When I was a kid, we had a dog, a golden retriever. We named her Christy because she came to us on Christmas. Christy was a queen of an animal. She would review the perimeter of the back yard with regal grace, checking where other dogs had left their scent, investigating the spot where a squirrel had nestled for a while. Then she would see a robin perched on the swing-set. She would let out after that robin, full tilt. A dog in a flat-out sprint is a beautiful thing to see. Like a horse running or a hawk in flight, it is a manifestation of the glory of God.
Sometimes at night, we kids would put our heads on Christy’s stomach. We even have a photograph of my younger sister fast asleep with her head on Christy. And when you had been in a big fight with your friend at school or come home with a C- on your math test and you were sitting there feeling glum, Christy would come and sit right up next to you, and put her head in your lap, and you would feel better.
I learned a lot about God from my Sunday school teachers, my parents and grandparents. I also learned a lot about God from my dog Christy.
We human beings walk around on this planet thinking we have a monopoly on connection with the divine. We assume that we alone can truly praise God. As usual, the Bible proves us wrong, dissipates our arrogance.
In our Psalm for today, the hills ring out with joy before the Lord, and the rivers clap their hands. Now, clearly this is poetry. So much of the Bible is written in poetry and metaphor because there is no other way to express the infinite beauty of God. We do not literally expect the hills to ring out, though certain hills have been ringing very loudly in Hawaii this week. This is a kind of praise that we keep our distance from. There is praise like that: just too dangerous for get near to. Likewise, we do not expect the river literally to clap its hands, at least not here in church with us. The Ohio river can clap its hands all it wants over there, between its banks and not come all the way across Louisville to get to us, thank you. But the poetry, the metaphor points to the truth beneath: That all of creation praises God, not just we human beings. When you hear the wind whisper in the new leaves of spring, that’s the song of angels. The grass sinking roots, micrometer by micrometer down into the soil, praises God. Every atom, quark and proton of this vast creation praises God by simply being what it is.
Now, here is the reason why creation is directing its joy to God, and why we play harps and trumpets and sing. It’ because God is bringing the victory and God will judge the world.
First, God is coming to judge the world with righteousness and equity. That is, will govern the world in such a way that the economic system works for everyone, whether we are rich or poor, fair skinned or dark skinned, old our young, that we have good jobs by which we feed ourselves and our families, keep a roof over our heads and healthy relationships with the people around us. That’s judging with equity. It means that our legal system works the same, whether we are a powerful senator or a custodian in a school, whether we are well known on TV or known only to a few close friends. Equity.
That sounds like a bit of a fantasy, a nice idea out there. But the Psalm says that the opposite is the fantasy, the opposite is the delusion. God is bringing reality. God is bringing the truth. And the Christian community is one of those communities that works for that equity. We witness to its coming by bringing about examples of it, manifestations of it today.
The psalm says God brings victory. The word in Hebrew is y’shua, “God saves,” the root of the name Joshua and of the name Jesus. So, Christianity is the community which believes that God brought victory in Jesus. God saves in Jesus.
Now, today we have baptized Zachary Russell Adkins. Zachary, welcome to the Christian community, into one of those communities which work to manifest God’s coming equity, God’s coming justice in this world. Welcome to the community which understands God’s victory to arrive in the form of a tiny baby who has nowhere to go.
You know the baby Jesus had no place to go. They had to lay him in a feed trough, a manger because there was nowhere else. We see people sleeping in all kinds of strange places because they have nowhere else to go, right? Under bridges, in clumps of trees by the highway. It’s heartbreaking. It’s infuriating. It’s complicated. As Christians we believe that God’s victory, God’s saving comes to us as one of those folks who has no place else to go.
God’s saving, God’s victory comes to us as a child fleeing from political violence. King Herod sends his death squads out to kill the Christ child, and Mary and Joseph have to take their son and flee. They are refugees. Jesus is a refugee. They finally find asylum in Egypt. God’s victory comes to us as a refugee family. People crying out for sanctuary from political violence.
God’s victory comes to us as someone who touches lepers. Who engages in deep theological conversation with women, at a time when women were thought to be neither intelligent nor worthy enough to explore what God is like. In fact, if you look in the Biblical accounts, it is clear that they are. God’s victory comes to us in someone who hangs out with uneducated fisher-folk, ordinary people like you and me.
God’s saving stands before Pilate, so powerful and cruel. Poor Pilate, thinks he controls human freedom, when in fact, Jesus standing there before him shows us what real human freedom is. God’s saving stands before Caiaphas, a religious authority of the day, kind of like me. Poor Caiaphas, thinks he controls God’s mercy, when in fact, Jesus standing there before him shows us what real mercy is.
God’s victory comes to us at the cross, where Jesus dies for the sake of our human healing, our human freedom and life. Jesus trusts God to raise him up—that there is a power greater than this domination, this destruction, this death that seems to rule the world, a power that loves him, that loves us. God’s victory dies for human freedom, trusting God to raise him up. God’s victory calls us to do the same.
Welcome to the community, Zachary Russell Adkins. Welcome to the community that participates in God’s justice, that sees God’s saving as the crucified and risen Christ, that sings with the wind in the spring leaves, and the roots of grass in the good soil, and gentle presence like that of a kindly creature, who sits beside you and, by sharing your sadness, comforts you in your grief.
Welcome to the Body of Christ, Zachary, welcome home.
Psalm 23, John 10:11-18
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Do you ever wonder why this passage is so comforting to so many? “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not lack, I shall not be lacking in anything I need.” That’s what the Hebrew implies.
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not die of hunger because I don’t have anything to eat. I shall not die of thirst because I have no water to drink. I shall not die of some disease because the water I have is contaminated. My lungs shall not be wrecked from the inside because I do not have clean air to breathe. I shall not die of loneliness because there is no one to care for me.
Is that why the passage is so comforting? It’s strange because, for the most part, we have enough to eat. If you don’t, if you are starving, please, we need to work on that so that we all have enough. For the most part, we have reasonably clean water. If we don’t have enough to drink, or if our water isn’t clean, we definitely need to work on that. By and large, we have reasonably clean air. If we don’t we need to work for everyone to have good air. Overall and in general, we each have someone, at least one person who cares about us.
So why is this such a big deal? “I shall not want?”
It’s strange. In our society, we are told to want things all the time. Literally thousands of times a day we are bombarded with messages that invite us to want this or that. They seek to entice us, seduce us into wanting that shiny new car. We absolutely have to have that candy bar that looks like it holds the taste of heaven inside it. We need that new video game because all of our friends are playing it and it looks like the most exciting thing ever to exist on the whole earth. We want. We have to have so many things. We deserve to have so much. We have got a right to have!
And yet, Psalm 23 says, I don’t even want. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.
Maybe it suggests that the Lord is my shepherd, and that shiny new car or candy bar, they are not our shepherds. The Lord is my shepherd. I don’t need quite so much. The Lord is my shepherd. Therefore, I am free.
Notice, the 23rd Psalm takes us on a bit of a journey. God makes us lie down in green pastures but does not leave us there. God leads us beside still waters. God restores our souls so that we can keep going. God leads us in paths of righteousness, leads us to act with integrity and compassion and honor in the world and with love and commitment and faith in our families. This, not so that we will be “good enough” in some way, either to get into heaven or to belong on earth. No. God leads in paths of righteousness for God’s name sake, because that is just the way God is. God pushes us to become better people because that’s the way God is.
Now, overall and in general, we have found that walking in paths of righteousness, obeying the Ten Commandments and so on, will, in the long run, lead to a better life than if we do otherwise.
So, I wonder where these paths of righteousness that God leads us on now will end up. Let’s look. “God leads me in paths of righteousness...Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
Wait a minute. That’s not where I’m supposed to go if God is leading me in paths of righteousness. Nevertheless, even when we are walking in paths of righteousness, we sometimes end up in the valley of the shadow of death. Indeed, sometimes we end up in the valley of the shadow of death precisely because we were walking in paths of righteousness, precisely because we did the right thing.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” That’s the other thing we are told to do again and again. Not just want, but fear. We are told again and again, all the time, to be afraid.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
There is only one thing that we actually need. One thing in the universe what we truly cannot do without. That is the love of God. God is with us. God stands with us, takes a stand with us, does not leave us behind in the valley. No. Go d is with us.
This phrase lands at the center of the Twenty Third Psalm, just as it lies at the center of our faith. God is with us. God will never leave us. That’s why we do not want. That is why we do not lack. That’s why we’re free.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” This is a feast of deep abundance. Look at it: “You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” There are oil and wine running everywhere. But my enemies are here too.
I can think of two ways to look at what this means. First, perhaps God is so powerful that I do not have to meet my enemies on the field of battle or on the plains of war. God is so powerful that God will prepare my meal for me and my enemies have to stand there watching me eat, and they don’t get any! That’s one way to look at it.
Another way suggests that God is even more powerful than that. Perhaps God is so powerful that God can change my enemy, perhaps can even change me to such an extent that my enemy and I can sit down at table to eat. Do you think that’s possible with God?
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.” The Hebrew word translated as “follow” is a little stronger than that: “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me.” “Surely goodness and mercy shall hunt me down.”
No matter how far I run away; no matter how stupidly I wander; no matter how deeply I enslave myself to pride and self-importance, resentment and greed, self-loathing and hatred, apathy and laziness, numbness and apathy, God will hunt me down, all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus stands beside us. Jesus does not leave us behind. Jesus loves us.
Perhaps that is why we find this Psalm so comforting. Because it means that Jesus loves us truly, and that therefore, we are free.
Luke 24: 36b-48
What is the first thing Jesus says to the disciples in the gospel lesson for today here in the Gospel of Luke? It's Peace be with you. What's the first thing Jesus says to the disciples in last week's gospel lesson, from the Gospel of John? Same thing. Peace be with you. And when Thomas refuses to believe unless he can touch the nail marks on Jesus' hands with his hand in Jesus' side? “Peace be with you.”
Likewise in the verses before the Gospel lesson for today, Mary Magdalene and the other women come to the disciples and tell them that Jesus is risen from the dead, and the disciples do not believe them. They say it is an idle tale. Actually, the Greek implies something a little stronger, a little more derisive. They didn't just think it was an idle tale. They thought it was foolish prattle, a silly fantasy.
Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever look around and say “Really? People rising from the dead?” I mean, this is not like Zombies. Zombies, we can believe in because they stagger and stumble along devouring and destroying everything around them, just like the rest of us. But resurrection? Being restored to the life and dignity with which God created us in the first place, receiving again the breath and the spirit that God breathed into us at the dawn of time? I'm sorry, sometimes that sounds too far fetched to believe.
And yet, what does Jesus say to us the disciples, even though they didn't believe? What does Jesus say to you when you feel that way? He says, “Peace. Peace be with you.”
A little later on in the verses before our Gospel lesson, a couple of disciples are walking toward a nearby town called Emmaus. And they are downhearted. Their hopes have been dashed and their dreams shattered. Jesus, their hero, the one whom they thought would bring justice and peace, bring their nation to a condition in which everyone has a full stomach and a roof over their heads and healthy relationships, Jesus has been killed, humiliated on a cross. And yes, there's this rumor that he rose from the dead but you know, you don't see it.
Right? You ever feel that way? Like, you kind of agree with the idea of the resurrection as a nice sort of thought, a rumor, but you haven't seen the power of God at work in a long time. Not for many days here recently. Not for many decades.
If you feel that way, the guess what Jesus has to say to you. “Peace be with you.”
Jesus appears to the disciples, he says “Peace be with you,” and they are terrified. They think he is a ghost, an apparition, a manifestation of death.
And you know, the church can be that way, a little creepy. Right? Especially if you walk through the church at night, you get a few hairs prickling up on the back of your neck. Or if the church is always talking about death and the grave and otherworldly things, and spiritual things. Creepy.
Jesus says, “No, I'm not a ghost, look at my hands and feet.” If they looked at his hands they would see his bones. People have bones. And they could check to see if his feet are planted on the ground. That's one of the tests back in Jesus day to see if someone is a ghost or not, find out whether their feet are actually touching the ground. They could see Jesus' scars. Human beings have scars, whether on our bodies or on our souls.
Then Jesus does this wonderfully human thing. He asks for something to eat. Eating together is mortal and human because if we don't eat, we will die. Eating is a sign of our mortality, of our vulnerability. But we make this sign of our vulnerability into a celebration, a delight. We eat together for great occasions, for weddings and baptisms and funerals, for Christmas and Easter and Fourth of July we grill hamburgers and hot dogs, and at thanksgiving we have turkey. Here at church, we have a meal every Sunday at communion. We eat with each other and with Jesus. A human thing, eating something. Jesus is still human.
Likewise, the church at its best is not otherworldly. At its best, the church sinks its roots deep into this world, this rich soil, this life, you and me and everyone on this planet, because that's where Jesus is, right here in this world. And that's where Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”
Jesus makes us witnesses to that peace. “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed throughout the world,” he says. Repentance, that is, reorientation of mind and outlook around the reality of God's hope and life and love; and forgiveness, the fact that when we dishonor God's hope and life and love, God can bring us back again. Then Jesus says we are the witnesses to that repentance and forgiveness. We are the ones who show it to the world through our words and actions.
So, this week a coalition made up of the United States, Great Britain and France conducted a missile strike on military targets in Syria to reduce the ability and inclination of Syrian leader Bashar al Assad to gas his own people with chemical weapons.
I suspect we can all agree that gassing one's own people with chemical weapons is a bad thing to do. There are some good things to do and some bad things to do. This is a bad thing to do.
I hope we can also understand that stopping people from gassing their own folks with chemical weapons is going to be more complicated, and involve more sacrifice (sacrifice is worth it), but more sacrifice and chaos and heartbreak than it ever seems when we first start talking about it. Because war is complicated. It involves sacrifice and chaos and heartbreak.
Also, this week, various folks, including some folks from our congregation here, have gathered at their state houses to call for well funded schools and well paid teachers.
I suspect we can all agree that educating all our children and paying their educators well is a good thing to do. There are good things to do and bad things to do. This is a good thing to do.
I hope we can also understand that educating children and paying teachers is going to be more complicated, and involve more sacrifice (sacrifice is worth it), but more sacrifice and chaos and heartbreak that it ever seems to when we first start talking about it. Because education is complicated. It involves sacrifice and chaos and heartbreak.
