Willie James. Acts. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Edited by Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2017.

Sermon: Double-Take

Sunday 2 June 2019
Ascension Sunday

Luke 24:44-53
Acts 1:1-11

“Ascensión C,” Cerezo Barredo

The lectionary readings from today present us with a unique situation: the same event, described by the same author, in two separate books of the bible. The Gospel of Luke and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles are actually written by the same person.  In fact, they are a two-volume book, a history, written for a patron named Theophilus. The first volume, Luke, is about the life of Jesus, and the second volume, Acts, is about the birth of the church. And what we encounter in our readings today are the very last verses in Luke and the very first verses in Acts. It turns out that they both tell the same story: the story of Jesus’s ascension.

We know with certainty that these books were written by the same author. Nevertheless, if you look closely at the stories, you’ll see that they are a little bit different from each other. In the first version it sounds like the ascension happened on Easter evening in Bethany; in the second version it sounds like it happened forty days later in Jerusalem.

But despite the small differences in these two accounts, the core of the story is still the same. Jesus appears alive to his disciples. He tells them that his death and resurrection were all a part of the plan, that everything was to fulfill what was written in the Torah. He tells them that they are going to be his witnesses in all the world. And he tells them that the promise of God is about to be fulfilled; they are about to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But, Jesus says, they are going to have to wait. Don’t leave Jerusalem. Wait until you are clothed with power before you do anything else.

And that seems to me to be a very strange message to be coming from God. We usually think of God as declaring things, right now and for eternity: start immediately and keep doing it for all time. But in this case, God says, I have a great plan for you, a wonderful mission. This will be the very fulfillment of your lives… but just hold your horses a minute, don’t get ahead of yourselves. You’re not ready yet. Let’s take this nice and slow.

Now, much of the time we in the church don’t have any trouble taking things slow with God. Bureaucracy, committees upon committees, study groups, Conferences, Assemblies, and a two-millennia tradition of just waiting to see how things turn out haven’t made us the most nimble of organizations. Change seems to be a four-letter word in many congregations, and one of our most sacred creeds seems to be these seven words: “We’ve never done it that way before.” Of course there are exceptions to this, moments of radical response to God’s call. But much of the time God has a hard time getting us going, has difficulty getting us motivated to do something new, has to work really hard to get us to reach outside of our comfortable sanctuaries and into the world around us. Evangelism, mission, outreach, prophetic witness—can’t someone else take care of those things?

So since we are so used to hearing God say, “Hey, get up and do something,” it does seem a bit odd to hear this message to the first disciples: “Hey, sit down and don’t do anything.”

Last we week I told you the story or how I stopped being a music student and ended up on the road to ordained ministry. It started with a feeling of unease, and then with an experience of failure. My failure to be accept for composition school shook me up enough to make me reevaluate everything and head in a new direction.

But I didn’t tell you the whole story. In the midst of all this, in my sophomore year of college, while I was trying to figure out the direction of my life, I had one of the most profound spiritual experiences that I’ve ever had. One evening, looking at the sunset, everything seemed suddenly clear. All of the worries and the hang-ups and the insecurities that I had been cradling suddenly seemed silly. I truly felt God’s presence, and I knew that I wanted to turn my life over to God, to let God set the direction, to turn myself over completely to a life of service. At the time, I interpreted that as a call to international mission. And I was ready to go right away. I was ready to discontinue college, pack up, and travel to some distant shore where I was sure that everything would make more sense and be more meaningful.

But things didn’t work out quite the way I thought they would. God had a different plan. And the truth is that I wasn’t ready. I was enthusiastic. I was willing. But I didn’t really have much to offer in the mission field.

When I didn’t immediately become a missionary, I felt horrible—disappointed, guilty that I was letting God down or somehow evading God’s call, inadequate. But that was all a part of the process. I couldn’t have made the journey without taking each turn along the way. It took the moment of failure. It took the profound experience that re-inspired me. And it also took God saying, “Wait. It’s not time yet. You’re not ready. Be patient.”

For those who have heard God’s call, who seek to respond in faith, these can be very hard words to hear. It can feel like a betrayal or an abandonment. It can feel like somehow we are not good enough or strong enough to do what God is asking. If only we had the endurance, the determination, the faith, then maybe we could see it through.

But the truth is that God’s ways are not our ways. God’s time is not our time. And every time that we try to make God conform to our time schedules, we end up being made the fools. At least that’s been my experience. Maybe some of you have had better luck getting God stick to your timeline. If you have, let me know your secret. Sometimes God says, “Wait. Not yet. It’s not time. Be patient.”

That’s what Jesus said to those first disciples, “Wait here in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from the Holy Spirit.” They could have ignored that and set out on their mission anyway. But they wouldn’t have been ready. They would have been trying to do God’s work on their own, instead of letting God work through them.

Or they could have gotten discouraged with Jesus’s rebuff and given up on the whole thing. If God doesn’t think it’s time now, then what is the point? But then they would have been missing out on all of the remarkable things that God had in store for them: Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, huge crowds flocking to the Gospel message, and a church that has grown now to encompass two billion people all around the world.

