Sermon: Being Convinced that God Had Called Us

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

Acts 16:6-15

Paul’s dream of the Macedonian man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: Love Each Other

Sunday 19 May 2019
The Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 13:31-35

Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: Breakfast on the Beach

Sunday 5 May 2019
The Third Sunday of Easter

John 21:1-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: Breathing Peace

Sunday 28 April 2019
The Second Sunday of Easter

John 20:19-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: Apostola Apostolorum

Sunday 21 April 2019
Easter Day

John 20:1-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: Jerusalem News Broadcast

Sunday 14 April 2019
Palm Sunday

Based on the work of Henry Admiraal.

Thank you, Joseph. As you heard in the previous reporting, the unusual display from Jesus of Nazareth happened during a time of already heightened alert. The population of Jerusalem can increase multiple times over as pilgrims stream into the city for the Passover holiday festivities. Every business and home is struggling to accommodate the massive crowds.

If the size of the crowd weren’t enough to put the Romans on edge, the theme of the Passover holiday certainly does. After all, Jews everywhere are celebrating when God freed us from the oppressive rule of a mighty empire by striking dead the first born sons of every family of the Egyptians. That the Romans let us celebrate this holiday at all is a bit of a miracle. That’s why, as we do every year, we’re encouraging residents and visitors to Jerusalem to keep things calm and not cause any trouble.

But there’s no doubt that Governor Pilate and his legion will be on high alert. Supplementary troops marched in yesterday and today from their base in Caesarea by the sea. Anytime there are this many pilgrims in the city, the legionaries will be looking to suppress any unrest, but especially during a season like Passover, a celebration linked so closely with Jewish nationalism.

And we all know what happens when the Romans sense resistance. It seems we can hardly go two years without some supposed Messiah rising up and trying to overthrow the Roman occupation. Usually they don’t get very far, of course. A few highly public crucifixions and everything is over. They want to make it clear. This is what happens if you challenge the Peace of Roman, you end up hanging on a cross.

But many of you will remember the revolt of Judas the Galilean. Not 25 years ago, after the Great King Herod died, he started an uprising that still echoes today. His followers, the Zealots, are still agitating for a new order, a new Jewish state that has no king or emperor, but is ruled only by God. Is this new Galilean rabbi, Jesus, planning to pick up where is follow countryman, Judas, left off? Can we expect more violence in the streets in the days to come?

And who hasn’t heard the stories of one of the elders about Antigonus Mattathias the Hasmonean? Seventy years ago, he courted the help of the Parthians, Rome’s enemy to the east. With their help, he ruled as King in Jerusalem for three years. That’s when Herod the Great first came to power. He was a personal friend of the emperor’s family. They sent him to Judea at the head of a Roman army. After three years of fighting and brutal siege in Jerusalem, Herod and the Romans brought Antigonus, and Herod became King of the Jews. Ever since then, Judea has been one giant construction project, with Herod expanding the temple, building new fortresses and palaces, and even founding whole new cities for the glory of the emperor.

So, what are we to make of this new rabble-rouser, this Jesus ben Joseph from Nazareth in Galilee? His late father was a small-time carpenter, although there are rumors about whether or not he was Jesus’s father at all. They say that his wife, Mary, was pregnant before they were married.

Jesus himself is a bit of an odd duck. Thirty-some years old, but never married. No children, let alone the grandchildren we might expect from someone his age. His life seems to have changed when he went out to the Jordan wilderness and was baptized by John ben Zechariah. After that he seems to have left everything behind and become some sort of wandering preacher, exorcist, and faith-healer. He’s become a bit of a sensation across Galilee and the surrounding area. Crowds have been flocking to him with their sick and demon-possessed. And he’s even been sending his disciples out ahead of him, two-by-two, with the same powers of healing and exorcism.

