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preview1_450_03Easter does not sit still. Easter is on the move!

We have become so familiar with the Easter story that becomes difficult to see how dramatic it really is. For a moment, let’s flash back to Friday. Just two days ago, we witnessed the betrayal and arrest in the garden, the trial and torture and sentence at the hands of Pilate, the execution and burial that seemed to bring an end to this Jesus and his status quo threatening revolutionary movement.

When we do that, it is a little bit easier to walk in the footsteps of the disciples. We can imagine their shock and horror as they realize they had followed Jesus into the deathtrap of Jerusalem. No doubt they were terrified, frozen, numb. The arrival of the Sabbath may have even come as a welcome, giving them religious cover for the passivity they would have felt already. They were unable to move – afraid to move – and the Sabbath arrived, commanding them to stay put.

And then Sunday comes. The sun has barely poked its head above the horizon when the three women hustle to the tomb to embalm Jesus. They wonder aloud how they’re going to pry the giant entrance stone out of the way, only to discover that their worry was unfounded: it has already been rolled aside. As for Jesus? He’s not there. Instead, there’s a young man in a white robe, an angel or messenger of some kind, telling them to head north to the Galilee to meet up with Jesus. In response to this news, they flee with a confusing mixture of joy and fear.

Apart from the seated figure in white, the whole story is one of frenetic energy: swift movement to and from the tomb, a large stone mysteriously moved, a command to move on to the Galilee.

Easter does not sit still. Easter is on the move!

I will be honest with you. As a pastor, having gutted out the Holy Week grind, there is probably nothing I look forward to more than that most sacred of family traditions, the Easter afternoon nap. I am sure there are many church professionals and busy members who feel the same way. Don’t get me wrong – the power of Easter morning still grabs me. A sunrise service where the sky passes from night to day still feels almost miraculous. A full sanctuary singing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” gives me chills. That uncertain pause at the end of the “Hallelujah Chorus”, just a little bit longer than you think it’s going to be, almost reduces me to tears every time.

But if you tell me on Easter afternoon that I need to move…

That’s the thing about following Jesus. To be a Christian, to call Jesus Lord, demands a shift in thinking. It’s a shift from the fear of Good Friday and the paralysis of Holy Saturday into the hopeful motion of Easter Sunday. And that shift is what makes all the difference. It is, in a nutshell, the reward of discipleship.

I don’t know about you, but it seems that there are days where the fear and the paralysis make a lot more sense. Whether we are talking about political races or legislative decisions or wars and rumors of wars, fear seems like a healthy response. We can also pushed out of Sunday’s hope back into the despair of Friday and Saturday with things that are much closer to home. Just a quick scroll through the Facebook feed of our friends and family can be enough for us to question whether there’s any hope at all. There are times when it feels like the world is filled with the mean, the unfair, the inhuman. And these are the moments when hope feels nothing short of delusional.

That’s why the rhythm of this whole week is critical. If we take a leap from waving branches on Palm Sunday to singing resurrection hymns on Easter, then our joy is not rooted in reality, but in selective ignorance during the rest of the week. And that really is deluded. Hope does not come from pretending that the bad stuff isn’t there. Hope is born out of the hopelessness that looks that bad stuff right in the eye and lives to tell about it anyway.

For the disciples, there was no way around the awful truth of that week. For three years, they had ridden high on the expectations they had placed in Jesus. They followed him around the Galilee, hearing his teaching and seeing his miracles, while the crowds around him swelled to the point that they could not be contained.

When Jesus told them it was time to head to Jerusalem, no doubt they were filled with a mix of emotions: sad to leave behind the fame and glory they had gathered, but anticipating an even greater power as they rose to power by his side. The esteemed theologians Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber got it right with their catchy show tunes about the disciples jockeying for position in the upcoming political revolution, and being thrown into confusion and despair by the sudden appearance of swords and whips and spears and crosses and burial cloths and tombs.

Along with everything else Friday and Saturday brought, they revealed how badly the disciples had misunderstood the whole point of their mission. Yes – they had followed him at a moment’s notice. Yes – they recognized the truth and wisdom in his preaching. Yes – they knew the power in his healing. And yes – they saw the fear and anger he caused in the religious authorities of the day. And when they put it all together, they were convinced it had been in service of the liberation of a small strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It was as though everything to that point was preparing them to rule an earthly fiefdom.

You can’t blame Jesus. He tried to tell them. He told them about taking up the cross. He told them about dying and rising. But these things didn’t fit into the worldview they had already constructed for themselves. They couldn’t assimilate these things into their existing assumptions. When he talked about these things, they tried to silence him. And when that didn’t work, they just compartmentalized the stuff they didn’t want to hear. They became selective about which parts of Jesus they wanted to believe. Then Friday and Saturday suddenly made that impossible. They had seen his body pulled off the cross and buried in a tomb – and with him, all of their hopes and dreams had become lifeless.

Staring into the hopeless pit of Friday and Saturday is what makes the hope of Sunday so incredible. It’s what ought to ignite us to follow Christ and follow him faithfully. The reward of discipleship doesn’t come from showing up when you find out that the tomb is empty. The reward of discipleship is sticking with it through the horrors – the betrayal, the anguish, the death – so that the hope you find in the rolled away stone is deep, like a wellspring of life itself.

And that hope – that resurrection, moving through crucifixion, hope – that life that comes out of death hope – is why Easter puts us on the move!

You see: faith in Jesus doesn’t work like some Ancient Near East themed Monopoly “Get out of Hell Free” card. It’s not a one-time payment, eternal life insurance policy. It is a movement, a call to new, hopeful ways of being in the world! What happens on Sunday matters. Yes! And what happens every day after that matters, too. Because, as the Jesuit author James Martin writes, “Resurrection makes a claim on you.” That claim means that you cannot just “set aside those teachings you disagree with or that make you uncomfortable – say, forgiving your enemies, praying for your persecutors, living simply or helping the poor.” It means, instead, that you’re all in.

Following Jesus means leaving behind Friday and Saturday’s fear and paralysis, because we can actually grow quite comfortable in our helplessness. Following Jesus also means heading to the Galilee to meet the risen Christ on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday…I think you know the rest.

This is why we ought care about what happens in tiny strips of land all over the world. We don’t root for tribes or nations like we cheer for NCAA brackets. We care and we are there because those people and places drowning in their hopeless Fridays and Saturdays, whether near or far, deserve to know that Sunday is coming!

That is why we are part of a national and global movement of Presbyterians who provide comfort and strength and encouragement, who preach and live out messages of justice and fairness and righteousness. That is why we teach our children to share their resources, to gather up their coins and pool them together, bringing the hope of fish and chickens and pigs through the Presbyterian Giving Catalog – because even if we cannot be there ourselves, we know that we are there with the church that is already there!

Friends, this Jesus – this won’t stay dead Jesus – this Christ is risen he is risen indeed Jesus – does not sit still. Jesus is on the move! If we are going to follow, we better get going!

Amen.

The Cost of Value

he-qui-triumphal-entryIt’s time to value the “in-between.”

We have reached the beginning of what the Church calls “Holy Week”. Beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Easter Sunday, these intense eight days are the focus of the gospel. If there was ever a time to pay attention, to break the infrequent attending to our faith, this is the time.

This is what the forty nights and days of Lent have been leading toward – toward a full week of focus and attention of what God desires of us.

This is a week in which not even the Sundays are enough. Missing the days in between can even be misleading this week. If we take part in today’s triumphal procession into Jerusalem and jump ahead to the empty tomb and the risen Christ, we might think that this Jesus we follow rides from crest of victory to victory, and that this Christian faith is one of puppies and butterflies. Of all weeks, this is the week to pay attention to the details.

When we piece the story together from the four gospel accounts, we learn that Jesus enters Jerusalem and heads straight to the Temple, where he flips over tables and directly challenges the powers that be. The priests and religious authorities culminate their plot to eliminate this threat, finding in the disciple Judas a willing accomplice.

As Jesus gathers his disciples for the Passover meal, breaking bread and washing feet, he lets them know that his betrayer is one from his circle of trust. As they head to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray among the ancient olive trees, he is arrested. On Friday, he is tried and tortured, and then sentenced to die. The writers do not turn away from the pain of the cross, either, painting a picture of Jesus’ suffering in excruciating detail. Once dead, he is buried in a tomb, sealed with a large rock over the mouth of the cave.

If we contain the gospel to the two Sundays that bookend it, it would be understandable to call the week “holy” and to call its Friday “good”. But when we look closely at what happens in between, these words begin to lose their meaning…

Friends, we increasingly live in a culture where our “faith” is of our own making. No respecter of political affiliation, this “faith” is Christian in flavor, but one where we discard the things that make us squirm and add in the things that reinforce what we already think is true. For many, faith in Christ has become “one and done” – once baptized or confirmed or born again, there is no need to darken the door of the church. From now on, it’s me and Jesus.