We have the same choice when God asks us to wait. We can go off, half-cocked into the world trying to do it all ourselves, and we will end up burnt out and discouraged. We can give up on God because of our impatience and miss the miracles that God has in store for us.

Or we can take the middle way. We can listen to God’s call, and seek to follow, but still have patience with God’s timetable and methods, continuing to listen for God’s prompting and leadership. It is a more difficult way. It requires us to meet our anxiety with radical patience and perseverance. It requires us to think outside of ourselves. But it is the only way that we can hope to be co-workers with God, to be laboring on God’s side.

Listen to God’s call. Be inspired. And do not be discouraged if God says, “Wait. Not yet. Wait until you are clothed with power from the Holy Spirit.”

Sermon: Being Convinced that God Had Called Us

Sunday 26 May 2019
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Graduation Recognition Sunday

Acts 16:6-15

Paul’s dream of the Macedonian man.

It has been a hard time for Paul. Things had been going fairly well in his mission to the Gentiles. But then other missionaries started showing up, interfering with his methods, and telling him that he should stop. He’s been called before the apostles in Jerusalem to answer for his unorthodox methods. After a long debate, they reach a compromise, and Paul is allowed to continue his mission, but under supervision. Once he gets back out in the field, though, he has a major argument with his partner, Barnabas. They aren’t able to work out their differences, and eventually they go their separate ways. Accompanied by a couple of new helpers, Silas and Timothy, Paul goes back out on the trail. That’s where we pick up with today’s scripture from the Book of Acts.

And as if he hasn’t been through enough already, as if he hasn’t run into enough roadblocks on his own, now even God is going to stand in Paul’s way. He and his companions have been wandering all over the area that we now know as Turkey, hundreds of miles, trying to share the liberating message of Jesus Christ. They’ve been making huge sacrifices for their mission, but now even God is standing in their way. We are told that the Spirit forbid them from preaching in the province of Asia. Then they try to go to Bithynia, hoping for better luck there. But the Spirit won’t even allow them to go there, much less preach.

It must have been terribly discouraging. This hadn’t been Paul’s choice of a career, after all. God had interrupted his comfortable life to call him to this work, to go out to a new people who hadn’t heard about the liberating message of Jesus. And now Paul is out on the road, abandoned by his friends, in trouble with the authorities, struggling to do anything right. Then even God turns against him, stands in his way. It seems like he can’t do anything right. Nothing he tries is working. He is frustrated, depressed, and ready to give up. He wonders if he is even supposed to be out on this mission at all.

Have you ever felt like that? Have you been lost in the mundane, struggling for meaning in your life, feeling as if nothing that you do is the right thing, like everything that you try ends up wrong? Have you ever felt as if God is working against you somehow? As if God won’t answer your questions? As if God isn’t acting the way that you expected or anticipated?

When I was in high school, I had a deep sense that God was calling me, that God had a plan for me. I had felt that way for about as long as I could remember. But I really didn’t have a very good idea about what God’s plan was, just that there was one. I was pretty sure that it had something to do with music or with academics. I’d always been good at music, and a lot of my mentors were musicians and music teachers.

So I did what any good high school jazz musician does if they don’t want to end up spending the rest of their life in bars: I went to college to study music education.

And it went pretty well at first. My grades were fine. I was keeping up. But I wasn’t feeling very fulfilled. I didn’t feel like my life was headed in the right direction. I asked God about it, but God didn’t answer.

So I decided to get more heavily into the music. Maybe that was the problem. I needed to focus less on the education and more on the music. So I added a music composition major.

And it went pretty well at first. I did just fine with the new classes. I wrote some decent music. But again, I didn’t feel very fulfilled. Something just didn’t seem right. But I didn’t know what it was, or what to do about it. And I asked God about it again, but God didn’t answer.

So I decided to go to a different college, to find a school where I could really just focus on composition. I figured that would be the answer to my problems. I researched schools, and because deadlines were fast approaching, I hurriedly submitted my application.

But after all of those struggles, as if to add insult to injury, for the first time in my school career, I was rejected. I was an honor student, a valedictorian, and yet I didn’t make it into the composition school I applied to.

I was really upset. I was knocked completely off stride. I was questioning everything about my life. So, I asked God about it. And although there wasn’t an immediate and clear answer, there was a new sense of leading and prompting. From that moment of failure, I was led to reevaluate everything. And through that failure, God set me on a path that led me to seminary, and then to pastoral ministry, and then back to school again, and then here, in this sanctuary, among this community of faith.

It would be really nice, wouldn’t it, if God would just be a bit more clear with us. In the Bible, God always seems to be so much easier to understand than God is nowadays. In the Bible, people get things like a burning bush, a visit from an angel, even a voice from heaven. So why can’t we get something like that? Why does God have to be so coy with us? Or has God just lost interest?