But the real story has been his controversial preaching. Critics are divided or what it is that he means. So much of his teaching is done with enigmatic stories called parables, it seems like the meaning changes depending on who is hearing him. But there can be no mistake that his constant references to a Kingdom of God have raised the hackles of authorities. Some claim that Jesus is simply speaking metaphorically, but others hear a clear critique of Rome in this subversive, political imagery.

Concerns over Jesus’s possible revolutionary views will certainly not be relieved by his actions today. Parading into town on a donkey like an ancient king can be nothing but provocative. The crowds were even calling him a Son of David. What else could the authorities think except that he fancies himself a king?

And he drew even more attention to himself when he visited the temple. On the busiest week of the year for the temple, he went in and disrupted its regular operation. Jews coming from hundreds of miles away depend on the animal sellers and the money-changers in order to procure appropriate sacrifices. But Jesus came in and overturned the whole thing. A provocative action in an already tense time.

So what is next for this Jesus of Nazareth? If he keeps a low profile for the rest of the week, he might just skate by without punishment. But there is no doubt that the authorities, both the Sanhedrin and the Romans, will be watching him closely. If he shows up in the temple again for anything other than a quiet sacrifice, you can bet that there will be consequences. If he starts preaching his radical message in and around the temple, the authorities will have to do something.

And yet these crowds that are following him are a problem. He’s got them so whipped up with Messianic expectation, who knows what will happen. If he gets arrested and his followers try to resist, we could have blood in the streets, curfews, martial law.

Right now, though, it’s just too early to tell. If Jesus passes through the rest of the week without controversy, he might just make it back home to Galilee and continue his eccentric ministry. If he provokes the authorities again, we could have the start of another rebellion. With the city packed like it is, there could be hundreds, even thousands of deaths. There could even be a return to war.

But more than likely, Jesus’s story will end like so many other so-called Messiahs before him. He’ll poke the Romans in the eye one too many times and get himself arrested. If so, he’ll probably end up hanging on a cross, made an example of, just like everyone else who challenges Rome. And that will be the end of his story. Jesus of Nazareth. Just one more outlaw who tried to stand up to the power of Rome. One day the talk of the town, the next day hung on a cross, and a week later, his name completely forgotten.

Be sure to tune in next week as we bring you full coverage of the continuing situation in the holy city. For Jerusalem News Broadcast, I’m David ben Horace. Stay safe, and good night.

Sermon: The Anointing at Bethany

Sunday 7 April 2019
The Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 12:1-8

Jesus is anointed with expensive perfume by a woman. Some version of this story happens in all four of the gospels, but the details are different in each gospel. Three gospel have the anointing happening at Bethany, but Luke says it happens somewhere else. Two have it at the house of Simon the leper, one at the house of Simon the Pharisee, and one at the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Three have an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus, one has Mary of Bethany. Two have Jesus’s head being anointed and two have his feet being anointed. Each of the stories is a little different.

Here’s how it happens in the gospel of John, the last of the four gospels. Jesus is within a week of his death. He is on his way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, but before he is able to, he will be killed. On his way, he is told of the death of his friend, Lazarus. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Now, everyone is talking about him. This is unlike anything anyone has ever seen or heard of before. The authorities are up in arms. They are convinced that Jesus must die because everyone is flocking to him. And they are also determined to kill Lazarus, because his resurrection is the reason that Jesus has become so popular.

It is in this context of heightened danger that Jesus finds himself at the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, in Bethany, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He will soon enter the ancient city to the riotous acclaim of the crowds. But before that, he sits down for dinner.

Martha is serving. If you know anything about Mary and Martha you’ll know that that isn’t a surprise. Martha is the sister of action, the sister of service. But the language that is used in this story has eucharistic connotations. The word for service is the word we have in English as deacon. Martha is serving as the deacon at the table of the Lord. Jesus the savior stands as the high priest, and Lazarus, the one who was saved, raised from the dead, is there at table with him.

Their sister, Mary, is the one who anoints Jesus. Anointing was a well known ritual in the ancient world. Kings and priests were anointed in preparation for their service. The dead were also anointed before burial.