Here is our contribution. I would submit that in the midst of that complicatedness, in the midst of that sacrifice and chaos and heartbreak, that's where Jesus is, risen from the dead, alive, real, not a ghost but active and present and moving, particularly through you. And here is what Jesus is proclaiming through you: repentance and forgiveness, change and renewal, reorientation of outlook and rejuvenation of soul. This is what Jesus is saying through you, through your words and actions, to the whole world, to every being in this vast web of life around us, this is what Jesus is saying, “Peace. Peace be with you. Peace.”
Today is not only Easter Sunday. It is also April Fool’s day. So here is a silly April Fool’s joke: Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. Okay, why did the chicken cross the playground? To get to the other slide.
I said they were silly. But look at how this joke works. First of all, the joke sets up certain expectations. It’s a joke about a chicken going across something so immediately you assume the punch line to be “to get to the other side.” Then, when the punch line begins as “To get to the other,” the whole world of the joke has come together to expect the last word to be “side.” “To get to the other side.” But the reality of the punch line overturns our expectations: “To get to the other slide.”
The last word has changed just slightly. Now, instead of a rather down to earth practical answer, “to get to the other side,” you get something fun: “To get to the other slide.” The meaning of the word has changed. The meaning of the world inside the joke has changed. The rug is pulled out from under us, and somewhere in the space between what we expected the world to be and what the world actually is, somewhere in that space of surprise and wonder, we laugh.
Jesus does the same thing in his parables. For example, Jesus says that the Kingdom of heaven is like a woman who takes a tiny bit of yeast. Right away, our expectations are turned upside down because the kingdom of heaven in our usual thinking has nothing to do with a tiny bit of yeast. It has nothing to do with a tiny bit of anything. Usually, we think of the kingdom of heaven as the huge, cloudy place with people floating around playing golden harps, and vast, infinite expanses of blue sky.
But Jesus says, “No,” the kingdom of heaven is like a woman who puts a tiny bit of yeast into a huge amount of flour. Three measures of flour, that’s about nine gallons. Enough flour to make bread for a small army.
Again, usually we think that small things will give rise to small things. If you want big things to happen, you have to bring big resources to bear, right? But Jesus says this tiny bit of yeast rises the whole mass of flour. This tiny bit of yeast affects this huge loaf.
So God can take the tiniest thing you do, and bring huge good out of it.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. It’s this tiny seed. But it grows into this big bush, where birds can nest in its branches. Not only that, but mustard is a weed in the ancient Near East. It’s like crabgrass or dandelions. It pops up everywhere and you can’t get rid of it no matter how hard you try. You wake up in the morning and look out over your field of grain and there’s mustard plants everywhere. That’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Tiny thing becomes persistent and obnoxious and huge. Like Kudzu.
The rug is pulled out from under our expectations.
One more example: Jesus tells about the Good Samaritan, which, in Jesus’ day would have been a contradiction in terms. Samaritans were foreigners. There was bad history between Samaritans and Judeans. They didn’t like us and we didn’t like them. But the Samaritan is the one who stops to take care of a man who has been beaten and left for dead. It is the bad foreigner who shows compassion, who does what God wants.
Jesus pulls the rug out from under us, because it is in that space of surprise, that space of wonder between the expected and the real, the space of laughter, that’s where God is. God is in the laughter.
Jesus tells this kind of joke all the time. All the time, he is laughing.
So here’s another joke: Why did the possum cross the road. Down south, this joke is about an armadillo. Why did the armadillo cross the road? To prove that it could be done.
Oh, that one hurts a bit doesn’t it. Brings to mind all these poor possums or armadillos squished by the side of the road.
Humor is like that, though. It pokes fun at things that make us feel uncomfortable, awkward, weak, vulnerable, ungainly, human. We tell bathroom jokes, especially if we have only recently learned to use the bathroom. We tell bedroom jokes. We tell jokes about money because we are nervous about money. And we tell jokes about death. The joke about the armadillos or the possums is a joke about death, because we know that we are mortal. When we try to cross boundaries, we can be hit by forces greater than ourselves. We can end up by the side of the road squished.
Here’s another joke about death. “What happened when Jesus died on the cross?” Now, if you don’t know that punch line of that joke, you will probably expect a very specific answer, based on long and repeated experience. “He stayed dead,” because when people die they generally stay dead. That’s what we have come to expect in our world.
Moreover, we have also come to expect that if you stand up as loudly and as actively as Jesus did for compassion and integrity and Biblical justice and healing and hope, then the people who benefit from the opposite of those things, the people who benefit from hard-heartedness instead of compassion, lies instead of integrity, oppression instead of Biblical justice, corruption instead of heath and despair instead of hope, they will slap you down so hard you will never get up again. They will kill you. And death is the most powerful thing in the universe. So those who wield the power of death are like gods.
Not only that, not only do the sins of others weigh us down, but our own sins too. Our own addictions, resentments, pride, bull-headedness, apathy, laziness, cruelty and cowardice, selfishness, greed, govern our lives, and we have this voice in our minds that say we will never get better. We are bound by chains of our own making and we will never be free.
We think this is the answer to the joke. Indeed, you may know, some people think that the world is a joke. It is absurd. It has no purpose, no meaning. It’s ridiculous. Death wins.
Well, guess what. April fools. We were wrong. Wrongo, wrongoface from wrongland. Death is not the most powerful thing in the universe. Sin does not bind us forever. You know the punch line to this joke. What happens when Jesus dies on the cross? Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed, alleluia.
Ha! The rug is pulled out from under us. Now we live in that space of surprise, that space of wonder between what we thought the world was and what we find the world to actually be. We live in a state of laughter.
This is the Christian message to the world: that wonder is the purpose of the universe, that the meaning of life is laughter.
Here’s the point: Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death. That goodness that love, that light that life, that laughter has a name. It walked and sweated and wept and died with us and for us, woven with the rest of us into the physical fabric of this bright creation. Now it is close as breath, that laughter, that Jesus, and it loves us. Jesus loves you. Jesus loves you truly.
Here’s another joke: What happens when you die? Again, we expect a particular answer from our experience of this world: We stay dead. Our end is the void. Our destiny is oblivion.
Again, April Fools. We were wrong. When we die, God will raise us from the dead. Our end is not the void, our end and our beginning is the love of God. Our destiny is not oblivion. Our destiny is laughter. Because Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed, alleluia.
That means we are free. We are free to turn on our masters, on the addictions and resentment and apathy and laziness and fear and selfishness and sin that bind us. Death is not the final power, and those who wield the power of death are not gods after all. We are free to stand up for compassion. We are free to stand up for integrity and Biblical justice and healing and hope. We are free to live this punch line for the rest of eternity. We are free to laugh.
Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed, alleluia.
It is funny, the way we treat the different parts of our bodies. Our hands, for example. When we meet someone we do not know, we shake hands. “Hi, my name is Andy.” And we touch the other person’s hand. This is normal, accepted, even expected.
But you would not feel nearly so comfortable if a complete stranger touched your hair, “Nice to meet you,” or your cheek, “How do you do.” No.
And our feet. They are a bit of a combination. On the one hand, we may wish to keep our feet covered. We may feel self-conscious about our feet, about this toe that points in the wrong direction, or that knob sticking out. Our feet may hurt, from arthritis or from walking for a long way, or from standing up all afternoon. We may wish to hide and protect our feet.
On the other hand, some of us will pay a good deal of money to have someone else pamper our feet. They will scrape off the excess hard skin and paint our toenails, or we might paint our toenails ourselves. Then we wear sandals to show off our toenails, and wear an ankle bracelet or even a tattoo. Our feet become a means of display and a form of expression.
But how do you feel about people touching your feet?
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus wraps a towel around himself, pours water into a basin and washes his disciples feet. It is a very intimate thing to do, vulnerable. You can’t run away when someone has your foot in their hand. You can’t stand up and fight if someone is washing your feet. It is a very trusting, human thing.
So, now Jesus is washing the disciples’ feet. I think I made a big deal last year on Maundy Thursday about the fact that, when you were invited to someone’s house for dinner, you walked to their house. You would walk through the dust, and the mud, and the donkey manure. When you got to your host’s house, your feet were not pretty. So it was the slave who would wash your feet, or someone subservient. The master of the household would not wash your feet. That was beneath his dignity. The host of the meal would not stoop to such a dirty task as washing your feet.
But now Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Jesus, the Son of God, the master of the world was doing the work of a slave. Jesus, the host of the Great Feast, Holy Communion, the host of the Marriage Feast which Has No End, he washes our feet.
This is awkward, uncomfortable, even crazy behavior. Peter objects. He says, “Lord are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus says, basically, “Don’t worry it’ll be okay. You will understand later.” Peter says, “Lord, you will never wash my feet!”
Jesus says, “If you do not let me wash your feet, then you have no share in me.” In other words, with Jesus, it’s about this intimacy, it’s about this trust and trustworthiness, this humanness, this life between us and him and God.
Jesus says this is the way we are to treat each other. “You should wash each-others’ feet.” There is to be this trust and trustworthiness between us as well. He says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Now, Jesus would challenge his disciples. He points out the truth to Peter, says, “You will deny me three times.” He says to Phillip, “Have you known me all this time, and still you don’t understand that I am the way.” It is all right for us to confront each other, to point out where we need to change, where we need to repent. But the core of our relationship, the essence of who we are as a community is love. Jesus died for us out of love. Are we willing to die for each other?
And this is not just about how we are to treat each other. This is the way God is. In the Gospel of John, if you want to find out what God is like, you look at Jesus. Well, God is like this. God washes people’s feet. God serves.
And I know, I know. We want a powerful God. We want a God who will solve our problems for us because our problems are too big for us to solve ourselves. And indeed, God often does solve our problems, or at least helps us solve them, a little bit at a time. But we want a God with some punch, with some wrath to drive away the evildoers who threaten us and our way of life.
That’s fine. There is a place for the power of God. There is even a place for the wrath of God, so long as we understand that wrath is going to come on us, sometimes. Because sometimes we are the evildoers. So there’s a place for fear too.
But the essence of God’s power, the depth of God’s life is here, in servant-hood. The Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made through him.” All things were made through the Word, the Logos, the meaning, the purpose the story. People ask sometimes about the meaning of life, the meaning of the universe. This is clear from the Gospel of John. The meaning of life is servant-hood. The meaning of the universe is love.
So in a few minutes we will have what is called a foot washing. Now, I would like to make it very clear that you do not have to have your feet washed if you don’t want to. If you are uncomfortable with someone washing your feet, you can stay right there with your feet under you in the pew and that is completely okay.
If you do wish to have your feet washed, then take off your shoes while you are still in the pew and come forward by the center aisle. I am moving this chair into place here, then I will take off my chasuble and alb, and my shoes too. I will have my feet washed, then I will wash your feet. I will splash some water on, and wipe a bit with my hands, and dry with a towel. When your feet are dry, you can return to your pew by the side aisle. After everyone is finished, I will put my alb and chasuble back on, go and wash my hands, and we will continue with the prayers.
Now, the Mennonites and the Amish consider this a sacrament because Jesus commands it. We do not consider it a sacrament, but it is a way, whether we wash each other’s feet literally, or use it as a way to describe how we are to treat each other, it is a way remember what God is like. God is a servant. God is love. We are to love one another.
It had been a glorious dream, a vision from heaven, it seemed. King Charles, Charlemagne, ruler of all Europe, riding into town on an enormous war horse, surrounded by his retinue, to be crowned Emperor of Christendom by the Pope himself on Christmas day, 800 AD.
Charlemagne was a righteous king in many ways. Yes, he had taken over an entire continent, but he allowed people to live under their own laws. He did not impose his own laws on everyone. People were judged by the laws of their own tribe or ethnic group. Jewish people were treated relatively well in Charlemagne’s realm. Charlemagne supported the church, and Charlemagne gathered scholars from everywhere to participate in a great resurgence of learning called the Carolingian Renaissance. Something like a third of all the books we have from ancient Greece and Rome were preserved by Charlemagne's court. They would have been lost otherwise.
Theodulf of Orleans was part of this great resurgence. He traveled all the way across Europe to serve in Charlemagne’s court. He wrote poetry. He participated in theological debates of the time. He worked for a system of universal education whereby children, both boys and girls would learn to read for free at the cathedral schools. He worshiped in the Charlemagne’s eight sided cathedral chapel, with its green marble siding and red marble trim and white marble pillars. Theodulf loved this Christian king, this Christian Empire.
But Theodulf lived too long. Charlemagne did what we all do sooner or later. He died. Of old age. Charlemage’s son, Louis the Pious, was far more religious than Charlemagne, but far less wise. He did not manage the insurrections in his realm well. There were civil wars. Purges. The Empire began to come apart.
Somehow, Theodulf of Orleans was caught up in one of Louis the Pious’s purges, and was confined to house arrest, killed a few years later. Probably know it was coming. In the intervening time, Theodulf watched from his home, as his beloved empire cracked and faded. That was when he wrote this song:
All glory, laud and honor to you redeemer king
To whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.
Not a conquering king, a redeemer king. Not a king to whom the great choirs sang with orchestra and brass band, but children.
Today, we marched with palm branches waving, to remember another parade, another march into town, where Jesus rides on a donkey, and people expect a powerful ruler the Son of David, the heir to David’s throne, who will drive out the Romans and bring freedom and prosperity.
We know that’s not going to happen. We know Jesus is going to lose.
Jesus is anointed. People think it’s extravagant luxury. Jesus tells us it’s for his burial.
People walk up to Jesus on the cross. They say “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Jesus could bring them over to his side. He could increase his power base, get more people to believe he is the Messiah by coming down from the cross. But Jesus knows, we know, that Jesus is the Messiah precisely because he does not come down from the cross.
What kind of a king is this, who rides into town not a war horse, but on a donkey, who is anointed not for luxury, but for his death, who rules not from a marble throne, but from a wooden cross? What kind of a king is this?
This is a redeemer king. This is a king who saves.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus prays for God to glorify God’s name.
