The Big Peace

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. And today, we hear a part of a story that we don’t hear very often.

There was this priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They were righteous before the Lord. And, like so many people in the Bible, they were old and they were childless.

And, one day, an angel appeared before Zechariah and said to him, “Elizabeth will bear a son and you will name him John… and he will prepare the people for the Lord.”

And, like so many people in the Bible who are old and childless, when they hear that they will have a child, Zechariah said, “That… seems unlikely.” And the angel struck him mute. And Elizabeth conceived.

Later, Elizabeth bore a son. They took him to be circumcised, and their friends and family wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. Elizabeth said, “No. His name is John.” And, like so many people do when a woman contradicts the crowd, they say, “Let’s check with your husband.”

So they hand Zechariah a tablet, and he writes, “His name is John.” And right at that moment, his tongue is freed and he is able to speak again.

And he does what all new dads do when they are able to speak to their newborn son for the first time: he prophesies.

He praises God. And he says that God has remembered her covenant with Abraham, and raised up a savior from the house of David, who will rescue God’s people from the hands of their enemies.

And he says to John, his son, “You will be a prophet. You will go before the Lord and prepare his ways. You will give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

And he says, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Dawn will break… there will be light for those who live in darkness… to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Today, we light a candle—a light in the darkness to guide our feet—for peace. And God knows that we need it. We do not have peace.

Peace is a hard thing to talk about. It’s a word that has many meanings.

On the one hand, there is the little peace: the absence of conflict. Or, sometimes, even less. “Peace is not the absence of conflict,” said Ronald Reagan, “but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.”

And God knows that we need that little peace. We do not have it.

Some of the conflicts that we face, and that we cannot resolve, are huge. There is a generation in America that only knows a nation at war. There are people in high school—there are people in this sanctuary—who are younger than the war in Afghanistan.

And the truth is that most of us only know a nation at war in one way or another. In its two hundred forty-two year history, the United States has only been not-at-war for about seventeen years. There are people about to graduate from high school who have lived longer on this earth than our nation has lived in relative peace.

We can all name some of the famous wars: the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Spanish American War, the Civil War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But there have been so many others: against Native peoples and in far-off lands. Official and unofficial. Hot and cold.

And it isn’t just us. War is a living reality for countless people around the world. There are big wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Mexico and Syria and Yemen. And there are dozens of other wars and conflicts and skirmishes and clashes that don’t make the news.

And it isn’t just war. Communities across our nation and around the world face police brutality, mass shootings, gang wars, and other forms of violence. For too many of us—which is to say, for any of us—violence is part of life.

God knows we need that little peace; that absence of conflict. We do not have it.

Some of those conflicts of huge. But some of them are small and intimate.

Some of us are in conflict with our families: our spouses or partners, our parents or children, our siblings or cousins or nieces or nephews.

Some of us are in conflict with someone at work: a supervisor or an employee, a client or a vendor, a coworker.

Some of us are in conflict with a friend, or someone who we go to church with, or a complete stranger who blocked the aisle with the grocery cart while looking at spices.

Some of us are in conflict with ourselves. Some of us have inventories of our faults—real or imagined—and fight against ourselves mercilessly.

And sometimes those conflicts turn to physical violence. And sometimes they are verbally or emotionally violent. And sometimes they just just are.

God knows we need that little peace; that absence of conflict. We do not have it.

But the absence of conflict is just a little peace; it’s an imitation peace.

“Peace is not just the absence of conflict,” said the Rev. Dr. King, “it is the presence of justice.”

And he went on. He recalled a conversation with a man who was upset about… ‘the bus situation’.

“Yes, there is more tension now,” King said, “but even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have real peace.”

“If Black folk accepted their place,” he said, “their place of exploitation and injustice, there would be peace. But it would be obnoxious peace of stagnant complacency and deadening passivity.”

“I do not want a peace,” he said, “if that means that I have to accept second class citizenship; or keep my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil; or be well-adjusted to a deadening status quo; or be willing to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated, and segregated.”

“Peace is not just the absence of conflict,” he said, “it is the presence of justice.”

And he was right. The absence of conflict is a little peace; it’s an imitation peace. Real peace comes when there is also justice. And there is not enough justice. And it is often the same people who face violence who are denied their share of justice.

God knows that we need the little peace; the imitation peace. We do not have it.

And God knows that we need the big peace; the real peace that comes alongside the presence of justice. We do not have it.

But we do have Zechariah—a priest serving in a land occupied by an empire—prophesying to his son.

“You, my child, will be a prophet of the Most High. You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. You will give knowledge of salvation to his people. And by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

His name is John. And he will become John the Baptizer, who proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

He will become John the Baptizer, who will proclaim the good news to the people. He will become John the Baptizer, who will baptize the Messiah, our Lord, Jesus the Christ.

Think about that for just a minute.

It is tempting to imagine that peace—whether it’s the little imitation peace as the absence of conflict, or the big real peace as the presence of justice—is a big systemic thing that is… out there. And that’s a little bit true. Peace is a big systemic thing. And reaching it will take big systemic steps like the tender mercy of God and the dawn from on high.

But it is also true that big systemic things have their roots in individual acts of every day life. It is true that when I—or you, or anyone—stand up for peace and against not-peace, there ends up being a little more peace in the world.

John was not the Messiah. He baptized people. He told them to repent. He told people who had extra to share with those who didn’t have enough. He told tax collectors to only collect the amount they were supposed to. He told soldiers not to extort money.

I can do that. You can do that. Anyone can do that.

When we see injustice, we can say, “There is injustice.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the God who is just.

When we see violence, we can say, “There is violence.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the God who is love.

When we see not-peace, we can say, “There is not-peace.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the Prince of Peace.

John did that. And so I can do that, and you can do that, and anyone can do that.

And I know that’s hard. I know that’s scary. I know that I fail at it.

I know that I don’t like conflict. And I know that, among my many privileges, is the privilege to avoid conflict. And I know that sometimes—often, maybe even usually—my desire to avoid conflict is so much greater than my desire to work for peace.

I know that I stay silent when I should speak. I know that I stay still when I should act.

So I light a candle.

I light a candle as a light in the darkness.

I light a candle to remind myself that there is always a light in the darkness, a dawn from on high, a light that can guide my feet into the way of peace.

I light a candle to remind myself that I—and you, and everyone—am called to be the light of the world, preparing the way of the Lord, and calling others to the big peace that comes alongside the presence of justice.

I light a candle… for peace.

World-Ending Hope

It is the first Sunday of Advent.

Advent is a strange season. On the one hand, we’re looking forward to Christmas. In the church, we decorate the building, we make cookies for people who can’t be with us regularly, we prepare for the children’s Christmas program, we sing a handful of carols, and we give to the Referral Center. We are getting ready for the birth of our savior… in a stable… two thousand years ago.

And, of course, outside of the church, we’re really looking forward to Christmas. People put up decorations everywhere: wreaths on city lampposts, lights on roofs, trees in homes, and window displays in stores. We wish each other a Merry Christmas, or—if we’re respectful of the many other holidays at this time of year—Happy Holidays. A Christmas Story plays on the TV. All I Want for Christmas is You and Last Christmas play on a loop on the radio.

On the other hand, though, we’re looking forward to Christ’s return. Not as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem, but as a king… and a judge… and a redeemer. For the days are surely coming when God will keep her promise to the world, when a righteous branch will spring up, and when there will be justice and righteousness in the land.

And we look to the past and to the future… in hope.

We are good mainline Protestants. And one of the things about good mainline Protestants is our relationship with time.

On the one hand, we remember the past. We remember the days when everything was better. When the sanctuary was full. When the Sunday School rooms were bursting at the seams. When the committees were fully staffed and the money was rolling in and no one had anything to do but go to church on Sunday morning and participate in activities on Wednesday nights.

And, to be fair, we probably misremember the past. But we misremember it fondly.

On the other hand, we work in the present. We do the work of justice and righteousness and mercy by giving to charity, and going on mission trips, and leaving non-perishable food items under the coatrack in the narthex, and putting gloves and hats under the little Christmas tree, and calling our congress-critters on a host of issues.

We even think about the future in concrete terms, in terms of budgets and committee assignments and maybe a program or two. We talk about a future that is a lot like today.

We don’t usually talk about the end of things.

There are churches that do. There are churches that talk about the last days and how we are living in them. There are churches that talk about raptures and antichrists and tribulations. There are churches who will tell you that Jesus is coming back this year, or next year, or by the end of the decade for sure.

But we usually don’t.