Let’s make no mistake. Churches have helped to erode this relationship. The scandals of child abuse make for headlines and sell papers. The self-righteous hypocrisy of preachers is cartoonish in its villainy, holding their people hold to an unreasonably high standard while taking gross advantage of the power and influence they hold.

Meanwhile, as the world seems to move at a million miles an hour, churches – for the most part – have chosen either to throw their lot in with the whims of today, priding innovation over tradition, or they have stuck their heads in the sand, believing that nothing good can come from our cultural Nazareths. Those who, in past generations, might have become active church members have been turned away by the parallel idolatries of entertainment and institutional preservation.

In other words, the bookends matter, and matter a great deal; and so does everything in between. The difference is that it’s a lot harder to live in the in between. The very place that the Church has abandoned is the very place that we need to value and need to be.

This year, Holy Week is the week for spending time in the in-between.

It’s the second half of this morning’s lesson that highlights how much more difficult it is to stay with the in-between. Jesus, at the home of Simon the Leper, becomes himself an object lesson. An unnamed woman carries in an expensive alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. In an over the top act of affection and adoration, she shatters the jar and pours the perfume on Jesus’ head.

Almost immediately, there are those who leap up to criticize. If she had chosen to sell that jar and its perfume, so much good could have been done! What a waste!

Jesus, much to our surprise, defends the woman. She has done a good thing. There will always be poor people. But Jesus will not be around that much longer, as she seems to know, offering a ritual of burial, if a bit prematurely.

This is a critical, in-between moment. On the one hand, we can sympathize with those who think the value of the perfume jar could have been used more justly. On the other hand, we can see how some could take Jesus’ words “the poor you will always have with you” as permission to ignore the poor so that we can focus on glorifying God. And yet, neither of these gives voice to the holiness of Holy Week.

Jesus is the incarnation of God’s holy presence. This is something truly worthy of adoration, something that only this woman seems to notice. And, at the same time, listen carefully to what Jesus actually says: “You always have the poor with you. You can show them kindness whenever you want.” In other words, the poor deserve to be treated with kindness. It is the faithful thing to do. In fact, in Jesus’ absence, being kind to those who are unlike us may be the closest we can get to pouring costly perfume on his head.

You see: instead of planting ourselves at one extreme or another, self-righteously proclaiming that true holiness is found only in serving the poor or only in serving Jesus, we ought to nestle in-between, recognizing that they are one and the same! After all, look at the Palm Sunday procession: the colt on which he rode into Jerusalem was a borrowed one. And look at the Friday burial: the tomb where his body was laid had been donated for that purpose. To love and serve those at the margins of society is to love and serve Christ himself. And if there was any doubt about that, Jesus says it himself: “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat…I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink…I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”

You see, in the kingdom of God, in the world the way God desires it to be, we value people – because by doing so, we value the image of God imprinted within them. It is not enough to show up only on the Sundays of faith. We must also be there on the Thursdays and the Fridays. We share at the table, not only with Jesus, but with his betrayer, experiencing the heartbreak first-hand. We pray with him in the Garden, faithfully putting away our swords even when we would rather raise them in anger. We take the lashes with him, and stand at the foot of the cross, suffering with him as he dies.

It is not enough to stand beside the road and shout “Hosanna!” as Jesus enters to Jerusalem and then sing “Alleluia!” as we discover the tomb is empty. We must also cry “I am thirsty!” and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “It is finished” at the foot of his cross. We must value the in-between. And when we do, that is when the triumphal processions begin to deepen and offer the hope that they are meant to bring.

There is no resurrection unless there is a crucifixion. There is no ultimate victory unless there is defeat. There can be no “new life” without death first taking hold. It is only when we live in-between that we can understand that “Hosanna” is not a shout of victory, an anachronistic synonym for “Yay!” It is, instead, an ancient cry for help – an adaptation of a Hebrew prayer meaning “Save us!”

Friends, life is not an endless series of “good news” – you only have to live in order to know that this is true. There is much from which we have to be saved, not least of all, ourselves. And when we are saved, when we are pulled out of trials and into the arms of mercy, we cannot turn around and lord it over those who are left, still in-between, still in despair. We must, instead, recognize that we ourselves might just be the very instruments of saving that God calls us to be.

That is the place of the Church. We are meant to be those who do not fear the past, the present, or the future, because God is present in all of them. We do not fear innovation, because we know that God can be at work in our transformation. We do not fear history, because God redeems it all for the sake of God’s desires. We do not fear the death of institutions, because we are a people of resurrection. And we do not fear the in-between, because we know that God holds it all!

My prayer is that this table today would be a solid reminder of all of this. Once we are fed, God is not honored if we take it as a sign of favor above those who go hungry. Instead, we lift it up as a sign of undeserved grace. And so, our hunger fed and our thirst sated, we go out to feed the world. For in so doing, we love and serve Christ the Lord himself.

Amen.

The Cost of Structure

yihivStay awake.

It’s a fitting message for this morning, isn’t it, when the alarm went off an hour earlier than desired? Stay awake…

Jesus’ message to his disciples, to stay awake, comes as they have arrived in Jerusalem. The events of the coming weeks have already begun to unfold. It is now only a matter of time before he is betrayed, arrested, tried, and executed, filling the disciples with doubt and fear. If there was any week that they might have chosen to sleep in, this is it.

Stay awake.

Our lesson this morning opens as Jesus and the disciples exit the Temple, the center of Jewish ritual and religious life. The building itself loomed large in the imagination of the people. It was actually the Second Temple to stand on that site. The first, built by King Solomon, had long ago been destroyed and the people carried off into exile. The Persian King Cyrus had freed them, sending them to Jerusalem to rebuild. What they constructed was a mere shadow of the original.

The disciples would have had all of this in mind as they took in the view. The Second Temple was a sad reminder of what once was: a powerful nation, free of foreign entanglements. Even so, the building was magnificent. We get the impression that they were like hicks in the big city, staring up in amazement at the skyscrapers towering above.

The stones had been cut from massive limestone, weighing anywhere from a few tons to 160,000 pounds each. It may not have compared to the original, but it was still quite the sight to behold. Surely nothing could be more permanent than this.

And yet, it was not to be.

The first thing Jesus tells his disciples is that these stones are nothing. They will be torn down, knocked over, such that even the mighty Jerusalem Temple would stand as a ruin – nothing more. History proved Jesus right. It was in the year 70 CE that the Romans did just that – knocked the Temple down, razed it to the ground. Even those permanent-looking 80-ton stones were demolished. They were broken down, repurposed, reused in other parts of the region. For those who saw the destruction with their own eyes, surely it must have seemed like the end of the world.

That’s the thing about the way we see the world, isn’t it? We are, by nature the extent of our years, short-sighted folk. It is hard for us to imagine things that predated us and will outlast us. In other places, there are ruins of bygone years – the pyramids of Giza, the coliseum of Rome, the temples of Machu Pichu – reminders that human history has a much larger footprint than the one that we can imagine. And yet, none of this is permanent.

We have this odd sense of the way time works. And we impose that view on the way we read the lessons of Scripture, don’t we? In some ways, it couldn’t be clearer. As Jesus paints the picture of the way it will all come to an end, he describes a world in which there are wars and rumors of wars. Nations and kingdoms will fight, he says, and earthquakes and hunger will rock the world. For more than 1500 years, people have tried to read the tealeaves, predicting that this season or that is the one that Jesus promised.

2016 is no different. You would think that we would be used to it by now, but every four years, as a presidential race ramps up yet again, we are thrown into this sense that the world is shaken to its core, that things are about to explode, erupt, and that we are on the precipice of the end of history.

But look what Jesus says: wars, natural disasters, these are just the beginning. They are nothing. We will know that things are drawing to a close not when things are unstable. Rather, we will know that things are drawing to a close when the cosmos itself begins to change. The sun turns dark, giving the moon no light to reflect. The stars and planets will appear as though they have become unmoored from their fixed spots in the heavens.

In other words, God’s timeline looks quite a bit further down the road than ours does. Just like the disciples, we might look at the grandness of our own culture and assume it is indestructible. Or when we begin to see that there might be cracks in the surface, we panic. We are cornered into fear, which is a dangerous thing. And we then project our own fear out onto the entirety of creation. In other words: if what I thought I knew was reliable is now ending, then everything must be ending.

That’s what’s hard about this faith thing – and it is what frees us, if we allow it to do so. Faith in what Jesus lived and died and rose for calls us far beyond ourselves, into this grander, universal reality of God’s eternal timeline. It lifts us above our myopic self-interest and out into the reality that, no matter what, God is at work!