But this anointing is unusual. Priests and kings were anointed on the head. Corpses were anointed on their whole bodies. But Jesus is anointed on his feet. No one really knows what this means. It wasn’t usual for anyone to be anointed on the feet. One guess is that the feet were associated with action, and so Jesus is being ordained for action.

It was, however, a custom to wash people’s feet. People mostly wore sandals, and the roads were very dirty and unsanitary. When guests came into your house, it was customary to have a slave wash their feet. It would be quite unusual for a host like Mary to wash a guest’s feet. But that is what Mary does, even wiping them with her hair, which would also have been very, very unusual. Less than a week before Jesus humbles himself to wash the feet of his disciples, Mary washes Jesus’s feet.

Mary uses a very expensive perfume to anoint Jesus. In Greek it’s called myrrh. You’ll remember myrrh as being one of the gifts Jesus received from the magi. It’s made of pure nard. It’s related to the word “faithful”. It’s myrrh made of faithful nard. And it’s worth nearly a year’s wages. Think about that. Can you imagine washing someone’s feet with a $50,000 bottle of perfume?

So why does Mary anoint Jesus? Is it to proclaim him as king? Is it to make him a priest? Is it to prepare him for burial? Yes. Christ is the King, the ruler of the universe, and his identity will soon be revealed to all. He is also the great high priest, and he is about to preside over the greatest sacrifice of all time, the sacrifice of himself in which Jesus is both priest and offering. And Jesus is being prepared for death. No one will ever get a chance to prepare his body after he is dead. He will have risen before they are able to get to him. But what Mary does prepares him beforehand. Through these ritual acts, Mary proclaims who Jesus is. She anticipates his own act of humble service.  She marks the incredible, history-changing event of his death and resurrection.

It’s important to note that what Mary does is incredibly generous. Again, based on average incomes in Oregon right now, we’re talking about a $50,000 bottle of perfume here. I feel like you could buy the entire contents of a Bath and Bodyworks for less than that. She gives it for Jesus asking absolutely nothing in return. She gives an extravagant gift to Jesus. Are we as generous with our resources when it comes to Jesus and God’s Kingdom? Or are we more likely to keep the best for ourselves. Mary’s incredibly generous act is a model to us for how to use our resources for Jesus.

Judas, though, is not impressed. John makes it clear that Judos objection is motivated by greed, greed that contrasts with Mary’s generosity. But if we set aside Judas’s motives for a moment, he still asks a good question. Why should Mary have spent so much money on something as frivolous as perfume? Why so much expense for something that won’t last and makes no different to anyone? Why shouldn’t the perfume be sold and the money given to the poor? Wouldn’t that be a better use of the resources? Wouldn’t that be more in line with Jesus’s teachings, Jesus who never sought wealth or power but who always advocated for the poor and lowly?

Wouldn’t we expect Jesus to object to this kind of opulence? But he doesn’t. He does quite the opposite. And he says something that we would never expect Jesus to say. He says, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

Is Jesus really saying that there will always be poor people around, so it’s no use doing anything to help them? That’s how this verse has often been used. It’s been used to say that things will never change, the poor will always be poor, so there’s no sense in trying to change it. Just let the rich be rich and the poor be poor. It’s the way of things.

But that isn’t what Jesus is really saying. Jesus is saying that the poor will always be around and that we can help the poor anytime we feel like it. That ministry will always be available to us. But this moment, as Jesus prepares for death, this moment was something different. It was a special occasion, an occasion that merited some extra expense.

There aren’t many times when Jesus approves of extravagance. This is one. Mary does a beautifully generous thing for him. She prepares him for what is about to happen to him. She prepares him through ritual. An action that on the surface seems completely meaningless. How could perfume possibly help Jesus? But on the level of ritual and symbol this act has incredible meaning. It declares who Jesus is. It proclaims the sum of the gospel in one simple act. Humble service, saving sacrifice, glory born of suffering—it is all there. Not on the surface, but at the deeper level of the ritual.