So today’s reading from Luke can be a little uncomfortable for us. God knows it’s a little uncomfortable for me.

In today’s reading, we get a little slice of an extended monologue… where Jesus is very definitely talking about the end of things.

He talks about the people who will come and claim to be the Messiah, and how they we lead people astray, and how we shouldn’t follow them.

He talks about wars and insurrections and nation rising against nation. He talks about earthquakes and famines and plagues; and dreadful portents and great signs; and persecutions and armies and the destruction of Jerusalem.

And he doesn’t say this, but still: dogs and cats… living together… mass hysteria!

This kind of talk can be uncomfortable for us. But if we’re going to talk about hope, we have to talk about it. We have to talk about the end of things.

Because hope for me—a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America—is one thing.

And hope for some other people… is different.

Earlier in the story—before he started talking about the end of things—Jesus was teaching near the Temple.

And he said, “Beware of the scribes. They like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect when they’re out and about, and to have the best seats in synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. But they devour widows’ houses, and they say long prayers just to show off how religious they are. They will have the greater condemnation.”

And then he saw rich people putting their offerings in the plate. And he saw a widow drop in her two copper coins. And he said, “She’s put in more than all of them. They gave a little bit of their abundance. She gave her whole life.”

And then he heard some people talking about the beauty of the Temple, and he started talking about the end of things.

Because Jesus knows his world. He knows that widow has no power. He knows that she cannot hope that the next Emperor will propose a set of policies that are better for poor widows, because Emperors don’t do that sort of thing. He knows that she cannot hope for a slightly better job, because widows don’t get good paying jobs.

He knows that all she can hope for is for the way that the world works to change. All she can hope for is the end of the world as she—and as those scribes—know it. For the coming of the Son of Man. For her redemption to draw near.

There are people in this world who are that widow, whose homes are being devoured, who have nothing more than two copper coins. There are people who live in countries and neighborhoods where violence is rampant. There are people who do not have enough food, or adequate housing, or access to clean water.

There are people who will walk twenty-six hundred miles from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to Tijuana, Mexico, in the hope—in the HOPE—of coming to the United States and no longer living in one of the poorest and deadliest cities in the world.

I cannot imagine what that hope is like. I cannot imagine what it means to walk twenty-six hundred miles, through dangerous terrain, with nothing more than hope.

But I can tell you that that hope is a world-ending hope. Because someone who is hoping with that hope is hoping for such a radical change in their life, for such a tremendous alteration to their circumstances, that it can only be described as the END. OF. THEIR. WORLD.

And there are people who are still living in San Pedro Sula—or somewhere else—in fear and hunger and poverty and worry.

And some of them hoping for change. And not just for change, but for change that can only be described as the end of the world.

But, of course… there’s the other side to that. When the widow’s world ends, so does the scribes’. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

I get it.

I’ve only been with you for… not quite a year. So you don’t know this about me yet, but there are a lot of parts of my life where I don’t really do change. I’m trying to get better at that. But…

Before this November, I had the same goatee since my sophomore year in college.

Before last year, I had bought the same brand and design of tennis shoes three or four times. And it was only that few because they discontinued the design I was buying before that.

Mariah and I were talking recently, and she said that she didn’t realize, when she suggested a short hair cut, that I would just have this hair cut for the rest of my life.

I’m trying to get better. But there are a lot of parts of my life where I don’t really do change.

So you can imagine what it’s like when I think about big changes; about world-ending changes.

I am a firm believer that we need radical change in this world. I believe that we could make sure that everyone on this planet had enough to eat and to drink, and a safe place to live, and a good education, and a fulfilling life. And I believe that we could do all of that while protecting our forests and our waterways and our glaciers; and our red pandas and our black rhinos, and the little creepy crawly things. And I believe all of that with a burning belief.

And I know that all of that would require huge changes in my life. And I do not want to change.

So I get it. A little bit.

I get wanting to keep things the way they have been And I get wanting to react to change—and, especially to world-ending change—with yelling and screaming and hateful invective. I get wanting to react to change—and, especially to world-ending change—with armies and tear gas and rubber bullets.

I might not get it completely. But I get it… a little bit.

I am a scribe. I’ve got my long robe. I like being greeted with honor. I like the good seats. I have been known to say long prayers. I do not want my world to end. Even if the world to come would be better.

So I light a candle.

I light a candle in the hope that my world will change, and that I will change with it.

I light a candle in the hope that redemption will come for the widows of the world, and that, somehow, it will come for me, too.

I light a candle in the hope that I will not be afraid; that I will not faint.

I light a candle in the hope that I will have the strength to stand before the Son of Man.

I light a candle… in hope.

Where Are You From?

 

(I apologize for mispronouncing Wampanoag right off the bat. I think that I do know how to pronounce the word, but in the moment I got a little tongue-tied)

Where are you from?

It’s one of those questions that seems important… and it’s a question that’s worth pondering on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Just a few days ago, you might have thought about the old story. A group of people from across the sea, our Congregationalist ancestors, arrived on this continent. They met the Wampanoag who already lived here, and those Wampanoag taught them how to survive in this land.

And, as winter and harvest festivals approached, the settlers and the Wampanoag celebrated together.

There’s more to the story, of course. And our ancestors are not the heroes of that story.

Where are you from? Part of our history is bound up with a band of pilgrims who went from England to Holland to here. We aren’t from here.

Where are you from?

Last Christmas, I got an AncestryDNA kit as a gift. You might have used one, or another kit that’s like it. If you haven’t, you probably know someone who has, or you’ve seen the commercials. Either way, you know the idea: you send a vial of spit to a large corporation and they tell you… where you’re from.

And I don’t mean “where you’re from” like “you grew up in Wisconsin” or “you moved here from Ohio”. I mean “where you’re from” like “your ancestors lived here”.

It turns out that my ancestors lived more-or-less where I thought they did. A lot of me is from England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and ‘Northwestern Europe’ (also known as France). The rest of me is from ‘Germanic Europe’ (also known as Germany).

So I’m very British and a little German.

But it’s not like I’m from those places. I’m not from England or Wales or wherever. And I’m not from Germany or Prussia or wherever.

I don’t know enough of my mom’s family history to tell you their story; I think my mom’s dad’s dad’s dad—or something like that—came here from Prussia.

But I know more of my dad’s family’s story. And if you trace back through my dad’s dad’s dad’s dad’s dad’s dad—and so on—I am part of something like the 13th generation of Warfields to live in what is now the United States.

And you would think that would make me pretty American. But there’s this weird thing about America. There are people who are from here, and they are called the Wampanoag, and the Apache, and the Chickasaw, and the Seneca, and the Potawatomi.

They are many nations called by many names. And there are millions of them.

And the rest of us are from somewhere else. Whether we know where that is or not. We are Irish and German and Swedish and African and a thousand other things. America is a place that you’re probably not from… even if you’re not really from anywhere else.

In today’s readings, we hear from two kings. And there’s nothing that tells you where you’re from like a king.

On the one hand, we hear the last words of David, the king of Israel. And not just the king of Israel, but the king of Israel. He is George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and King Arthur.

And it’s important to remember that, even though he is the king of Israel (the people) and king of Israel (the land), he isn’t from there. David’s ancestor Abraham came from Ur and lived in the land that would become Israel. And his descendants moved to Egypt and were enslaved. And their descendants were led out of Egypt and conquered the land that would be Israel. And the people who already lived there were killed or enslaved or pushed aside.

But David’s last words establish him and his house as kings of Israel forever. This is what he says: God says that a king who rules over his people justly, ruling in fear of the LORD, is like the light of the morning. And my house has been like that. God has made an everlasting covenant with me and my house. My help and my desire will prosper.

David is setting up an expectation: no matter what trials and tribulations come, someone from the house of David will sit on the throne. If everything falls apart—if there is exile or occupation—eventually, someone from the house of David will rise up and take that throne back. As long as there is a king of Israel (the people) and a king of Israel (the land), that king will be from the house of David.

On the other hand, we hear a conversation between Jesus and a man named Pontius Pilate. Jesus has been arrested and summoned before Pilate. And Pilate is the ruler of Israel and a representative of the ruler of Israel. He is the prefect of Judea, representing the Emperor of the Roman Empire, in charge of a little backwater province of the most powerful Empire in the world.

And he asks Jesus, this preacher and teacher and healer from this little backwater province, “People have told me things about you… are you the king of the Jews?”

And I’ve told you this before: if you were alive at that time, and you were Jewish, and you thought that Jesus was the Messiah, then you would expect an answer. You would expect Jesus to say, “Yes. I am from David’s house, and this is Israel, and these are my people. And I am the rightful king here… and we are taking back this land.”