Messages from God, though, don’t always come in plain words. And God’s plan for us doesn’t always present itself fully formed. Sometimes God’s plan is revealed, of all things, in failure. Sometimes the best we get is that feeling that things just aren’t quite right. And sometimes it takes a horrible fall before we realize that God wants us to go down a different path.

Isn’t that what happens to Paul in our lesson today? He tries one thing and runs into resistance. He tries something else, and they drag in front of the council to explain himself. Then his most loyal partner and friend leaves him, refusing to work with him any longer. He goes out again, and of all things, the Spirit of God prevents him for continuing.

It is in that moment, when Paul has been softened up a bit by failure, that a tiny speck of God’s plan is revealed. Paul goes to sleep and he has a dream. It isn’t a particularly magnificent dream.  There aren’t any angels. There is no voice from heaven. There is just a Macedonian man saying, “Come over and help us.” Paul now has a vision of where God is calling him. It isn’t a very clear vision, but it is enough to set him off in the right direction.

And what’s interesting is that God uses Paul’s failures to lead him not to a more humble path, but to something far more magnificent than he would have imagined. Paul’s failures and frustrations in Asia lead him to be the very first Christian missionary to cross the border and enter Europe. If not for his failure, and his determination to carry on and keep listening for God, Paul would never have come to Philippi, would never have come to Thessalonica, would never have come to Corinth. And we would be left without the letters he wrote back to the churches he had founded among the Philippians, the Thessalonians, and the Corinthians.

Failure isn’t always just failure. Sometimes failure is the very best way that God has of communicating with us, of urging us into a different direction. And for Paul, failure doesn’t mean that his life and work are being downgraded, that he is being assigned something easier or less interesting. No, failure leads him to do something much more glorious, much more interesting, much more important than he would ever have imagined otherwise.

Those of you who are graduating this year, whether it is from kindergarten, elementary, middle, high school, or college, are being sent off in a new direction. Chances are, you have experienced both successes and failures in your schooling so far. Chances are that in whatever is coming next for you, there will be both successes and failures. Chances are there will be times when you are not sure where you are or where you are headed. Chances are there will be a time when you feel like such a failure that you don’t know how you could possibly go on. But that might just the moment when you are open enough to God’s prompting to hear a new call, to take a new risk, to go in a new direction. And you might just find that where you thought you were going is not nearly as interesting as the new thing that God has in store for you.

So when we are faced with failure, and we are tempted to get discouraged or to give up, may God grant us the grace to come face to face with our failure, and to see it not as a defeat, but as an opportunity. When we are struggling along with no sense of direction, may God grant us the perseverance to carry on, even when we can’t see the end goal clearly. And when we are floundering without hope, may God grant us the clarity of Spirit to catch God’s vision for our lives, and once being convinced that God has called us, may God grant us the courage to carry our calling through to the end.

Sermon: Love Each Other

Sunday 19 May 2019
The Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 13:31-35

Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.

For the past several weeks, we have been hearing post-resurrection stories from the Gospel of John. We have heard about Jesus’s appearance to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, and the way that he sent her out as an apostle to the apostles, to tell them the story of his victory over death. We have heard about how Jesus appeared to his disciples as they were hidden away in a locked room on the evening of the resurrection, how he told them to conquer their fear and go out in his name. We heard how he appeared to them a week later, while they were still hidden away up in that locked, upper room. We heard how he appeared to many of them a third time, while they were out fishing, and how he encouraged Peter, “If you love me, feed my sheep.”

Now we have to rewind back to an earlier part of the story. It’s no longer after Easter, in the wake of the resurrection; now it’s before Easter. It is the night before Jesus’s crucifixion, as he shares a meal with his disciples. In John, this isn’t the Passover, and Jesus doesn’t institute the sacrament of Holy Communion. But it is Jesus’s last meal. He spends most of it talking. Four entire chapters of John are taken up with Jesus talking at his last meal. We call it the farewell discourse. And the passage we have today comes toward the beginning of that discourse.

As Jesus gathers his disciples together for a final meal, he shocks them by acting like a servant and washing their feet. They don’t understand it. Peter tries to stop Jesus. But Jesus goes ahead with a selfless act of service. He washes the feet of each of the twelve. Not just Peter, James, and John, he washes all of their feet, even Judas. And he tells them that just as he has washed their feet, so they should wash one another’s feet. “I have given you an example,” he says. “Just as I have done, you also must do.” He shocks them with his ability to give of himself, and he calls on them to imitate his self-giving love.

As the night goes on, they move to the meal, and Jesus predicts that one among his disciples will betray him. “The one who eats my bread has turned against me.” When they ask him who it is, he replies, “It’s the one to whom I will give this piece of bread once I have dipped into the bowl.” And then he dips the piece of bread and gives it Judas. Even at the end, even knowing that Judas will betray him, he offers Judas one last gift. Evoking themes of eucharist, Jesus gives him a piece of his bread.