Most people in both Jesus’ day and in our day, associate glory with some kind of victory. In Roman times, if you won a race, you would receive a crown made of laurel leaves and you would get a parade. Or if you won a victory in war, you would have a parade through the streets of Rome and people would stand at the sides and cheer for you. You would get glory.
Recently in January, we saw the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, and whenever anyone won and event like snow-boarding or alpine skiing, people would cheer and hug them. They would get to stand on the podium with their gold medal and listen to their national anthem played. Glory.
Today, by the way, is the last day of the Paralympics in PyeongChang. Same thing, media announcements of victories and big smiles.
When the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl, they had been waiting sixty years. Sixty years. The town went wild. There were people dancing in the streets. There were parties everywhere. People got rowdy. It was glory.
That can be a good thing, to honor people’s perseverance and skill and energy and heart. It is not a bad thing to identify with a team, to let a little of their victory sink in to us, to feel a little of their glory.
In the Gospel of John, glory is associated with the abundance of God: the huge outpouring of God’s life. So, for example, one day early in the Gospel of John, Jesus and his disciples and his mom go to a wedding in the town of Cana in Galilee, where Jesus grew up. Then as now, a wedding was a celebration of connection and family and new intimacy.
But a disaster happens. The wedding host runs out of wine. Jesus’ mom sidles up to him and says, “Hey, they’ve run out of wine.” Jesus says, “Lady, what is that to you and me, my hour has not yet come?” (Notice, his hour has come in the Gospel lesson for today, but not yet at the wedding in Cana.) Anyway, sounds like a “No.” Except then Jesus’ mom tells the servants, “Just do what he says.” And evidently Jesus changes his mind. He caves in to his mom. He turns this huge amount of water in these big stone jars into rich, sweet, potent wine. An abundance of wine.
Why does he do this? Is it because he loves a party? Is it because he loves the bride and groom and want them to have a good wedding? Because he loves his mom?
Then at the end of the story, it says that in this sign, Jesus “revealed his glory.” An abundance of wine, an abundance of celebration of relationship, of family of connection, of intimacy, of new life.
Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, dies. It says that Jesus loved his friend Lazarus. So they put Lazarus’s body in a tomb, a small cave carved in the rock. And they sealed the mouth of the cave with a stone. Jesus comes to the tomb and says, “Open it up.” Martha, Lazarus’s sister, who is also a friend of Jesus’ says, “Lord, already it stinks.” “He’s already started to rot,” in other words. Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God.
So Martha has her people move the stone away from the entrance to the cave. Jesus calls, “Lazarus, come out,” and Lazarus comes out. Risen from the dead. Glory associated with an abundance of God’s life.
Now, in the Gospel lesson for today, God’s glory is associated with Jesus’s death. It’s time. It is Jesus’s hour.
Jesus enemies are so terrified by the raising of Lazarus from the dead. They are afraid that Jesus is going to raise an army from the folks who have come after him from hearing about this miracle. Hey are afraid that Jesus will start a revolution and that the Romans will come and put down the revolution and destroy everything. They can’t see the abundance of God’s life because they are afraid of death.
But Jesus says that this is glory. “Glorify your name,” says Jesus to God. Jesus says there is glory in the cross.
In the cross? Glory in death? Really?
Yes, really. Because this is about love. Remember what Jesus said last week? “For God so loved the world. . .” So loved.
This is where God remakes us into God’s family again. This is where God brings us back into intimacy and celebration again. This is where we meet God’s life, in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. In the ultimate expression of God’s love. Because love is glory.
Jesus gave us an illustration of this. At his last meal with his disciples, he took a towel and girded himself, and washed his disciples’ feet. We are going to do that on Maunday Thursday. It’s a very old part of the worship service. And you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. But it’s intimate, and humble, and gentle. Someone pours some water on your feet. They touch your feet briefly with their fingers and then dry with a towel. That’s God’s glory.
Another example: We were speaking of parades before. This would be glorious: to have a parade every year for all the people who work with children. The school teachers. The child care workers at the daycare centers, the stay at home moms and dads, the social workers who help families take care of children. The custodians who mop the floors.
Yes, and along with them we should have a parade every year for everyone who works with elderly people. The folks who help us in the nursing home while we are recovering, who work in memory care facilities. The doctors and nurses, and especially the people who clean the toilets in our bathrooms. We should include the people who cook at assisted living facilities, and the people who help you to take a shower in your own home.
All of those folks, we need to make a parade for them. Let there be marching bands and people dancing in the streets. Let there be jazz bands and rock bands and swing dancing in the streets. Put the childcare workers and the custodians at nursing homes on the floats. Set them on a float with a fairy castle or the rainbow float, or among the petals of a gigantic rose. Give the champagne and cake and let them wave at the crowds, seven deep along the sidewalks who are cheering and clapping and throwing ticker tape.
Let us throw a parade for them, and especially those who do it with love. Because that is glory. That is God’s glory. Intimate, humble human, servant hood-filled love. Whenever we do anything with that kind of love, whether we are in the business office or the doctor’s office, in the living room or the board room. We have been made a part of the unimaginable abundance of God, the glory of God. It’s about love. The glory of God is love.
In the Gospel lesson for today, the Holy Spirit comes down onto Jesus, or into Jesus, depending on how you translate the Greek. Immediately the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness, where Jesus engages in conflict with the devil, with demonic evil.
This is what happens when we are filled with the Holy Spirit. We engage in conflict with evil.
We have encountered some evil this week, have we not. A nineteen year old former student walks into Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and kills seventeen people: three adults and fourteen young teenagers.
Again. This keeps happening again and again.
I said last Wednesday that in dealing with this, we need to feel, as well as talk and do. Because when we feel, we understand people as human beings. The devil loves for us to ride out on grand ventures to eradicate evil, and forget that it involves people, like Alyssa Alhadeff, and Aaron Feis, and Joaquin Oliver.
Also, we are dealing with powers and principalities that are bigger than we are. We will not be able to face this alone. Therefore we need to check our egos at the door. Because the devil loves to hook into our pride, to keep us from respecting each other, to keep us from imagining that someone who disagrees with us might have a legitimate contribution to the whole solution. You can pick up your ego again on your way out, there's no place for it in the church.
Also, we check our despair at the door. The devil loves to make us feel overwhelmed, overpowered, overcome, so that we throw up our hands in despair of doing anything. Check your despair at the door. You can pick it up again on your way out. Despair has no place in the church. Because you know what we are: a people of the cross, a people of hope.
What do we believe in? We believe in God the Father almighty. Look at this image for a moment. Those of us who are fathers, have you ever noticed how absolutely huge we appear to be in a three-year -old's eyes. All of us, fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles, friends, we adults are unimaginably powerful in a five year old's world. That's what God is like to us. The demonic might be powerful, but God is even more powerful.
Some of you may remember a show from back in the day called Barney. Barney was a purple dinosaur who would sing and dance and play with kids. Everybody loved him, but not just because he was purple and sang and danced. Right? What kind of dinosaur was Barney? He was a T-rex. There's a reason for that.
Little kids know there is chaos out there. Little kids know there is demonic evil. Our species would not have survived this long if they didn't. So little kids like having a Tyrannosaurus Rex on their side.
Same with us. We need the help of the Almighty.
In the book of Isaiah, God says, “I have been silent.” Does God ever seem silent to you? God had been silent for a long time. The people of Judah had been carried off into Babylon. They had been forced out of their homes. Many of their families had been killed. The God they believed in, the God of freedom who had brought them out of slavery, the God of community that had forged the Ten Commandments within which they could live in peace, the God of wonder, who had created the universe, had gone silent.
“I have gone silent,” says God. “But now, like a woman in childbirth, I moan, I writhe, I cry out.” Not only is God powerful. God gives birth.
This school shooting in Parkland, people talk about it as if it was routine, as if it was normal. It may be routine, but this is not normal. It's demonic. People talk as if this were becoming old in the worst sense of the word. Like they are becoming desensitized, numb.
In the midst of a violence that has become routine, old in the worst sense of the world, repetitive, numb, God gives birth to a new thing.
I would be interested in a conversation about how we can be a part of this new thing. A conversation in which people respect each other even when they disagree; in which we assume that God has something for us to learn, even from those who think differently than we do. Because we are a people, the body of Christ.
And speaking of the Body of Christ, the Gospel of Mark does not provide a detailed account of this scene of testing or temptation between Jesus and the devil. Matthew and Luke do, but Mark leaves us guessing, unless there is a hint later in the book, where Jesus has just told his disciples that he will be humiliated and killed. Peter can't stand this idea, so he says, “Lord, no!” Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!”
It's as if Peter was tempting Jesus much like Satan might have, to just enjoy his glory and avoid the cross. Jesus is tempted at the end of the gospel too. People come up to him on the cross and say, “Let him come down from the cross now, so that we might believe!” Temptation.
Jesus is tempted to avoid the cross, the sacrifice for us.
I think we are tempted to avoid the cross too. But we are the Body of Christ. We take up the cross too. What are we willing to sacrifice in order to begin the process of doing away with school shootings? This is not one wave of the magic wand. This is a learning process. So we will make mistakes. We will fall down in the mud. But what are we willing to sacrifice?
Because we know there is a resurrection. We know there is a life beyond the death. We are a people of the cross, a people of hope. We are a people who are filled with the Holy Spirit. We are a people who engage in conflict with evil.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The early church wrote many documents that did not make it into the New Testament. Most of these documents were written perhaps a century after the books of the New Testament, and present some ideas that do not fit in with traditional Christian teaching.
One of these documents is entitled, “The Acts of the Holy Apostle Thomas.” It explores the legend that the apostle Thomas brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ to India. In it, there’s this story about how Thomas comes to a certain king, King Gundaphoros. King Gondaphoros asks Thomas, “What is your trade?” Thomas says, “I am a carpenter and a mason, I work in wood and stone.” King Gundaphoros says, “What do you make with wood?” “I make boats, oars, masts, ploughs, pulleys.” “And what do you make in stone? “Monuments, temples, royal palaces.”
“Oh,” says King Gundaphoros,” “Will you make me a palace?” “Yes,” says Thomas, “I will.”
So King Gundaphoros leads Thomas out of the city to a wooded place, says, “I’d like you to build my palace here.” And he leaves building materials and plenty of money to pay Thomas and the army of workers that he would need to build his palace.
The Holy Apostle Thomas, of course, takes the money and wanders around the countryside using it to help the poor and needy and curing sicknesses and casting out demons and preaching about this God who came to us in Jesus. From time to time, King Gundaphoros sends more money and more building materials, and the Holy Apostle Thomas uses it to help the poor and cure the sick and cast out demons.
Finally, King Gundaphoros sends a letter to Thomas, saying, “How’s the place coming?” Thomas writes back, “It’s all done except the roof.” So King Gundaphoros sends gold and silver for the roof, which, of course, Thomas uses to help the poor and cast out demons and heal the sick and so on.
Finally, the king goes out to the place where he wanted the palace, and he finds nothing but a few trees and pasture grass. So King Gundaphoros asks the people of the city, What has Thomas been doing all this time?” And the people of the city say “He’s been helping the poor and needy and curing the sick and casting out demons, and proclaiming this God of Jesus. And people follow him because of the miracles, but even more because he is gentle and faithful and just.
Now King Gundaphoros is furious. He throws the Holy Apostle Thomas in jail and spends all night thinking up the most cruel and inventive way possible to kill him. King Gundaphoros’s brother also hears about this. He gets so mad that he takes to his bed, ill unto death.
Next morning, King Gundaphoros comes to his brother Gad to tell him the cruel and inventive way he has invented to kill the Holy Apostle Thomas. But Gad dies in the middle of the conversation.
As the angels are carrying Gad’s soul into heaven, they show him all of the dwelling places of heaven and ask him, “Where would you like to stay?”
Gad sees this magnificent palace, and says, “I would like to stay there.” The angels say to him, “You can’t stay there because that palace has already been taken.” “Who’s palace is it?” “It’s your brother’s palace, the one that Thomas built for him by helping the poor and by curing illnesses and casting out demons.” Gad says, “Can you let me go back and buy it from him?”
Angels let Gad’s soul go back into his body, and as he is being put in his burial robe, he pops up and tells his brother King Gundaphoros about the palace in heaven that Thomas built of him, and they let Thomas out of prison and everyone is baptized and lives happily ever after.
The point of this story is that God sees things differently than we do. We often want a palace on earth. God sets up a palace in heaven. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.
Jesus says, “When you pray, do not make a big show of it.” So nowadays, appearances can be important. We want to make a good impression on other people. In Jesus’ day, however, appearances could be everything. It was called an honor-shame society. Everything depended on how much honor you had, from your birth family, or from what you did in public.
As I say, impressions are important in our society, but not as important. I sometimes wonder whether our society is not so much an honor-shame society as a wealth-poverty society, or a success-failure society. We want success, we want outcomes, we want verifiable results.
I wonder whether Jesus might say to us, “Do not just pray for results that you want to see, don’t just pray for people you like or outcomes you support. Pray like this,”
Our Father. . .(Not my Father, our father, all of us)
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, (Not necessarily my kingdom or our kingdom, your kingdom)
Thy will be done. (Not necessarily my will.)
Because, quite frankly, we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We are tiny and broken and mortal, and we do not have the spiritual power to make our prayers matter that much. But God does things with our prayers we had not expected, perhaps not imagined or that we never even find out about. So pray for crazy things, Pray for impossible things. Pray out of love, because God sees things differently than we do.
Jesus says, “Don’t make a big show when you give alms, when you give money to the poor.” Because in Jesus’ day, you could increase your status, raise your honor level, by giving to the deserving poor. Jesus might say nowadays, “Don’t just give your money for results, for positive outcomes. Give money also to situations that you think are hopeless. Preposterous dreams, because you love.” Because, quite frankly, we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Our money will not do that much. It will not keep us safe. It will not save the world. But when we share it and use it in love, God does miracles with it. God sees things differently.
Jesus says, “Don’t make a big show out of fasting.” When you give up something for the sake of God, whether it is to feel closer to God or to benefit others, don’t just do it for results, for expected outcomes. Sacrifice out of love, above all else. Because, quite frankly, we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Our sacrifices will not do that much. But God takes our sacrifice and sweeps it up into God’s sacrifice, into the cross which saves the world.
Do what you do out of love, not appearances or results. Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, because God sees things differently than we do.
