Sermon: In the Womb

Sunday 25 August 2019
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 21C

Jeremiah 1:4-10

About a generation and a half ago, seminaries taught new pastors a preaching method called the three-point sermon, so called because the preacher would try to make three distinct points about the text. Not the most creative name, but it get’s the point across. In any case, this method has fallen out of favor over the years in favor of techniques that emphasize just one point. Three points are just too hard to remember.

Now, even though the passage from Jeremiah today is short, it packs in a lot of material. So today, you’re going to get a blast from the past: the three-point sermon. Point one: God loves you. Point two: God is calling you, but it may be something you don’t want to do. Point three: in order to heed God’s call to bring something new into the world, we sometimes have to tear down some of the old things in order to make way.

First, God loves you. Many of us have an easy enough time believing that God loves the world. It makes sense that God as the Creator of everything would care about what happens in creation. We can understand how God might be bothered by wars or climate change or poverty or disease or oppression or prejudice or violence. And we understand how God would want the best for humanity.

But while it might be easy to believe that God loves the world, it might be harder to believe that God loves me, personally. After all, there are seven and a half billion people in the world, and I’m just one of them. And there are somewhere around 8.7 million species on earth, and humans are only one of them. Earth itself is just one planet circling the sun, and the sun is one of as many as 400 billion stars in our galaxy. The Milky Way galaxy is just one of at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe. When we think of God’s domain in these terms, it seems almost incomprehensible that God could spare any attention whatsoever for a tiny, insignificant person like me.

Nevertheless, we are faced with the words from today’s Hebrew Bible lesson. God reveals Godself to Jeremiah, and says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” Out of all the things that God had to worry about, God took an interest in little Jeremiah, the son of a backwater priest. And God didn’t just think about Jeremiah when something needed to be done. No, God cared for Jeremiah before he was even formed in the womb.

It is truly a mystery, how the God of the Universe, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, is also the one who cares about you personally, who knows your heart, who has loved you before you were formed in the womb, and who has a plan for your life. God cares about all of God’s people, and that means that God cares about you and everything that is going on in your life. We don’t know why. We don’t know how. But it is true, nonetheless. God loves you.

Which leads us inevitably to our second point: God is calling you. If God, the sovereign of the whole universe, cares about you as an individual, takes special interest in your life, knows your personal joy and pain, doesn’t it stand to reason that God would also have something in mind for what you should do with your life? In our baptismal covenant, we affirm that each and every one of us is a Christian Minister, called by God to service in the world. If God knows us individually, then we know that God must have a particular plan and calling for each of us. If God is attentive enough to know our personal wants and needs, to love us as individuals, then God is also attentive enough to have particular wishes and dreams for each of us. God doesn’t call everyone to be a prophet. Which is a good thing, because a world full of prophets would be awfully noisy and everyone would go hungry. No, God calls us to a variety of different ministries. God calls us to do Godly work, often right in the midst of our ordinary lives. But whether it’s being a prophet or a parent, a teacher or a technician, an engineer or an entrepreneur, God has something special in mind for you.

God had something special in mind for Jeremiah, a peculiar mission and calling. God makes a special appearance to call him, to let him know what it is he has to do. But Jeremiah isn’t too sure that he wants the job. Like so many of those who are called by God, Jeremiah tries to get out of it. He claims that he isn’t a good enough public speaker, that he is too young and too inexperienced to be a prophet. “I’m only a boy,” he says.

Well, that seems like a pretty good reason, but it isn’t enough to stop God. God realizes that this isn’t the real reason that Jeremiah is hesitant. You can see it right in the text. Jeremiah claims lack of skill as an excuse. But God answers by promising to be with Jeremiah and deliver him when he is speaking God’s words to people who don’t want to listen. Jeremiah wasn’t scared of being a prophet because he lacked skill. It was because he did not want to go and say unpopular things to powerful people. He didn’t want to be the one who pointed out other people’s sin, who stirred things up and made people angry.

That’s often the case when God calls. It’s often something that we are a bit scared to do. It might mean making other people angry. It might entail some hardship. We might have to endure frustration, loneliness, or even scorn in order to follow God’s individual path for us. It may not be an easy road.  But good things rarely are easy.

But we don’t have to go it alone.  God promises to be with us and to deliver us. I don’t know exactly where it is that God is calling you right now, but I do know that if God calls, God will walk with you. God will see the task through, even if it is challenging, even if it takes time, even if it is draining. God is calling. It may not be somewhere you want to go, it may not be something that is easy to do, but God will be with you. God loves you. God will stay with you in your calling.