After Judas leaves to set in motion the plan that will kill Jesus, we arrive at the reading assigned for today. Still at the meal, Jesus speaks to his disciples about his impending death, which in the Gospel of John is always imagined as a glorification. Jesus is always in control, he hardly suffers, and even when he is nailed to a cross, John describes it as Jesus being lifted up.

It is in that vein that Jesus speaks here of his death, that is, his glorification. “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify the Son of Man in himself and will glorify him immediately. Little children, I’m with you for a little while longer. You will look for me—but, just as I told the Jewish leaders I also tell you now—‘Where I’m going, you can’t come.’”

It is no wonder that the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about when he speaks so obliquely, so metaphorically. Who would guess that when he says he will be glorified that he means he will be crucified? Who would guess that when he says he is going somewhere his disciples can’t come that he means he is going to death? But this is indeed how Jesus speaks of his death, even as he is only hours away from it. And it is as Jesus is facing his own death—a death that he calls glorification—that he gives a new commandments.

Now that is a rather striking thing, giving a new commandment. Traditionally, there are 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible, what we sometimes call the Old Testament. So why would we need a new one? Aren’t 613 of them enough?

Apparently not, because John’s Jesus tells his disciples that he is about to give a new commandment. And here it is: “Love each other.” Just that simple. Love each other.

Is that really a new commandment? Is it really possible that God’s people have never before been commanded to love each other? Well, not exactly. You might recall that in the other three gospels, Jesus gets into discussions about what is the most important commandment in the Hebrew Bible, and in them we emerge with what we often call the Great Commandment. The Great Commandment is actually two commandments that Jesus has taken from different parts of the Hebrew Bible and sewn together into one connected saying. The first comes from Deuteronomy 6:4: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” Jesus cleverly pairs this commandment to love God with another Hebrew Bible commandment about love, this one from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus says that this dual commandment, to love God and to love neighbor, is a summary of every other commandment in the Bible. If you love God with your whole self and you love your neighbor as yourself, then you will inevitably follow every other commandment without even trying. Love for God and love for neighbor is what it’s all about.

But in the Gospel of John, Jesus takes a different approach. In John, Jesus gives a new commandment. And the new commandment is to love each other. Now, as we’ve just noted, that isn’t exactly a new commandment. And it is isn’t, not on its own. But the next part is new. “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you must love each other.”

The command to love the other is not new, but the way we understand that love is new. It’s no longer based on our own actions. We aren’t to love the other in the same way that we love ourselves. No, that isn’t a good enough model. Instead, Jesus makes the commandment new by making himself the example of love. Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another. 

And he has just lived out the model for them. He has taken off his robe, taken the towel of a servant, and washed the feet of his followers. Even though he is their teacher, even though he is their leader, even though he is their lord, even though he is their God, he takes on the role of a slave and washes their feet. Not just the ones who understand him; none of them understand him. Not just his best pupils or those with the most potential. He washes the feet of each and every one of them. Even Peter, who will deny him in the coming hours. But much more remarkably, he even washes the feet of Judas, whom he knows will be the one who betrays him to death. Judas, whom we are explicitly told was a vessel for Satan. Even evil Judas gets his feet washed by Jesus. And in fact, it is Judas who is singled out by Jesus to receive the gift of a piece of bread from his own hand.

You want a model for love: that is your model for love. Look at that Jesus-love. Look at the love that serves both friend and enemy. Look at the love that acts as a servant. Look at the love that sets aside Godliness in order to take on human form, to demonstrate God’s love for us. Look at the love that lays down one’s life for one’s friends. Look at the love that endures death so that we might understand the depth of God’s grace. This is love. This is how you should love one another.

And that is extraordinary. The love of God demonstrated to us in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is beyond comprehension. The love of God demonstrated to us in the ongoing gift of the Spirit, in our continuing relationship with God in Jesus Christ is astonishing. And that is the kind of love that we are commanded to have for each other. Not just for our families. Not just for our friends. Love for strangers. Love for enemies. Love for all created beings. We are to love with the unimaginable love that Jesus has demonstrated for us.

And that is a difficult ask, isn’t it? To love the way that Jesus loved. To love with that kind of unselfishness. To love with that kind of compassion. To love beyond boundaries of difference. To love despite past wrongs. To love in a way that wishes the best even for those we despise. That is difficult. It is a humbling prospect.

But I think even that is not nearly as humbling as what Jesus says next. “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other,” he says. And then he says, “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

This is how everyone will know you are my disciples, when you love each other. It hits me like a punch in the gut. Jesus says that an extravagant, selfless love should be the marker of our identity. Reckless love is the sign that should tell others that we are disciples of Jesus.

But that certainly isn’t our reputation, is it? If you asked a non-Christian in our culture to describe how a Christian behaves, I’m not sure that selfless love is the first thing that would roll off their lips. In fact, we Christians have often developed a reputation for exactly the opposite: for bigotry, for exclusion, for a myopic obsession with rules and social convention, for a holier-than-thou attitude, for a sense of entitlement and privilege. And in many cases that reputation has been well-earned. How far away from the commandment to love we have fallen, with crusades, slavery, a doctrine of discovery, with oppression based on race, religion, nationality, sexuality. None of that is consistent with Jesus’s commandment to love. None of that is comparable with what Jesus says should be the marker of our faith. None of that is consistent with love.