For years now, we have heard predictions about the end of Mainline Protestantism. Membership numbers are on the decline. Worship attendance is down. Churches are closing, and buildings are being sold. Every year, we find something to blame for our demise. Every week, there is a dire prophecy that the “end is nigh”. Every day, there is a new “fix all” solution – if only churches and leaders were brave enough to step up.

Folks, I’ve got news: God’s future is much, much bigger than the structures we build up. God looks beyond Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. God’s desires encompass far more than the destiny of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). God’s history extends far beyond the reach of the United States of America. If we can’t say that, then our faith isn’t ultimately in God at all. Instead of believing that God has fashioned us to seek God’s desires, we have fashioned a god that suits our desires.

Look: I’m not saying that what we do is unimportant. Quite the contrary: what we do matters, and matters a great deal. That’s actually the point. Because the invitation is not to stick our heads in the sand and wait for the inevitable collapse of society. Instead, the invitation is to pay attention and to respond in faith.

A farmer sees the leaves change and knows that summer is just around the corner. A servant sees the owner returning down the road and knows it is time to get the house in order. If we stay awake, if we are alert, aware, attentive to the world around us and beyond it, then, sure: we will know when all of this is really coming to an end. But more importantly, we will be in tune with what it is that God is calling us to do in the here and now.

After all, God is not just God of the past. And God is not just God of the future. God is God of the present. That’s what this incarnate faith of ours reminds us: God chose flesh. God chose to be embodied. God chose to become material in Jesus. Because this stuff matters!

The tension of faith is what it means to live as though it matters while keeping that greater, divine perspective intact. Yes: there are wars. Yes: there are rumors of wars. Yes: there are pretenders to faithful leadership. Yes: there are nations rising and collapsing and earthquakes and floods and destruction and death and violence. And: we are still called to faithfulness in the midst of it all.

When there is war, we are the peacemakers. When there are those who preach false gospels, we speak – and live – the truth in love. When there is hunger, we feed. When the world is shaken, we extend a steady hand.

And when we seek war, we trust that the peacemakers will stand in the way. When we preach false gospels, we hope for the wisdom to hear those who tell us the loving truth. When we are hungry, we know that we will be fed. When our world is shaken, we depend on God’s steady presence.

And in all of this, we keep the true lesson of history in mind: in all of human history, there has never been a time of perfect faithfulness. Even the Garden of Eden was nothing more than a flash in the pan. We don’t look back to find the blueprint for looking forward. Instead, we look back to learn from those who have, in each time and in every place, followed the call to faithful living, giving God’s desires shape and form and breath and life. And in so doing, we learn something about what it means to be faithful in this time and place, as well as in the days to come, whatever they may bring.

This, friends, as we say each and every week, is the truth of the gospel: in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. May our lives be living examples of this faith, mirroring the grace we receive and reflecting it out onto this broken, hurting, and fleeting world – today, tomorrow, and all the days to come.

Amen.

The Cost of Citizenship

screen-shot-2015-09-24-at-2-31-17-pm“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

These are, really, the clearest words we have from Jesus about how to be a faithful citizen. They came as his clever response to those who were trying to trap him. The Pharisees and supporters of Herod thought they had asked him the perfect question: does the Law of Moses allow observant Jews to pay tax to the Romans? A simple “yes” would render him a traitor in the eyes of his own people, and a simple “no” would make him a threat to the Roman authority. Jesus manages to dodge all of this complexity by saying, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

Unfortunately for us, Jesus did not leave us with a handy little Christian voter guide to know the “correct” stance on political issues so that we would know to vote for the candidate that lines up most closely with Christian values. And as we are already fully aware, there are plenty of politicians who would use the label “Christian” to their own political advantage with no regard to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” We are told, in the lesson, that Jesus’ reply leaves his questioners speechless. Boy, what a gift that must be! It would be wonderful to know how we might be able to do that with our current crop of candidates: leave them speechless. A boy can dream…

Here’s the one thing I want to leave with you today: no matter which candidate you vote for, no matter whom you think will be the best person for the job, know this: no matter who wins, God will still be God. Nothing we do can change that. And no matter which party triumphs come November, this nation will still fall far short of the glory of God. No vote will ever correct that outcome.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

Our world couldn’t be more different from the world of Jesus. Ancient Israel had long been subjugated to other nations. The Romans were simply the latest manifestation of foreign control of local land. Beyond that, Caesar wasn’t just a ruler. He claimed to be divine, a god, demanding worship from his subjects. When it came to the coin, it belonged to Caesar, because it bore his image and likeness. But everything else in all of creation bears the likeness of God – and, therefore, belongs to God.

Give these differences, what is it that the church could learn from Jesus’ simple saying? Or is it, rather, that we should look back to the parable he told just before this challenge?

Jesus speaks of a landlord who builds a beautiful vineyard. All it needs are caretakers. The tenant farmers come in and till the land. But when the landlord wants the fruit of his harvest, they brutalize his messengers – even killing some of them. The landlord goes so far as to send his own son, whom the tenants seize and murder – because, they reason, if they kill the heir, the inheritance will be theirs.

What are they thinking? If we kill the heir, then we get the inheritance? I know that the laws governing property were probably different back then, but would it really have been possible to kill the son and inherit the property? I doubt it seriously. Instead, the lesson shows how warped their thinking has become in the absence of the landlord. They have forgotten whose vineyard it is, assuming that it is all theirs because they are the ones who have been working it, forgetting that the landlord set it up to be a functioning vineyard in the first place.

The implications of Jesus’ parable would have been crystal clear to those who would have heard it at the time: God set up Israel for God’s people. And when God sent prophets and messengers, the people either ignored or killed them. It is, in a few words, a hearty condemnation of the Pharisees and rulers who would claim to be the current tenant farmers and, therefore, the rightful heirs to the vineyard.

And as much fun as it would be to point our fingers at the Pharisees and laugh at their hypocrisy, the truth is that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree in our case, either. When we look at the work of our hands, how quick are we to take credit for it – or demand recognition for it? Have we already forgotten who it is that gave us the gifts in the first place? Whether it be the mind or the talents or simply just a leg up in society, nothing we achieve is the fruit of our own labors alone. We could never accomplish what we have done if it weren’t for God at work in our lives.

Our response ought to be to live as though this were the case.

The same is true within the church. It would be one thing to take God’s free gift of grace and claim ownership of it, to treat the church more like a “club” where membership has its privileges to be shared, but only if and when we feel like it. But to do so would stray far from where Jesus desires us to be, sharing the grace we have received as freely as it has been given.

What would that look like? What would it look like to live as though everything in all of creation bore God’s imprint and likeness? What would it mean if we were to see this in everything, even when it comes to the citizenship we have been granted? What would it mean to hold it, yes, but loosely enough to trust it to God, the author of all that is good and kind and just?

I don’t know about you, but every four years during presidential election season, I begin to feel as though the whole world is at stake. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of politics and its sway in our lives and in the lives of others. That said, there is nothing that can happen during this election season that will prevent God’s desires from bearing fruit. Caesar is Caesar, and God is still God. Thanks be to God!

I’m reminded of the movie Men in Black, in which Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones play government agents who are responsible for protecting planet earth from alien invasion. On Smith’s first assignment, he causes havoc in a New York City block trying to prevent an alien from escaping. Jones reprimands him for it, which stuns Smith. After all, the world is at stake! Jones’ rebuffs him, saying, “There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet!”

Maybe that quote doesn’t exactly make the point I wanted it to; but I hope you catch my intention. The point is that, no matter how up in the air life might feel, God is still God and that God is still in control of God’s desires and the world that bears God’s imprint. That is the hope in which we live – today and tomorrow and election day and every day beyond that.

At our very best, our calling is to reflect God’s character to the world we encounter in all that we do. And as we do, we know we will not get it perfect, but will still trust what we do to God’s perfecting mercy and grace.

When we look at the parable: do you notice how patient the landlord is? He sends messenger after messenger to get what is rightly his from the tenant farmers. And each time, they beat, kill, taunt, abuse them, one by one. The landlord is tested at every step of the way, but does not give in to rage until much further along in the story. The landlord, of course, is the story’s stand-in for God. And because of that, we learn of God’s long-suffering patience.

God is willing to put up with all kinds of betrayal, and to show mercy in return – again and again and again and again. And God’s willingness to show that mercy extends even to incarnation – that is, the sending of the Son for the sake of the world, even knowing that this gift, too, is likely to be betrayed. And let’s be clear: judgment is not lost in the parable; and yet, it is made abundantly clear to whom this judgment belongs: God, and God alone.

Amen.

The Cost of Power

Power On - textureVision over power.