I am going to tell two stories, two different aspects of the Gospel lesson for today.
The first story involves our Christmas banner, which you might have seen as you drove into our parking lot. The evangelism committee experienced much stress and anxiety figuring out what to put on our Christmas banner this year. At first, we thought we would put the times for Christmas Eve worship: 4:00 and 7:30 P.M., plus an invitation like “Please join us,” or “Everyone welcome.” But this did not seem to have much spice to it. I thought to myself, “We are a church. It's Christmas. Everyone knows that we want them to join us for Christmas Eve.”
So, what can we say that people might not expect so much to hear at Christmas? I thought it would be great to put a silhouette of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, with the words, “God with us.” yes. That would be fine indeed.
Others on the committee were not so sure though, so the anxiety and the uncertainty went on. Then I went away to see my mother over Thanksgiving. When I came back, the committee had made the decision, without ME! Not only that, but they had decided to do something that was NOT MY IDEA! They had decided to show the star of Bethlehem, which we hear about in the Gospel lesson for today. They decided to show the star along with the words with which we start our worship service: “Peace be with you.”
This was a really good choice. Now the thousands of people who drive by our church every day see a wish, not only for tranquility, not only for calm, but for wholeness and health of body, mind and spirit. In this hectic, crazy world, in this hectic, crazy season of Christmas, we were wishing people peace.
Good. So, I was putting up the banner one day in December, out there near the hospital entrance to our parking lot, and I heard somebody say something behind. me. I turned around and there was a well-dressed, Middle Eastern looking gentleman who had been walking by on the sidewalk. He had black hair and brown skin and brown eyes. He was good looking, chiseled features and a fit torso. I leaned forward to hear what he had said, and I could barely hear him but I think he said “Peace to you to.”
I had not realized that we were not only wishing peace to people in general. We were wishing peace to people of different religions. Wishing peace to Bethlehem, to a place in the world which has been beset by violence and hatred and un-peace for way too long. He had shown me another way to see this peace, this light.
When the Magi came to Mary and Joseph, they would have looked different, their accents would have sounded different. Their dress would have been different. Their religion was almost certainly different. They were Zoroastrian priests from Persia, astrologers. That's what the word Magi means.
Sometimes people who are different from us will open our eyes to aspects of the light, aspects of Jesus, that we had not realized yet, that we had not seen. Sometimes the magi come to us.
Second story: In 1933, American folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles attended an evangelical revival in Monroe North Carolina, where he heard a little girl named Annie Morgan sing a snatch of melody and maybe a few lines. They may have gone something like this:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the savior did come for to die.
For poor ordinary people like you and like I. . .
Notice this simple wonder over the basic core of the Christian faith. Little, simple snatch of song.
Out of this, Niles wrote at least the final line, maybe more:
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.
Then he dove deeper.
When Mary bore Jesus all in a cow stall,
with shepherds and farmers and wise men and all.
So, both the poor shepherds and farmers, some of whom probably did not know how to read, as well as wealthy wise men, deeply versed in learning, both groups of people come to this wonder, to this mystery beyond our understanding.
And high from God's heaven a star's light did fall,
the promise of ages, it then did recall.
All these people, poor and rich, educated and not, over ages of ages have been yearning, aching for the presence of God, for the love of God. The promise, which had been hoped for all that time was coming to reality, the wonder was happening today.
And here is the nature of that wonder:
If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,
a star in the sky or a bird on the wing,
or all of God's angels in heaven for to sing,
he surely could have it, 'cause he was the king.
Jesus could have had anything he wanted. He could have forced all of us to bow down and worship him, and like it. He could have forced all of us to hop like a frog in a circle if he had wanted to. He could have forced us to cry out in joyful ecstasy about it. But he did not. What did he do?
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
Oh, yes, it's a wonder.
How Jesus the savior did come for to die.
That's what he did.
For poor ordinary people like you and like I.
I wonder as I wander. . .
Why did you come here this morning? What brought you hear? What star did you see rising in the east? What wonder have you glimpsed that you had to get just a little deeper vision of?
See, here's my second point: You are the magi. You are the different ones. We are the Gentiles. We are the nations. We come, seeking the Christ Child. God brings us here. And sometimes, God uses us to show the light of the Christ child to others.
So, come to the manger. Come to the Christ child. Come to the altar here, to communion where Jesus' body and blood becomes a part of us. Come, let this wonder touch you. Come, O Magi, let Christ embrace you, this peace which is with you always.
A few weeks ago we were talking about these big, blobby blow-up figures that people put on their front lawns at Christmas time. You know. Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, and of course, Santa.
I think these big blobby Christmas characters are reflections of us, aspects of who we are. Take Rudolf, for example. Rudolf does not belong with the other reindeer. He’s got this red nose that lights up.
Do you ever feel like you might not belong? Especially at Christmas? You might not feel as jolly or merry as the rest of us. You might be feeling loss or grief. You might feel broken this time of year, or like you have done something wrong that you regret, or maybe you just look around and see a world that is profoundly out of joint.
Even if you don’t feel like you belong, you are still a part of Christmas. Because Rudolf does belong, after all, doesn’t he. He even provides an essential service to his fellow reindeer. He helps guide them through the fog. If you are grieving or feeling broken or sinful, or if you see the world as being out of joint, you have something to offer the rest of us, an kind of guidance. Because after all, what is Christmas really about anyway? Is it not about the fact that God comes to us not just when we are jolly and merry, not just when we are looking pretty by the mistletoe, but also when we are grieving, when we feel broken? God comes to us sinners, even though we don’t deserve it. God comes to a world which is profoundly out of joint. And God loves us there, precisely there.
Rudolf reflects an aspect of who we are.
Now, there is one Christmas character which I don’t see on people’s front lawns. Her name is Befana, and she is from central Italy. Befana was offered the opportunity to come with the Magi to pay homage to the Christ Child, but she passed up the invitation because she had to sweep up her house with her broom. Then she has a change of heart and rushes out to join the Magi but they have already left. So she searches and searches for them and for the Christ Child. She has been searching ever since.
I think this reflects us. We miss opportunities to see wonder. We are too busy, too preoccupied with our lists of things to do. And yet we search. We search for the Christ Child. Sometimes we search without knowing where the Christ Child is. We might search without even knowing what or who the Christ Child is. Yes, Befana reflects us.
Now on the eve of Epiphany every year, guess what happens. This is the night before we celebrate the Magi coming to the Christ Child with their gold and frankincense and myrrh. On that night, Befana flies down your chimney on her broomstick and brings presents and candy to the children. And, (now this is important) she also will sweep up for you. (Especially if you leave her a glass of wine and some cake.)
In other words, even if we are searching, even if you have missed our opportunities to see wonder, maybe even if we still can’t find the wonder even now, we are still a part of Christmas. We can still bless.
I wish we had big blow up figures of Befana on our front lawns. She reflects a very good aspect of who we are.
Of course, the biggest, oldest, blobbiest blow up figure of them all is Santa Clause. Some people object to Santa Clause because they say he represents the commercialism of Christmas. Everyone must buy gifts to give at Christmas. Everyone must buy and buy many gifts. People say we should keep Santa away from the manger scene. Keep the commercialism as far away from the true meaning of Christmas as possible!
I would respectfully disagree. Because if you ask any kid, they will tell you that Santa does not buy the presents he brings to children. Your mom or dad might buy you presents. Likewise, your grandma or granddad, aunt or uncle. Your brother or sister might buy you a present if the grownups make them. But Santa does not buy his presents. Santa makes his presents, with the help of his elves, and by means of their special Christmas magic. This is widely known. So get with the program!
Santa has a lot more to do with giving than he does with buying. Look at this figure. Fat to the point of rolly-polly; old, with a certain kind of wisdom that includes a sense of right and wrong, even a sense of accountability and consequences, but is even more deeply under-girded by an attitude of abundance and generosity and good will.
Yes, Santa reflects some of the best of who we are.
But there is one figure that appears sometimes on people’s front lawns, who is not just a reflection of who we are. Who is not like us at all, on fact. This is the Christ Child.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” And everyone went to their home towns to be registered because you did not want to find out what would happen if you refused. When Emperor Augustus told the world to jump, the world jumped, because Emperor Augustus could make you suffer if you didn’t.
Yes, Emperor Augustus had arrived at the top. He had won the rat race. He had ascended the ladder. He had accumulated so much raw power, political clout, propaganda popularity and massive wealth that he no longer was regarded in the same way as the rest of us mere mortals. The rules did not apply to him or to his cronies in the same way that they applied to the rest of us. No, no.
You know what people called Emperor Augustus in some parts of the Roman Empire? “Son of God.” They called him, “Peace Bringer.” They called him, “Savior.”
How very like us, for Augustus to ascend, by means of his own skill and power, to the status of a god. Augustus is a reflection of who we are as well.
The Christ Child, on the other hand, is not like us. The Christ Child stands in direct contrast to Augustus. Here, this Christ Child, through whom all things were made, whose arms once stretched in motherly embrace across the unimaginable distances of the cosmos, whose fingers trilled the songs of quarks and gluons and leptons and electrons and protons and neutrons and atoms of this vast creation, this one who was completely immortal and invulnerable becomes mortal, deeply vulnerable, human.
The Christ Child, the embodiment of God on earth, will die without Mary’s breast milk to feed him. The Christ Child, the organizing principal of the universe, will die without Joseph’s loving embrace.
“For unto you, this day is born. . .a savior,” says the angel to the shepherds. Now the angel points to the Christ Child in direct contradiction to that other savior, that other son of God, Augustus. “And this shall the sign for you. You shall find,” not an emperor in a marble palace, not a general with an army stretching from one horizon to the other, but rather a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes like every other baby in the Middle East, and lying in a feed trough because there’s no room for him anywhere else.
This is different. Instead of a mortal pretending to become God. God has become mortal. This is not like us. This is absolute love. This saves.
Again, in the Gospel of Matthew, we hear about the Magi, described later as the three wise men, the three kings who come from far away to bring their gifts to the Christ Child. The Magi would have been very wealthy, to be able to bring such expensive gifts. They would have been powerful, to travel such great distances. They do the right thing with their wealth and power. They offer themselves to the Christ Child.
The Magi are like us, the very best parts of us. Whether we are very fortunate financially or whether we have difficulty making ends meet, whether we have great power and are deeply educated like the Magi were, or whether we don’t see our power very clearly and got our education from the school of hard knocks, we bring ourselves and everything we have to the manger and offer it to the Christ Child. This is the best of who we are.
Now, there is another Christmas character in Matthew. That is King Herod. King Herod lies to the Magi in an effort to get them to lead him to the Christ Child, because King Herod sees the Christ Child as a threat to his power, to his whole word view. When the Magi catch on to Herod’s lies and refuse to help him, Herod flies into a rage and commits atrocities against the children of Bethlehem in an effort to kill the Christ Child. Why? Because King Herod will do ANYTHING to keep his grip on power, to make himself look good, to save himself.
We are like that. Herod reflects us too.
The Christ Child is precisely the opposite. Instead of hurting others in order to save himself, he suffers and dies in order to save us, who are unworthy, who do not deserve it. Why? Because he loves us. Because he loves us truly.
“Now, you must love,” says the Christ Child. ‘You must love one another. And you must love your enemies. This is the true path of safety, because in this way you avoid becoming your worst vision of your enemies. You avoid being devoured by your own hatred. You stand up to your enemies, yes. Jesus stood up to his enemies all the time. We are to stand up to our enemies. But we are to love them too.
Christ Child says, “Anyone who wants to be my follower, let them take up their cross and come after me.” This is the true path of power. This is the path of God’s power, the path of the cross. We are to sacrifice ourselves and what we have for the blessing of other people and this bright creation around us. We are to be like the Christ Child. We are to be different too. It might seem futile sometimes, stupid even. It might feel like a real cross. But this is the path to resurrection. It is the true path of true life. This saves.
So come to the manger. Come to the Christ Child. Bring your whole self, all the aspects of who you are. Worship this one who is so different, who is so completely beyond what we are, who makes us different too, because he loves us, absolutely and utterly. Yes, this Christ Child loves us truly.
I will probably preach this sermon again some time, or maybe put it in the newsletter. Because we need to talk about Mary. You know the traditional idea about Mary, that she is kind and gentle. “Holy Mary, meek and mild,” right?
And that idea is true. For over a thousand years, paintings and sculptures of Mary holding the baby Jesus has moved through artists hands and people’s souls. This gentle, nurturing, loving motherliness connecting with this vulnerable, but holy child. That’s the power of God, it is indeed.
But that’s not all of the power of God. Nor is it all of Mary. In the Gospel lesson for today, the angel Gabriel appears to a probably teenage girl, maybe fourteen or fifteen, named Mary and says, “Greetings, favored one!”
Mary is not sure what to make of all this. Because these angels, for all their beauty, for all their trans light speed wings with their sharp, smooth rainbow feathers and their blazing glory, angels bring trouble.
Gabriel brings trouble. This is the same Gabriel who appeared to the prophet Daniel to interpreted Daniel’s vision of the last days, and more to the point, his vision of the fact that God is greater than the Greek Empire that was persecuting the Jews at that point. God was going to shake things up. God was bringing hope, but God was also bringing trouble.
This is the same Gabriel that appeared to Zechariah, the father of the prophet John the Baptist, told Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth were going to have a son when they had not been able to. That was hopeful. But if you know the story of John the Baptist, then you know that there was going to be trouble.
Mary is not sure about this.
Angel says “Do not be afraid Mary, you are going to conceive and have a baby, who will reign over his people forever.
Okay, that’s trouble for sure: trouble on two counts. First of all, the Romans are not going to like somebody else besides them ruling over the people of Israel, even for a little while, much less forever. That’s going to be trouble.
Secondly, Mary lives in a traditional village culture in first century Palestine. She knows what happens when women give birth out of wedlock. It’s not pretty. This is trouble.
But before all the trouble, Mary asks a question. One piece of this story does not add up. There are certain procedures that need to take place before a person can get pregnant, and Mary knows for a fact that these procedures have not taken place with respect to her, so she says, “How can this be?” “How is this going to work?” in other words.
You know, it’s good to ask questions when things don’t add up. It’s good to find things out when we don’t understand. That also is the power of God.