That’s good news for Jeremiah, because he has a particularly difficult and unpopular job to do. God says, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” That’s bound to be a pretty unpopular agenda. Nations and kingdoms don’t take too kindly to being plucked up, pulled down, destroyed, and overthrown. What an utterly horrible job. To preach death and doom to people who aren’t even going to do anything to try to change. And what is the point of all this destruction, anyway?

The answer, again, is there in the text. I left off the end of Jeremiah’s call. God says, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Jeremiah’s calling isn’t just destructive. It isn’t only about tearing things down. It is also about building up and planting. But in order to make a space for the new building, in order to prepare the ground for the new planting, first some of the old things need to be swept away.

Those are hard words for us to hear. Churches have a habit of clinging to the past long after the past has become irrelevant, outmoded, or even distracting to the true work of God. That’s not to say that everything needs to be torn down, that everything about the past is simply outdated. That is not the case. But it is still true that sometimes, in order to prepare the way for God’s continued action, we have to get rid of things that are getting in the way. We have to set aside things that are distracting. We have to let go of the things that we hold so tightly, so that our arms are free to embrace God, and our hands are free to do God’s work.

Now, let’s see how well I did. Point number one is… God loves you. That means, “God loves me.” And point number two is… God is calling me. It might be a challenge, but God will be with you. And point three… sometimes things need to be torn down in order to make way for God’s new building.

May God remind us that we are loved, make clear the paths that we need to walk, and grant us the wisdom and the courage to know when things need to be brought down in order for God’s new things to be raised up. Amen.

Sermon: Let Us Argue It Out

Sunday 11 August 2019
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

The text from Isaiah this morning comes in three parts, and so you get a sermon in three parts. In part one, we are told that worship is worthless if it doesn’t lead to social justice. In part two, God offers to let us talk through our situation. In part three, God offers us forgiveness and a transformed life.

Part One. The majority of this text from Isaiah is concerned with the upside down priorities of the people, particularly the well-to-do and comfortable of society. It seems that the people of Judah are doing everything right when it comes to following the rules of worship and making offerings to God. They are giving all of the proper sacrifices. They are observing all of the appointed times of worship, attending to all of the religious festivals. But for some reason, even though they seem to be doing everything right, God is unhappy with them.

New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—

I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!

I hate your new moons and your festivals.

They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.

The first impression we often have of God’s rejection of this Judean worship is to think that the Judeans are worshiping incorrectly, or that God is somehow asking them to move their worship in a new direction. Maybe God is trying to tell them that the sacrifice of animals as a form of worship is wrong. Maybe God is telling them that their rituals are empty. This has often been the view of many Christians, especially Protestants.

But that doesn’t seem to square with the text that we have in front of us today. Yes, God is sick of all of the burnt offerings and the Sabbaths and the new moon festivals. But it is not because these are inherently incorrect forms of worship. Quite the contrary.  It is not the style of worship that God is upset with, it is the result of the worship. The problem that God has with the Judeans is that even though they are putting forth all of this wonderful worship, it is not leading to social justice in the world. God tells them that worship is worthless if it does not lead them to right action, if it does not lead them to care for the poor, if it does not lead them to tend the planet, if it does not lead them to bring about justice in the world.

And that is certainly something that relates to our lives as Christians in today’s world. There are frequently discussions and arguments in churches about worship and worship styles. Do we sing older hymns, or do we sing more contemporary songs? Do we use a hymnal, or do we print the words on a screen. When do we sit, when do we stand, and when do we kneel? Do we use traditional language or contemporary language? What method do we use for taking communion and how often do we take it?

These are all interesting questions, and well worth discussing, but they are not the questions that are raised in today’s text. No, the message that we hear from God today is not concerned with what style of worship we use, but in whether or not our worship is effective. And the standard of effectiveness is not whether or not we enjoy it, it’s not whether or not it makes us feel better, and, surprisingly, it’s not even whether or not it gives us an experience of the divine.

According to Isaiah, the standard for effective worship is whether or not it leads us to act with justice. Does our worship cause us to deal fairly and justly with our neighbors? Does it cause us to look out for the poor and the oppressed? Does our worship lead us to care for the needs of our community? Does it lead us to call for laws that will protect the most vulnerable in our society? Does it lead us to defend the planet that is our home?

According to Isaiah, if our worship does not do these things, then it is worthless. If our worship just makes us feel better on Sunday morning but doesn’t lead us into service in the world, then God finds it repugnant. If our worship makes us think that we are right and well with God, but it doesn’t call us to do God’s work in the world, then God wants no part of it.

Because worship is meant to make us better disciples. It is meant to bring us closer to God, and being close to God means being a promoter of justice. Worship should produce the fruit of faith in the world, not just satisfy our hearts. So if we are coming here just to get our weekly fix of religion, but our lives outside of this sanctuary are not changed, then we are not right with God.