Sometimes people complain that what we do in church is just a bunch of empty ritual. We have some bread and wine, we dump water on someone’s head, we march around with palms, we light candles. What is the point? It doesn’t actually change anything. Wouldn’t it be better to sell the communion chalice and give the money to the food bank? It’s all just empty ritual anyway.

My friends, a ritual is only as empty as we make it. Is it just water, or is it the gift of the Holy Spirit, new birth into a living hope? Is it just bread and wine, or is it the body and blood of Jesus, spiritual food to sustain us, pure grace offered from God in heaven. Is it just a candle, or is it the light of Christ, the spark of wisdom, the life that cannot be snuffed out, the light that no darkness can overcome? Is it just empty ritual? Or is it the Gospel of Jesus Christ, proclaimed in ways more profound than words?

For Jesus, even for the Son of God, on that night when Mary anointed his feet, as he sat at table with the one who had been raised from the dead, as Martha served, it was a ritual. But it was far from empty. It was full to overflowing with the grace and the power and the generosity of the love of God. May our eyes be opened to the grace and power and generosity of God’s love that is revealed in our worship, may we glimpse in our ritual the gift of the divine.

Sermon: Reckless Love

Sunday 31 March 2019
The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Today, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, we turn to one of the best known and best loved of Jesus’s parables, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It appears only in the gospel of Luke, and is the third of three parables about things lost and found.

At the beginning of today’s gospel lesson, we hear the circumstances under which Jesus told these three parables. Jesus is attracting crowds of all kinds of people to listen to his liberating gospel. And among those who are coming to hear Jesus preach are many tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors, of course, were despised by most Judeans, because they collected money to support the Roman Empire who controlled their nation and occupied their land. So these sinners and collaborators were coming to hear Jesus.

But this is not pleasing to everyone. Specifically, we are told, some Pharisees and religious scholars are scandalized that Jesus not only welcomed these sinners to come and listen to him, but more importantly that he shared meals with them.

And sensing the disdain that these very religious people have for the way Jesus is conducting his ministry, Jesus tells three parables and how God cares more for sinners than for those who are already close to God. The first is the parable of lost sheep. If a shepherd has a hundred sheep and realize that he has lost one, he will leave the other ninety-nine in the wilderness and go searching for the one that is lost. And once he finds it, he will through a party to celebrate that he has found his lost sheep. Likewise, if a woman has ten coins and she loses one, she search the whole house until she finds it, and when she does she will invite her friends and throw a party because she has found the coin that she had lost. God is like that shepherd. God is like the woman. When someone who was lost in sin is found and brought home to God, God throws a party with the angels to celebrate that the one who was lost is found.

And then Jesus begins to tell a third story, the one we read this morning, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A father has two sons. It’s a relatively wealthy family, wealthy enough, anyway, to have both slaves and hired hands. The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. This is, of course, highly irregular. This son is wishing that his father was dead. In the honor-conscious culture of the ancient Middle East, this would have been absolutely unthinkable. It would have been incredibly shameful. And it would be equally shameful for the father to grant his request. The father divides the estate between the two brothers. You’ll notice that the older brother doesn’t complain about it, either. He seems content to treat his father as if he were dead as well.

The younger son takes his fortune with him to a far-away country. Before long, he has spent it all. Notice what the parable does not say, here, though. It does not say anything about prostitutes. The son simply spends too much too quickly. There is no indication that he used the money for anything immoral. It’s his older brother who makes up the story about him spending the money on prostitutes. As with many people who come upon a great deal of money for the first time, he spent it without thinking much about what was coming next.

But it isn’t just spending his money that gets the younger son into trouble. He doesn’t run into real trouble until the famine comes. That’s when he has to find a job working with pigs. For a good, kosher Jew, this would have been an especially shameful kind of job, taking care of an unclean animal. And despite his work, he finds himself eating worse than the pigs do. He is without any family, without any means of support. He is on his own and desperate.