In our lesson this morning, Jesus and his disciples have finished up their ministry in the bucolic Galilee and are making their way toward urban Jerusalem. Jesus tells the disciples what exactly all of this Messiah stuff entails: betrayal, abuse, torture, and death. This makes such an impression on them that James and John ask if they can call dibs on the seats of power next to him.

You can almost imagine Jesus saying, “Have you been listening to a word I’m saying?!? You still think this is all about the earthly kingdom of Israel, don’t you?” After he sets them back a notch, the rest of the disciples get in on the act, angry at James and John for sneaking around on them. Apparently, they weren’t listening, either.

It’s at this point that they go through Jericho. Jericho, sitting just west of the Jordan River, is an oasis for travelers. For Jesus and the disciples, they would have left the verdant hills of the Galilee, heading along the Jordan down toward the Dead Sea, the vegetation disappearing and the temperature increasing along the way. At Jericho, they would have turned westward, finding the winding road that leads up to Jerusalem. Jericho sits at this crossroads, with numerous springs that have made it a welcome habitation for thousands of years.

And there, almost lost among the pressing crowds, is the blind beggar Bartimaeus, calling out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

A number of things happen simultaneously in this moment. First, we are told that Bartimaeus means “son of Timaeus”. In other words, though he was a blind beggar, shuffled off to the margins of polite society (and impolite society, for that matter), he had a family that – at least at some point – cared for and loved him.

Second, the crowd gives us some insight into the human condition. At first, because they don’t want to be associated with the likes of him, they try to hide him from Jesus. “Don’t you know who this is? It’s Jesus! Leave him alone! Don’t bother him. He’s got more important things to do!” As soon as Jesus singles him out and calls him forward, the they immediately changes their tune, perhaps hoping to benefit from their connection with Bartimaeus: “Come on! Good news! He wants to see you! Let’s go!” The crowd is fickle; willing to go along with what is popular rather than what is right.

Third, Jesus responds to Bartimaeus plea the same way he had responded to James and John, with the exact same question he had asked them: “What do you want me to do for you?” Though the disciples were his friends and Bartimaeus was a complete stranger, he treated them with equity.

Fourth, Bartimaeus request is simply granted. Unlike James and John’s desire for power, Bartimaeus is given the gift of vision.

And finally, though Jesus tells Bartimaeus to go on his way, he immediately begins following Jesus. His response is gratitude. And that thankfulness leads him into discipleship, into Jesus’ baptism and cup.

For me, the chorus that rings through all of this is “vision over power.”

Power plays a significant role in Jesus’ entire ministry. And today’s lesson is no exception. It is the possibility of power that fools the disciples, filling their ears with false hopes so that they cannot hear what true discipleship costs. The crowd tries to surf the changing perceptions of power – first by silencing Bartimaeus and then by elevating him. And it is powerless Bartimaeus who takes center stage in the lesson as the one that Jesus hears, invites, and heals.

This fits well within Jesus’ overall message, which takes power and flips it on its head. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The King is crowned with thorns; his royal robes are stripped away to reveal his nakedness; his throne is a cross, with a title over his head to mock and scorn him. Whoever wants the seat of glory must become a servant.

The truth is that power is seductive, and very, very complicated. What makes it most disturbing is that the ways in which we hold power are the ways we are least likely to know that it is ours. Power is at work in all of society. It plays a role in gender; in age; in sexuality; in ability and disability; in education; in race; in language; in economics; in politics and influence; in religion; in employment; in office and stature.

Every single one of us, without exception, inhabits power roles in our lives. Mostly by virtue of things that are completely out of our control, we have been handed an advantage in this life. The thing is, if we never bother to stop and take stock of that fact, we will never know it. Instead, we are far more likely to focus on the power we don’t have that others do. In other words, power is not something to be ashamed of; it is, at the same time, something to be absolutely aware of.

And that’s because power is tempting. It may be the most desirable temptation there is, And yet Jesus, who had all the power in the world, gave it away in order to bring freedom to any and all who need it. Rather than make power the most important thing, Jesus put healing and wholeness first – in the case of Bartimaeus, Jesus gave him the vision he so desired.

Vision over power.

Like James and John, we may yearn for the power we do not have; but Jesus wants us to be more like Bartimaeus. The truth is that we are blind – maybe not completely, but our vision is far from perfect. We all have blind spots. Acknowledging that fact is the first step, and it’s a crucial one. Our spiritual vision will never be 20/20; and yet, if we invite Jesus to work on our vision, we are more likely to see the things that God desires we see.

For example, the way we typically talk about vision is misleading. We tend to think of those who have “vision” as those who can predict the future, see things that are not there, read the tealeaves. But vision is, simply, the ability to see clearly – to see what is, and what is not, there. And one aspect of that vision is recognizing power: where it is, where it is absent, how it is at work in our lives and the lives of others, and how it is at work throughout the world.

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this – really struggle with it. It feels like there is inherent hypocrisy in a straight, white, male, able-bodied, educated pastor to talk about who does – and does not – have power. This is one of those moments where those temptations to power can make you come across as preachy. Fair enough. I can come down from the pulpit, but I’ve still got robes that confer some sense of authority. I can remove those, but I’m still the one with the microphone. Even without that, I’ve got title and position, and the privilege that those give me, as well as ten-plus years of history with this particular congregation. And even if those were all to evaporate in an instant, our pews are all pointed in the same direction and bolted in place that way.

So my prayer today, just as it is each and every Sunday, is for the words I speak and the thoughts we all carry to point to God – in other words, that our eyes be filled with what it is that God envisions for us.

And in that vision, the call to follow Jesus is intimately tied up in how we deal with the nature of power. In the kingdom of God, power is transformed into justice – God’s justice. Those who have power are invited to lay it down for the sake of those who do not. And those who do not have it are the ones Jesus is most likely to call to lead.

Are we willing to follow? Would we ever be so bold as to take a chance on the power we hold? Could we loosen our fists, even if that means risking that this power might fall through our fingers, slip through our grasp?

Let’s put it this way: could we ever imagine putting ourselves in the role not of the crowds, nor of the disciples, but to empty ourselves of the power we inhabit and live into the place of a blind beggar named Bartimaeus? Would we be willing, even just for a moment, to admit how helpless, how in need of mercy, we really are? Or are we more likely to pretend that we are in control of our own destinies, that we don’t need or depend on anyone else? Or do we live with the fantasy that this power is realistically within our grasp, if we could just get hold of those elusive advantages that we do not currently have?

Friends, the truth of it all is simply this: we are blind. And Jesus is here, ready to give us vision and send us on our way. The faithful response is to follow him, even if that means going all the way up to Jerusalem. Are we ready to follow?

Amen.

The Cost of Inheritance

hqdefaultThere are no volunteers in the kingdom of God; only disciples.

Our lesson this morning concerns a young man eager to meet Jesus and learn what his gospel of eternal life requires. Jesus begins with the expected, answer, one that is almost predictable: “Follow the Ten Commandments.” The young man claims to have mastered these rules when he was a child, which seems hard to believe. Listening the daily news causes me to violate at least three of the ten.

In any case, Jesus takes him at his word and tells him the one thing that stands in his way: selling everything, giving the money to the poor, and following Jesus. Because he was rich, this proved to be too much for him, and he turns away from Jesus.

There are no volunteers in the kingdom of God; only disciples.

In the church, we often make much of the need for volunteers. We need teachers, ushers, people to staff our ministries, folks to lend a hand with this workday project or that mission ministry. There is a problem with this approach, though. When we look at the story of Jesus, there is not a single volunteer who lives up to their promises. Those who follow Jesus are those whom Jesus invites. They have the choice to respond, yes, but the invitation always precedes the willingness.

The young man in our story is a perfect case in point. Here he comes, kneeling down in front of Jesus, apparently ready to do what Jesus requires. He is the perfect volunteer. But when Jesus tells him what he has to do to pass muster, he bails out. Being a volunteer is not enough. We must, first, be invited.

The truth, of course, is that everyone is invited. The difference between the volunteer and the disciple is this: the volunteer thinks they are offering their gifts out of their own generosity; the disciple acknowledges that they are saying “yes” to what God has initiated. This may seem like a small point, but in truth, it makes all of the difference. And that’s what the rest of the lesson bears out.

It’s important to note that this story has been open to wild misinterpretation – which is absolutely unheard of in the history of the Church. In today’s lesson, Jesus tells the young man to sell everything, give the money away to the poor, and follow Jesus. He cannot do it because, we are told, “he had many possessions.”

On the one hand, it is important to remember that Jesus gave this instruction to the one man. And that man’s possessions built an insurmountable barrier to his faithful discipleship. Jesus did not say “Whoever wants to follow me must sell everything they own and give the money to the poor.” This specific challenge was intended for this specific person.