Which leads us to Part Two. The truth is that we are not always right with God. We don’t do everything that we should do. We do do things that we shouldn’t. We are not as good of disciples as we could be. And too often we leave the doors of the church on Sunday afternoon and go about our lives virtually unchanged by the message of God that we shared inside.

But even in the midst of God chiding the Judeans for similar faults, God says something very interesting. The version I like best comes from the New Revised Standard Version: “Come, let us argue it out.” In other translations it is rendered, “Come, let us reason together.” It’s not something that we often think about doing with God: arguing and reasoning. More often we think that arguing with God would be some sort of sin, somehow sacrilegious. After all, isn’t God always right? Wouldn’t arguing with God be rejecting the divine will?

But here God tells us plainly, “Let us argue it out.” God seems to want to give us a chance to state our case on the matter, to give our defense for our actions. God wants to talk it over with us, to give us time to share our side of the story. It’s a truly remarkable image of God, as one who is willing to work with us, who is ready to listen to us and our situation. And it is an image of God that we would be wise to pay attention do. God can handle our argument, our hurt feelings, even our willfulness. God would rather have us be argumentatively engaged than silently detached.

After all of that arguing and reasoning and settling of things with God, we are led finally to Part Three of our story. Even though we have fallen short of what God desires of us, God is willing and ready to forgive us.

Though your sins are like scarlet,

they will be white as snow.

If they are red as crimson,

they will become like wool.

God can wipe our sins and misdeeds away and make us clean again. God can take out the stains of our guilt and make us pure and holy again. God can forgive us, make us God’s children once again. It is a wonderful mystery of faith that even when we make the worst of mistakes, God is always waiting, always ready to forgive us, always ready to welcome us home.

But God’s work in our lives does not end with forgiveness. It isn’t just about cleaning up our old messes and washing away our sins. God’s grace for us extends beyond that. God offers us a transformed life. God will not only blot our old sins, but God will also walk with us so that we don’t we do better the next time. God will set us on the right path. God will inspire us to do God’s work in the world. To care for the poor and the broken. To be good stewards of the created world that God has granted us. God will make us into better disciples. God will help us to do the work that we were unable to do on our own.

God’s grace is not just a get-out-of-jail-free card. God’s grace doesn’t leave us as parolees. No, God’s grace continues to work on us, to transform us into faithful servants, and even into beloved children. If we are willing. If we are willing to be transformed, then God is ready to do it.

So to wrap things up: God wants more than just good singing and nice prayers from us when we come here to worship; God wants our worship to send us out into the world to serve and to call for justice. When we do miss the mark, though, God is ready to talk it over with us, to argue it out, to reason through our situation and to settle things. And when we are ready and willing to follow God’s way, God will wash us clean of our sins and empower us to be better disciples. God is there with us every step of the way, leading us out of sin into a transformed life, and offering us grace all along the way.

Sermon: The Abundance of Possessions

Sunday 4 August 2019
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 18C

Luke 12:13-21

Today we have to tackle the single most difficult topic in the Bible. It’s more difficult than politics, more difficult than all of the details of religious doctrine, more difficult than sex. And surprisingly, though this topic is very difficult to talk about, it is not very controversial, because for the most part we have chosen to overlook it. The difficult topic that I am referring to is greed.

We Americans live in a culture that is in many ways founded on greed. It is built on the idea of acquiring more, of moving up the social ladder, of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. The American dream is to come from nothing and acquire more wealth and property, enough to live a comfortable life. And maybe, if you’re lucky, to have a life that is more than comfortable. Perhaps even affluent.

And we have tried very hard over the last few centuries to fold that American dream into our Christian theology. We have tried very hard to convince ourselves that God wants us to be prosperous, that Jesus came in order that we might have not life, but possessions, and have them abundantly. We reason that a good Protestant work ethic is essential to being a good Christian, and that a good worker should be rewarded for their efforts with increasing material payment. We convince ourselves that Jesus the Christ preached Capitalism, and told us to take our talents and gain interest off of them. We take the words of Adam Smith, the father of free market economics, and force them into the mouth of the Lord of Life, squinting our eyes until the words look red on the page: “It is not out of benevolence, but out of self-interest that an individual can best benefit society.”

And for the most part, we have convinced ourselves. We work hard and try to gain as much as we can. We invest our money in stocks and bonds, and we collect the interest that they make for us, sometimes thanking God for our gains. We see no conflict at all between the one who says, “Go, sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor; then come and follow me.” and the one who says, “Buy this amazing, time-saving device and your life will be complete; limited time offer, while supplies last.”

We are so immersed in this culture of acquisition, that we can scarcely see it. It is the water we swim in. Of course, the first people who heard Jesus’s message so long ago understood things very differently. And thinking about their worldview might give us a useful perspective.

