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neanderthal-national-geo_front-300x199We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

Our lesson this morning, coming from the end of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, is a curious one. The community to whom he writes is one about whom he clearly has mixed feelings. It is a church he had a strong hand in starting, having spent three years living and teaching among the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus.

His letters are a collection of responses back to them, mostly fueled by reports he hears emanating from the community. In a lot of cases, the reports are of conflict and questioning. Paul writes to them about dietary laws, schisms, baptism, and communion, among other critical issues. Our text addresses questions around, of all things, resurrection.

Since we only have the letters Paul authored and not those he received, it takes some detective work to figure out what exactly he is responding to. In this case, it seems that some are saying that there is no resurrection – in other words, that once you die, that’s it. Paul goes on to say, in quite pointed fashion, that if there is no resurrection, then Christ experienced no resurrection. And if that’s the case, then the only thing faith is good for is the life we live, which Paul says is “futile”, “in vain”, “pointless”. In other words, without resurrection, without the promise of life beyond what we know, the whole faithful enterprise collapses on its own weight.

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

When this congregation was founded in 1949, no one could have anticipated what the world would look like in 2016. Those who helped buy this property and build these buildings did so because they knew that this community at the end of the trolley line needed a Presbyterian church. What worship would look like, what leadership would look like, what ministry needs would look like, what technology would look like…none of that would have been on their radar. I don’t know this for sure, but I would guess that they did not spend a whole lot of time worrying about that, either. They were focused on being faithful to what God was calling them to be.

It was a couple of years ago that we had a worship series focused on the history of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. And the thing that kept arising, again and again, was that the key moments in our collective history were those where the church did its level best to be faithful disciples of Christ in that particular moment. As our vision and mission statement says, “Ours is a story that belongs to God.” And that is where we are expected to root ourselves.

If incarnation has any hold, if Jesus really is the embodiment of God, then that means that God is just as much at work now as God was 67 years ago, or 200 years ago, or 2000 years ago, 14 billion years ago. And if the same is true looking back, then the same is true looking forward.

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

This past Christmas, our family gift was participating in the National Geographic genographic project. The results of our DNA sample came back this week, and we’ve been spending time looking at the results. And in doing so, we were reminded of the incredible sweep of human history.

About 350,000 years ago, the ancestor to our species centered around sub-Saharan Africa, with a branch migrating northwest into West Asia and Europe. These were the Neanderthals. By about 130,000 years ago, our African ancestors were identifiable as Homo sapiens. 60,000 years ago, some of those humans moved north and on into Eurasia, encountering the Neanderthals, where they mated with them and absorbed them into humanity.

The results also go on to identify the various ethnic groups with whom we share DNA, as they also share the incredible story of human migration over time, one that has only become accelerated with the advent of technology. For me, in looking over this research, there is a deep sense of awe. It is one of the ways that I touch holiness, staring into that wonderful abyss of time, recognizing how little we understand of it all. It reminds of how we are, all of us, interconnected, no matter how different we might look, or no matter what those who try to divide us might suggest. For those of us with European or Asian ancestry, or indigenous American roots, we can trace our lineage back across thousands of years of roots in Africa and the Middle East!

That same holy sense of awe I get looking back is also there when I look forward – although, admittedly, with a touch of anxiety. Not knowing what is to come can be fearful, because we are not in control. And here is what faith says to that:

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

This is something critical for us to remember during this awful political season. God is God…no matter what! And it is particularly critical for us as people of faith, and as disciples of Jesus, as those who live within the hope of resurrection.

There are those who would try to domesticate Jesus, to box him in to fit their own agendas – political, economic, theological, national – but Jesus, as that incarnate embodiment of God, is a slippery figure. You can’t trap him or mold him into your own likeness!

This is important for us to note as we read Paul’s words today. This text, along with some others, is one that has given shape to notions of the Rapture, the Second Coming, the Apocalypse, Armageddon, Judgment Day, whatever title you want to give it. Paul writes that we will be instantly changed in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet, when the dead are raised.

Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of two people in a field, one taken and one left. And in Revelation, John writes of the seven seals and the seven angels and the seven plagues. There are other odd descriptions from the prophecy of Daniel and elsewhere. Some have used these texts to cobble together a detailed description of what the last days will be like. Such is the popularity of this practice that it even brought Kirk Cameron and Nicolas Cage together.

But here’s the thing: we do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

You see, all of this talk about the Rapture is a pretty new phenomenon. It wasn’t until American Protestantism arose, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, that this idea of people being plucked out of thin air became popularized, and it really only gaining traction with the publication of Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth in 1970. As you probably notice, there’s a whole lot of church history before then – shoot: even the Beatles predate that.

Besides which, none of that was Paul’s point. The point, instead, is that the future will not be like we expect. And that is good news – indeed, the best news of all. Because it is not in our hands! It is God who holds the future. Thanks be to God!

We live and serve as those through whom God works to bring that future into being, people of the resurrection, of the hope it promises, of the mystery and awe that it brings. Let us live as though it is true.

Amen.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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