And yet, before we are too quick to let ourselves off the hook, it is at this point that Jesus turns to the disciples and drops this little nugget: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

And this is where our reinterpretations come into play, efforts to make this statement more palatable. As early as the 5th century there were suggestions of mistranslation. Maybe someone misheard the Greek, because the words for “rope” and “camel” are really very close. Others have tried to force the point that it was a confusion of an Aramaic pun, that the words for “camel” and “louse” are very similar. So Jesus was just telling a joke.

I don’t know about you, but this possibility seems about as likely as “blessed are the cheese makers.”

The interpetation I remember hearing most often as a child was that the image of the camel was intended as a sign of humility. You see, there was a low gate into the old city of Jerusalem called the eye of the needle. For a camel to pass through the gate, it had to kneel. Therefore, the story went, if we can kneel before God, even with our wealth, we can enter the kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, there was no such gate in Jerusalem.

In other words, Jesus was just being really difficult: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

And remember: this is the same Jesus who said, “If you want to be my disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow.” I can understand why would we work so hard to wrangle ease out of difficult messages; otherwise, being a Christian is just too hard. It is too bad, therefore, that Jesus often says things that are meant to provoke, challenge, even disturb those who heard. Welcome to the discomfort of discipleship.

Let’s stick with the discomfort for a moment. In the case of today’s lesson, let’s ask this: What does it mean to be “rich”?

Here in the United States, the top one percent includes those whose income is $500,000 a year and up. But since Jesus’ reference to “rich” does not mention anything about nationality, we would do well to expand the question globally.

And in that realm, it takes $34,000 per person, after taxes, to make it into the top one percent. For a family of four, that means a net of $136,000 per year. And by those standards, almost half of the richest 60 million people in the world live in the United States.

Maybe that describes you, maybe it doesn’t. Our family falls short of that mark. But before we breathe a quick sigh of relief and let ourselves off the hook, consider this: on average, the poorest five percent in the United States is on par with the richest five percent in India.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus does not give us any caveats. He doesn’t say that people who work really hard are exempt, or that there are different standards based on where they live, or if they inherited their money, or if they have a mortgage, or a student loan debt, or if they’re really nice, or if they go to church every week. There are no exceptions. Being rich is, quite simply, an impediment to being faithful.

I wish I had a neat way to wrap this all up, or that I could find a sideways glance of an interpretation that could help us stick this landing. Instead, the one solution I can see is for us to sell everything we own and give the money away to the poor. That’s it.

All right! Who’s with me?

Yeah, me neither…It’s a terrifying notion! What would it really look like to sell everything? If I were to sell my house, and my car; if I were to empty out my bank accounts and sell my guitars – OK. It just got too real. I don’t think I can do it.

And that is surely part of the point. The breadth of Scripture points to the fact that none of us can ever measure up to the perfection the kingdom of God requires. And because this is true, every single one of us stands in need of grace. It doesn’t matter how good you are. You still ain’t Jesus. And that, friend, is why you need Jesus.

Ultimately, the promise here is one that is meant to convict us, yes, but mostly to free us from the stuff that holds us back. Look: there is this gap between what discipleship requires and how far we are able to fulfill it. And the gap is not small. But if we know – really know – that God bridges that gap for us, what is it that this certainty could free us to do?

Picture this gap between us and God as though it were the Grand Canyon. We stand on one rim, with God barely visible on the other. How will we ever get there? It’s impossible, right? That is, if we think it’s up to us. Trying to reach God on our own is as absurd as leaping into the abyss, Thelma and Louise style. But if it’s up to God, for whom all things are possible, then perhaps we might feel free enough to try and jump anyway. Rather than falling to our doom, we are actually letting ourselves go into God’s limitless embrace!

We can let go of the things that hold us back from following God because God is the one who provides it all anyway. Maybe it is too much to imagine selling it all and giving the money to the poor…perhaps that feels like going full Evil Knievel. So…what would it look like to give up even just a little bit? And what would it look like to respond not as a volunteer, but a disciple, recognizing that the invitation itself comes from God?

Many of you are familiar with the concept of the “tithe” – that is, the giving away of one-tenth of one’s income (which, as you may notice, falls 90% short of the “sell everything” mark). The tithe is probably the most straightforward way to look at how willing we are to give it all away. So with tax season coming upon us in the not-too-distant future, here is one possible invitation to discipleship for you, in four simple steps:

  • Know what your income is.
  • Know how much you give away.
  • Figure out what percentage that is.
  • Figure out what it would mean to increase that percentage.

Let’s try out an example. Your income is $50,000 a year, and you currently give away $3,000. That works out to 6%. If you were to increase your giving to 7%, that would come out to $3,500 a year, or an increase of $10/week on your current giving. Is that doable?

Perhaps yes, perhaps no; but just as Jesus encouraged the rich young man to sell everything, I’m willing to bet that our call to discipleship contains a very real, tangible, financial component. Recognizing this is not something that binds us, but frees us.

And that is the point. Because not only are we invited into this life of discipleship, we are also invited to be an invitation. We are the voices God has chosen to invite others to follow Jesus. You are meant to be Christ’s hands and feet, Christ’s own words for the many who are hungry to hear what it is that God promises.

There are no volunteers in the kingdom of God; only disciples, those who hear the invitation and respond to the freedom it promises! Let us open our ears and hearts to where it is we are being called to go!

Amen.

New Changes

4062867719_9f5c6b581f_oChange is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

If you travel from Galilee up into the Golan Heights, you will notice a natural spring alongside the road. Tradition holds that this spring was the site where Jesus and the disciples retreated from the crowds in Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asked them the question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus focused his ministry on the villages around the Sea of Galilee before he led the disciples south toward Jerusalem.

Banyas, which is the name of the spring, is to the northeast. It’s not a place they would have just happened upon. They would have to decide to go there.

So it must have been in our lesson today. Jesus and the disciples frequently tried to get away from the crowds, but were often pursued in their efforts to rest. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, allowing them to have a moment to themselves, a retreat of sorts. It is, in short, an opportunity to have an open and frank conversation about where they are, what they are doing, and what is coming next.

The crowds have been speculating on Jesus’ identity. Much like Herod and his advisers, the folks that have been coming out to see him think he might be a prophet in the mold of the ancients; or perhaps John the Baptist, head miraculously re-attached to his body. Or maybe, they think, he’s Elijah. To understand why this idea would matter, let’s take a step back into history.

In the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah was second only to Moses. The great Moses, of course, was the one who led the people out of their Egyptian slavery. They crossed the Red Sea on dry ground, spending forty years in the wilderness. In the early days of their sojourn, Moses encounters God at the top of the mountain. But before they could enter the Land of Promise together, Moses dies and his buried in an unknown location.

Elijah encountered God at the top of the mountain, too. He spent extended periods of time in the wilderness, and crossed the River Jordan on dry ground. And his death was also surrounded in mystery, as he was whisked away into heaven by a fiery chariot.

Such was the legend that had grown up around Moses and Elijah that the tradition emerged that they would return as harbingers of the Messiah, the great savior of God’s people. And like most legends, this tradition brought its own set of expectations.

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

At the retreat by the spring of Banyas, Peter is the one who names the truth right before their eyes: Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the expected one. In other accounts of this story, this is the moment that Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter. And Jesus takes it as the opportunity to clarify what it is they have signed up for.

He tells them that the Messiah’s destiny is rejection, execution, and resurrection. The clear implication is that the same fate awaits those who follow him: “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Jesus is not speaking of a metaphor of inconvenience. He is clear that following Jesus means the very real possibility that your life will be on the line. And that, Peter says, is not why they enlisted.

The interpretation that had built up around the coming of the Messiah was that of power. The Christ would ride into battle, overthrow the hated occupiers, and take the throne for himself and his people. In this scenario, those who followed him would soon take their own seats of authority around him. As you may have noticed, this is the exact opposite of what Jesus has just informed them.

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

Churches are notoriously difficult when it comes to change. Part of that is just human nature: once an institution is founded, it is embedded with its own kind of DNA; anything that seems to run counter to it meets resistance. Part of that is the extra weight that religious institutions carry. After all, our stories stretch back into ancient times, and as such everything we do feels like it has sinews reaching back into the beginning of history itself. It’s why churches have major conflicts over things like worship music, how we serve communion, paint and carpet colors, as though Moses descended from Mount Sinai carrying those little tiny cups on golden trays, carpet samples draped over each arm.

We know that’s not true. The problem is when we live like it is. If we, as people of faith, aren’t willing to grow and change, then our faith will fail to do so as well.

I am fortunate, as your pastor, to serve a church where flexibility seems woven into our DNA. In the last ten years, we have weathered changes to our worship order, the addition of technology into the sanctuary, experiments with communion, diverse styles of music and instrumentation. There is, I have seen, a willingness to try new things, and to do so with grace, recognizing they’re not all going to work, and we can learn from those moments when they don’t.