But that’s not what he says.

Instead, he says this: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Instead, he says this: “I’m not from here. My kingdom is not of this world.”

On the one hand, there is David, establishing his kingdom in one land… forever.

On the other hand, there is Christ, who isn’t from here and whose kingdom is not of this world.

I don’t like to set up choices between the stories in the Old Testament and the stories in the New Testament… but these two readings set up a choice.

Where are you from?

As Iowans, we are from Iowa. And as Americans, we are from the United States. But most of us aren’t really from here. We are immigrants, and children of immigrants, and grandchildren of immigrants, and—and let’s see if I get this right—great great great great great great great great great great grandchildren of immigrants.

And we mark that by saying we’re English or German or African or Japanese or whatever. We have a list of identities—a list of places we’re from and places we’ve been and what it means to be from somewhere else and living here—and… it’s complicated.

But as Christians…

As Christians, we are not from here. We are not from Iowa or America or Britain or Germany or wherever.

We have given up our from-here-ness to be from a kingdom we have never visited and of which we have seen only glimpses.

We have given up our from-here-ness to be pilgrims and sojourners in this world.

We have given up our from-here-ness to be residents of this little consulate of the Kingdom of God.

We are immigrants to the church. And that means that we are now from another place. We are from truth. We are from mercy. We are from love.

And there is something powerful there. Because once we know that we are sojourners and pilgrims, we can welcome those other sojourners and pilgrims. We can welcome people who are coming to this land—this Iowa, this America—looking for a better life. And we can welcome people who are coming to this church, looking for hospitality and hope.

We can be representatives of truth because we are from truth. We can be ambassadors of mercy because we are from mercy. We can be a people of love because we are from love. And we can tell everyone that no matter where you are from, you can be from here—from the Kingdom of God, from the church of Jesus Christ—too.

Where are you from?

It’s one of those questions that seems important. And it’s a question that is important, but not in the way that the fine folks at AncestryDNA try to tell us it is.

It really doesn’t matter if I’m Iowan or Wisconsinite. It really doesn’t matter if I’m American or English or Welsh or Irish or German or whatever.

It matters that I give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty and welcome to the stranger. It matters that I give clothing to the naked and care to the sick and company to the prisoner. It matters… it matters that I love.

That is where I want to be from.

Nothing Standing Between You

I’ve told you this before: before I was your pastor, I worked for Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi. In fact, I worked for the Mission when I was ordained. And not long after I was ordained, something amazing happened.

I was visiting the Mission—I spent most of my time working from my home here in Iowa and from the road—when the woman who directed our food pantry and emergency assistance program came to my office. She had a client in her office who was distraught. And she wanted to know if I would come to her office and pray with that client.

And that struck me as strange. It struck me as strange for a couple of reasons.

First, no one at the Mission had ever asked me to come and pray with a client before. I know that they had clients who wanted to pray. They had simply never asked me to pray with them.

Second, and I said this to my colleague, there was nothing that was keeping her from praying with her client. God doesn’t see a difference between her prayers and my prayers.

But I also knew why she had asked me. And I knew why she had asked me then, but never before. I was now ordained. And despite the fact that she knew that God could hear her prayer just as clearly as he could hear mine, there was a part of her that saw me as someone with more authority. There was a part of her that saw me as someone who God would listen to.

There was a part of her that saw me as a kind of mediator between her and God. There was a part of her that saw me as a priest.

And that’s weird. Because we’re protestants and congregationalists and we don’t have priests. We left them behind with the Protestant Reformation. We said that we were democratic and that everyone had equal access to God.

But it turns out that it is hard to let priests go.

In today’s reading from First Samuel, we are in the days before there was a king in Israel. We are in the days before there was a great temple in Jerusalem. We are in the days when the people did what was right in their own eyes, families made their own sacrifices to the LORD, and there were different temples in different cities. And one of those temples was in Shiloh.

And in today’s reading from First Samuel, we hear two stories… intertwined.

On the one hand, we have Eli, the high priest of the temple in Shiloh. Now, the high priest has many responsibilities. But this is a time when all proper worship included sacrifices. And if Eli had a nice, printed-out, bullet-pointed list of his responsibilities, ‘oversee sacrifices at the temple’ would be right there… at the top… in bold letters.

On the other hand, we have Hannah… who is nobody. You see, there’s this man named Elkanah, who has two wives. Hannah is one of them, and Elkanah loves her, but she hasn’t had any children. And Peninnah is the other wife, and she has had children. And Peninnah mocks Hannah relentlessly. And Hannah is distraught.

Watch how the stories loop around each other.

Eli is sitting on his seat near the temple door when Hannah, fresh from Peninnah making fun of her, comes storming in. And she kneels and breaks down and rocks and sobs and prays to the LORD.

“O LORD of hosts,” she says, “if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazarite until the day of his death.”

And a nazarite is a person who has made a vow to God and set themselves apart. They do not drink alcohol, or eat anything with grapes, or cut their hair, or go near corpses or graves. And while this is usually for a set length of time—like a month or a year—Hannah is promising to set her son aside as a nazarite until his death.

She is saying, “If you give me a son, O LORD, I will make him a living sacrifice to you.”

But Eli doesn’t hear this. He’s just sitting on his seat near the temple door when this woman comes storming in. He sees her fall to the floor, kneeling and rocking and sobbing. And he sees her lips move, but he doesn’t hear what she is saying.

And at the top of his list of job responsibilities—in bold letters—is ‘oversee sacrifices at the temple’. And nowhere on that list does it say, ‘console clearly distressed woman who stormed into the temple and fell to the floor and started kneeling and rocking and sobbing.’ And I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t even think it fits under ‘other duties as assigned’.

So he assumes she’s drunk. And he interrupts her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”

And she replies, “I am not drunk. I am troubled. I am pouring my soul out before the LORD.”

And Eli answers her, “Then go in peace; and the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And he doesn’t know it, because he didn’t hear her, but what he is saying is, “May God accept the sacrifice you have promised.”

And what is happening here is so important. Hannah is not a priest. She is not the head of her household. She has no right to offer this sacrifice. But she does offer her sacrifice, and the high priest of Shiloh blesses her sacrifice, and God accepts her sacrifice, and she bears a son to her husband, and she names him Samuel.

And I won’t tell you Samuel’s story here. But it’s a good story and he becomes an important man. And he only shows up in the story because Hannah stormed into that temple in Shiloh… and prayed… and made her living sacrifice.

And that matters. It matters because it shows us that even in those days when there was no king in Israel, even in those days when there was no great temple in Jerusalem, there was no barrier between God and God’s people. A woman in distress could walk into a temple and pray… and God would hear her and answer her.

Our reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews takes it even further. In this reading, we are in the days when there was a ruler in Israel, and it was an occupying empire. And we are in the days when there was a great temple in Jerusalem, and priests made sacrifices to God there. We are in the days when there were priests to serve as mediators between God and God’s people.

And earlier in the epistle, the author of Hebrews gives us that priestly job description, with the words right at the top, in bold letters: “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”

But in today’s reading, writing to the early Christian community, the author of Hebrews wants us to know that there is only one mediator between God and humanity: Jesus Christ. And he wants us to know that Christ has made the sacrifice that ends sacrifices.

And that can be hard for us to understand. It can be hard for us to get, because we do not live in a world of temples and sacrifices. We aren’t used to taking a portion of our livestock or our crop to a great temple in a big city and watching a priest burn it on an altar.

But today is Stewardship Sunday, so maybe we can get it a little bit.

There are people who talk about giving to the church like those gifts are sacrifices. There are people who will tell us to take a tenth of what we make—gross, off the top, before taxes and debt—and hand it to the church as a way of returning the first fruits of our labor to God. And there are people who will tell us that, somehow, that transaction, that payment, makes up for our sins.

And what the author of Hebrews wants us to know is that Christ has made the sacrifice that ends sacrifices. The good news of Jesus Christ is that any payment for our sins has already been made; that we are free from the burden of sin.

And the author of Hebrews wants us to have all of the confidence of Hannah… and more. He wants us to know that we can walk right into the temple, through the way that Christ has opened, and stand before God in faith and hope. And that God will hear us and answer us.

And that the gifts we give are gifts of joy and gratitude and thanksgiving.

Now, I need to be clear about something. I am not saying this to demean my friends and neighbors who are Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican. We have priests in this world and in our religion, and they are doing amazing things.