But along with that tradition of lovelessness, there is another tradition that does not always get as much press. It was Christian love that introduced the concept of care for the poor to the western world. It was Christian love that invented the hospital. It was Christian love that drove the abolitionist movement. It was Christian love that founded schools and universities. Christian love contributed to temperance, women’s suffrage, civil rights, addiction recovery, prison ministry, chaplaincy, the hospice movement. And it is Christian love that every day prompts one person to forgive someone, that prompts one person to share with another, that prompts one person to raise their voice for the freedom of another.

We don’t have a perfect track record. But if we ever need to know what it is that makes us Christian, here it is: the command of Jesus to love the other. May God continue to show us, in Jesus, how to love the other, how to serve the other, so that we can honestly say that the world will know we are Christians by our love.

Sermon: Breakfast on the Beach

Sunday 5 May 2019
The Third Sunday of Easter

John 21:1-19

Last week we talked a bit about the passage in John that comes right before this one. Perhaps you remember it. It’s the evening of the first Easter, and the disciples are locked away in the house in Jerusalem because they are afraid. Jesus appears and tells them that it is time to let their fear go and get out there and do what they have been called to do: be apostles. “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. Get out there and be apostles!” A week passes, and the disciples are still locked up in that same house in Jerusalem, still too afraid to go out. And Jesus appears to them again, saying again that it is time for them to get out of the locked room and do what they were meant to do. They have been sent out, and they need to get going. That’s what it means to be an apostle, to be sent out. So why are they still locked away?

As we come to the lesson today, more time has passed. We don’t know how much time, the narrator simply says “after these things.” The disciples have moved. They’re not in Jerusalem any more.  They have left the holy city and have returned home to more familiar surroundings, the Sea of Galilee, or as the Romans called it, the Sea of Tiberius. Remember, that’s where most of the disciples had come from. Many of them were Galilean fishermen. So now, in the wake of Jesus’ death and appearances, they have gone back home.

Are they out continuing Jesus’ mission? Are they preaching to the masses like Jesus did? Are they healing the sick? Are they feeding the poor? No, they aren’t.

So, what do they do? Peter has an idea. He says, “I’m going fishing,” and the others agree to join him. Why does he decide to go fishing? Has he decided to leave his life as a follower of Jesus behind? Has he decided to get back to normalcy, to go back to the ways things were before Jesus stirred everything up? Has he decided to go back to being a professional fisher? Or perhaps he’s just not sure what to do, so in the mean time he decides to do the one thing that comes naturally: catching fish.

For whatever reason, there they are out in the boat. They spend all night fishing. Night was the best time for fishing. But despite all their long efforts, they don’t catch anything.

Maybe this story sounds familiar to you. There is a very similar story in another gospel, in Luke, when the disciples first encounter Jesus. Simon and his buddies had been fishing all night and caught nothing, but Jesus comes along and tells them to go out into the deep water, and they catch so many fish that the nets are about to break. And then he says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people. And they left everything and followed him.

And here they are now at the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry. And they are out in the boat, catching nothing. And Jesus appears and says, “Cast your net on the other side.” And they catch a tremendous number of fish, just as Luke at described at the beginning of their story.

Jesus feeds them. Loaves and fishes, just like he had fed the multitudes along that same lake. They are all too afraid to say anything to him. It’s silent except for the sounds of waves lapping up on the shore.

Until Jesus speaks to Peter. Do you love me? You know I love you, Lord. Feed my lambs. Do you love me? You know that I love you. Tend my sheep. Do you love me? Yes, Lord. You know everything. You know that I love you. Feed my lambs.

Feed my lambs. If you love me, tend my sheep. If you love me, feed my lambs. He had already appeared to them twice. He had already shown them his scars, the wounds in his hands and in his side. He had already commissioned them as apostles, sent them out in ministry to the world. But they still didn’t get it. If you love me, feed my sheep.

Being a follower of Jesus is not about getting things for ourselves, whether they be spiritual assurance or physical rewards or even eternal salvation. Being a Christian is not about making sure that we get fed. Yes, Jesus does offer us miraculous food, miraculous sustenance through life in him. God does offer us forgiveness. God does offer us grace and assurance and even eternal life.

But that is not the end. It does not end when we are fed, just as it did not end when those first disciples were fed on that morning on the Galilean shore. Once they are fed, they are called to feed others. Once they are loved, they are called to love others. Being a Christian is about service.