Because Jesus’s first audience, those first-century, Palestinian peasants, had a very different understanding of wealth and poverty and greed than we have today. “In modern economics, we make the assumption that goods are, in principle, in unlimited supply. If there is a shortage, we can produce more. If one person gets more of something, it does not necessarily mean that someone else gets less; it may just mean the factory worked overtime and more became available.

“But in ancient Palestine the perception was the opposite: all goods existed in finite, limited supply and were already distributed… Because the pie could not grow larger, a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else… Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is… ‘either a thief or the heir of a thief.’ Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion. The notion of an honest rich man was a first century oxymoron.”

Greed, then, wasn’t some kind of out-of-control avarice; greed wasn’t some sort of extraordinarily vicious longing. Greed was simply wanting more than one needs to survive. Anything more than subsistence was considered greed, and was considered thievery. In fact, the Greek word for greed simply means “wanting more.” What we consider a virtue—wanting more for oneself and for one’s family—the peasants of Jesus’s time considered a sin.

And Jesus seems to have preached the same message, telling the faithful to guard against all kinds of greed, and warning that life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.

It is a hard pill to swallow, so wedded are we to our ideas of hard work, reward, advancement, investment, and security. The topic of greed goes virtually untouched by scholars, pastors, and lay people alike. It is simply too contrary to our way of living to be taken seriously.

The writer of Colossians refers to greed as idolatry. The quest for more becomes an idol, a rival with God for our attention. And before long, we stop putting our trust in God, and we place it instead in our possessions. It is our nice house, our fancy car, our bank account that keeps us secure.  We rely on our things to keep us safe, to save us from the uncertainty of the world. We seek financial security. And we move God off of the altar of our hearts in order to make room for our new savior: money.

But is there really such a thing as financial security? Do our houses, and our clothes, and our toys, and our savings accounts really make us safe? Do they really protect us from anything? Do they really make us happy? Do they really ease our minds? Do they really comfort us, or make our families more secure?

Jesus says no. Wealth, and money, and possessions—they don’t protect you from anything. They don’t make you more secure. They don’t even put your mind at ease.

And to prove his point, he tells the parable of the rich fool. This man had it made. He thought he had everything taken care of. He had so much grain that he needed to tear down his barns and build bigger ones just to contain it. He had enough stored up to keep him safe and secure for years to come. He had no worries.

We would say that he had worked hard and made wise business decisions. The ancients would say that he was a thief. But regardless of what we call him, his fate was the same. All of his possessions, his food stored up for years, his retirement account as  it were—they didn’t keep him safe. His wealth didn’t protect him at all; it didn’t give him the least security. Death came for him in an instant; all of his hard work, and saving, and accumulation were for naught. He died, and his possessions did him no good at all.

Now I’m not saying that this is an easy message. It most certainly is not. And I am just as guilty as anyone of making an idol out of possessions, of believing that things will bring me happiness or security or peace of mind. I am just as guilty as anyone of letting greed take the place of God in my life, of trusting to money instead of to the Lord of Life.

The 4th-century theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo, wrote on this parable. He said that the rich fool “was planning to fill his soul with excessive and unnecessary feasting and was proudly disregarding all those empty bellies of the poor. He did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns.” He’s right. When we are enslaved to our possessions, we forget to share. When we forget that all of the earth’s bounty comes from God, we forget that it is not ours to horde, but ours to share.

As we gather here for worship today, we know that in another part of our country people are gathering together to mourn the death of twenty and the injury of many more. In El Paso, Texas, a 21-year-old white man opened fire in a busy store. Initial reports suggest that this terrorist act was motivated by racism and hatred of immigrants. For this person, God’s bounty is meant only for some people, only for those he thinks are like him, but not for anyone he considers other. That too, is a symptom of greed, a greed that so wants to hoard things for those one considers one’s own people that it fails even to acknowledge the humanity of others. By contrast, one woman in line to give blood for the victims said, “It’s easy to make a dollar, but it’s harder to make a difference. So I get out there and do whatever I can to help.”

Greed or gratitude; jealousy or generosity: these are the choices we face. It is hard to admit that too often we are ruled by greed and too infrequently by generosity. And yet God’s grace is offered to us still. God’s Spirit continues to warm our hearts, to grow generosity in us, even sometimes to our own surprise. May God continue to move us, to take the rightful place at the center of our lives, to free us from greed, and guide us by God’s own graciousness to give wherever we find need.