It’s at this moment that he comes to himself and decides to return home. He has nothing where he is, but if he returns home, he knows that even as a hired hand for his father he would be better off than he currently is. He practices his speech, what he is going to say to his father when he returns in shame. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands” He has sinned against heaven by violating the fifth commandment; he has not honored his father and mother. He no longer deserves to be called son because he has treated his father as if he were dead. He is going to ask to be a hired hand, which is the lowest place in his father’s household. You might think that it is worse to be a slave, and it’s true that a slave may have had a lower social standing. But a slave had a guaranteed place in the household. A hired peasant had no land of their own and no guarantee of work from their employer. Among men who were able to work, this would have been one of the most perilous places in society.

Having practiced his lines, the son begins the long journey home. But while he is still a long way off, his father sees him coming. It’s not one of the servants or slaves who sees him. It’s the father himself, which seems to imply that every day the father is looking, searching, waiting for his son to come home. Immediately, the father is moved with compassion. There is no sense of bitterness or judgment. There is immediate forgiveness, immediate compassion. And at this point, the father doesn’t know anything about his younger son’s circumstances. He doesn’t know anything about what he has done with his inheritance. All he knows is that his son is coming home.

And the father runs out to meet his son. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, this is a shameful act. It should be beneath the father’s dignity to run for any reason. It would certainly be beneath his dignity to run after the son who has treated him as if he were dead. But despite the risk to his honor, he runs out to his wayward son, hugs him, and kisses him.

The son launches into his prepared speech, but before he can finish it, his father interrupts.  He never gets the chance to ask to be a hired hand. Instead, his father welcomes him home with a completely over-the-top display. The best robe, a ring for his finger, new sandals for his feet, a huge party, because, he says, “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!” Again, it is completely unwarranted. This son has acted shamefully. He has treated the father as if he were dead. He has endangered the survival of his family by taking half of their possessions and frittering them away. But the father acts with no attention at all to propriety. He makes a fool of himself in his ridiculous welcome to his ill-behaved son.

And that is precisely the point, because that is the nature of God’s grace. God cares for us more than God’s own honor. We see it again and again in the story of Jesus, God acting shamefully, acting beneath God’s dignity, in an effort to reach out to us in love. God shamefully sheds the form of divinity and visits us in human form in Jesus. God shamefully appears not in the form of a king, priest, or emperor, but in the form of a poor carpenter’s son from the unremarkable town of Nazareth. God shamefully consorts with tax collectors and sinners, much beneath God’s dignity. God shamefully submits to death, and not just any death, but the particularly shameful and cursed death by execution on a cross. God cares more about us than about honor. God’s love for us is more powerful than God’s sense of retribution.

It’s a sentiment that is captured well in a song I just recently learned, and I’m going to invite Melissa to come up and help share it.

God loves us with a reckless love. It is not something we earn or deserve. It is a grace that God offers us freely. God welcomes us lowly human beings and calls us children, sons and daughters of the Most High.

Like the older brother, and like those scribes and Pharisees who prompted Jesus to tell the story in the first place, there always seem to be some pious religious people who are upset by the radical inclusivity of God’s love. There always seem to be religious people who think they know better than God about who should be in and who should be out. But God surprises us again and again by accepting people we thought were outside of the scope of God’s love. God surprises us again and again with a reckless love that searches out the lost and celebrates when any one of us comes home. Through the grace that is offered us in Christ Jesus, we know that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. There is nothing that will cause God to disown us. There is nothing that will dissuade God from searching us out. There is nothing that can destroy the identity that we celebrate in the sacrament of baptism. There is nothing that can change the reality that God loves us beyond our ability to comprehend it, that God claims us as God’s own, daughters and sons of the Most High. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: If You Think You Are Standing

Sunday 24 March 2019
The Third Sunday in Lent

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

During this season of Lent, we have lots of time to reflect on wilderness. The forty days of Lent parallel the forty days that Jesus spent being tested in the wilderness and the forty years that the Hebrew people spent in the wilderness after being liberated from slavery in Egypt, but before entering the Promised Land. In his letter to the Church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul uses the story of the wilderness wandering of the Hebrews in order to make a very interesting point to his contemporary Christians.