It’s easy for us to get off track. Sometimes we become paralyzed by fear. Sometimes we become apathetic. Sometimes we simply forget who we are and who we are called to be. We are disciples of Christ. A disciple is one who follows. Christ asks us to follow him. Christ asks us to continue the ministry that he started. Christ calls us to bring healing to those who are sick, to feed those who are hungry, to visit those who are in prison, to fight for justice for those who are oppressed. And Christ calls us to spread the good news of new life in him. Christ calls us to share the gift that we have been given. Because we have received, we must also give.

It’s not surprising that we have a hard time being faithful to God’s call. Those early disciples were with Jesus during his earthly ministry. They were eye-witnesses to his miracles. They heard him preaching first-hand. They were witnesses to the resurrection. And yet, they were still slow to answer the call to go out into the world, to feed his sheep.

Jesus says to us, “Follow me.” And where shall we follow? To care for the poor and the oppressed? To feed the hungry? To confront the corrupt authorities of our time? To share the good news of new life in Christ? To humble ourselves to wash the feet of friend and stranger? To risk our lives for the good of God’s Kingdom? Or will we just say “Yes, Lord,” and then go on about our everyday lives as if nothing has changed, as if we had never experienced the grace of God’s saving love? Jesus says, “Follow me. Feed my sheep.” Where shall we follow?

Sermon: Breathing Peace

Sunday 28 April 2019
The Second Sunday of Easter

John 20:19-31

It’s still Easter. The disciples have gotten the news that Jesus is risen. They’ve heard the reports from the empty tomb. They’ve heard Mary Magdalene’s story of how she saw the risen Lord. And now, with the sun low in the western sky, they are not out proclaiming the good news, they are not spreading the word that Jesus is risen. No, as evening falls they are hidden away in some undisclosed location, with the doors closed, locked, and barred. And why are they cowering away in some dark corner? Because they are afraid of the Jews.

And I suppose it’s not so hard to understand why they were afraid. It was the Jewish authorities, after all, who had brought Jesus to trial in the first place. Now that his body has gone from the tomb, neither the Jewish leaders nor the Roman government would be very pleased. They’d likely come after all of Jesus’s followers to keep these rumors that Jesus has risen from the dead from starting some sort of riot or insurrection. Judea was a volatile place, and the government wouldn’t think twice about using military force to put down a few rebels. They had to be prepared for the coming battle. They had to develop their plans and strategies. If Jesus really was alive, then perhaps he would be amassing forces to overthrow the Roman military occupation and their lapdogs, the Jewish religious authorities. This might be the very moment that they had been waiting for since they first heard about the messiah. Jesus would surely rise up now and crush the foreign oppressors. The disciples just had to play it safe for a little while, stay under cover, until Jesus came to rescue them.

And so they remain locked away in a secret conclave on that evening of the first Easter, hiding out and assuming the worst—because they were afraid. The word in Greek is one that you know: phobia. The disciples were phobic of the Jews. And it was this Jew-phobia that kept them isolated, paralyzed, disconnected from the rest of the world. They couldn’t move, they couldn’t act, they couldn’t even find out what was really going on. All they could do was hide out and cower in fear.

And it seems to me that we are not unfamiliar with that kind of fear—the fear that paralyzes and keeps us locked away. We are a nation that seems to run on fear. You only have to turn on the news to see it. Story after story that highlights only the worst things in our society, only the most frightening, so that we can keep cultivating the idea that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. I guess the fear sells more commercials.

On channel 25 they’re afraid of a radical socialist takeover of the United States. Socialist healthcare, socialist eduction, socialist Green New Deal. If the liberals get their way then we might as well have lost the Cold War. The government will run everything and all the things that are good about our country will be lost forever. No more freedom. No more rights. No more liberty.

Over on channel 67 they’re afraid of a president run amuck. Election tampering, obstruction of justice, cruel immigration policies, a loss of integrity. If the conservatives have their way then we’ll be back in the dark ages. The government will give up on all its vulnerable citizens and won’t be good for anything except war. The poor will have no protection. No more freedom. No more rights. No more liberty.

Now, if neither of those world views suit your fancy, there are plenty of other things to be afraid of. There are natural disasters like tsunamis, tornados, earthquakes, and hurricanes. There are oil spills and nuclear accidents. There is the threat of global climate change.  There is our dependency on oil, and the world’s dwindling supply of petroleum resources. We’re afraid of diseases: cancer, AIDS, measles flu pandemic. We’re concerned about the economy, and the kind of chaos that might happen if it gets any worse. We’re afraid of change in all its forms: change in our personal lives, change in our families, change in our nation, change in society, and change in our church. We’re afraid about success and failure, and what others might think about our lives. Ultimately, we are afraid of death, of that great unknown, and whether or not our life will have been worthy of eternity. Sometimes we take all of these fears, roll them all up together into one neat package, and call it the End Times. Things seem so bad that we become afraid of the very end of the world.