Angels Gabriel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the most high will overshadow you,” and so on. The one to be born will be called Son of God.
Wait a minute. We will hear more about this tonight. But guess who else was called “Son of God” in first century Roman Empire? Augustus. The Emperor if Rome. So which is the real Son of God, the Roman Emperor or Jesus?
Yes, very clearly, there is going to be trouble with the Romans.
More immediately, Mary knows a village culture. She knows that people will whisper about her. She knows that people will point at her from behind her back. She also knows that she might lose her fiancé, Joseph, who, by the way, was probably not very much older than she was, probably was a teenager too. Common people got married early in those days because there wasn’t time to wait. Just setting the record straight.
Mary could easily have lost her fiance’. She knows this.
But Mary also knows the God she is dealing with. She knows this is the God who brings people out of slavery to the mightiest superpower in the world, where there was no hope whatsoever of deliverance, no hope at all of escape, this is the God who brings hope where there can be no hope. She knows this God.
Mary knows this God, who looks out for the widow and the orphan and the poor and the foreigner, the refugee; this God who requires, requires those who are not destitute, requires those who have families and jobs, to care for the widow and the orphan and the poor and the stranger, the refugee.
Mary knows about the whisperings of the village, but she also knows what kind of a God this is, so she says to the angel, “Sure, I place my allegiance on the side of this God. Sure, I’ll do it.”
This is the power of God too.
Today we have read Mary’s song instead of the Psalm. We read it last week too. Mary sings this song when she goes into the hill country of Judea to see her relative Elizabeth, both of them are pregnant, both of them are touched by miracle. And Elizabeth blesses Mary. And out of that blessing that sisterly connection of new life, comes this proclamation:
“My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
For he has looked upon the lowliness of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed.
. . .
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the delusions of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
No, no, this is not so much holy Mary mother meek and mild, is it. This is trouble. This is hope. Can you hear Mary roar?
This is the power of God too.
So how is the power of God working in you today? How is the power of God calling you to gentle kindness, nurturing mothering love? How is the power of God calling you to ask questions to find out new things, to seek to understand? How is the power of God calling you to set aside the tyranny of appearances, the slavery to what everybody else might think, and say to this God of freedom, “sure, I’ll do it.”? How is the power of God calling you to connect with others who have life in them, because we all have life in us, whether we will ever be pregnant or not. How is the power of God calling you to roar like Mary?
John 1:6-9, 19-34
In our Gospel lesson for today, it says, “There was a man sent from God.”
You know, when someone comes up to me and says, “I am sent from God,” I put a big old smile on my face and I say, “That’s great. I know some people who would really like to talk with you about that!” I also say, “And what, precisely, has God sent you to do?” Because people have done some very bad things, thinking that they were sent by God. Terrorists do horrible things, thinking that God has sent them. People used to go on crusades, travel by horseback over entire continents, and they would kill thousands and thousands of innocent men, women and children, thinking that they were sent by God. They were wrong. They weren’t.
So what was John sent to do? He was sent by God to be a witness to testify to the light. We find out about the light in the verses immediately before the Gospel lesson. It’s the beginning of the Gospel of John.
In the beginning was the Word. That is, the Logos in Greek. Doesn’t just mean “word.” It also means “accounting,” or “how it all adds up.” It means the organizing principal, the purpose, the meaning, the story running beneath it all, the language in which the world is understood, the wisdom of being.
“In the beginning was the Wisdom. And the Wisdom was with God, and The Wisdom was God. All things came into being through the Wisdom, and without the Wisdom not one thing came into being. What came into being in the Wisdom was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
That is what John points to. In the Gospel lesson for today, John sees Jesus walking by, says, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Does that sound familiar to you? It’s part of our worship service, just before communion, we sing “Lamb of God. . .”
This lamb refers to two things from the Old Testament. First, Jesus is the paschal lamb: the lamb that is sacrificed at Passover, when the people of Israel escape from slavery in Egypt, enter the wilderness and eventually the promised land. So also, Jesus carries us out of slavery to addiction and fear and cowardice and hate and the oppressive forces of society, and laziness, brings us into the freedom to love.
Secondly, Jesus as the Lamb refers to a figure from the prophet Isaiah: the lamb who suffers the consequences of our destruction, our arrogance, our apathy, our cowardice, our sin, who takes them on himself, and who saves us so that we can love.
This is the light to which John points. This also is the light to which we point. Because you and I have been sent by God too. We have!
For example, at one of my former churches I had a part time secretary who worked in a hospital. There, she would treat people in the most difficult of circumstances with grace and dignity. She treated her co-workers that way too. In hard situations, she would focus on whatever the next step might be toward life and healing.
One time someone came up to her and said, “What is it with you. How do you take that attitude so much of the time, how do you see the good in so many situations?”
She said, “Because I have a savior. Jesus is my savior. I know that it will be all right in the end.”
This is how we do it, o witnesses to the light. This is how we point to Jesus. We live the meaning of God. We sing the wisdom. Because God has sent us, and this is what God has sent us to do.
The Gospel of Mark was written in a crazy time. Like most things written in a crazy time, it is fast, it is tight and challenging. It calls on the prophet of Isaiah, who said, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you. . .’Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
John the Baptist appears, with crazy camel’s hair cloak and food of locusts and wild honey. He echoes another prophet, Elijah, who also lived in the desert, and who is invoked by yet a third prophet, Malachi, who says that Elijah will return before the Messiah comes, before God appears to save us.
So John the Baptist, the echo of Elijah baptizes with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This baptism of repentance is where we make a decision for God, we make a change for a new day, we place our allegiance in God’s camp; we place our allegiance toward honor and integrity and compassion and hope.
But now John the Baptist says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me, I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
In other words, Jesus’s baptism will be about more than just us. Now, it is God who decides, God who brings about a new day, God who claims us and our allegiance for God’s honor, God’s integrity, God’s compassion, God’s hope.
Yes, the more powerful one is coming. But what a strange, upside down kind of power! For example, in the verses immediately after the Gospel lesson for today, John the Baptist baptizes Jesus. The one who is not worthy to stoop down and untie Jesus’ sandals, that’s the one who baptizes Jesus. And the heavens are torn open and the Holy Spirit comes and says “You are Son, the Beloved.”
That’s the upside down power of God. So also nowadays, in our crazy world, God sends us unworthy people to prepare God’s way. For example, last Friday Jesus showed up at the door. This time Jesus was trying to get down to Tennessee to take care of her mother because her mother had COPD and maybe cancer, but she wouldn’t go to the doctor because you know how mothers can be sometimes, really stubborn. But she needed someone to take care of her. So Jesus was going down and she needed some gas to help her along the way.
I invited her into my office and I listened for a while and we prayed. I said that this was a powerful thing she was doing, and courageous too because her mother might not live much longer and a daughter and a mother have a deep bond so it hurts to think about your mother dying, but she was going to be there for her.
And tears came into her eyes, and she said, “Thank you.” And the heavens came down.
You did this. You made this possible to happen. Because we had an office to sit in that had warmth and lights in it, that David our custodian had cleaned. Rebecca was able to take care of the administration of the church and telephones so I would focus on her. God did this through you, through the money you give and the time you give and the attitude and the prayer you give so that Rebecca can be there and David can be there, not to mention the Kroger card that one of you slipped me two weeks ago, and the bit of money that another of you slipped to me this week so I could go to the gas station and fill her car with gas. Yes, God does this sort of thing all the time through you, both here and in your daily life.
Us unworthy people, meeting Jesus all the time, making times and moments when the heavens open and God comes down. You may not see it. You may not ever know. But God works through you. “Behold, I send my messenger, to prepare the way. . .Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
When I read this this passage from Matthew 25, about how Jesus will come and separate the nations like a shepherd separates sheep from goats, here’s my first thought: “Okay, the idea here is to not end up in the “goat” category. Our primary goal is to avoid the necessity of investing in some of that very expensive fireproof underwear. We do not want to be hopping and jumping on hot coals for the rest of eternity.
On the other hand, I am not Mother Theresa. I do not spend all of my days helping the poor. I have some other duties at church, and sometimes I like to go home, make myself a cup of hot chocolate, and curl up with a book.
So the question comes into my mind: “How many?” How many hungry people do I need to feed in order to get that fancy piece of paper certifying me as an authentic sheep. How many thirsty Jesuses do I need to provide clean water in order for me to avoid that great eternal barbecue.
Is it enough if I give a couple of bucks to one of those folks standing on the street corner with the signs? How about those gentlemen with the five gallon buckets at the stoplights that say “Help the Homeless?” Or the Shriners with their fezes, those crimson felt hats with the tassels? Is five dollars enough? How about ten?
What about that eight hundred and fifty million Jesuses in the world who don’t have enough food? Or those Jesuses in Flint Michigan and Puerto Rico who still don’t have clean running water?
How much is enough?
Or, perhaps, according to another interpretation of this passage, we don’t have to worry so much about people who are hungry or ill or in prison, because these “Members of my family,” as Jesus calls them, are limited to people who are Christian. Maybe if you’re not Christian, we don’t have to worry so much about you. Maybe we only have to obey the Ten Commandments with you, and not the law of mercy.
But you tell me. Is that what this passage is about? Saving our own sorry hides? Is it really about who is in and who is out, who is important and who is not? I don’t think so.
This passage is not about how much mercy we are to show. It’s about the nature of mercy itself. This passage is not about whom we should show mercy to. It’s about the nature of mercy.
Let me pull back the lens a bit here to look at this passage as part of the whole Gospel of Matthew. Near the beginning of Matthew, an angel quotes Isaiah’s prophesy about Jesus, “Look, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him “Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
At the end of the Matthew, the very last line of the gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
So God is with us.
Back at the beginning of Matthew, the magi bring gifts from far away to the newborn king. But Herod the tyrant tries to kill the baby Jesus because he sees Jesus as a threat to his own power. Mary and Joseph have to flee to Egypt. This is our king. This refugee. This is the emperor of God’s realm, this homeless child.
If you are a refugee, God is with you. If you are a homeless child, God is with you.
Sometime later, Jesus goes up on a mountain like Moses went up on the mountain to give the Ten Commandments. Now Jesus gives the rules of God’s coming reign. Not Rome, not Herod, God’s. Here is what Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who mourn.”
So if you are not brimming with God’s Spirit, overflowing with confidence, if you are not rich in spirit but poor in spirit, God is with you. If you do not get what you want by pushing people around but rather are meek, lowly, God is with you. If you grieve, God is with you.
Blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. So if you do your very best to be honest with yourself and others. If you seek to make the words you say with your mouth match the best truth you can discern in your mind, and act that truth out with your hands, God is with you. If you work for people’s safety and security and ability to live, free from threat an injury without fighting, God is with you. If you hunger and thirst for people to live in healthy relationships where they do not use or despise one another, but rather respect and challenge and care for one another, God is with you. Those are the rules of the new empire.
God is with us when we are like the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, various groups and parties fixated on their own little agendas and desires and points of pride, forgetting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. God is with us unpleasantly then, challengingly. God does not leave us to die in our own comfortable hatreds and idolatries. God drags us out.
And God is with us in those people, out there who need our help. God is with us in them. “As you did to the least of these, the members of my family, you did to me.”
Here’s my point: God’s mercy for us is not just for us. It always makes us a part of God’s mercy for others. God’s love for us does not just stop with us; it sweeps us up into God’s love for others. To be Christian and to do Christianity are one and the same thing.
God loves us more than we can possibly imagine. We love others, not because we are so holy or righteous, but because God loves them more than we can possibly imagine, too.
So here is just a brief example. Chuck Colson was the hard-nosed special Council to the Nixon Administration. He was called Nixon’s manager of dirty tricks, and is famously quoted as saying he’d run over his own grandmother if that’s what it took to get President Nixon re-elected. Ended up in jail from the Watergate scandal.
Everyone, of course, immediately distanced themselves from him. No political advantage there. Except Al Quie. Al Quie grew up Lutheran in southern Minnesota, became known as someone who works across the aisle for education and impartial justice system. He was, at that time, a Republican congressman from Minnesota, and he contacted Chuck Colson. Colson said, “Why are you getting hold of me. Everybody else has disavowed me.” Quie told him what Jesus said, “I was in prison and you visited me.” This was part of a major conversion for Chuck Colson, and the beginning of a lifelong ministry in the prisons.
To be touched by grace and to be a part of God touching others with God’s grace is one and the same thing. Jesus is with us in many ways, including in the presence of people who need help. We watch for him, so that we can be a blessing to the least of these.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus makes clear with absolute, desperate, terrifying urgency, the fact that our time is not our own to do with as we please. Our bodies are not objects of property which we can neglect or despise as we see fit. Our money is not our money. It is God’s money, which God has invested in us. Our attitude is not ours to fall into whatever way we went, depending on our mood that day, or how we feel we have been treated. They are all God’s, which God has given to us, or rather entrusted to us to bring about a blessing.
A couple of things to note about this parable. First of all, the master gives talents to his servants. In modern English, a talent is an ability. So for example, I may have talent as a piano player or a soccer player. In Bible times, a talent was not an ability. It was a unit of weight. A talent weighed about seventy-five pounds. In the passage here, it was used to weigh gold or silver. Seventy-five pounds of silver. As such it was also an amount of money. The equivalent of twenty years’ wages. How much would twenty years of wages be for you? It’s a lot of money.
So the things God gives to us are of great value. Every second that we have is a miracle. Every breath, every conversation we have with another person is an opportunity to be the presence of God. Time is precious.
Our bodies are of incredible value. Wonders of intricacy and complexity, we are all walking masterpieces. The human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. Our bodies are created good.
Our money is not just money. It is a powerful, powerful tool. Our first communion kids brought quarters to first communion class, we got sixteen dollars in quarters to send to Lutheran Disaster Response, for hurricane relief. And soon we will have animals for Christmas again. You can buy someone a goat for fifty bucks. A nest of chicks for ten. People in the developing world can raise the chicks into chickens which will lay eggs, which the folks can eat or sell. Money is a tool for blessing.