Like many Christians in our day, some Corinthians seemed to believe that because of their baptism and faith in Jesus Christ, they were completely free from the law and were thus able to do whatever they wanted without fear, guilt, or consequence. Now, Paul is usually all about the freedom of the Christian and how in Christ Jesus we are no longer under the curse of the law. But in this case, Paul thinks some of these Corinthians have taken the idea of Christian freedom too far, and he thinks they need some correction.

So Paul draws a very interesting connection between his contemporary Christians and those early Hebrew wilderness wanderers. Paul tells the Corinthians that they had better beware of Christian arrogance. They had better beware of thinking that they are in a new age and that none of the old rules apply to them. They had better learn from the lessons of the past instead of thinking they are a rule unto themselves.

Looking back at the story of the Exodus, Paul notices that the escaping Hebrews were led by a pillar of cloud to their freedom, and that they found their freedom by passing through the waters of the Red Sea. This is an established part of the faith. No one would question it. But the way that Paul interprets these events is shocking. He claims that those ancient Hebrews were actually baptized into Jesus Christ. The waters of the Red Sea, the spirit of the cloud—that was baptism through water and the Spirit, just as much so as the baptism that we practice today. Which is really kind of ridiculous on its face. It’s a bit shocking for us to think about, the idea that people who lived more than a thousand years before the birth of Jesus were actually baptized into Christ Jesus. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it is what Paul argues.

And Paul doesn’t stop there, either. He goes on to point out that when the Hebrews were in the wilderness, they were fed with holy food, that is, they ate manna from heaven, miraculous bread on the desert floor. And they also drank holy drink. When they were thirsty, Moses struck a rock with his staff, and water came gushing out of it. And Paul says that rock, the rock that Moses struck for miraculous water, that rock was Jesus Christ. The Hebrews ate spiritual bread in the form of manna, and they drank spiritual drink in the form of water from the rock. Alarmingly, Paul says that that was the sacrament of Holy Communion. Again, this should be shocking, to think that centuries before Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, the Hebrews in the wilderness were practicing it. It makes very little logical sense, but it is what Paul argues.

So, Paul says to those among Corinthian Christians who are full of themselves and overconfident, You don’t have anything over people in the past. Yes, you have the miracle of salvation in and through Christ Jesus. You have the redemption that comes in Christ. But, Paul argues through his rather clever interpretation of scripture, so did the ancient Hebrews. They had salvation in and through Christ Jesus. They had baptism. They passed through the Red Sea, led by the Holy Spirit in the form of a cloud. And they also had holy communion. They were fed with bread from heaven, and they drank water that flowed from the rock of Jesus Christ. Don’t think that you are any better than they were. Don’t think that you have some advantage that they didn’t. They shared in every bit as much of the blessings of Jesus as you do.

And Paul draws the comparison out even further. Even though the Hebrews in the wilderness had salvation in Christ Jesus, they still fell. Many of them succumbed to idolatry when they worshiped the golden calf instead of the God who had freed them from slavery. Some of them engaged in sexual immorality. Some put God to the test. Some were overcome with complaining and ingratitude, poisoning their spirits. They fell.

And just like they fell, despite the fact that they had all the advantages that we have today, we too can fall. The fact that they fell short of the glory of God should be a lesson and a warning to the Corinthians, and to us, that becoming a Christian does not automatically make you perfect. It is a warning against Christian arrogance. It is a reminder that we will all find ourselves tested at times, that we will all find ourselves missing the mark.

So if you think you are standing, Paul says, watch out that you do not fall. Just like everyone else in the world, you will be tested. Just like the Hebrews in the wilderness, just like Jesus in his forty days in the wilderness, we too will be tested. In that sense, we aren’t special. We have to live our lives, with all of its ups and downs, just like everybody else.