And I am not saying this to put my own job at risk. I am not the mediator between you and God, but I do useful things. And one of those things is this:

I stand here at this pulpit and tell you that you can have all of the confidence of Hannah and more. No matter where you are, you can walk into the temple of God. You can stand before God in faith and hope. You can kneel before God in desperation. You can weep before God in distress. And God will hear you and answer you.

If you want me to pray with you, I will pray with you. But my prayers are no weightier than yours. Yours carry the weight of the world.

If you want me to serve you a meal at this table, I will serve you that meal. But the words I say are no different than yours. You can eat every meal in remembrance of the one mediator between God and humanity.

This is, perhaps, the best news of all: that there is nothing standing between you and God. Hallelujah. Amen.

The Seeds They Planted

Today is All Souls’ Sunday. It’s a day when we remember those who have gone before us. We’ll take some time to read their names and ring a chime and light a candle for them. And, if we have a photo of them, we’ll show that, too.

And, as part of that, you’ll see a photo of my dad. You’ll see the official photo. The photo we used for his obituary. And, while that’s a good photo, I wanted you to see this one, too. Because, while the official photo is definitely a picture of my dad, this one is—somehow—more a picture of my dad.

He’s got a hat. He’s wearing shorts and a tucked in button down shirt. He’s carrying a camera and a zoom lens and a camera bag. That is my dad.

And some of that rubbed off on me. Not the shorts with a tucked in button down shirt. But the camera.

I own that camera now. It’s broken. I need to take it in and have it fixed, but I keep not doing that. And I keep not doing that because I always have a camera in my pocket. And if you follow my Instagram you know that I don’t post very often. But, when I do, it’s usually a mouse or a bunny or a spider or a bird or some other piece of nature that I thought was cool.

Doing that sort of thing is… a piece of my dad that I carry with me. Not because I remember my dad with a camera and try to honor him, but because part my dad is part of me. That part of who he was is just as much a part of who I am. It is a tether that ties us together.

And it probably ties a line of Warfields together. There was probably a prehistoric Warfield somewhere on a paleolithic plain who said, “Hey, look at that neat mammoth,” before drawing it on a cave wall.

There are people who have gone before us. I am a Christian and I believe that there is something beyond the veil of death, and that those who have gone before us have gone to glory. But I also know that we we carry pieces of them with us. Some of those pieces are memories. And some of those pieces are who we are.

And, I think, that might be what it means to love them… carrying pieces of them as part of ourselves.

In today’s reading, an expert in the law overhears Jesus arguing with a group from a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. Hearing Jesus answer the Sadducees well, he asks his own question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”

And Jesus responds, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

And then Jesus keeps going, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

And the expert in the law says, basically, “Yes. That’s right.” And Jesus tells him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And Mark moves along with his story.

And those of us who hear the story are left to ask… what does that mean? How are we supposed to love God with all of our hearts and souls and minds and strength? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? How do we get closer to that Kingdom of God?

And, let me tell you, I wish there was an easy answer to those questions. I know that there are people who will tell you that there is an easy answer to those questions. I know that there are people who will present you with a list of rules and who will say, “Do these things, and don’t do these things, and that’s what loving God and your neighbor is. And then you’ll be in the Kingdom of God.”

But I can tell you that I’ve tried that. I’ve tried doing these things and not doing these things. I didn’t feel any closer to God or to God’s kingdom. I felt guilty and I felt shameful because I could not satisfy the rules. I could not find room for grace in the rules.

Rules are the wrong way to think about love. Love isn’t about rules. Love is about carrying a piece of someone else as part of ourselves.

Loving God is, at least a little bit, knowing that God made us and planted a seed in us. Loving God is, at least a little bit, about nurturing what God put within us.

Loving our neighbor is, at least a little bit, knowing that God made them and that we are bound together by the seeds that God planted. Loving our neighbor is, at least a little bit, about nurturing the seeds that God planted in our neighbors and letting them help nurture ours.

And believe me, I know that doesn’t give us clear instructions on what to do and what not to do. But it might just be that faith is, at least a little bit, about trusting that God will show us what to do; that, in Christ, God has shown us how to care for the great forest that God has planted all around us.

Today is All Souls’ Sunday, when we remember those who went to glory before us. Many of the people we are remembering today were a part of this congregation when they were alive. And all of them are a part of this congregation today because we carry pieces of them with us: in stories… and mannerisms… and turns of phrase… and memories.

And while today is All Souls’ Sunday, it is also stewardship season. So there’s a question in front of us: as we remember those who came before us, how do we take the seeds that they planted and grow them?

You see, we don’t remember those who went before us just by saying their name and ringing a chime and lighting a candle. We remember those who went before us by continuing their work in this world.

And part of that work is this congregation. We don’t just give to the church because we need to pay utility bills and buy printer paper and pay our, let’s face it, really pretty incredible pastor. We give because we see the amazing ministries that others planted here, and we want to nurture them and care for them and grow them.

We want to revitalize and transform old ministries. We want to discover new ministries within us.

And part of how we do that is through our giving. So I want you to do three things with me.

First, I want you to look around and see all of the amazing things that have grown in this community. This building and all of the things that are in it, the tress and gardens outside, the ministries and traditions among us, the stories of our faith that each of us carry. Those things exist because of the people who came before us and the people who are here with us.

Second, I want you to imagine all of the ways that we can nurture and grow those things, whether that means pruning away an old ministry, revitalizing or growing an existing ministry, or planting a new ministry. And I want you to ask yourself what it would take to do those things. And I will tell you that it is almost certain that it will take more money.

Third, I want you to think, carefully, about your place in making those things happen. I want you to think about how you will give your time, your talent, and, yes, your money, to care for what has been planted here, to nurture what is growing here, and to create new things in this community.

And I want you to know that you aren’t doing this alone. We are in this together. Our friends and neighbors in this church are with us. Those people who we are remembering today are with us. And I pray that God is with us as we use the gifts that he has entrusted to our care to love him with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength; and our neighbors as ourselves.

This is a picture of my dad. He’s got a hat. He’s wearing shorts and a tucked in button down shirt. And he’s carrying a camera. And I can imagine him taking pictures of birds and flowers and everything else he can see through the viewfinder.

Somewhere along the way, he planted that seed in me. And now, part of who I am is a guy who takes pictures of the neat caterpillar that was on my back door, or the spider who built a web between my neighbor’s house and mine, or the killdeer who nested in the church parking lot.

And part of how I love him is by being that person.

There are people who came before us. And somewhere along the way, they planted their seeds in this church. And now we are people who host mental health first aid trainings, and have beef dinners, and show up for a church member who needs help staining their deck, and make shorts for kids in Jamaica.

And part of how we love them is by being that church, that community, that little consulate of the Kingdom of God.

Let us be everything that they dreamed we would be… and even more, let us be everything that God wants us to be. Amen.

The Little Things

 

Today is Reformation Sunday. It’s a weird little holiday in Protestant churches. There are no greeting cards or mattress sales or big family dinners. But some Lutherans make a big deal out of it. And some Reformed churches make a big deal out of it. And some Anglicans make a big deal out of it.

And some congregations of the United Church of Christ—being, as we are, heirs to many of the traditions that came out of the Reformation—dress the altar in red and take a Sunday to acknowledge that five-hundred-and-one years ago, on October 31st, a thirty-odd-year-old monk and priest named Martin Luther nailed an invitation to a discussion to a church door and started a revolution.

Sometimes, it’s the little things—an invitation posted on a door—that change the world.

Today’s reading is not a reading about reformation. The story that Mark tells us isn’t about changing the world. Except that it is, a little bit.

And the thing about this story is that it shows up again and again. Jesus sees someone who needs healing and he heals them. And he tells them, “Go. Your faith has made you well.” There are a hundred variations on that story. Jesus had a habit of doing this sort of thing.

In this variation, Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd are leaving Jericho. And, as they’re leaving, the camera pans over to a man with an unusual name: Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. Now, that’s a weird name because Bartimaeus means ‘son of Timaeus’. So, maybe Mark is telling us that this guy is named ‘Son of Timaeus, son of Timaeus,’ like Timaeus really needed to make a point. Or maybe Mark is translating for us, which he sometimes does: this guy is called Bartimaeus, which means ‘son of Timaeus.’

And that’s not important to the story, but it is why I’m going to call this guy Bart.

Now, Bart is a beggar… and Bart is blind… and Bart has heard of Jesus. Maybe he had heard about the time that Jesus healed the paralyzed man who had been lowered through the roof of a house that Jesus was preaching at in Capernaum. 