Our attitude is not just something we can fall into depending on how we feel that day or how we think we have been treated. Attitude is contagious. If we have an attitude of resentment and despair, that will pull other people into and attitude of resentment and despair. Sometimes we want it to. But our attitude matters. In situations of survival, it can mean the difference between life and death. If we are lost in the wilderness or stuck on a boat in need of rescue, an attitude of despair is not what you want, is it. You won’t make it.
God’s gifts—our time, our bodies our money, our attitude are all of incredible value.
Another point from the parable: God gives us authority to decide what to do with our time, our bodies, our money and our attitude. God has made us queens and kings of our lives. Just please remember the difference between a queen or king and a tyrant. A good king or queen, a good ruler or leader not only accepts authority over the things entrusted to him or her by God, but also accepts accountability for them. A good leader not only claims the right to make decisions, but also accepts responsibility to make decisions that glorify God.
And what kinds of decisions does God want? What are God’s priorities? Well, Matthew makes those priorities reasonably clear: “You will love the Lord your God— You will love this light, this beauty, this mystery, this wonder that confronts you every day, with all your heart and strength and mind. And you will love your neighbor as yourself.
In Matthew, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Matthew says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus says that you don’t have to swear, just let your yes be yeas and your no be no. Just tell the truth. In Matthew, Jesus expresses particular concern for people who have a hard time making ends meet, keeping a roof over their heads, putting enough food on the table. We’ll hear more about hat next week.
These are God’s priorities: trust in God, integrity, compassion.
So God has given us authority to use our time. Therefore we use it well, as a way of blessing others. We care for our bodies and use them in ways that bless others and celebrate life. Those are the parameters. We use our money in such a way that it upholds everyone’s ability to earn a living. We use our attitudes in such a way that our thankfulness and our hope spreads. You want to do something about the divisive rhetoric and hateful stances that divide our country now. Take and attitude of thankfulness. It is contagious.
We are given accountability as well as authority, we claim responsibility as well as rights. That’s what makes us good queens and kings, rulers of our own lives. Because if we are not accountable to integrity and compassion and celebration. If we accept no responsibility for blessing others, we are not true rulers, but rather tyrants. Nothing but tin pan dictators.
Now, here is some good news. Because of Jesus, god forgives us when we fall down, and helps us to get back up again. One of the ways that God forgives and helps us is Holy Communion. Today is first communion for five of our great young people. We say four things about first communion: Communion is remembering, forgiving, Jesus is here and we are here.
At Communion we remember Jesus’ last supper, his death on the cross and his resurrection, just like we remember Jesus’ birth at Christmas or your birth on your birthday.
At communion, God forgives us. God comes close to us when we have pushed God way. God draws us near when we have run away from God.
At communion, Jesus is here. Jesus is present in the bread and wine, honors our physical bodies and strengthens our physical bodies by being present amidst our cells and neurons and DNA.
At communion, we are here. All God’s people. Whether we see them or not, whether they are near or far away. Even if they have died, they are with God and God is with us, so when Jesus is close to us at communion, they are close to us too.
God forgives us and strengthens us.
So, yes, with terrifying urgency we are required to use what we have and who we are to honor God, care for others and creation. But God also forgives us and helps us with bread and wine, power and hope, courage and love to come to that moment when Jesus says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
In our Old Testament lesson for today, the prophet Amos says, “I hate, I despise your festivals... Take away from me the clamor of your singing.” Is Amos saying that God doesn't want us to go to church? Not really, but it kind of sounds that way, doesn't it.
Amos spoke sometime between 760 and 750 B.C., during the reign of King Jeroboam the Second of northern Israel. Jeroboam had ruled with spectacular success for the first half of his reign. Northern Israel was more prosperous than ever before. It held a larger amount of territory than it ever would again. People thought to themselves, “Of course, God has made us prosperous. God has protected us because we have observed all the proper festivals and made the proper sacrifices in the temples. Everybody goes to church. Everyone contributes to the community. And if sometimes we have to sell a poor person and their family into slavery because they can't pay their debts, well, that's just business. It's always been that way, probably always will be. They shouldn't have taken out that loan in the first place.
Second half of Jeroboam's reign, they had some recessions, a couple of famines, plus foreign powers were beginning to pose a threat from beyond the borders. People were looking forward to the “day of the Lord,” which referred to a day when God would destroy all of God's enemies. That would be a good day, when all those threatening powers out there would go up in smoke!
Amos arrives on the scene and says, “you who look forward to the day of the Lord, you should not look forward to it. It is darkness, not light. It will be as if you run away from a lion only to be eaten by a bear, because God's enemies are not just out there. God's enemies are you!
You oppress the poor. You set up a legal system that favors the rich and crushes the needy. You sell people who are financially desperate into slavery for the cost of a pair of sandals. And then you come into the temple and you bow and sing. I hate, I despise your festivals. Take away from me the clamor of your songs. But let justice roll down like thunder.
(Most of the time we think of justice as what happens when somebody gets punished for doing something wrong. So if I rob a bank, I get thrown in jail. That's justice. If I lie to a judge, I get convicted of perjury. But in the Bible, justice is a lot more than punishment. Justice is when both rich and poor alike are treated the same under the law. Justice is when people can go about their lives and not have to worry about being robbed, or being gunned down in a drive by shooting, or shot while they sit in church.)
Let justice roll down like thunder and righteousness. . .
Most of the time we think of righteousness as refraining from doing bad things. So I did not rob a bank. Therefore I am righteous. I did not lie, so I am righteous. Again, in the Bible, righteousness has to do with a lot more. Righteousness is fulfilling our obligations to a healthy relationship. It's doing our duty. I am righteous when I fulfill my duty as a father, as a brother. When we uphold a healthy relationship as a friend, an aunt, a grandmother, a citizen who feels a passion for justice, our obligation as a human being to care. You have to care.
Righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
What do you think? Do we have justice? Do we have righteousness? Then what are we going to do about it? Or rather, what is God going to do about it through us?
We come to church to be strengthened, to be reminded, to have our lamps filled, as Jesus describes in our Gospel lesson for today, we keep our lamps full. We come to church to be reminded of the power and the hope of God. Our liturgy does that. It's very old, and it will spin your head around it's so radically new.
For example, early in our worship service, we get down on our knees. Where else in our world do we get down on our knees? Nowhere. But here, we intentionally encounter a light and beauty beyond comprehension, a miracle beyond utterance, and we have the insane boldness to hope that it will heal us, turn us, change us, forgive us. That's wild.
Later on, we often sing this song: “This is the feast of victory for our God.” Wait a minute. Did you say this feast, now? This communion meal? Not just the feast of God coming someday in the future. Not a wonderful potluck at church where we filled the halls back fifty years ago when things were so great. No. Now right now. Goodness is stronger than evil, now, love is stronger than hate, now. Light is stronger than darkness, now, life is stronger than death, today. Why? Because this is God's goodness, God's love, God's light, God's life that moves through us, like thunder rolling.
Or at the end of the service, this little phrase: “Go in peace, serve the Lord.” First of all, the Lord is Jesus, who said, “The rulers of the Gentiles,” (that is, the people who don't fully understand about God) “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their leaders exercise domination over them, but it will not be so among you. Whoever is greatest among you must be the least, and whoever is first among you must be the servant of all, for the Son of Man” (that's Jesus) “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
We are servants of the one who came to serve sinners, by dying for them. That means we are not here to be served. We are not here on this earth to be pleased. We are not here to be catered to. We are here to serve the life and the hope and the beauty of God as it moves through the real people and real circumstances of this world.
Now, this is not easy. We have people who do radical evil. We also have illnesses and emergencies that seem purposeless, random, even absurd, and to cause meaningless suffering. It makes no sense. We can even cry out to God, “Why do you let these people do things like this? Hey God, why did you let this happen?” That's fine.
It also helps to know that in the Christian life, things will get dark sometimes. Our lamps will fade. So it's good during the week, or when we can't make it to church, to bring a little of church with us into the week. Might sing a snatch of song, “This is the feast of victory for our God,” or if you like a little more rhythm, a song like, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, keep your lamps trimmed and burning. . .” Or, at night you might pray a very familiar prayer that is mind boggling if you stop and think about it. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”
This is how we keep our lamps filled, our awareness of the beauty of God, clear, our lights shining, so that we can be a part of God working for justice in the world, God working for righteousness. So that we can be a part of God's thunder, rolling.
A new comedy show came on Hulu last year, entitled The Good Place. In it, the main character wakes up to find that she has died and gone to The Good Place. “You are one of the chosen few,” she is told. Her life was good enough, better than almost anyone else’s in the world, so that she went to the good place. Everyone else in The Good Place did great things with their lives, like working as a human rights lawyer in Uzbekistan or raising billions of dollars for charity. The main character soon realizes, however, that there must have been some mistake, because her life was not nearly that good. She does not belong in the Good Place. What’s funny about it is the fact that you there sitting on the couch begin to realize that you would not make it to The Good Place either.
Well, here’s some good news. There is really a heaven. It does wait for us after we die. It also reaches from beyond the grave into this day, this place and touches our world, moves through us now.
You don’t get into heaven because of the good things you have done, or even because of the good life you have led. You get into heaven because of the relationship God has with you, because God loves you. And you see heaven through the lens of Christ, because you trust Jesus.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther was very concerned with getting into heaven. He was afraid that, because he was not good enough, God would be very angry and throw him into hell. Luther was tormented and afraid. He joined a monastery, went on a pilgrimage to Rome, studied the Bible till he had a PhD. Still didn’t help until he noticed this passage in Romans: “For we hold that a person is justified, that is, made righteous, valuable, important, meaningful, beautiful, significant, loved, by faith, that is, in the midst of a relationship of trust with Jesus Christ.” Luther said he felt as if he had been born again and had entered paradise through open gates.
Around that time in his life, Luther proposed a list of ninety five subjects for debate. The ninety five theses we remember as having been posted five hundred years ago. They were very boring. But the led to a conversation that gave rise to some very big questions, like:
“How do we use Scripture to find out about God? Do we depend on one person, backed up by the best scholarly minds of the age? Or do we open up the conversation to the best scholarly minds, plus everyone else?
“How do we show Jesus to the world? Do we let the pastors or the priests do it? After all, they have been trained, or can an auto mechanic show Jesus to the world, or an accountant or a nurse? Can we show Jesus to the world by being a mother, an aunt, a friend, a grandfather, a deeply concerned citizen?
“Are there places and times and actions and people that are completely righteous? Or is everyone both saint and sinner at the same time?
It’s been five hundred years. A lot has changed since Luther’s day. The place of women has changed in society. Now, women run businesses and teach in universities. Women vote and women hold office.
Our understanding of the physical universe has changed. In Luther’s time, people thought that the earth was the center of the universe, that the sun orbited around the earth. Now, we know that the sun does not orbit around the earth, but that the earth orbits around the sun, and that the sun, in turn, orbits around a central point in the middle of the galaxy, which, we have found recently, is occupied by a gigantic black hole millions of times as massive as the sun.
Our ideas of government have changed. In Luther’s time, the divinely ordained means of governing was primarily the king or emperor. Now, even if people don’t live in a democracy almost everybody wishes they did. Democracies tend to engage in fewer wars of conquest. They take care of their people better. Our views on government have changed.
Our questions haven’t changed. How do we use the Bible to find out about God? Do we take the whole thing literally? Is the whole thing just symbolic? Is there another way? Yes, there is. We look at the Bible to find out who Jesus is and what he is like so we can recognize him in our lives and the world and follow.
How do we show Jesus to the world? Is that the job of the pastor? How do people find out about Jesus, really? They find out by how we treat them. That’s how they find out.
How do we deal with the fact that all of our human endeavors, all of our human institutions are broken and sinful? Do we give up hope, turn to cynical apathy? Do we say, “No, my way of doing things is good and yours is evil. My group of people is good and cannot be criticized, while yours is evil.” Or do we understand that everything is both good and bad at once. Which means that everything can be and must be improved. We are all on a journey. But we are all also human, capable of love. We are sinners and saints at the same time.
And what about getting into heaven? We don’t talk about it much in public, which is part of why I like this TV show. It’s a comedy but it raises some really good questions. Are we all so superior as to presume that we would get in because of the good lives that we lead? Of course, God would let us in. Do we all have a right to get in? Are our attitudes and systems of governance, economics, family and entertainment so very much above reproach?
Or do we get into heaven because God loves us? Because Jesus comes into the most despicable parts of our souls and our ways at the cross and brings us into a relationship of trust there, a relationship of intimacy and hope that annihilates the whole thing and brings it back again, new, transformed, different, loving?
Yes, heaven is real. It waits for us beyond death. It also reaches into our lives, this place, this moment, touches us and sweeps up into its work today.
Money and politics, two things two things the pastor is not supposed to talk about. In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus talks about money and politics.
Jesus’s opponents ask him a trick question. They want to trap him, so they ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”
This is a loaded question. If Jesus says, “Yes, it is lawful in God’s eyes to pay taxes to the emperor,” he will lose popularity with the people. His numbers will go down in the polls, he will lose political power because the people hated the taxes.
You think you don’t like taxes. At least our taxes pay for roads, schools, fire departments, police departments, disaster preparedness and relief, military, agencies to make sure we don’t have mercury in our spinach and lead in our drinking water and so on. Clearly these institutions are human. So they will fail and the all need improvement. But at least they are accountable to us, because we elect their bosses. In the Roman Empire, there was no accountability. Roman authorities could beat you, put you in prison, even kill you, and if you were not a Roman Citizen, you had no recourse. Meanwhile, your taxes went to pay for the occupying Roman army, which crucified your cousin three years ago when he got caught up in a riot in the marketplace. Your taxes paid for the obscene luxury of the very, very, very rich while your children starved. The people hated the taxes.
On the other hand, if Jesus said, “No, it is not lawful in God’s eyes to pay taxes to the emperor,” the Romans could come and take him away. Those were fighting words.
It was a trick question, a trap, based on the assumptions that money and politics are absolute forces. You know what assumptions do to you and me. As usual, Jesus questions the assumptions. He turns the trap on its head.