Sermon: Teach Us to Pray

Sunday 28 July 2019
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 17C

Luke 11:1-13

Jesus’s disciples ask him, “Teach us to pray. And Jesus responds to them with words that sound somewhat familiar, and also a little off. I’m going to read it again from Luke, but from a translation that is a little closer to the version we use each week, from the New Revised Standard Version. “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

The Lord’s Prayer. We recited it together every Sunday. We’re going to pray it together in just a few minutes. The version that we use on Sunday mornings is not the version that most of us grew up with. If you grew up in a Methodist or a Lutheran church, you probably grew up with an older version that included the phrase, “forgive us our trespasses.” And you may have noticed that if you go to a Baptist church you have to say “forgive us our debts.” If you worship with Episcopalians, you have to say “forever and ever.” And if you go to mass with Catholics, you’d better be sure to stop before “for thine is the glory” or you will find yourself singing a solo. The version that we use in worship on Sundays was translated by an ecumenical group called the English Language Liturgical Consultation in 1988. I’m not sure how long Lutherans have been using it, but the Methodist Church has been encouraging congregations to use it since 1989.

The Lord’s Prayer is nearly universal. Christians all of over the world use it as a part of their worship. And we all seem to say it a little differently. There are two different versions of it in the bible. Matthew records it in the sixth chapter, as a part of the Sermon on the Mount. Luke records it here in the eleventh chapter, still recognizable as the same prayer, but a little bit different. But neither Matthew’s version nor Luke’s version is the one that we use in church. We get our version from another early Christian text called the Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.

It may also surprise you to know that even if we only look at Matthew, or even if we only look at Luke, there are still differences in how the Lord’s Prayer is recorded. The books of the New Testament were written in Greek, but none of the original manuscripts have survived. Instead we have copies of copies and fragments from centuries after the gospels were written. And even if we go back to our very earliest copies of the New Testament, they don’t agree with each other, and sometimes they have some pretty major differences. If you look in your own English bibles at this passage, you’ll find some evidence of those differences, because different translators have decided to trust different early Greek sources when making their translations. Most of the best, earliest sources have something close to the version I just read for you. Some sources have a version that has probably been edited by scribes to align more closely to the version found in Matthew. Some early versions even contain a line you’ve probably never heard in the Lord’s Prayer before: “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us.”

To put it directly, even from the very earliest times, there were a lot of slightly different versions of the Lord’s Prayer circulating around, so it might be best for us not to get too worked up over something as trivial as the difference between debts, trespasses, and sins. Instead, let’s take a closer look at the version we have in front of us, a little bit simpler, more direct version of the prayer than the one we learned in Sunday school.

“Father,” it begins. Just “Father,” no “who art in heaven.” “Father.” What does it mean to address God as “Father”? In the Ancient world, father had quite a different meaning than it does for most of us today. The father, or pater familias, was the oldest and highest-ranking male in any given family. If we were living in ancient Palestine today, I would not be the father in my family, it would be my dad. And as long as he was alive, he would literally own everyone else in the family—my mom, me, Melissa, Karthik, Kaylah, Kiahla. If I had any brothers or unmarried sisters, he would own them too, and any children they might have. In addition, he would own any slaves that might be in our household. Whatever the pater familias said was the law. If he wanted to, he could sell me, or anyone else in the family, into slavery. He would decide what we did with our lives. He would decide whom we married, where we worked, and even whether our children would live or die. I like my dad, but I have to admit, I’m glad times have changed. I wouldn’t really want my dad making those kinds of decisions for me, and I certainly wouldn’t want the responsibility of making those kinds of decisions for the family once he was gone.

Because you see, the father did not just have the power over the family, the father also had responsibility for the family. The father had to provide the economic means and opportunities. The father had to arrange for suitable marriage partners. The father had to promote the family’s interests in the community and uphold the honor of the family.

To call God our father is to give full power and responsibility for our lives into God’s hands. It is to release our own desires and to do with our lives those things that are pleasing to God. It is to trust that God does have a plan for us and that God’s plan is better than our plans.

And calling God father also means that we take on the responsibility of children of God. We recognize that our actions, whether good or bad, reflect on God. If we feed the poor, clothe the hungry, heal the sick, then that reflects on God, because we are God’s children. And if we hoard our possessions, if we are consumed with greed, if we hurt our neighbors or are indifferent to the needs in the world, then that also reflects on God. It’s been said that “the greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and walk out the door, and deny him by their lifestyle.” Calling God our father doesn’t just mean trusting God to provide for us, it also means living in a way that brings honor to God.

“Hallowed be you name.”  It cracks me up that even in most of our modern translations of the Lord’s Prayer, we still say “hallowed.” Sometimes we even use the Elizabethan pronunciation, hallow-ed. Does anyone actually know what hallowed means? I think in my entire 40 years of life the only times I have ever heard the word hallowed is in the Lord’s prayer or in the phrase, “the hallowed halls.” I’m not exactly sure what it means, but I know it sounds pretentious.