Or maybe he had heard about the time that Jesus had met a man with a withered hand and restored it. 

Or maybe he had heard about the time that a woman who had hemorrhages for twelve years, and who had spent all of her money on doctors, touched the hem of his Jesus’s cloak and been healed.

The fact is that Jesus has been healing people and exorcising demons. And his name has gotten around. And Bart has heard of him. And Bart is a beggar… and Bart is blind… and Bart has faith that Jesus can change all of that.

So, as Jesus and his disciples and the large crowd pass by on their way out of Jericho, he shouts, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And people turn to him… and shush him. “Be quiet,” they say, “don’t bother him. That’s Jesus.”

So Bart shouts louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And in that moment, Jesus stops, and looks over, and says to some people in the crowd, “Tell that man to come here.”

And when Bart hears this, he jumps up and runs to Jesus. And Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bart answers, “I want you to let me see again.” And Jesus says, “Go. Your faith has made you well.” And, suddenly, Bart’s sight is restored!

Now, there are people who will tell you that faith can cure everything. If you just pray, God will cure your cold. If you just believe, God will send your cancer into remission. If you just send $29.95 to a PO Box in Delaware, someone will send you some healing oil straight from the Holy Land that has been blessed by your favorite televangelist right there on TV, and that oil will cure your depression and your anxiety. And those people are wrong.

I’m not going to say that it never happens. But I will tell you that I’ve never seen it happen. And I know that an ancient Jewish scholar named Sirach wrote that God had made physicians and pharmacists and medicines. And while his book isn’t part of the Jewish Bible or our Bible, it is part of the Catholic Bible and the Eastern Orthodox Bible and the Oriental Orthodox Bible. So, maybe we should take it seriously.

So, have faith. And pray. And listen to your healthcare professionals.

And pay attention to the story. Because Bart is a beggar… and Bart is blind… but Bart can already see something that too many people cannot. He has heard the stories, and he can see that Jesus can change his life.

And that change started with Bart shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Sometimes, it’s the little things—a shout coming out of a crowd—that change the world.

Now, I’ll be honest, it hardly seems like the world changes when Bart regains his sight. The foundations of the world don’t shift, oceans don’t rise, empires don’t fall. It seems like almost everything is exactly the same as it was a few minutes earlier.

But the fact is that Bart’s world has changed. He can see. He has added a whole sense to his life: the sun shines, a friend smiles, colors exist, in a way that none of them did before.

And, I’ll be honest, it hardly seemed like the world changed when Martin Luther nailed an invitation to a church door. The foundations of the world didn’t shift, oceans didn’t rise, empires didn’t fall. It seemed like almost everything was exactly the same as it was a few minutes earlier.

But the fact is that Martin’s world had changed. He had an argument to make. And, little by little, that argument went out into the world. One person heard it, and then another, and then another, and the whole world changed.

And it doesn’t end there.

When Bart regains his sight, he doesn’t walk away. He regains his sight and he joins the crowd that follows Jesus on the way. When Martin nails an invitation to that church door, he cannot walk away. He is now part of a debate that will see him excommunicated, that will see new churches rise up, and that will see important reforms in the Catholic church.

You see, the foundations of the world almost never shift all at once, oceans almost never rise all at once, and empires almost never fall all at once. What happens is one little thing after another. One act of hate or anger or greed making the world a little worse and rippling out into the world. One act of love or mercy or generosity making the world a little better and rippling out into the world.

It’s the little things that change the world.

Bart’s shout from the crowd–“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”–changed his world. And it changed his world so much that he could not live the way he had been living. He had to follow Jesus into a new world. And someone saw that, and someone told the story, and someone wrote it down.

And people read that story. And they saw the world in a new way. And they built a community around the Jesus who had mercy. And the world changed. One person at a time.

And when a thirty-odd-year-old monk and priest thought that community had gotten a bit off tack, he nailed an invitation to a church door. And people talked. And people argued. And the world changed. One person at a time.

It’s the little things that change the world.

Today is Reformation Sunday. It’s a weird little holiday in Protestant churches. There are no greeting cards or mattress sales or big family dinners. But some congregations in the United Church of Christ dress the altar in red and take a Sunday to acknowledge that five-hundred-and-one years ago, a little thing changed the world.

And the beauty of it is that it didn’t stop there. There was not a single moment when things changed and then stopped. The world kept moving and changing. The church reformed and kept reforming. And we are part of that.

You see, we are Bart. We cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus calls us to him. And our eyes are opened. We see the world in a new way. And we follow Jesus on his way into the future.

And when we get tired, when we get off track, when we grow weary, when we lose our way… we can cry out again, “Jesus, have mercy on us.” And Jesus will call us to him, and open our eyes so that we can see the world in a new way. And we will follow him further… one step at a time, one day at a time.

One kind word at a time. One act of compassion at a time. One outstretched hand at a time.

And by the grace of God, one little thing at a time, we will make the world a place of justice and mercy and abundance. Amen.

Love and Judgement

It is election season. I know this because I haven’t seen a commercial for a product in weeks. Instead, I’ve seen commercials for people: Fred Hubbell and Kim Reynolds and Dave Loebsack. And, because I live on the Iowa-Illinois border, J.B. Pritzker and Bruce Rauner. And I’m ready for it to be over. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the used car dealers.

Now, we are a church and I am your pastor. So let me assure you that I’m not about to get partisan. I’m not about to tell you who I support or who to vote for. But I am going to get political, because it is election season and our reading today is about power. And politics is, at least a little bit, a big conversation about how we distribute and use power.

We’ve heard this story before. In today’s reading, two of the disciples—James and John—approach Jesus with a simple request. Remember that they know that Jesus is the messiah, and they are expecting him to be a certain kind of messiah. They are expecting him to chase the Romans out of Israel, to restore the throne of David, and to rule in glory.

So they ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

They ask, “Make us your second and third in command. Give us power.”

And the other disciples hear the conversation, and they get angry with James and John. Who are these two to be asking about sitting and Jesus’s right and left hand? And I suspect that some of them hear Jesus tell James and John that those seats are reserved, and they think, “One of those seats is reserved for me.”

So Jesus gives them a lesson on power. Jesus teaches them about those seats.

“There are people,” he says, “where he rulers lord it over the people. Their great ones are tyrants.”

And he’s right. We know those people. We know about people—we’ve met people—who abuse the power they have. Sometimes, we are those people.

Kim Jong Un has a lot of power. He abuses it. He starves his people. He is a dictator and a tyrant. The Saudi royal family has a lot of power. They abuse it. They kill journalists who are critical of the regime. They are dictators and tyrants. Vladimir Putin has a lot of power. He abuses it. He murders his enemies, imprisons dissidents, and invades foreign countries. He is a dictator and a tyrant.

But those are big, easy examples. We can think of dozens of others and hundreds that are more petty. Maybe you remember a boss who ruled your office or your workshop or your retail floor with an iron fist. Maybe you remember an office manager who controlled the key to the supply closed like it had nuclear launch codes engraved on it.

There are a few people who have a lot of power. There are many more who have a little power. But there are people at every rung of power who are good at abusing it. We all know those people. Sometimes we are those people.

Earlier this week, when I was struggling a bit with a sermon, I read a different take on the story of the fall of humanity.

You know the story. The first man and the first woman are in the Garden of Eden. They are surrounded by every kind of tree that is pleasing to the eye and good to eat. But there is one tree in the garden that they cannot eat from: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

But there’s this talking snake. And the snake says to them, “If you eat from this tree, you will be like God. Your eyes will be open, you will be wise, and you will know good and evil.”

So they eat. And God knows this. And God sends them away from the garden—with only the clothes on their backs and the promise that God still loves them—into a world that is cursed by their sin.

And it’s hard to understand why God doesn’t want people to have the knowledge of good and evil. And Addie Zierman turned me on to a quote by theologian and pastor Greg Boyd:

“We are not satisfied,” he writes,”being God-like in our capacity to love; we also want to become God-like in our capacity to judge, which is how the serpent tempts us. But in aspiring to the latter, we lose our capacity for the former, for unlike God, we cannot judge and love at the same time. The essence of sin is that we play God. We critically assess and evaluate everything and everyone from our limited, finite, biased perspective.” (end of quote)

We ate from that tree because we wanted to know good and evil. We wanted to be able to look at something or someone and say, “They are good,” or, “they are evil.” We wanted to judge.

And there’s this difference between God and us. God can judge with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect mercy. We can’t.