Such an approach to church is not only vital, it is critical in a world that has already changed and continues to do so. Because change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

Let’s be honest. For all of our flexibility, we are still a traditional church. I wear a robe. Most of our music uses the organ, and many of our hymns we sing date from the 1800s. The Scripture may be read on paper, projector, or tablet, but we still consider it the Word of God, handed down and translated from ancient scrolls. Our pulpit has moved in the time I have been here – from the center, to the left, now to the right – even though I rarely use it to preach from, but we have a pulpit. We worship on Sunday mornings, and other than special occasions, we worship only on Sunday mornings.

I want to be absolutely crystal clear with you: I have no agenda here today. I am not proposing specific changes to the way we shape our lives together. Neither am I trying to lay the groundwork for specific changes that I am holding back from mentioning today. I have never done that, nor do I intend to do so. What I am saying is this: we must hold this thing, this church thing, this faith thing, loosely. And we must open it, and ourselves, to the possibility that it will be transformed right before our eyes. Because as it transforms, so do we.

Which brings us back to our lesson. Less than a week after Jesus clarifies to the disciples what discipleship means, he takes his inner core of Peter, James, and John up to the top of a mountain.

And there, the moment happens from which our day gets its name. Jesus is transfigured, more or less taking on the form of embodied light. And there, standing with him, are Moses and Elijah, the great luminaries of the Hebrew Bible. Peter was right: Jesus is the Messiah, the expected one. And Moses and Elijah have come to make that point abundantly clear.

This is the scene that puts flesh on our central point today. Jesus transfigures, transforms, changes. Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult. Peter, once again, plays the disciples’ straw man. The discomfort of it all is so palpable that Peter breaks the awkward silence with the suggestion to build monuments to it all. No one seems to take him seriously; he doesn’t get any kind of response to his statement. Instead, the incident passes, and life moves on.

Following this bizarre encounter, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem.

We cannot emphasize the significance of that decision enough. For almost three years, the disciples have been at home in the pastoral setting of the Galilee. Their ministry of teaching and healing has slowly built up a following. The Galilee is the countryside. There is room. There is nature. You can breathe.

Jerusalem is the big city. It may be the holy city, the site of the ancient Temple, but it is dirty. Crowded. Corrupt. It is everything the Galilee is not. And even more than that, Jesus knows that going to Jerusalem means the very things he told his disciples are about to happen. He will be rejected and betrayed. He will be sentenced and executed. And he will rise again. Rather than saying Jesus “sets his face” toward Jerusalem, perhaps we should say Jesus “accepts his fate” in Jerusalem.

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

Here’s the thing: we don’t change for the sake of change. That’s not change; that just makes us untrustworthy. We change when it is the faithful thing to do. And doing that involves both wisdom and courage.

Change is disruptive and even terrifying. Especially when it comes to those things that give us comfort, change is threatening. A change in home, family, job, school, even church…a change in life, where we are no longer able to do what it is that we thought gave us meaning and purpose…a change in opinion, in direction…These are the kinds of changes that can be downright scary. And yet, we know they are often right, even faithful.

Our whole tradition as Presbyterians is rooted in change. We were birthed out of the Reformation, when faithful people did crazy stuff like translate the Bible and liturgy into languages that the masses understood. The Church itself was borne out of change, as the fledgling Messianic Jewish movement left the synagogues, moved into homes, and then into churches. And even though we are centuries removed from those dramatic shifts, we must still be open to faithful change. And that is no less true, even when it means potentially putting our institutions and our lives on the line.

You see: in the end, faithful change is not actually as daunting as we think it is. We only fear it because we think that we are in charge of it. Which, as you may notice, puts us dangerously in the place reserved for the one we worship and serve.

This is the very reason we gather around this table. Every time we do, we remind ourselves of the moment that gave birth to this practice, when Jesus, facing imminent death in Jerusalem, brought his disciples together. They shared the most intimate of meals, as they shared bread and cup. What we share today is not historically accurate. For starters, our bread contains no gluten. Second, in addition to wine, we have unfermented juice. And third, we’re not lying down to share our meal. In other words, this thing we do has changed. And yet, even with that change, it is no less sacred. Because those these are simple things, grain from the field and fruit from the vine, they contain the spiritual substance of the faithful change we need.

Amen.

New Challenges

53-13943-7546-snowwhite-1394561591No matter what comes, stay faithful.

Our lesson this morning covers a huge swath of territory. It begins with Jesus and his disciples returning to Nazareth on the Sabbath. Jesus begins to teach, at which point he receives a couple of dismissive pats on the head; because as much as they should be proud of one of their own all grown up, this new, prophetic Jesus doesn’t fit their image of him. Their inability to see him as anything other than a child or a simple carpenter is what prevents them from recognizing the possibilities right there in front of them. Jesus, however, sees exactly what is happening: “A prophet is not welcome in his hometown.” And soon, he and the disciples are on the move.

No matter what comes, stay faithful.

Jesus heads off to the outlying villages, where his message finds a more receptive audience. He then commissions the disciples to do the same. If they are welcomed in a village, wonderful; if not, Jesus tells them not to waste their time. They should shake the dust off their feet and go onto the next village. This strategy works. They don’t seem to be discouraged by the unreceptive villages. As a result, their ministry lands in fertile soil and takes root.

No matter what comes, stay faithful.

All of this is enough to grab the attention of King Herod. We learn through flashbacks that his past continues to haunt him. While Jesus’ work had found an audience among those around the margins, his cousin John the Baptist’s fierce message of repentance landed most strongly in the halls of power. Herod, despite his position, became John’s fan and protector. But as we discover, John’s forthrightness and Herod’s arrogance brings John’s life to an untimely end.

No matter what comes, stay faithful.

It is one thing to be faithful in the face of hometown rejection and unreceptive strangers. It is another thing altogether to remain steadfast when death is on the line. We can imagine the shock John’s beheading sent through the region, and especially through Jesus and his followers. After all, their stories are intimately linked. It was John who baptized Jesus. John, for all the intensity of his preaching, let everyone know that he was just the opening act for Jesus, the headliner. The two of them were united in their message about the dawning of a new era, of the intrusion of the kingdom of God. So when John is arrested and murdered, there is no doubt that the news gave Jesus and the disciples pause, if not outright terror.

And yet: no matter what comes, stay faithful.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to resonate more with the first two parts of the story – the rejection of Nazareth and the surrounding villages – than the third part – the impending death threat. Much of the time, the challenges to my faith largely come in the form of small things. Some of my friends treat faith like a disease, a delusion. Popular culture might use church as a trope, the punch line of a joke. I am hard-pressed to think of a moment in my life when faith was an absolute matter of life or death.

And maybe it is because of this relative cultural comfort that we tend to domesticate the gospel when it comes to how it takes form in our lives. When Jesus says, “Love your enemies”, we are inclined to talk about how hard it is to love those people that annoy us – rather than the people that might actually pose a threat to us. When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me”, we tend to interpret it as, “being a Christian means people might not like you” rather than “being a Christian means you might be nailed to a couple of pieces of wood.”

Are we really, really willing to stay faithful, no matter what the cost might be?

Don’t get me wrong. I know that many of us face difficult, painful realities in our lives. We fight to overcome the demons of self-doubt and annihilation. We struggle against addiction and abuse. We get buried under the weight of the world while well meaning but misguided people tell us, “God never gives you more than you can handle!” And while some of these challenges may not be so dramatic as to be life threatening, they are still very real and they take a very real toll on us.

After all, the number one fear of people isn’t death – that’s number two. Number one is public speaking. There’s a reason that performers who have a bad gig talk about “bombing” or “dying out there”. Our survival may not be at stake, but when we are vulnerable and wounded, it feels like our lives are on the line!

Don’t get me wrong: death is way worse than public speaking. Threats to our life are of more consequence than hurt feelings. And yet, if we think hurt feelings don’t have any impact, we really are delusional.

As people of faith, we have to hold these two things in tension: the fact that the deep wounds aren’t only the ones you can see; and the fact that there are people in the world who lose their lives because they follow Jesus. As people of faith, our call is to work so that these wounds come to an end; and our call is to persist, even when these same wounds might visit us.

No matter what comes, stay faithful.

There is no doubt in my mind that the two moments that tested the disciples’ faith the most were the deaths of John and of Jesus. When Jesus is arrested, Peter lies about being connected with him. When Jesus is killed, the disciples barricade themselves up afraid that the same fate might meet them. And yet, we also know that their behavior was not always honorable, even when the stakes were much, much lower. In one episode, they come across another group of healers. But since the healers are not doing their work in the name of Jesus, the disciples send them away – much to the disappointment of Jesus himself.