Jesus says, “Show me the coin.” They show him the coin that is used for the tax, a denarius, about a day’s wage. “Whose image is here?” He asks, “Whose likeness?” They say Emperor Tiberias. And indeed, the Roman denarius of that time was imprinted with the profile of the emperor Tiberias, just like we have a profile of George Washington on our quarters. We have George Washington on our quarters because, even though he was a human being and therefore fallen and wrong about some things, for us, he also stands for some other things that are important to our identity as a nation, to our politics. For example, telling the truth. “I cannot tell a lie,” we say about George Washington. So when we look at our coin, we remember honesty as part of our identity, part of our politics. That’s a good thing.
When people looked at a denarius, they saw Emperor Tiberius. They remembered Emperor Tiberius was in charge. That’s what they were saying about their politics. Maybe not so much of a good thing.
Also, there is writing around the edge of the denarius, just like we have writing around the edge of our quarters. Our quarters say “E Plurbus Unum.” Which is Latin for “Out of many, one.” Again, says something about our national identity that I believe we would do well to remember these days, I think. “Out of many, one.”
The writing around the Roman denarius was different. It said, “Emperor Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus.” That meant Emperor Tiberius was son of a god, was divine. The coin was making a claim of divinity for the ruler. It was putting a human being in the place of God. The coin was an idol.
Now, we do not make idols out of our coins these days. The writing around the edge does not claim George Washington or Abraham Lincoln as divinity. But I do think we make idols out of our money and our politics. In Martin Luther’s explanation of the first commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me,” Luther says that an idol or a god (that’s with a lower case “g”) is anything we fear love and trust above all else.
I think some of us sometimes trust our money. We feel safe because if we feel we have enough money. We feel secure, even significant. Sometimes we might even slip into feeling a little superior because we have money.
Likewise, I think we make a god out of our politics. If our ideas are well represented in the halls of power, or if our people hold office, we feel more secure, like the future is bright, we feel safe and significant, even sometimes, superior.
More often, however, I would submit that we fear our money. We feel unsafe because we don’t think we have enough money. So, we want to get as much money as we can. We want to keep as much for ourselves as possible. We get very angry if we think someone is going to bring it about that we have less money.
Sometimes we can even slip into feeling insignificant if we feel we don’t have money. If we are working two or three jobs and still can’t make ends meet, if we feel crushed by debt, like there is no way out, we can feel like dirt.
Likewise, far more often, I think we fear politics. If our ideas are not well represented in the halls of power, if our people do not hold political office, or if our ideas and people seem unable to do the things we want them to, we feel less safe, less secure, less significant. We can feel like dirt.
Jesus takes a question about money and politics, those two old gods, and as usual, turns it upside down. He says: “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and give to God what is God’s.”
In other words, yeah, yeah, the emperor does have a certain degree of authority, even if he is a schmuck. But what is God’s? Is not our money God’s? Is not our politics, the emperor, the government, God’s too?
Remember, we’re talking about the real God, with a capital “G,” the one who brings people out of slavery into freedom, out of evil into good, out of brokenness into wholeness, out of death into life. Both money and politics are accountable to this God. And it is our duty as Christians and to hold them accountable to this God.
And for that matter, whose are we?
Various leaders over the ages have been stamped on coins: George Washington, Emperor Tiberius. But whose image is stamped on the core of your being? Was it George Washington’s even with all the good things that he represents? Emperor Tiberius? No? Tell me this, in whose image are you made? Is it President Trump’s image? Is it Angele Merkel’s? Is it Xi JinPing? Kim Jon-Un? Vladimir Putin? No? That’s right. No! The image of God is stamped on you. We are made in the image of God, in the image of this same, real God who brings people out of slavery into freedom, out of evil into good, out of brokenness into wholeness, out of death into life. We are made in the image of that God, as is every other human being on this planet. Every single one.
And what is the inscription written on us? Is it E Pluribus Unum? That’s a good mark, one of various marks that we do well to follow. But what is the mark on our forehead? Is it “Emperor Tiberias, son of the divine Augustus?” Is it Emperor fill-in-the-blank, leader whoever, the divine one?”
No. The inscription on us, marked on our foreheads with the oil of anointing at our baptism is the cross. The cross. We are the people who are a part of God dying for all those people whom God has made. Every single one. That’s who we are. The people of the cross. The people of hope.
So, just to be clear. Money is not divine. It is not a god. Money does not keep us safe and it does not make us who we are. Money is a tool, like a hammer or a screwdriver. We learn how to use the tool properly, to serve God by providing for all people, including ourselves, and by celebrating life.
Politics is not divine. It is not a god. It does not keep us safe and it does not make us who we are. Politics is a tool, like a hammer or a screwdriver. We learn how to use the tool properly, to serve God by providing for all people, including ourselves, and by celebrating life.
God is God. God keeps us safe. God makes us who we are. By the cross of Jesus, God saves us and makes us a part of God’s work in the world.
I have had the privilege of presiding at and attending several weddings. Almost always, they are wonderful celebrations, beginnings of a great adventure that involves challenge, perseverance, courage, forgiveness, humility, laughter, passion, hope, love. And, almost always, there is a glitch. Sometimes, the sound engineer thinks to get a mic for the pastor, but not for the readers. Sometimes the tuxedo pants for little Joey who is eight years old, come in a foot too long. So you have to go knocking on the doors in the neighborhood around the church to ask if you can use an iron so that someone can pin Joey’s pants up before the ceremony starts. Then there is the three year old, also in a tuxedo, who did such a great job at the rehearsal carrying the rings, but who, during the actual ceremony, has a meltdown, flat on back, arms and legs waving in the air, right there in the middle of the aisle. I’m not making any of these up.
But none of the glitches. None of the little problems can hold a candle to the wedding Jesus describes in the Gospel lesson for today. A king throws a wedding banquet for his son. Sends out his slaves with invitations. In those days, any king would have sent the invitations to the elite of the realm. The people who are pretty enough to appear on a fashion plate in Cosmopolitan, rich and famous enough to be interviewed for People Magazine. The best of society, like the chief priests and elders to whom Jesus is speaking.
But the elite aren’t interested. They ignore the invitation. They even beat and murder those who invite them.
So the king goes ballistic, sends out his army to kill the wedding guests and burn their city. What do you think the bride is saying to herself at this point, or the bride’s parents? standing there with the Chicken Cordon Bleu getting dry in those stainless-steel trays they have at wedding receptions, with the blue little sterno flames flickering below them, what are they saying as the entire guest list is being killed and the city burned around them?
It was meant to be a celebration. It was meant to be the beginning of a great adventure. Something seems to have gone awry.
Of course, Jesus is not describing an actual wedding. He is telling a particular kind of parable, called an allegory. In an allegory, one thing stands for something else. Not all of Jesus’ parables are allegories, but in this one, the king stands for God. The Son is Jesus. The slaves are the prophets and Christian missionaries. The elite guests are the chief priests and elders Jesus is talking to. The burning of the city refers to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans after the Jewish revolt in 70 A.D.
The king sends his slaves out again, to the streets and crossroads, to the boundaries of the kingdom, and invites everyone, higgledy piggeldy. The people who are not pretty enough to be a fashion plate in Cosmopolitan, the people not rich or famous enough to be interviewed by People Magazine. You and me.
Finally comes this unsettling scene where the king is walking among his guests and sees someone who is not wearing the proper wedding clothes. For not wearing the proper wedding clothes, this person is thrown into the outer darkness.
I think the point of this parable is that God has expectations of us. Yes, God loves us as we are. Grace comes to us undeserved, unearned unexpected. We are invited, higgledy piggeldy. But it is the nature of grace to change us. We are invited, you know, into a celebration, a journey that involves challenge and perseverance and courage and forgiveness and humility and laughter and passion and hope and love.
Because we are constantly setting out on an adventure, we are expected to wear the right clothes. We are expected to put on Christ. We are expected to be ready for challenge and perseverance and courage and forgiveness and humility and laughter and passion and hope and love.
Here is where Matthew and John differ from Paul and Mark and others. In Paul, God continues to work on us, even though we are sinners. In Mark, The Holy Spirit continues to speak to the witnessing community even when it fails. Matthew emphasizes God’s expectations of us. Paul emphasizes God’s mercy toward us. Both are true.
When Thyne and I got married, everything was wonderful. the church was all decked out for the Sunday after Christmas, the wedding cake was raspberry amaretto, how can you lose with raspberry amaretto wedding cake, the bride is absolutely beautiful. Everything was wonderful except, we had told the DJ explicitly, explicitly that they wanted a waltz for our dance, a waltz. Instead played “After the Lovin” by Englebert Humperdink. Englebert Humperdink. Really?
After we got married, I couldn’t hit the closet doors when I was frustrated any more, or throw by car keys across the room. I had to listen to someone talk about their day before complaining about my own. And I had to have a positive attitude, choose to have a positive attitude even when I didn’t feel like it because if I didn’t, she would be sad. I had to get up in the middle of the night and feed a crying baby. I had to teach my teenage daughter how to drive. And I had to love.
This is the adventure God invites us into. God does not leave us. God helps us. God will never give up on us. Whether we are married or not, this is where we are going. An adventure, of challenge and perseverance and courage and forgiveness and humility and laughter and passion and hope and love.
Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-46
Isaiah begins our Old Testament lesson for today with the words, “I will sing a love song for my beloved. My beloved planted a vineyard.” The vineyard was a common image for love poetry in ancient Hebrew poetry. It was sort of like a rose is nowadays. So you see a Facebook post or a poem that begins, “My love is like a red, red rose,” and you know where it's going. So also, in ancient Israel, someone would say, “By beloved planted a vineyard,” and you knew where it was going. It was going to all those branches and vines twining themselves around each other, and to that rich, dark soil, and to those sweet, purple grapes, and to that potent wine.
Like a rose nowadays, images of vineyards and gardens and things bearing fruit reached beyond romantic love. Went all the way back to Genesis, where God creates the human being and then says, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Which means that bearing fruit is not just something that we do for a living. Bearing fruit is part of who we are.
The passage in Genesis is often rightly interpreted to refer to having children. It's as if God is saying, “Here's a grand adventure. Go on it. They will drive you crazy every once in a while but it's worth it.”
Bearing fruit does not just refer to children, however. We may not feel called to be parents. We may not be able to have children. Things simply might not have worked out that way for us. Nevertheless, we bear fruit when we bless the people of this world. We work in the field of healthcare, we help people to heal. We work in business, we help people to have jobs with which to provide for themselves and their families. We smile and laugh. We bear fruit. We put our hand on the back of a friend and give a word of encouragement. We take a walk in the cool of the evening. We choose to cultivate and intentionally practice an attitude of thankfulness and generosity. We savor good sleep after a long day's work. We are bearing fruit. Sweet, rich fruit. God is delighted when we bless others and enjoy life.
The problem comes when we fool ourselves into thinking that this fruit is ours, that the vineyard is our property. “It's my life. It's our church. It's our world.” That's when bad things start to happen.
For example, one man last Sunday night, said to himself, “These are my guns. I can do what I want with them,” and kills fifty eight people. We don't know his motives yet. Sometimes people do these horrific, evil things because they think they are serving a greater good, even God. Which is strange because God is reasonably clear about how we are to run our lives, how to run our vineyards. Jesus says it like this: “you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and you will love your neighbor as yourself.”
Further details can be found in the book of Exodus: “I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.
Honor your father and mother.
You shall not murder. . .
Jesus says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “If someone asks you for your coat, give them your cloak also.” And, as we will be hearing toward the end of November, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was a stranger, a foreigner, a refugee, somebody you didn't know, maybe somebody you were afraid of, and you welcomed me anyway.
That's how you grow a good vineyard. That's how you bear good fruit.
Now, here are some examples of people bearing fruit. Amid the chaos of the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival shooting, Dean Alton had found a way out, but he was a firefighter so he had some training. He stayed in danger of fire in order to help a seventeen year old girl. He managed her tourniquet. She had been shot in the leg. He helped with her IV. He let her use his phone to call her father. On the way to the hospital, he kept her calm by showing her photos of his wife and son and dog. The girl's father contacted him later and said, “You saved my daughter's life.”
Carly Krygier lay on top of her daughter to shield her from the bullets. They both got out okay.
Tom Meldon shielded his wife from the bullets. He did not come out okay.
People drove folks to the hospitals in their cars and trucks. The next day they lined up around the block to give blood. Waited in a line five hours long. This is good fruit.
Good fruit does not have to come from a terrifying situation. It can be the little things. Here is part of a hygiene packet from God's work Our Hands Sunday last month. Lots of you, especially you kids, bore fruit putting together these bags so that people who have had a hard time, who have been through a lot of difficulty, can have a little easier to take a bath, brush teeth, simple things.
One last point. We don't always see the good God does when we try to do the right thing. For example, Jesus did not see the good he was doing when he died on the cross. He believe it. He trusted it. He would not have seen it.
And yet the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. What we think is futile, what we think is a waste of time and doesn't matter, what we think, even, is defeat, the cross. That's exactly what changes everything.
Bear fruit, people of God. Use your time for joy and blessing. Be courageous in your compassion for others. Obey the Ten Commandments. Bear fruit for God. It's a lot more fun that way.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus talks about money. Jesus talks about money a lot in the Gospels. He talks about money more than he talks about sex. (Jesus doesn’t talk much about sex at all, actually.) Jesus talks about money more than he talks about politics. (He does talk about politics.) Jesus talks about money more than he talks about prayer. Jesus talks about money more than he talks about anything else except the realm of God.
Here is what he says: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
In other words, if you want to see heaven right now, then right now, give up some of your money on earth.
By that I mean two things. First, when you allow God to give money to the church through you, and not just money, but your time and your ability, your presence which is a great gift, and your attitude of abundance and generosity and thankfulness and respect and forgiveness, when God gives to the church through you, God makes a space for miracles to happen here and in the world.
Second, when God gives to the church through you, God opens up a space for miracles to happen in your own soul.
When God gives to the church through you, God makes a space for miracles to happen here. You know this: St. John does not get any money from the larger church. We get no money from the government. We get no corporate sponsorships. We do not sell advertisement, or charge fees for membership, or sell tickets to worship. What we do here comes from us. God has put this ministry in our hands. It is our responsibility.
Now, let me tell you one thing that happened because you allow God to work through you. Last year or so Eddie Miller brought this idea at evangelism committee about having these bears in church. Anyone can take one of these bears and give it to someone that needs a lift or a spiritual support. Each bear has a note about how it comes with God’s blessing and love from us.