So there’s a problem when two disciples turn to Jesus and ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

There’s a problem because there are people whose rulers lord it over them. There are people whose great ones are tyrants. And we are not supposed to be those people.

So Jesus tells them, “Whoever among us wants to be great, must be a servant. Whosever wants to be first among you must be a slave to all.”

And I need to be careful here. There’s a tension. And it’s a tension that I struggle with. On the one hand, Jesus calls us to be servants to each other. We are called to give away what we have and be slaves to all. And we are called to do this because the one who we follow did not come to be served, but to serve; and to give his life as ransom for many.

On the other hand… I know what happens when someone serves others without any concern for themselves; or gives away too much to care for themselves; or walks right into abuse. Giving ourselves up for the sake of others can be an invitation for others to misuse their power. It can diminish us and make us victims. And I’m sure that Jesus wouldn’t ask us to be victims.

Jesus knows who we are. He knows that we see that judgement seat and that we want to sit there. He knows how much we long to look at something or someone and say, “This is good,” or “this is evil.” And he knows that we cannot do that with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect knowledge.

So he tells us, “There are people whose rulers lord it over them, whose great ones are tyrants, whose leaders are bad judges. That isn’t how we do things, because we do not prioritize judgement. We prioritize love. And we prioritize love by serving each other.”

And here’s the amazing thing: that works.

When we prioritize love and service, we can trust each other with power. Because we know that we will not lord our power over each other. We know that we will not rule over offices or workshops or retail floors—or churches—with iron fists. We know that we will not treat the key to the supply closet like it has nuclear launch codes engraved on it.

We know that we will use the power that we have—or, at least, as imperfect as we are, we will try to use the power that we have—to love one another and to serve one another. And we know that the people who we are serving will do the same for us.

Our power does not lie in looking at something or someone and saying, “This is good,” or “this is evil.” It lies in looking at something or someone and asking, “How can I help?”

And I don’t mean that in a foolish way. I don’t mean that we look at tyrants and dictators and ask, “How can I help this person in their tyranny?” I mean that we look at the people who are being hurt or oppressed and ask, “How do I help?”

We look at the person who is being silenced and ask, “How do I help amplify their voice?”

We look at the person who is being beat down and ask, “How do I help them stand up?”

We look at the person who is being pushed out and ask, “How do I help them get in?”

And, yes, we look at tyrants and dictators and ask, “How do I help them grow into the loving people who they were meant to be?”

We look at the brokenness of this world—and it is broken, we are broken, in so many ways—and ask how we can put it back together again.

We do that in this church, and in our homes, and in our workplaces, and, yes, in the voting booth.

It is election season. We are a church and I am your pastor. And I’m not about to get partisan. I’m not going to tell you who I support or who to vote for.

But I will ask you to do this. When you are thinking about your vote, knowing that we are all imperfect, ask this question: who is going to love, who is going to serve, who is going to prioritize love over judgement?

Who is going to bring good news to the poor? Who is going to proclaim release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind? Who is going to let the oppressed go free and declare a time of the Lord’s favor?

Who is going to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty? Who will welcome the stranger and clothe the naked? Who will care for the sick and visit the prisoner?

Because I will tell you, we do not need more judges in power. We do not need more people who will look at this world and say, “This is good and this is evil.”

We need more people who will look at this world and ask, in humility, how we can love it better.

That is the work of leadership. And it begins with us.

Shouts of Joy. Cries of Mourning.

Mariah and I had a pulpit exchange this week, with her preaching at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, and me preaching at Church of Peace United Church of Christ in Rock Island, Illinois. That means that I don’t have a recording this week. And that the sermon is a little more directly about Church of Peace.

There used to be a building over on 9th street. It had a stone foundation and a wooden exterior and stone stairs leading up to its doors. And on top of the building was a… I don’t know the right term… a cupola, maybe?

It wasn’t a big building. It wasn’t an impressive building. But people made memories there. There were births and deaths, baptisms and confirmations, weddings and meetings. There were good mornings over handshakes, and conversations over coffee, and community dinners and casseroles.

And on Sunday mornings, some folks from an immigrant community gathered together. And they worshipped in their native language. And they called themselves the Deutsche Evangelische Friedens Gemeinde.

There’s this song where a man walks around his neighborhood and remembers how things used to be. He remembers an ex-lover, and he sees the ways that the buildings have changed, and he thinks: I’ve ascribed these monuments / A false sense of permanence / I’ve placed faith in geography / To hold you in my memory.

Buildings aren’t just places where we meet; they aren’t just places where we keep our stuff. They’re places where we store our memories.

And our reading from Ezra, in its full context, really should begin with these words: once upon a time.

Once upon a time, God travelled with the Israelites, alongside the Ark of the Covenant. And then the Israelites settled down. And they conquered a city called Jerusalem. And Solomon built a temple. And it was an amazing temple.

There were great outer courts, with an altar for burnt offerings and baths where the priests could be purified.

There was a Holy Place: a long room with cedar walls and fir-wood floors and olive wood doors. And all around that room were carvings of cherubim and palm trees and flowers. And they were overlaid with gold.

And beyond the Holy Place was the Holy of Holies. It was a cubic room, about 30 feet by 30 feet by 30 feet, with cedar floors and wainscoting, overlaid with gold. And there were two huge cherubim stretching across the room. And in the middle was the Ark of the Covenant.

And people made memories there. There were dedications and sacrifices and festivals. Surely God lived in this temple!

And then the Babylonians came. There were arrows and swords and slings. There was fire and blood. They razed Jerusalem to the ground. They destroyed a temple that had stood for centuries. They carted the people off into exile.

In today’s reading, we are 70 years after Solomon’s temple was destroyed. Persia has defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their homes, and to Jerusalem, and to rebuild. And a couple of years later, they laid the foundation for a new temple.

And when they laid the foundation, the priests blew their trumpets and the Levites clanged their cymbals, and there was a great cry. Many people shouted with joy. But there were others. There were people who had seen the old temple in all its glory, and some of them wept with a loud voice. And no one could tell the cries of joy from the cries of sorrow.

Yeah… I know that feeling.

Most of you know that Mariah and I went to seminary together. We met in the courtyard. We lived in the same apartment building. We had classes in the same rooms. Our first jobs after seminary were in the development office and the admissions office. We were married in the chapel.

And today… today the seminary building where Mariah and I made our memories is the Gary Becker-Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. The chapel where we said our vows is a lounge.

That seminary is in a new building. I’ve been there. It’s cool. It’s LEED certified. It’s fully accessible. It has a beautiful chapel with lots of natural light. It has smart classrooms. And I am happy for the students who get to learn there.

But it’s not where I was married. It isn’t where I took classes. The steps don’t have the little worn out bits where students climbed them before me. It isn’t a home. At least, it isn’t a home for me. Buildings are where we store our memories, and mine are carefully packed away in the Gary Becker-Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics.

I know what it is for the shouts of joy and cries of mourning to rise up inside me. I know how it feels when they get so intermingled that you can’t tell the difference.

There used to be a building over on 9th street. It was a small building. The kitchen was in the coal room. And it was too small for the Deutsche Evangelische Friedens Gemeinde to grow. So they sold it to the B’nai B’rith and they built a building here at the corner of 12th and 12th. The architect chose a Byzantine revival style, with rounded arches and a dome. And, over the years, the church grew: a parsonage, an education wing, a little chapel off the sanctuary, new organs.

And I know that there were should of joy when the new buildings went up. But I can’t help but wonder if there weren’t some people in the crowd thinking, “This isn’t where we celebrated my wedding,” or, “This isn’t where my son was baptized,” or, “This isn’t where we held my mother’s funeral.”

Buildings are where we store our memories, and there must have been people whose memories were carefully packed up in a little building over on 9th street. There must have been people who cried… just a little.

Buildings are where we store our memories… and losing a building is hard, even when it’s replaced by something new and shiny and amazing. And we don’t even have to lose a building all at once. I don’t think that any of you are old enough to remember when this building was new, but some of you might remember the educational wing. Or you might remember when something was a little newer than it was now.

And that has its own kind of sadness. The carpet gets worn down. The wood of the pews changes character. The cushions get torn and stained. You open a hymnal to find a doodle on the same page as “Joy to the World.”

It’s easy to wish for the day when the old was new, and for all of our memories to be neatly packed away in a nice shiny place.

But here’s the thing. Our memories aren’t packed in boxes. They are encoded in the marks that we leave on a place.

The carpet is worn down because we walked on it… whether we were processing in for a wedding, or an ordination, or a funeral, or with the choir, or even if we were just walking on it on the day-to-day.