I can’t help but wonder what temptations faced the disciples in the villages that rejected them. I’m guessing that some of them wanted to push the ministry that much harder; and that others felt like scorching the earth behind them as they left. But Jesus’ message is clear: the mere act of shaking the dust off your feet is condemnation enough.

No matter the slights, the wounds, the threats, the insults, the dangers, we are always, always called to faithfulness.

We take stands for what is just, even if doing so risks us our hometown. We stand with those who are threatened, even if doing so threatens us as well. We speak the truth in love, even when the room is full of lies. And we do all of this rooted in the one simple, binding principle of faith: that every single person is worthy of dignity, of being loved, no matter what they might be or do. This, at its heart, is what the faith of our Scriptures points towards: God creates humanity in God’s own image, no exceptions. Christ’s love is for the world, all of it. It’s not that we don’t hold people accountable for what they do; it’s that we still love them, no matter what.

That is what makes us vulnerable. And we do not like vulnerability.

Vulnerability flies right in the face of our cultural identity. We have this vision, I fear, of a “happily ever after” world. We live with a pervasive mythology that setbacks are only temporary, that they are always trumped by victories, and that all we need in between is a good montage. And this simplistic narrative can also leak its way into our faith lives. We can be fooled into thinking that the bad things we encounter are temporary, and that good things are always just around the corner. Sometimes life does turn out that way; but living as though that assumption is well founded is misguided, at best.

Life does not always turn out like we planned. The dying person does not always get well and recover. The market does not always self-correct. The broken relationship is not always mended. The bad guys do not always get caught, and the good guys do not always win. The short-lived setback might have a long life after all. There is, for us, a temptation to wrap everything up nicely and neatly, when life is often quite messy.

And even so, no matter what comes, no matter what challenges we might face, we are called to be faithful. And we do so not because that faithfulness will be rewarded with the happily ever after we really want, but because we truly believe in the hope that God hopes for us.

And that is the hope we know through Christ. Because at the end of the day, the tomb is vacant; the cross stands empty; hope has the very final word. We do not give up on God, because God never gives up on us.

You see, I do not believe that there is always a perfect finish to every story. Just ask John the Baptist. What I do believe is that God is at work anyway.

Let me put it this way: I do not believe that God made King Herod kill the John the Baptist for some higher purpose. Rather, I believe that John’s death broke God’s heart, such that God was able to bring some hope out of that hopelessness. Perhaps it made the disciples realize what the odds they were truly up against; and in so doing, it refined them and their choice and resolve to follow Jesus.

Do we have that kind of resolve? Are we willing to follow Jesus, no matter the risks at stake, even if it requires us to put our public speaking on the line?

New Chances

taylor-swift-kanye-west-2009-vogue-12feb15-pa_bLook for the interruptions.

In our lesson today, Jesus is returning from the far side of the Sea of Galilee. No sooner does he step off the boat than he is met by Jairus, a man of great importance, a synagogue leader, who implores Jesus to heal his daughter.

It is clear that Jesus’ fame has spread in his time away, as crowds crush in on him. And that’s when the interruption comes.

A woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years pries her way through the crowd to touch the hem of his robe, trusting that even this moment on the fringes will be enough to heal her.

Jesus stops, sensing that someone has drawn his power. The disciples are insistent: “Haven’t you seen the crowds? Of course somebody touched you!” They’re anxious to keep going. After all, they’ve got a mission: to heal the important woman’s daughter. But Jesus takes his time. He finds the woman. He blesses her before turning back to the matter at hand.

Look for the interruptions.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not one for interruptions. If I’m in the middle of an activity, I much prefer to focus on what I’m doing. An interruption is a break, and not in the good way. It’s a rupture, a fissure that appears in the middle of life. It’s unwelcome, disruptive, derailing.

And yet, an interruption can be a holy moment, a crack through which living water can pour into our lives. Sometimes we just have to stop long enough to pay attention to what is going on around us.

In some ways, it is all about our perceptions: do we see them as interruptions? Or do we welcome them as potential opportunities, chances, new chances to recommit ourselves to the God we know in Christ? We only allow ourselves these opportunities if we are paying attention in the first place.

So: look for the interruptions.

The thing about interruptions is that you have to be doing something in order to be interrupted. We all know people, or might be those people ourselves, who simply wait around for interruptions so that our life might have some direction. We jump from emergency to emergency as though it might give us some purpose. If you happen to work in an Emergency Room, that makes some sense. But otherwise, if you’re just waiting around, there’s nothing to interrupt.

It is only because Jesus and the disciples are headed toward Jairus’ house that they can be interrupted. That’s the whole point of what makes his response so telling. He has to change directions in the middle of the journey in order to respond to the need at hand. The interruption is an inconvenience. It was not on the agenda. It’s a distraction from the main objective. And that’s what makes it worth our attention. Jesus’ destination is toward the home of a powerful man. The woman who detours him is everything that Jairus isn’t: she’s unimportant – so much so that she doesn’t even warrant having a name. And yet, that was exactly where God’s attention was drawn, where God’s people needed to be.

Look for the interruptions.

Here’s the thing about interruptions – just because it’s an interruption doesn’t mean that it is something that God desires. There are times when I’m working on the computer, researching this or that subject online. And that’s just when the rabbit hole pops into view, those “click bait” links with intriguing enough information to lure me in: “He sets a pile of leaves on fire. You won’t believe what happens next!” What happens next? It must be amazing – otherwise they wouldn’t have said so!

Two hours later…

Maybe we should say, “Look out for the interruptions.”

There is a deep need for wisdom in the Christian life. As Jesus says, our calling is to be as “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The invitation to follow Jesus is not an invitation to naïveté or to suspicion. The call to faith, instead, lives in the tension between trust and testing. There are times when the interruptions that come can sway us from the faithful path we are meant to follow. And there are times when they can call us to the other path that is, at least for the moment, the more faithful one.

And yet, if we are not paying attention, we won’t even recognize the opportunities when they come. So we should still look for those interruptions, looking closely enough to know the difference between those that clarify our purpose and those that simply distract.

In our lesson from Mark, at first, the interruption seems to be more of a distraction. The crowd presses in on him as he tries to follow Jairus back home. The intervening conversation with this unnamed woman is long enough to delay him from arriving at Jairus’ house. By the time he gets there, his daughter is already dead. If not for the interruption, Jesus might have made it to the house in time to do another miracle.

Of course, that’s not how the story pans out. After all, this is Jesus we are talking about. Instead of the lesson being one of “either or”, it is one of “both and”. The fact that Jesus delays his journey long enough tells us something about Jesus, and what it means to follow him. And the fact that he arrives “too late” also gives the story added depth, miracle, surprise. The girl is no longer just deathly ill, but flat out dead. And that gives him the opportunity to show the power he contains. Two people are ill, and two people are made whole.

That’s the wonderfully absurd thing about God: there is no limit to grace. Scarcity, in the kingdom of God, is a myth. Abundance, instead, is the way God chooses. Healing mercy overflows any kind of bounds we may try to set for it. God cannot be contained.

And that is an important distinction for us to remember. God cannot be contained, because God is infinite – but we are not. It is one thing to pay attention to the interruptions that may come, recognizing the faithful distractions from the unfaithful temptations. It is another thing altogether to think that we can do it all. We can’t. We’re not Jesus. Which is why we need Jesus.

Because of that, there will be times when the choice to follow the detour means we may not get to our initial destination. And that is where both wisdom and trust come into play. If we are paying attention, we will know enough to recognize when the interruption is truly the thing that demands our focus. And when we make that choice, we can also know that God holds that which we had attempted to accomplish in the first place. We may be limited. God is not.

God cannot be constrained, no matter how hard we may try. We may act otherwise, as though God is limited to nation, race, political affiliation, religious creed. But if we are followers of Jesus, if we look to the Lord of all, then we ought to be willing to put all of our biases and assumptions aside for the sake of faithfulness.

And that, in the end, is what faith in God calls us to recognize: that we are, all of us, connected, one to another. It’s there in the very beginning of our Scriptures, where God creates all of humanity in God’s own image. There are no caveats, no asterisks to that divine stamp. This very root of our faith points, unequivocally, to the inherent dignity of each and every person on this Earth.

It’s right there in our morning’s lesson, too. First, as we have already noted, the woman who interrupts Jesus, would have been of little or no consequence in that time period. But she is worthy of God’s attention. And the girl, though only a child, is worth weeping over – not because she is the daughter of an important man, but because she, just like the woman who touches Jesus’ robe, is God’s own child.

The story tries to put an even finer point on it by linking the woman and the girl even closer. The woman had suffered from her blood disorder for twelve years, which just so happens to be the girl’s age at the time of her death and revival. Whatever that might have meant to an ancient people hearing this story, for us, the very heart of it is that there is a link between the two of them – a connection that Jesus alone recognized.