The world in Greek, ἁγιασθήτω, is actually much more straightforward—it means to make something holy. Father, may your name be made holy, may it be sanctified, may it be set apart. It acknowledges that God is different than the rest of the world. God is unique. God is the creator of the universe, not just a part of it. And as such, God is holy. The hallowing of God’s name means that we, as God’s creations, lift up God, set God apart, as the source of our very being.

But it is also a call to God, a request that God reveal Godself as holy. That is to say that the hallowing of God’s name means that God will reveal God’s own uniqueness to humanity. God will reveal Godself to be God, the one and only God, the creator of the universe.

“Your kingdom come.” Kingdom probably isn’t the best word. For one thing, most of us are not very familiar with kingdoms in our everyday lives; we live in a republic. Furthermore, when we think of a kingdom, we typically imagine a man with a crown in a medieval European castle surrounded by knights in shining armor and ladies in long brocade dresses—a scene that was unlike anything anyone in Jesus’s time could have possibly imagined.

It makes a little more sense to talk about the reign of God, or even of the Empire of God. The political system that would have been familiar to Jesus’s first audience was the Roman Empire, and the Greek word that we translate as kingdom is the same word that would have been used to talk about the empire. Thus, when we talk about God’s Kingdom, God’s Empire, we are talking about it in direct relation and in opposition to the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus.

May God’s Empire come. Jesus preached a lot about the coming of the Kingdom of God. He wasn’t talking about something that happens after we die. His message was always, “The Kingdom of God has come near.” “God’s reign is very near to you.” Jesus was talking about a new world order. He was talking about a sort of revolution, in which the Empire of God was breaking into the ordered world and would supplant the power of the Empire of Caesar. In a sense, Jesus’s followers had a choice; they could choose what their reality was. They could either live in the world around that everyone could see and taste and hear, the world of the Roman Empire. Or they could live in a different reality, a more true reality, a reality the recognized the ultimate sovereignty of God; they could live as citizen’s of God’s Empire.

Living in God’s Empire meant living by a different set of rules. It meant following God’s laws first, over and above any other laws. And when God’s laws disagreed with the Roman laws, it meant breaking those secular laws, even at the risk of torture or death.

In God’s Empire, the poor and the weak are blessed and the rich and the powerful are brought down low. In God’s Empire, a person’s worth is not measured in the abundance of their possessions. In God’s Empire, citizens humble themselves in service instead of seeking after fame, wealth, or glory. In God’s Empire, justice reigns, not just justice for those who can afford it, but justice for the last and the lost and the least.

God’s Empire is still breaking into our world. And we can choose to be a part of it. We can choose to reject the materialism and the greed and the racism and the bigotry and the violence around us, and to live by a different law: the law of love. Dear God, may your Kingdom come.

“Give us each day our daily bread.” We ask God to provide for our basic needs. Give us each day the food that we need for that day. We don’t ask for extra. We don’t ask for a surplus, for extravagance. It’s not give me today the champagne and caviar and prime rib that I want, give me enough food today so that I’ll never have to worry about food again. No, it is give us each day the bread we need for today. Not just for me. Not just for my family alone. Give us, all of us, the food that we need for today. That is enough.

“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” We are human beings. We make mistakes. We fall short of what God wants for us. Using the word sin can confuse the matter sometimes. We usually try to reserve the word sin for only things that we think are really, really bad. What sin really means is to miss the mark. That’s all, to miss the mark. We were trying to do one thing, or we should have done one thing, but we didn’t quite make it. We missed the mark. And if that is what sin is, then my friends, all of us are sinning all of the time. It is only in very rare and very brief moments that we live completely into the perfection that God intends for us, and even then we usually spoil it by becoming overly proud of ourselves.

We need God’s forgiveness. We need God to help us get over our shortcomings so that we can try again. We need God to release us from the debilitating guilt that can so often keep us from doing anything good at all. We need God’s forgiveness. And amazingly, God is willing to forgive us.

But Jesus suggests a sort of a bargain for us. We owe an incredible amount to God, we are in need of so much forgiveness. And yet when we ask, God forgives us. So, Jesus suggests to us, when you’re asking God for forgiveness, and when God grants it, why don’t you do your best to do the same for people who need forgiveness from you.

Forgiving is hard. When we get hurt by someone, it’s really difficult to work up the grace to forgive them. I think that we tend to think that if we forgive, then we are denying that the wrong ever occurred. We have to pretend like we never got hurt or like we are not still hurting. But that isn’t what forgiveness is. Forgiveness acknowledges the hurt, it acknowledges the offense, but it has the grace to say, “I am not going to let this hurt destroy us. Yes, I was hurt. Yes, there may even be consequences for that hurt. But I am not going to keep punishing you or myself over it again and again. We’re moving forward from here.” That is the nature of forgiveness, a forgiveness that does not wipe away or erase, but a forgiveness that heals. We have been forgiven. Let us also forgive.