The wood of the pews changes its character because we touched it and the oils from our hands got rubbed in.

The cushions are torn and stained by moving bodies, and wax from Christmas Eve candles, and a thousand other things.

The doodles are on hymnal pages because… there are children.

Each of us leaves our mark—usually in ways that we can’t even see—and the community of the faithful keeps changing.

Sometimes, we change because we have to leave a building behind. The ancient Israelites were forced from their home; and when they came back, they had to build again.

Sometimes, we change because we choose to leave a building behind. We were once the faithful who met over on 9th street, in a building with a stone foundation and a wooden exterior and stone stairs leading up to the doors and a cupola maybe. And our ancestors in the faith moved here so that there would be space for new memories.

And now we are the faithful who meet on the corner of 12th and 12th, in a building where we have made memories; in a building where we have left our marks alongside the marks of people who have left us.

And who knows? Maybe we will stay here and those who come after us will leave their marks alongside ours. Or maybe we will go somewhere else and make room for new memories. Or maybe someone will come along after us and clean some of our marks away only to add new ones.

But no matter what, I know this. Change—maybe not all change, but a lot of change—brings shouts of joy and cries of sorrow. Among all of us and in each of us. As we mourn who we were and wait for who we will be.

And I also know this. In all that joy and all that mourning—in all that bravery and all that fear—God is leading us into new worlds that we could not imagine. The people who saw Solomon’s temple fall didn’t know what exile would bring. And the people who returned home with Ezra didn’t know what that would mean. The people who travelled across an ocean to what was then the middle-of-nowhere-Illinois didn’t know what that would mean. The people who left a little building over on 9th street didn’t know what that would mean.

And we do not know what is to come. But we can have the same faith as those people who saw the foundation for the second temple be laid: God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever. Hallelujah. Amen.

The Big Table

 

I listen to a lot of podcasts and a lot of NPR. They’re nice things to have on when I’m driving, or in the background when I’m writing, or to pay attention to when I’m doing yard work.

And I listen to the news sometimes. Other times, it’s stuff that’s funny and relaxing: Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me or Ask Me Another or The History of Fun.

But, the last couple of weeks, everything has been less funny and less relaxing. The podcasts and NPR, the evening news, the conversations, the social media feeds… everything has been about a Supreme Court nominee and a woman—multiple women, really—who have accused him of sexual misbehavior and sexual assault.

And it isn’t the beginning of that conversation. The story of this nomination is part of a bigger story that’s been ebbing and flowing through our national discourse. The stories of #metoo are stories that we’ve needed to tell and that we’ve needed to hear. And we’ve been hearing them a lot over the last couple of weeks.

And, I’ll tell you, I don’t want to start a sermon with a Supreme Court nomination. I’d much rather start with a story about Hildegard. But when you have the bible open in your web browser and Pod Save America playing in iTunes… well, sometimes you hear God calling you.

And I know that it’s on the minds of people sitting in this sanctuary. You have talked about it in the prayers of the people. We have prayed for Judge Kavanaugh and we have prayed for Dr. Ford. And we have prayed for the people who have listened to their testimony, or who have listened to the news, and who have heard the echoes of their own stories.

So we start here, with these words from the Epistle to the Hebrews: you are crowned with glory and honor. And that’s another way of saying, at least a little bit, you are loved and you are worthy of love.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in the United States, one in three women, and one in six men, will be the victim of sexual violence in their lifetime. It is worse for people who are transgender, genderqueer, or gender nonconforming. Look at the people around you. Do the math.

Over the last couple of weeks, countless men and women—and more women than men—have heard their own stories echoed in the news. Some have had to relive those stories. Some have been called to tell their stories. Some have longed to hear the words of the church: you are crowned with glory and honor, you are loved and you are worthy of love.

And, as the church, we have a responsibility to show those survivors of sexual violence that they—that you—are crowed with glory and honor; that they—that you—are loved and worthy of love.

But it doesn’t end there.

Statistics on perpetrators are hard to find. But I know that there are some men—and some women—who have heard the stories in the news or read the stories on their social media, and who have started reviewing their own lives. Some people are obvious perpetrators. More people are asking if they crossed a line, if a moment was really consensual, if they hurt people they cared about, if they failed to care when they should have.

Some of us have had things happen to us that have broken our hearts. Some of us have done things that have broken our souls.

And here we are, on World Communion Sunday.

Today, churches around the world are celebrating communion together: churches who celebrate communion once a day, or once a week, or once a month, or once a quarter, or every-so-often.

And I know that I like to say that this is the biggest table. And what I mean is that this table in this sanctuary is one corner of a great table that stretches through time and space, a great table that we share with Christians around the world and through the ages.

We come to this table and join the earliest Christians in the upper room. We come to this table and join people who will be baptized generations from now.

We come to this table and eat the feast that Christ prepares for us again and again. And we do that together.
And that is terrifying.

We come to this table and eat the feast that Christ prepares for us again and again. And we do that together. And that is terrifying. Click To Tweet

We come to this table to eat with psychopaths and thieves and murderers. I am eating at this table with the kids who made fun of me in school, and the boss who made me cry at work, and the teacher who punished me for something I did not do…

…and people who hurt me in ways that are so much worse. People who have hurt me in ways that have broken my heart. And if they are not at the table themselves, then someone like them is.

And we come to this table to eat with the victims of our sins. I am eating at this table with the panhandler who I told I didn’t have any change, and the underpaid textile worker who made my shirt, and the child who mined the cobalt for the battery in my phone…

…and people who I have hurt in ways that are so much worse. People who I have hurt in ways that have broken my soul. And if they are not at the table themselves, then they are present in Christ.

This is a hard table. I am here with my friends… and my enemies… and my victims.

And I will tell you: there are times when my broken heart makes me wonder if I am worthy of eating at this table, let alone serving at it. Because I know that when I look across this table—this table that stretches through time and space—I see the faces of people who hurt me and who I cannot forgive.

And there are times when my broken soul makes me wonder if I am worthy of eating at this table, let alone serving at it. Because I know that when I look across this table—this table that stretches through time and space—I see the faces of people who I have hurt and who I do not believe can or should forgive me.

And yet…

In our reading from Hebrews today, the author of that epistle tells us the story of our faith. God used to speak to us through prophets. And now God has spoken to us through a Son, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Who became like us. Who gave up his privilege to be one of us. Who suffered and died like us.

And who was raised. Who is crowned with glory and honor. Who is the pioneer of our salvation. Who calls us brother and sister and friend and neighbor. Who invites us into the Kingdom of God.

And when I say us… I mean all of us. Even you. Even me.

Our faith is not an easy faith. It is a faith begun in the crisis of suffering and death. It is a faith brought to life with the resurrection of our Lord. It is a faith forged in the crucible of persecution.

It is a faith where we see, with terrible clarity, that we are both slaves to sin and redeemed by Christ. And it is a faith where we see, with terrible clarity, that the same is true of our friends… and our enemies… and our victims.

It is a faith where we have to look Christine Blasey Ford in her eyes, and remind her that she is crowned with glory and honor, that she is loved and worthy of love. And where we say to her, this is the body of Christ, broken for you.

It is a faith where we have to look Brett Kavanaugh in his eyes, and remind him that he is crowned with glory and honor, that he is loved and worthy of love. And where we say to him, this is the new covenant in Christ’s blood, poured out for you.

Our faith is not an easy faith. It is a faith where we know that our hearts have been broken by the things that have happened to us, and where we know that our souls have been broken by the things that we have done.

Our faith is not an easy faith. It is a faith where we know that our hearts have been broken by the things that have happened to us, and where we know that our souls have been broken by the things that we have done. Click To Tweet

And once a month, we do something that is so hard: we come together at a table with the people who have hurt us (even if they aren’t in this time and this place) and the people who we have hurt (even if they aren’t in this time and this place). And we see each other. And we know that all of us rely on the same God, the same Christ, the same Spirit.

There is a rule that I follow in preaching: I will preach from my scars, not my wounds. And that means that when I preach from the places where I am hurt, I preach about the hurt that I have processed, and dealt with, and healed from. I preach from my hurt after it has healed, not while it is still red and raw.

And I can tell you honestly, in these last couple of weeks, some of the scars have been torn off and some of my wounds have been reopened. I have been looking through my life. I have been reviewing my story.

I have heard echoes of my story in the words of Dr. Ford. And I have felt my heart break.

I have heard echoes of my story in the words of Judge Kavanaugh. And I have felt my soul break.

And for you who are in this sanctuary, or who are reading a manuscript of this sermon, or who are listening to the recording: that is where I am leaving it.