Yesterday, the four Sanders attended an event called “Visit a Mosque Day”. With all of the rhetoric around Muslims in the United States, a number of mosques throughout Georgia decided to open their doors yesterday as a gesture of welcome, of hospitality. We ended up at the Al Farooq Mosque down on 14th Street. It was truly heartening to see the crowds that were there – crowds of non-Muslims who had come to learn more, to experience, to show their solidarity in a time of deep division.

For me, along with everything else, it was a reminder of how important moments like that are, moments that humanize us all. It is these moments that remind us how intimately intertwined our realities are – it’s just a matter of choosing to believe what is already true.

Can we take this truth to heart? In a world that seems more and more divided, where we feel more and more at odds with each other, it is critical to remember that we are truly and ultimately connected at our core. And when we do, it will make us more likely to see those Godly interruptions for what they truly are: calls to discipleship in a world that might be too busy to notice otherwise.

Amen.

Waiting for the Gift

ultramanThe best gifts come from the most unlikely of places.

When I was maybe about four years old, my parents told me some exciting news: some Japanese are going to come over to the house tonight! I knew by their tone that I was supposed to be thrilled; but I wasn’t. The fuller story, which I didn’t know at the time, was that my grandmother’s best friend had spent most of her adult life working in Japan as a missionary. She was back visiting the States and had brought along a couple of friends, and they had a speaking tour planned. Our house was a simple social call along the way.

But I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was that some Japanese, whatever that word meant, were coming over to the house. And since I didn’t know what “Japanese” meant, I filled in the blanks with fear and dread. Maybe those early Saturday mornings spent watching the Japanese monster series “Ultraman” had put ideas in my head – but whatever it was, I was terrified. I thought my parents were trustworthy, and yet here they are bringing “Japanese” into the house? As soon as the doorbell rang, I sprinted for my parents’ bathroom and locked the door.

It took some coaxing, but I finally emerged and headed downstairs to find these two Japanese…people?!?…sitting on the couch. They were smiling and holding my baby sister! “Well, why didn’t you say they were people? That’s a whole different story!”

They ended up giving me a little wooden toy, called a Kendama, one of those little cup and ball games. Winning that game occupied my attention for the better part of the next few months.

The best gifts come from the most unlikely of places.

Our lesson from the gospel of Matthew today highlights this very point, that the best gifts can come from the most unlikely of places. The magi, in bringing their honor to the baby Jesus in the form of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, are the most visible manifestation of this truth. And yet, there is more – so much more.

For centuries, the Israelites have been waiting for the birth of Messiah, the promised one of God. The yearning of that promise has deepened with the weight of years and the prophecies left unfulfilled. And now, the people are expecting nothing less than total revolution. The Romans occupy the land, and the current king Herod is nothing more than a puppet, carrying out ceremonial duties and bloating his own coffers while allowing the Romans to do as they please with the general population.

It is in the midst of all of this, visitors arrive in Jerusalem. The lesson refers to them as magi, a Persian word, pointing to their origins in modern-day Iran. The three gifts they bring are uniquely grouped together in Nabatean culture, suggesting that they come from modern-day Jordan. In other words, wherever they come from, what we know for certain is that they are foreigners.

It is the stars that have led them to Jerusalem, pointing their way to a promised king. Herod, wily enough to know when his power is threatened, receives the foreigners and consults the religious scholars. He then sends the magi as unknowing scouts to Bethlehem, to root out this infant rival for the throne so that he can then come and eliminate the competition. But like a Greek tragedy where fate is already set in stone, they go home without stopping in Jerusalem while the child’s father seeks temporary refuge for the family in Egypt. Herod, recognizing he has been duped, vents his murderous rage. And yet, none of this is able to stop the child from growing up to claim the promises for which he had been born.

The best gifts come from the most unlikely of places.

Do you notice anything peculiar about this story? The ancient Near East was a tribal place – not that different from our modern world, mind you, but exaggeratedly so. And yet, in this amazing tale, the roles of good and evil are reversed, and pointedly so. Persia, the land of magi, had once been the land of exile for God’s people. And though they had found favor in King Cyrus, Persia was also the land where royal intrigue had almost led to the genocide of the Israelites.

Egypt, where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph found refuge from Herod’s slaughter, had once sheltered Abraham and had provided sustenance to Jacob and his family in a time of Canaanite famine. But it had also been the land of slavery for God’s people, where only the otherworldly intervention of seas parting could save them from another megalomaniac’s rage.

And Nabatea, the land of gold, frankincense and myrrh, may have figured less in Biblical history, but it had its place in the political and military maneuvers of the ancient world – warring with Judea at times. And it was most often referred to in Scripture as “the wilderness”, a dreaded, barren place.

Judah and Jerusalem, on the other hand, play the villain. The King is a heel straight out of central casting, conniving to try and undermine God’s desires and promises so he can keep his grip on his little fiefdom. His plan is so violently over the top as to seem cartoonish: slaughtering everyone under the age of two – which, if you may have noticed, is the exact opposite of “thou shalt not kill.” Up is down, left is right, good is bad, countryman is traitor.

These themes rise up throughout Scripture again and again. On the one hand, where we want to draw the lines for our tribe is rarely the same place that God would draw them. And, at the same time, our expectations for the way God desires things to be are likely to be flipped on their head. It’s almost as if God is trying to tell us something…

As we turn the page on the calendar, we know there’s nothing magical that happens as we move from 2015 to 2016. The dates are arbitrary. It may mark another circuit around the sun, but the idea that something critical happened two days ago just isn’t true. And yet, it is one of those moments that gives us an opportunity to root ourselves in the present as we look toward God’s future.

What are you looking for in 2016? What are your hopes? Your fears? Your dreams? Your expectations? And, more importantly, how do they point you toward what it is that God desires for you?

After all, the best gifts come from the most unlikely of places.

I would like to suggest a path forward for the coming year, and it is simply this: be open to the surprises of God.

In our lesson from this morning, enemies turn out to be friends, and allies become oppressors. In our reading today, though the priests and scribes recognize God’s wisdom, its path does not come by way of rulers or tribes, but through stars and dreams. If we think we know who is against us, if we think we know how it is that God will speak to us, we have already closed ourselves off to God. We might as well lock ourselves in the upstairs bathroom until the strange visitors go away, taking their gifts and their warmth with them.

Instead, I want to suggest that we spend time on God’s possibilities, God’s new hopes for us and for our lives. And I think we are likely to find them in two places: in relationships and in disciplines.

The first is in relationships we would reject out of hand. I’m not talking about building intimate trust with those who have wronged you before; that’s a whole different conversation for another day. What I am talking about is building trust with those whom you don’t know but have decided to reject out of hand anyway. Or, to use Jesus’ pointed question about our expectations, who is your neighbor?

Who is that person who is, at first glance, very unlike you? How can you begin to build trust and hope with them? Perhaps it’s the literal neighbor, the new family down the block. Maybe it’s the new co-worker, or maybe you’re the new co-worker. Perhaps it’s the new kid in school, or the person you see in church every Sunday but haven’t yet gotten to know. It is in these relationships that we might find our assumptions challenged, which is the surest way to find God’s surprise. So in 2016, I encourage you to put yourself out there, to nurture a new friendship, with eyes wide open to God’s wisdom at work.

And the second place we are likely to encounter God’s gifts is in new disciplines. Many of you have a spiritual practice that works well for you. Your daily prayer, or your morning Bible study, or your afternoon walk or jog, or your evening meditation – maybe you have already found your intimacy with God. If your practice continues to surprise you, if you consistently find new revelations and insights, then there is no need to alter course. But: if all you end up doing is reinforcing what you already know, then it’s more than time for a change.

It might be as simple as a different route, or a different time of day, or a different mindset of open and willing reception. The point is that if all we are doing is meeting our expectations, then we’re just not doing it right. And if you don’t plan any regular way of encountering God, well, now is a good as time as any to start. But unlike the gym membership or the treadmill you purchase, make this one doable, winnable, achievable. Start with five minutes a day of prayer, or ten minutes on a daily Bible reading, or increasing your worship attendance, or starting to come to Sunday School.

Friends: the gifts of God are already here. And they’re not what we expect. They are on this table: cup and bread. So come to this table. And as you do, commit yourself to the newness and openness this new year can bring to you and to God’s desires.

Right here, at this table, is where the surprise happens. What is on this table is simple. The wine and juice are made from simple grapes. The bread is made from – well, it’s not made from wheat, but it’s still simple. But even so, they contain promises beyond their mere appearance. Because when we are at this table, and when we share this bread and this cup, we encounter Jesus himself. And it is in our relationship with him that we will find ourselves always changed, always transformed.

Amen.