Now, it’s certainly not wrong to be afraid. Fear is God’s way of keeping us out of undue danger. And there certainly are real threats in the world that trigger our fears. But, whether or not a fear is justified, it can still be a dangerous thing. Fear has the power to overcome us, to enslave us, bind us, and confine us. Fear causes us to separate ourselves from the world around us, to expect the worst, to suspect our neighbors. Fear brought the disciples to lock themselves away in a secret hiding place, to reject the world, to live in constant terror of the people in the their own communities, and it has the power to do the same thing to us. When we let fear control our lives, we stop living for God and for God’s kingdom and start living only for our own self-preservation. We become blocked from the grace that God provides, and our discipleship becomes sterile and fruitless, like those useless apostles hiding behind bolted doors.

While the disciples were still locked away in that back room, Jesus mysteriously appeared to them. And he immediately spoke to them these words: “Peace be to all of you.” Jesus came to them in the midst of their disabling fear and spoke peace. “Let your fear go. Fill yourselves with peace instead.” But the disciples weren’t able to hear him. They were too caught up in their phobias and paranoias to understand Jesus’s message to them. Yes, they were happy to see Jesus, they were glad to be in the presence of the risen Lord. But they were unable to really listen to what Jesus was saying to them.

So Jesus tries again, repeats his previous words: “Peace unto all of you.” And then he adds, “God has sent me out, rolled away the stone and set me loose from death. Now it’s your turn.  Unlock these doors that keep you buried in this room just the same as if it were a grave. Roll away the stone of fear that makes you a slave to sin and death. Now, I am sending you out into the world. Even death can’t keep me locked away; don’t let fear keep you locked away. You’re supposed to be apostles, aren’t you? And an apostle is one who is sent out. Well, I’m sending you out. Leave your fear behind and get going.”

Jesus will not let them stay snuggly hid away in their safe little bomb shelter. He won’t allow them to remain comfortably separate from the world outside. No, Jesus sends them out into the world, tells them to get past their fear and do the work that they are meant to do.

That same message applies to us today. Jesus is sending us. If we hold on to our fears, allow them to control us, then we will be unable to answer Jesus’ call to us. Change, and disease, and disaster, and terrorism, and death, will keep us bound up in chains that prevent us from doing what God intends for us. Fear will render us useless.

Now, that message might seem a little harsh, a bit unsympathetic on Jesus’s part. Are we being told to just get over it? To pretend that we don’t have any fears? Overcoming fear takes more than just getting a lecture.

Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t leave us there. If fact, Jesus does something absolutely extraordinary. What Jesus does is so amazing, that it is very difficult to understand. If you check your Bible at John 19:22 you’ll probably find something like, “he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” That in itself is quite remarkable, but it’s not as simple as it seems at first. Once again, the frailty of the English language fails to capture what is happening in this passage.

First, Jesus does not breathe on the disciples, which seems pretty strange already. No Jesus actually breathes into the disciples. The Greek word used here is the exact same word in the exact same form that is used when God breathes the breath of life into Adam in Genesis 2. Jesus isn’t just breathing on them, he is breathing a new life into them, making a new creation out of them, just as God made a new creation by breathing into Adam. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and he is breathing that divine Word into the disciples. He is making them into new beings, creatures filled with the Word and Spirit of God.

And that’s not the end of the mystery. Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In Greek, this can also mean, “Receive a holy breath,” which makes sense since he is breathing into them. Or it can mean, “Understand this holy saying,” which also makes sense, because Jesus is about to deliver a wisdom saying to them. The Greek reader would probably understand all of these meanings to be happening simultaneously. Receive the Holy Spirit, receive a holy breath, understand this holy saying—they are all true to what is happening.

And then Jesus delivers the saying. The New Revised Standard Version translates it this way: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” So we usually think, Oh, the apostles have received the Holy Spirit, so now they must have the authority to forgive sins or retain them. This is some sort of special privilege and power that they’ve been granted.

But once again, it’s not that simple. Listen to another translation of those same words: “If you should happen to let go of the sins of anyone, that person is set free; if you lord it over anyone, then that person has been enslaved.” Now things start to make sense. Jesus is not granting the disciples some sort of special power, he is giving them a piece of wisdom. He’s saying that if we choose to forgive someone or not to forgive them, that it actually has an effect on that other person. If we forgive them, then we set them free. If we withhold our forgiveness, then we are enslaving that person with the chains of our own negative emotions. To grant forgiveness is a beautiful gift that releases good into the world. Withholding forgiveness is an injury to others, and limits the avenues that God has to pour forth grace. Understand this holy saying, says Jesus, if you forgive, you grant freedom; if you withhold forgiveness, then you just create more ways to hold people down.

And what is fear but a wrong left unforgiven? When we hold on so tightly to all of our hurts, every bad thing that we’ve ever experienced, then we start to live in fear of everything that could possibly go wrong in the future. Living a life without forgiveness inevitably leads us into a life of slavery—slavery to our own fears—slavery that reaches even to those around us, binding us all in a web of terror.

But Jesus offers us a different way. He says, “Peace. Peace to all of you. Be released from your fear.” And offers us the gift of the Holy Spirit, he breathes peace into us, breathes forgiveness into us, breathes new life into us, and makes us a new creation, free from slavery to fear and death, free to go out as Christ’s representatives into the world. Christ is calling. Christ is making us new. And Christ is sending us out into the world that we might share in his ministry and be always and everywhere breathing peace.