So, many of you know that Lola Howard has a daughter named Mia. Mia is in a wheelchair and has different intellectual abilities than a lot of us do. The correct term for it I believe is that she is developmentally disabled, which is supposed to mean that she doesn’t have the same level of intelligence, but I’m not real sure I buy that entirely because almost everyone I know who works with developmentally disabled people says that they learn a whole lot from them.
Anyway, Mia lives in a special home with Cedar Lake, with several other developmentally disabled women and some folks to help them take care of necessary business. One of Mia’s housemates, her friend, named Kim, was dying of cancer. So, one Monday, Lola takes one of these bears for each person in the house, including Kim.
Kim was what they call nonverbal. She was not able to speak. But when Lola gave her the bear, Kim blew her a kiss with two fingers. That meant “Thank you.” Kim held that bear close all week until she died that Thursday. Her mother buried the bear with her in the coffin. Last Saturday at the contemporary service, Mia prayed about how much she missed her friend Kim.
This sort of thing would not happen in the same way without you.
When God gives to the church through you, miracles also happen in our own souls. Here is what I mean by that:
Many of you know that my wife, Thyne and I have been tithing for about twenty-five years. We give a tenth of what I make from the church back to the church. Now, I’m telling you this, not in order to say we are better than anybody else. Each of us has our own financial situation. Thyne and I are in a financial situation where we can do this. Not all of us are. All of us do need to think and pray about what we give in terms of money, time, attitude and presence to God’s work in the world.
What our tithing does prove, however, is that Thyne is definitely a better person than me. Thyne, when she writes the check to the church each month. She just writes that check and puts it into the offering plate. It’s just a thing. No big deal.
But if I try to write that check, oh, it’s horrible. I know in my mind that giving helps me to see the presence of God in the world, and especially giving where I have to sacrifice something. Whether it’s a coffee this week or a car this year, if I have to give something up in order to support God’s work, I will see God more clearly.
I know that in my mind. But in my heart, it’s a different matter entirely. Oh, it’s so hard to drag that pen across that check! I think, “What good will it do anyone for me to give my money to the church? My money is just a drop in the bucket!” “Oh, I’m giving my money away I’m throwing it away without getting anything in return. I need that money for gas in my car and for my doctor’s visit and for hamburger and ice cream at the grocery store. Ice cream, I tell you!
It’s like tearing out a piece of my heart. How can I let go of my money, without my money I won’t have any status in the world? I won’t be safe. I need to keep my money because I might need it someday. No, I must keep it, my money, my precious money!
So, I let her write the check.
Oh, that old Adam dies hard, doesn’t he? Those idols and those demons howl when they come out. Because they know that if I give some of my money to God’s work, then I will realize that none of my money was ever mine in the first place. Not one penny.
Nor was the gas I bought. The doctor is not my doctor. The hamburger and the ice cream, not mine either. All of it has always been God’s in the first place, all along. All of it is a gift. Every moment of every day, each breath of air, a gift.
So, give to God’s work in the world. If it squeaks to do that, if it’s a little hard, that’s a good thing. It will help you see more clearly.
“Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, for where your treasure is, that’s where your heart is too.”
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
So easy to say, and so hard to do. very often we say, “Why should I go and talk to him. He will not listen to me.” “Why should I have to be the one to take the initiative? She was the one who wronged me. I am the one who has been unfairly treated. She should come to me.” Yes.
I tell people in my new members’ class and in confirmation class that you can depend on two things in the church. First, you can depend on the church to fail. We will wrong each other. We will act in inconsiderate and even hurtful ways, because we are human. You can depend on that. Second thing you can depend on in the church. You can depend on Jesus to be in the church. Because Jesus became human.
So, when another member of the church sins against you. . .
Now, many people have many different ways of talking about the church. For example, you may have heard some people say, “The church should be like a business.” Indeed, in some ways, we should. We keep careful track of our finances, the money God gives to us through you, to make sure that we use it wisely. We expect the highest quality from our staff and volunteers. In these ways we are like a business. But do we sell tickets to our worship service? Do we require a fee for membership? No. Not quite a business.
Sometimes we think about the church as if it was a kind of hospital for the spirit. We feel bad, we are in trouble, we feel guilty, we come to church and the church helps us to feel better. But does the church take spiritual insurance like a hospital might take health insurance? Is there such a thing as spiritual Medicaid?
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says, “if another member of the church sins against you.” That phrase “another member of the church,” is translated from the Greek word, Adelphos. It means “brother,” and in the New Testament, it refers to both men and women. So we translate it as “brother and sister.” “If a brother or sister sins against you.” Jesus does not talk about the church here as a business or as a medical facility. He talks about the church as family. In a business, if you break a contract, the relationship is broken. In a medical center, if you don’t listen to the doctor, that’s your problem. In a church, we are a family. And in a family, we work things out. We work things out.
Now, Jesus sets forth a pretty good procedure for working things out. He tells us to go and point out the problem with the person who did it. They might listen. If they don’t listen, then take one or two witnesses with you. Mind you, those witnesses are not there to back you up. They are not there to prove that you are right and the other person is wrong. They are there so that a third party can be in the room to hear the conversation. Because when we have been wronged, when we have been offended, we hear things differently and more negatively than we would otherwise.
So if we walk out of the conversation saying, “She yelled at me!” Our witness can say, “No. She did get intense, but she did not yell.” If we walk out of the conversation saying, “He swore at me,” witness can say, “Not really. He said ‘dang’ but that doesn’t really count.”
So if the other person still doesn’t listen to you, you can bring the whole church along. Again, mind you, the whole church might turn around and say to you, “You know, you contributed to this problem too. This is not just their fault.” Church might say to you, “Listen, I think you’re making a bigger deal of this than it needs to be. Maybe could you let some of it go?” Church does that sometimes.
But sometimes the church comes along and the person still doesn’t listen. There are some behaviors that are really destructive to a church and we cannot have them. I do not now nor have I ever had such a situation in any of my churches but I have had friends who did have such situations, and they have thrown people out. It’s not pretty.
I will confess that there have been times when I have said to myself, “Oh, so and so is so annoying. I just wish they would kind of go.” Right? No one else has ever felt that way, have we? “Oh, that person makes me so mad, I wish they would go away.” Could it be possible that sometimes some people might have thought that way about me?
Those are the people we can learn from.
Before we rush to the idea of throwing troublesome people out of the church, I think we need to remember the verses that come before the Gospel lesson for today. This passage comes from the fourth major set of teachings in the Gospel of Matthew. It begins when the disciples come to Jesus and ask him, “Who is the greatest?” Who is the most important, who is the most influential, most respected, most powerful?
Jesus calls a child and puts the child among them. Children in Jesus’ day were not important, they were not powerful. Jesus says, “Unless you change and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” We are to be unimportant. We are to be not powerful.
Then Jesus says, “Watch out, if any of you puts a stumbling block in front of one of these children, it will be better for you if a millstone was wrapped around your neck and you were thrown into the ocean.”
A little later he tells a parable about a crazy shepherd. Of course he’s crazy. It’s one of Jesus’ parables. There’s this shepherd with a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, so the shepherd leaves all the rest of us ninety-nine sheep by ourselves up in the mountains and goes to find that one lost sheep, and when he finds it, rejoices over it more than anybody else. Hey, how is that fair?
So before we think about getting rid of people, let’s remember that God is concerned with folks who are not important, and folks who are lost.
Also, let’s remember the verses that come after the Gospel lesson for today. In those verses, Peter askes Jesus, “How often should I forgive someone, as many as seven times?” Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
This is the Gospel lesson for next week, and next week we are going to talk about forgiveness because forgiveness is not just being a doormat and letting people walk all over you. Forgiveness is a lot deeper and more hopeful than that. Right now, suffice it to say that forgiveness is our business. To the degree that the church is a business, forgiveness is our product that we offer from God. To the degree that the church is a medical center, forgiveness is the medicine we use. It’s what we do.
Now, here is a piece of good news. I am sure that Matthew’s community thought that at some point, problematic people would be like a tax collector or a gentile, they would be out. But I think the Holy Spirit was smirking when Matthew wrote that down. Maybe even giggling. Because what is the title of the Gospel of Matthew? The Gospel of Matthew. And what did Matthew do for a living before he became a disciple? He was a tax collector. And what does Jesus say to the disciples at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, after he has risen from the dead? He says “Go, make disciples of all nations.” Same Greek word as is used here, Ethne, gentiles.
So, here’s good news. God loves the people who are not important. Even if you are not important, God loves you. God loves the people who wander. If you are wandering, God loves you. God loves the tax collectors and the gentiles, the people out of the church. If you are out of the church, God still loves you. God loves the people who have destructive attitudes and behaviors in the church. If you have destructive attitudes and behaviors, as we all do at one time or another, God loves you. God loves you.
All three of the Bible passages for today address the fact that God says “No” sometimes, but then again, turns back around again to “Yes.”
Our Old Testament lesson addresses people who have returned from exile in Babylon, and they find fellow Israelite men who have married foreign wives. Nehemiah says, “we have to maintain cultural purity, ethnic cleanliness. Therefore every man who has married a foreign wife must divorce his wife and send their children away.” God seems to be saying “No!” to foreigners. But Isaiah turns around and says, “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, I will bring to my holy mountain, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” There is a Yes on the other side of the No.
In the New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew and John sharply criticize the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day, to the point where the church and people in general throughout the centuries have used those passages to justify hatred and atrocity against the Jewish people. Christians would say, “Well, they killed Christ, so they get whatever’s coming to them,” or “They’re Jewish, they’re going to hell anyway.”
Paul says God’s promise to the Jewish people is irrevocable.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus at first says, “No.” I believe this passage is closely related to the Gospel lesson for last week. Last week, the disciples were in their boat, at night, with a strong wind against them. They didn’t know where they were or what direction they were going. Waves battering the boat. Strong water, stormy water represents chaos, when your world comes apart, when you don’t know what to do next. And Jesus shows up, walking on the water.
Now, in the Ancient Near East, you had many miracle stories. Lots of stories about people being cured of various diseases. Even stories about certain heroes raising people from the dead. Eventually the people died again, of course. But in the Hebrew Scriptures and even in other religions around that area, only one person walked on water. Only one person walked amidst the storm. That was the Deity. That person was God.
In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus shows up, walking on the water. He says, “Do not be afraid, it is I.” “I Am,” the name of God. So Jesus is the embodiment of God’s presence on earth. Jesus walks amidst the storm of chaos.
Peter looks out from the boat and says, “Lord, if it is you.” If you are. This is not a good sign. People ask Jesus, “If you are” three other times in the Gospel of Matthew. First, in chapter four, Jesus is fasting in the desert and Satan comes to him and says, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” Later on, Jesus stands trial in front of the high priest and the high priest says, “Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” And when Jesus is hanging on the cross, the mockers gather as they always do, and they say, “If he is the Son of God, let him come down from the cross now.” Jesus says, “I Am.” We say, “If you are.”
Peter says, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
I kind of feel that way sometimes. I feel like, if I can walk on the water, if I can walk on the chaos, then Jesus feels very real. If I am successful, wealthy, healthy, if my family relationships are whole, then Jesus is real, Jesus is the Son of God, for me. If we have a thousand people in church every Sunday, which would be wonderful, which I am willing to work very hard with you to make that happen, if we have a thousand people every Sunday, that would mean Jesus is real, right? Jesus is the Son of God.
And if only we kept our eyes on Jesus, if only we focused on him, then we could walk on water, we could walk on the chaos. We would not be touched by bad things happening. We would be immune to diseases and disaster. We would be like God.
If it is you, command me to come to you on the waves. We will be like God together.
Peter is mortal. He does not see the hands of God beneath the chaos. He does not see the “Yes” of God waiting beyond the “No.” He does not see the grace of God around it all. He sees the wind and waves, and like anybody else, he sinks. And now, instead if “If you are,” he says a much more human thing, from the Psalms: “Lord Save.”
Jesus hauls him out of the water into the boat, says, “Little faith guy, why did you doubt, why did you waver? Why did you have to have proof?”
The Caananite woman in the Gospel lesson for today, lands slap in the middle of chaos. You will understand this if you have a daughter or son who has a mental health condition. If you have a mother or father who becomes very angry without apparent reason, or is crushed by depression or has to hoard things or do certain things a particular way or else they fear something bad will happen. You know what it is like to be desperate.
But instead of walking on water, instead of walking above the waves, this woman has learned how to swim.
Here is how she swims. First, she is persistent, tenacious, loud, even obnoxious. Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus says nothing at all. You ever notice that sometimes Jesus is silent? Finally the disciples come to Jesus, say “Send her away, she keeps on shouting after us.” Notice Jesus does not send her away. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Woman comes and kneels before him, “Lord, help me.”
Jesus still does not send her away. He does, however, engage her in theological conversation about the way God works in the world. Jesus says, God’s realm begins with the Jews. He says “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Now we see the second way this woman swims through chaos. And please be aware, this is chaos. Her daughter is ill. She has asked for help. God has said, “No.” That’s chaos.
Nevertheless, the woman persists, without regard for her own status. Without regard for her own position or privilege or pride. She check s her ego at the door. She does not say, “I have every bit as much of a right to a place at the table as you do, you nihilistic meanie!” No, she does not. She says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” This is the third aspect of swimming in the chaos. She trusts God’s abundance. She trusts that even a crumb from God’s table will heal her daughter. She trusts that God’s hands are around her, that God’s grace is here. “Even a crumb.”
Now Jesus says, “Lady, Ma’am, great is your faith.” This in contrast to Peter who is “Little faith guy.” “Great faith lady. Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed.
I think in this crazy world, we need to give up the illusion of being able to walk on water, of being immune to difficulties and doubts and dangers. I think that instead we need to learn how to swim. Here is how to swim: First, be persistent, tenacious, relentless, loud, obnoxious in behalf of those God has called us to love. Second, we check our egos at the door. We focus on God’s love for people, not our own status. Third, we hope. We hope extravagantly, ridiculously. Because this is most certainly true. God’s hands do hold the chaos. God’s “Yes” always waits beyond God’s “No.” God’s grace is everywhere always, always everywhere God loves all people, all creation. God loves you.