“And do not bring us to the time of trial.” Don’t test us unnecessarily. Don’t overburden us with things that we simply will not be able to bear. If we must face temptation, then help us to overcome it. In other words, don’t abandon us when things get tough. Walk with us all the way. Help us to follow the right path and not to get lost along the way. Do not bring us to the time of trial.

The Lord’s Prayer sets out Jesus’s program for our prayer lives. Certainly, it is a rote prayer that we can recite together, and that is a wonderfully valuable thing to do. But it is more than that. Jesus’s prayer gives direction to all of our prayers. In our prayers we should praise God. We should acknowledge God as unique and holy, as our only God, and we should live our lives as children of God. We should call upon God to bring forth the divine kingdom in our world, and we should commit ourselves to living as citizen’s of God’s kingdom. We should ask God for the things that we need and trust that God will provide everything that we need, if not always everything that we want. We should ask God for forgiveness, and having received it, we should have the grace to extend that forgiveness to others. And we should ask God to walk with us, to carry us through the hard times, to help us to face any challenges that might come our way. This is the prayer that Jesus has taught us. May God give us strength to pray it with all our hearts, whenever we pray. Amen.

Sermon: One Thing Is Necessary

Sunday 21 July 2019
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 16C

Luke 10:38-42

This Sunday’s gospel lesson tells the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha. They appear in two different places in the bible. There is this story in the Gospel of Luke, and there is another mention in the Gospel of John, when they encounter Jesus after their brother, Lazarus, has died, and Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. But here in the Gospel of Luke, there is no Lazarus. There are only the two sisters, Mary and Martha.

Jesus is making his way from Galilee, where he has done most of his ministry, to Jerusalem, where he will be betrayed, tried, and crucified. Along the way, he is preaching and healing. As he comes to one unnamed village, he is welcomed into a home by Martha. While Martha is preparing hospitality for Jesus and his disciples, her sister, Mary, settles down to listen to Jesus speaking. Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is just sitting around while Martha is doing all the work, and she tries to enlist his support to get her sister to help her. But Jesus doesn’t agree. He says that Mary’s choice to listen to him should be respected.

So what is going on in this story? There are a few different common interpretations. One is that these two women represent two different approaches to life, and one of them is clearly superior to the other. This interpretation focusses on Jesus’s words. Martha tries to get Jesus to tell Mary to help her, and he responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”

Jesus seems to choose Mary over Martha. He seems to say that what Mary is doing is more important than what Martha is doing. “Mary has chosen the better part.” It might seem that Mary has chosen the correct thing, and Martha has chosen the incorrect thing.

If this is how we understand this story, then we seek to be like Mary and to reject the things that Martha does. We say that the most important thing is to listen to Jesus, and everything else should come second. Since we don’t have a flesh-and-blood Jesus to sit down and listen to these days, we have to figure out what would be the closest thing to that in our modern world.

Would it mean reading the Bible? Should we focus our life on reading the Bible? Or should we focus on philosophical pursuits rather than on more practical matters? Does it mean that thinking or believing is more important that doing? Does this story pit those who do against those who study? Does it mean that those who are contemplative are more important than those who do? Does it mean that people who are in thinking professions are more important than people who do labor? That’s how it has been interpreted by some. I don’t really buy it, though. If the world were filled with only contemplatives, nothing would ever get done.

Or maybe the distinction between Mary and Martha has something to do with heaven and earth. Does it mean that heavenly pursuits are more important that earthly pursuits, that we shouldn’t think about conditions in the real world because we are looking forward to a heavenly future? If so, should we stop being involved in justice ministry in the world because the physical world doesn’t really matter? Should we just be focusing on attracting converts who can escape into a heavenly eternity? Again, this is how it has been interpreted by some, but I don’t really buy this interpretation either. Jesus is constantly preaching that the Kingdom of God is near, right here, breaking into our world, and that we should seek to create here on that which is in heaven.

Maybe it’s not about proving that Mary is better than Martha at all. Maybe it’s more about describing two different personality types. Maybe some people are Marys and some people are Martha’s, but they are both important. In fact, Jesus doesn’t actually say that Mary has chosen the better part, despite what many English translations say. He only says that she has chosen a good part. Maybe each of them have value.

Some people are meant to be like Mary. They are meant to listen, and think, and ponder. They like to study, like to read, like to debate. They like to spend time in silence and in prayer. They can be counted on to think deep thoughts and have profound revelations.

On the other hand, other people are meant to be like Martha. They are meant to get things done. They see a problem, and they tackle it. They find out what needs to be done, and they get it done. They look out for the needs of others. They make sure that everyone is taken care of. They can be counted on to make things happen.