I will not put my wounds on display. But rest assured that things that have happened to me that cause me pain. And there are things I have done that I am ashamed of.

And I know that some of you—maybe even a lot of you; maybe even most of you; maybe even all of you—are in the same position. We are broken in so many ways. We bear our wounds in so many ways.

But the reason I am telling you that, is that sometimes, those of us who preach, preach the sermon that we need to hear. And I know what I have needed to hear for the last week or two, and I know that there are other people who need to hear the same thing:

No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, no matter what has been done to you, and no matter what you have done… you are welcome here. You are welcome in this church. You are welcome at this table

Whether you are a victim, or a perpetrator, or both, or neither, or somewhere in-between, you are crowned with glory and honor, you are loved and you are worthy of love. And because of that, you can live a life that is not defined by what has happened to you or what you have done to others. Because of that, you and I and all of us can live lives that are defined by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, by the love of God, and by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Whether you are a victim, or a perpetrator, or both, or neither, or somewhere in-between, you are crowned with glory and honor, you are loved and you are worthy of love. Click To Tweet

And that begins, in some small way, with coming together at this little corner of a big table, with people who we cannot yet forgive and with people who cannot yet forgive us.

It begins, in some small way, with coming together at this little corner of a big table and eating together in our mutual brokenness.

It begins, in some small way, with coming together at this little corner of a big table, with all of the other people who depend, in faith, on the promise and hope of Jesus Christ. Which is to say, everyone.

And it begins with the knowledge—even when we can’t quite believe it—that we are welcome at this table and we are worthy of this table.

Hallelujah. Amen.

Privilege

 

There are people in the world who believe that the Bible is boring. Some of them are taking a confirmation class right now; not at this church, of course, but somewhere. And to those people, I offer a counterpoint: the Book of Esther.

For those of you who don’t remember this story, a summary:

The Jews were conquered by the Babylonians and exiled from their homeland. Then the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians and, as we open our story, the Jews are living in exile in Persia.

Due to some palace intrigue, the King of Persia does not have a queen. He has beautiful women brought to him from all over his empire. And he chooses Esther, a Jewish orphan who is being raised by her uncle Mordecai. Esther keeps her Jewishness hidden.

And Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill the King. Mordecai stops the plot, and his service is noted.

The king appoints a man named Haman as his viceroy. Now, Haman hates Mordecai, because Mordecai would not bow down to Haman, because Mordecai is Jewish, and he will not bow down to anyone but God. And Haman doesn’t just hate Mordecai, he hates all the Jews. He wants to kill all of the Jews in the Empire. And pays the king for permission to do this. And the king agrees.

So Haman casts lots to determine the date. On the 13th of Adar—so, sort of March-ish—the Jews will die.

Mordecai, of course, discovers the plot and goes to Esther—who, remember, has hidden her Jewishness—and implores her to help her people. But she is afraid. Still, she holds some feasts for the king.

Meanwhile, Haman decides to hang Mordecai and wants to go to the king for permission to do that. He even builds a gallows outside his house. But just before he shows up, the king is reminded that Mordecai uncovered the plot against the king, but never had a public ceremony to honor him.

So, when Haman shows up to ask about hanging Mordecai, the king absentmindedly asks him how he should honor his servant.

And Haman, thinking, “Oh, the king is going to honor me because I’m awesome,” suggests a bunch of crazy stuff. And then the king orders Haman to give Mordecai that honor!

The king and Haman go to one of the feasts that Esther is holding. Esther reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman plans on killing all of her people, including her. The king is furious and leaves the room. While he’s gone, Haman begs Esther for his life and falls on her in desperation. At that moment, the king enters the room, sees this, and thinks that Haman is assaulting his queen.

He orders Haman hanged on the same gallows he built for Mordecai.

Now, for some reason, the king cannot revoke a royal edict. The Jews are still in trouble. So he lets Esther and Mordecai write a new edict that allows the Jews to defend themselves. And they do. Tens of thousands of people attack the Jews… and the Jews kill them.

The Jews are saved, Esther continues as queen, and Mordecai becomes the king’s right hand man. And to this day, Jewish people mark this event with the festival of Purim.

How is this not a movie? And I don’t mean one of those bad Christian movies. You know the ones I’m talking about. I mean a good movie, maybe a sci-fi setting, Natalie Portman, Daniel Day Lewis, Ben Kingsley. We could have a blockbuster on our hands.

But I’m not a producer. I’m a pastor. And this is not just a political thriller story. It is a story about privilege and what we can do with it.

Esther did not choose to be queen. She was chosen. One day, she was called before the king and the king said, “Her.” And that was it.

And I did not choose to be a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America. I was born. There was history and genetics and a whole lot of chance. And that was it.

And I really believe that most of us are in that same boat. Most of us sitting in this sanctuary today have some privilege. We didn’t choose it, but we have it.

When I’m driving down the highway and police lights come on behind me—not that that’s ever happened—I don’t fear for my life.

I have never imagined that I might have to pick up what I can carry and travel hundreds of miles to a new country where I might not be welcome… just to get away from the violence in my own neighborhood.

I have never been told to go back where I come from, or insulted for speaking the language that I speak, or mocked because of the way I dress.

In fact, because of who I am and the position I occupy in our society, I can be pretty confident that authorities will respect me, that power will work for me, and that—even if things go wrong for a while—there are whole social systems that are designed to make sure that things work out for me and people like me… alright enough… in the end.

And that doesn’t mean that I never have trouble, or that I never suffer, or that I didn’t work hard for what I have. It just means that I have advantages that not everyone gets. And that’s it.

I didn’t choose it. And whichever boxes of privilege that you tick, you didn’t choose it. That’s just how it is. But that doesn’t make us any less privileged.

Esther didn’t choose to be queen. She was chosen. One day, she was called before the king and the king said, “Her.” And that was it. But that doesn’t make her any less the queen.

And the question for you and for me is, “What are we going to do with that?”

This is the choice that Esther faces. She can keep her secret. No one knows that she’s Jewish. Maybe she’ll survive and be okay.

But Mordecai doesn’t think so. He’s confident that help will come from somewhere, but, “Esther,” he says, “maybe you came to royal dignity for such a time as this.”

Maybe you came to royal dignity for such a time as this. Maybe all of the things that had to happen to put you in this place at this time—choices that you made and choices that were made for you, things you controlled and things that you didn’t—put you here and now for a reason: to save us all.

In today’s reading—in the little snippet of this story that we heard—we get to see this choice. At one of Esther’s feasts, the king turns to her and asks, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

That is the question of privilege. And I’m confident that none of us here have been offered half a kingdom, but the world asks us a question a lot like that one. Do we have a petition? Odds are we can get it granted. Do we have a request? Odds are we can have it.

At the very least, it will be easier for us than it would be for a lot of people.

And Esther answers, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request.”

And there’s a risk here. It’s true. If the king says no, she will perish with her people. But she knows that her privilege is her responsibility: “If it pleases you, give me my life and the lives of my people.”

And that’s good for Esther. She saves her people. To this day, Jewish people mark this event with a feast.

But it is not enough for us.

I am, if anything, more privileged than Esther. I don’t fear for my life. I don’t fear for the lives of my people, whatever that could mean. I cannot use my privilege for myself.

But…

There’s this theologian, Basil. He is, hands down, one of my favorites. In one of his sermons, he asks his congregation why there are rich people and poor people, why there are haves and have-nots. why God has seen fit to distribute things unevenly.

His answer for why there are have-nots isn’t very satisfying. But his answer for why there are haves is beautiful: it’s so we can share.

I have power and privilege because there is injustice in this world. But God has arranged things so that I can share what I have. I can put my power and privilege to work for others. I can give to people in need. I can stand up for people in trouble. I can amplify the voices of those who go unheard. And that is a gift.

I don’t have to use what I have for myself. I don’t have to use it for my people, whatever that could mean. I get the honor of using what I have for this whole wide world.

Maybe all of the things that had to happen to put me in this place at this time—choices that I made and choices that were made for me, things I controlled and things that I didn’t—put me here and now for a reason: to save someone… anyone.

And maybe all of the things that had to happen to put you in this place at this time, put you here and now for the same reason: to save someone… anyone.

And maybe—just maybe—all of the things that had to happen to put us in this place and this time, put us here for an even bigger reason: to save someone… anyone… everyone.

And, yeah, that can carry some risk. But how much really?

Because the reward is so much greater: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to do justice and to love kindness; to walk with our Lord and our God.

Amen.

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