Sermon: Apostola Apostolorum

Sunday 21 April 2019
Easter Day

John 20:1-18

With his 2003 best-seller, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown stirred up a fury of controversy around the figure of Mary Magdalene. He portrays Mary as the wife of Jesus, the mother of his secret child, the holy grail because she was the vessel for his holy bloodline, a secret that has been guarded through the centuries by a series of secret societies. This novel captivated the world and spurred all kinds of conversations about Mary, her role among the early disciples, and the sacred feminine. Of course, we have since learned that Dan Brown was rather loose with the things he portrayed as fact, preferring to tell a good story. That is, after all, what any good novelist would do.

Dan Brown was wrong about a lot of things, but one thing he was right about is that as the early church became more and more male-dominated, it became more and more afraid of Mary Magdalene. They didn’t like the idea of any woman being that close to Jesus, and so they portrayed her as a prostitute, a crazy person, an unstable woman who was just lucky to be a hanger-on of Jesus. None of that is supported by the witness we have in the bible.

The bible itself is aggravatingly quiet about Mary and her role in the Jesus group. This is what we do know: Mary was one of the many women who traveled with Jesus throughout his ministry, from the very beginning to the very end. She supported him and his mission financially. She was there at the crucifixion, after the male disciples had run away and hidden. She was the first to go to the tomb and find it empty. She was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. In other words, she is one of the most important people in the Jesus story.

The Gospel of John tells the story this way. On that Sunday morning, two days after Jesus was crucified, Mary of Magdala goes to the tomb and finds it empty. She runs back to find the other disciples, Peter and the beloved disciple, and they hurry to the tomb. Now, these are the guys you would expect to see the risen Christ. This is the inner circle of Jesus’s disciples—the unnamed disciple Jesus loved, and Peter, the leader of the twelve. These figures are the foundation of the church.

But Jesus doesn’t appear to them. They don’t see any angels. They don’t get any divine messages. All they see is an empty tomb, with the grave clothes left behind. And they believe what Mary had first told them, that Jesus’s body had been taken away to some undisclosed location.

But then we find Mary there at the tomb again, weeping, unconsolable. And for some reason, she decides to take another look inside. Peter and the beloved disciple had already gone in and looked inside—nothing there but some linen rags. But when Mary looks in, she finds two angels dressed in white. And then, there is Jesus himself, standing behind her. She doesn’t recognize him at first, but soon she does.

It would have made more sense for Jesus to appear to the men. In that culture, at that time, Peter and the other disciple would have been more credible as witnesses. They would have been believed where a woman would not. But Jesus doesn’t appear to them. Instead, he chooses Mary Magdalene as the first person to see him risen from the dead. He chooses her, and he gives her a sacred calling: to go and tell the others. When Jesus sends her, she actually becomes the first apostle. “Apostle” literally means someone who is sent out. That’s what Mary is. Jesus sends her out to tell the other disciples that he is risen and he is ascending to God. She is the apostola apostolorum—the apostle to the apostles, the very first witness to the glory of the resurrection.

Mary was not the most likely choice to be the first witness, and yet, Jesus chose to appear to her.  And through her, others came to believe and to know the amazing grace offered in Jesus Christ.

When we look at ourselves, we might think that we aren’t the most likely witnesses either. We might think there are others who would be better suited, who would be more qualified. We might think there are others who would be better at sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, who would be more suited to proclaiming the Gospel. Other people have better stories than we do. Other people are more eloquent than we are. And yet, Jesus calls us, whether we think we are qualified or not.

We have a story of resurrection to tell. We have a story of Jesus’s victory over death. We have a story of everlasting life in Christ. We have a story of life beyond death, offered as a free gift to all.

But not only that, we have a story of life transformed in Christ. We have a story of addiction overcome. We have a story of grief made bearable. We have a story of hungry people who are fed. We have a story of life that finds its meaning in connection to God, of life that finds purpose in service to the world. We have a story of resurrection, and it doesn’t happen only after we die. Resurrection happens every day, wherever we find new life in Christ. We have a story to tell.

The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church puts it bluntly. “The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the Gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and impact on an unbelieving world”.

We have a story to tell. We have new life in Jesus Christ. We have a God who loves us more than we can imagine and is just waiting for us to turn and accept that love and be made new. We have a reality that has been transformed by God’s grace. Isn’t that a story worth telling? Isn’t that a gift worth sharing?

We are called, like Mary Magdalene, to be apostles, to be those who are sent out into the world, to proclaim the grace of God that we have witnessed. Not just the grace that we have read about in the bible, but the grace that we have experienced in our own lives. So let us answer that call. Let us proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ through our lives. Let us proclaim the Gospel in our thoughts, in our words, and in our actions, so that all the world may know the saving grace of Jesus Christ our Lord. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!