If we choose this interpretation, then it’s a matter of deciding which one we are and then living out that calling. Am I a Mary, or am I a Martha? And whichever one I am, I should try to be like all the time. Or I might even try to root for my own team. Team Mary is the best. We think deep thoughts. No, Team Martha is the top. We get things done.

And there’s probably a bit truth here. We know that the world needs both thinkers and doers. It makes sense to have a set of role models who represent those differences.

 But we also have to acknowledge the role of gender in interpreting this story. The truth is, Mary and Martha have only been held up as models for women. Men can choose Peter or Paul or John or Thomas, or a whole host of other disciples. But for women, it’s got to be Mary or Martha.

And that has also effected to way that we understand Mary and Martha in the story. If these two women are going to be models for female disciples, then they had better fit into the molds of acceptable female behavior. Martha becomes the domestic goddess. She fills her role by doing housework. She cooks and cleans and takes care of the men. Mary becomes the doting follower. She sits quietly at the feet of knowledgable men. She hangs on every word that Jesus has to say, but says nothing in response.

But that narrative, of two sisters fitting two different, but equally subservient roles, disguises some of the radicalism of this story. Because what these women do, and how they are described, is really rather subversive. They both push the boundaries of what was expected of women in their time.

Let’s take Martha first. Is she a housewife who cooks the food and does the chores? Not really, if we look at her story closely. She is actually a patron of Jesus’s ministry. She is the one who welcomes him and all of his disciples into her house. She provides for them, not just with her service, but with her possessions. She has no husband, but she is powerful enough t play host to a man. Jesus and all of his disciples are dependent on Martha’s generosity. Martha is the benefactor, and Jesus is the recipient of her beneficence.

And that’s not all. Luke uses a very interesting word to describe what Martha does. It gets lost in most English translations. The version we read this morning says that Martha is distracted with many tasks, and she complains that Mary has left her to do all of the work. Those words for tasks and work come from the same Greek root: διακονία. The better translation is ministry. Martha is consumed with much ministry. In fact, it’s the same Greek word that gives us the English word “deacon.” Martha is doing the ministry of a deacon. That is what will develop into the ministry of a clergyperson. So Martha is identified here with a form of church leadership that within a few generations will be limited only to men. But it is the ministry that Martha does in this story. She serves as deacon.

I also find it very interesting the way that Martha confronts Jesus. It’s rather bold. In Greek, you can tell from the way someone asks the question whether they expect a yes or a no response. Martha expects Jesus to agree with her. Martha says, “You do care that my sister is leaving me alone to do the ministry, don’t you? So tell her to help me!” There’s nothing subtle or submissive about it. She knows what she wants, and she expects Jesus to agree with her. She commands him to. Not exactly what we might expect from a first-century woman.

And Mary’s role is just as subversive to gender norms. It may not seem like it at first glance. After all, all she does is sit and listen, right? How revolutionary can that be?

More than you might think. First of all, the fact that she’s in the classroom at all is interesting. Education, and particularly religious education, was generally for men. But there is Mary right along with Jesus’s other disciples.

And there’s a little bit more. She is described as sitting at Jesus’s feet listening to him. That is the traditional position for a disciple. Disciple is one of those words that we only use in church and so we forget what it is supposed to mean. A disciple is a follower. All of the great philosophers had disciples. A more common word today would be student. Mary sits in the role of a student of Jesus.

But even that word fails to capture what is happening here. You see, disciples weren’t just trying to learn from a master teacher, they were trying to become like their teacher. A better word might be apprentice. A disciple, if they followed closely enough, would eventually replace their master.

Mary here, sits right at Jesus’s feet, in the place of his chief disciple, with the clear implication that she is worthy to strive toward a ministry like Jesus’s own ministry. And even Jesus himself affirms that she belongs there. “She has chosen a good portion,” he says, “and it won’t be taken away from her.”

Mary and Martha present us with two models of faith, though they are not as simple as we sometimes think. Martha shows us the model of a patron and deacon. Mary shows us the model of a disciple and apprentice. Is one of them better than the other? Not necessarily. Must each of us choose between one of these two? Certainly not. Is there a time to be contemplative and thoughtful? Absolutely. Is there a time to stop thinking and get to work? Certainly. Is it often useful to pair a deep prayer life with positive action in the world? Most definitely.

We can celebrate the life and ministry of both Martha and Mary, without having to choose between them, and without using their stories as a way of pigeonholing us into a particular, circumscribed way of being. They were both radicals, in their way, and they invite us to challenge the expectations that the world puts on us. What their story teaches is not that there are only two ways of faith, but that being faithful often calls for bending the rules and breaking the molds. May each of us, like Martha and Mary, have the courage to serve God with our whole and authentic selves, even and especially when it’s not what others would expect of us.

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.”