But, Paul tells us, there is still reason for hope. Yes, we will all be tested, we will all endure some hardship and suffering, but God is faithful. God will not let us be tested beyond our strength.

Now, those are interesting and perilous words. They have been words of great comfort to many, and they have also been words of great angst. When you are in the midst of real hardship, real suffering, real testing, real pain, is it comforting to hear that God will not give you more than you can bear, that however hard it seems, you are strong enough to handle it? Or is it just aggravating, depressing, and destructive? Does it just seem like God is saying, chin up, it’s not so bad, remember, I’d never give you more than you can handle, so what are you complaining about?

More than once, I have been with people who are in terrible pain, and I have heard them say, “I know God never gives us more than we can handle, but I just don’t know. I’m trying to be strong, but I just don’t know.” Sometimes remembering that God won’t give us more than we can handle is just the reminder that we need, just enough hope in our time of doubt to carry us through. It becomes a source of strength and encouragement in difficult times, a reminder that we do not face our troubles alone, that God is always there, right beside us, offering us strength.

But other times these words can be downright destructive. Sometimes these words discourage us from expressing our feelings of pain and doubt. We become embarrassed to admit that we feel like we have been given too much to bear. We get forced into an unhealthy silence that denies our situation and our struggle. We cannot let anyone else know that we feel overwhelmed, because that would be to doubt God’s faithfulness. Sometimes it even discourages us from seeking help, because we think we should be able to handle these things on our own. Both guilt and shame prevent us from reaching out when we are most in need, because to do so would somehow be doubting God, questioning God’s goodness, or would be admitting to some lack of faith.

That’s why Paul’s next words are so important. In the midst of trials, God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. God does not ask us for quiet, obedient suffering. God does not ask us to endure whatever befalls us without question. Along with the testing God will provide the way out. God does not leave us to suffer alone. This can be particularly important for people in abusive situations. God is not asking you to suffer in silence; God will help you find a way out. God will provide people who can help you, and it is no shame at all to ask for help when you need it. Providing help is part of God’s plan for you.

There’s an old preacher’s story you may have heard before. It’s about a man whose town is being flooded. As the waters are coming toward his house, he prays to God, saying, “I know that you are faithful and you will save me.” A car comes by and the driver says, “You’ve got to get out of here. Do you need a ride?” “No,” the man says, “God will save me.” The waters came higher and as the man goes up to the second story of his house, the first floor floods. He prays, “God, I know you will save me.”  A boat comes by, and they tell him, “You’ve got to get out of here. Get into our boat.” “No,” the man says, “God will save me.” The waters get even higher. Pretty soon, the man has to climb out onto the roof. He prays, “God, I know you will save me.” A helicopter comes by, and the megaphone projects, “You’ve got to get out of here. Climb up this ladder.” “No, says the man, “God will save me,” and he waves the helicopter off. The water continues to rise, and the man prays again, “God, I have faith, I know that you will save.” The water continues to rise, and the man is drowned. When he comes before God he is upset and confused. “God, I was a good and faithful man, why didn’t you save me?” God answers, “I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter—what more did you want?”

God never promised us that our lives would be free from all suffering and hardship. What God does promises is that no matter what situation we find ourselves in, God will be with us. God will walk with us in our suffering. When we are most under pressure, God will guide us to a way out. God will provide us help.

And that help doesn’t have to come from some showy, supernatural intervention. Much more often, God’s help comes from very ordinary means, from the people God has put in our lives. And so there is no shame in asking for help nor in accepting help. That is part of God’s providence for us. God has made us to help one another. God has made us to be support for one another in times of trouble. God has made us a community together, not only so that we can offer help, but also so that we can receive it. Thanks be to God, who graciously provides for us in our hour of need.

Sermon: Imitators of Me

Sunday 17 March 2019
The Second Sunday in Lent

Philippians 3:17-4:1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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