Mustard and Yeast

The Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

A mustard seed is a very small seed. It’s not necessarily the smallest seed in the whole world, but it’s small. And in Jesus’ time and Jesus’ land, it grew wild. It’s not the kind of plant that someone would plant in a well-kept garden, where you want your crops all laid out in nice clean rows.

But a man took a mustard seed and planted it in his garden, and it grew. It grew so big that it became a shrub. And it grew so great that it became a tree. And the birds of the air came and made nests in its branches.

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

A woman had some yeast. She took it and hid it in some flour. A lot of flour. Like, a lot of flour. Three whole measures; that’s something like 8 dry gallons or 130 cups of flour. And the yeast worked its way through the flour and all of the dough rose.

You see, the Kingdom of Heaven starts small and gets everywhere and grows large.

And don’t we love that image?

You all know that before I came here to be your pastor, I was a fundraiser. 

At the end of every year, I would prepare a report for my Board of Directors. I would tell them how much we raised and which funds and projects it went to. I would tell them what the average and median gift sizes were. I would tell them how many donors we had, and how many of them were new, and how many we lost, and how their giving had changed.

And sometimes that report was pretty positive. And sometimes it was pretty negative.

And at the start of every year, my Board of Directors would give me a number: the amount of money I needed to raise. 

And I would know that that number meant that we needed this many donors, and this many new donors, and this average gift size… which meant that we needed this many donors to increase their giving by this much… so I needed to send this many letters and make this many calls and schedule this many events… and so on.

My life was ruled by numbers.

And, I’ll be honest with you, I still keep track of the numbers. I look at our attendance every week, and I feel a little bit better about myself when that number is higher. I look at giving, and I feel a little bit better about myself when that number is higher. I look at the number of baptisms and confirmations and new members, and I feel a little bit better about myself when those numbers are higher.

And I know that we have some other people who look at those numbers, who feel better when those numbers are higher.

Numbers mean something. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Bigger numbers are better numbers. 

And it’s nice to think that the Kingdom of Heaven starts small and gets everywhere and grows large… because that means that we might start small and get everywhere and grow large.

But the Kingdom of Heaven is also like this:

A farmer sowed some good seed, some wheat, in a field. And while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds in the same field. So when the wheat came up and bore grain, the weeds came up, too. The people who managed the field came to the farmer and asked if they should pull up the weeds. And the farmer said, “No. If you pull up the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat as well. When the time for harvest comes, we will pull up the weeds first and burn them. Then we’ll gather up the wheat and put it in the barn.”

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

The Son of Man has planted good seed in the world: the children of the Kingdom. And the devil has planted bad seed in the world: the children of the evil one. At the end of the age, the angels will come and collect all of the causes of sin in the world and all of the evildoers, and throw them all in the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom!

And, as usual, I need to be careful here.

Last week, I told you that, as Christians, we need to be able to judge things and behaviors and systems and institutions. When we can, we need to be able to say, “This is good; and this is bad.” And, more often, we need to be able to say, “This is good; and this is better,” or “This is bad; and this is worse.”

But I also told you that, as Christians, we can never judge people. We are not qualified to look at a person and say, “They are good,” or “They are bad.”

And I told you the good news of our faith: that Christ, who judges with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect compassion, withholds judgment for the sake of redemption. 

I told you that Christ, whose vision is clear, can see the divine spark, the image of God, in us—even if it is as small as a mustard seed, even if it is mixed into three measures of flour—and tend it, and grow it. 

And I cannot believe in the Christ I know—in the Christ who has saved a wretch like me, of all people—and also believe that there are children of the evil one who are destined for the furnace of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But it is also true that Christ does not leave things the way they are.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

It is a garden with a mustard tree with birds nesting in its branches. And that garden is different from a garden where there is no mustard tree.

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

It is yeast that has been hidden in three measures—130 cups—of flour, and it works its way through the dough, and all of the dough rises. And that dough is different from dough where there is no yeast.

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

It is someone who has sowed good seed, and who cares for the grain that comes up, and does not even pull up the weeds for fear of harming the grain. It is someone who, when the harvest comes, carefully pulls up the weeds and throws them away, and takes what is good. And that person is different from anyone we know.

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this: It is a world without sin and without the causes of sin. Which is to say, it is glorious and unimaginable and utterly different from the world we live in.

“Growth for the sake of growth,” said Edward Abbey, “is a cancerous madness.”

And while there are a lot of things that Abbey said that I disagree with, he is right about this. Growth for the sake of growth is pointless. Growth for the sake of growth is dangerous. Growth for the sake of growth is poisonous.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not growing in us and Christ is not working in us to leave us the way that we are.

The Kingdom of Heaven is growing in us and Christ is working in us—as individuals, as a congregation, as a denomination, as a community, and as a world—to take that divine spark, that image of God, even if it is as small as a mustard seed, even if it is mixed into three measures of flour, and grow it.

The Kingdom of Heaven is growing in us and Christ is working in us to transform us.

And, I know, that can be scary. It would be nice to believe that we could just stay the same, only righteous. It would be nice to believe that we could stay exactly as we are, only holy. But we can’t.

You see, God loves us like this:

The world is a field and we are seed that God has planted. And all around us are weeds and nematodes. And God loves us so much that she tends us constantly. And God loves us so much that we she will not pull up a weed or apply nematicides for the fear of hurting us.

And as we grow towards the kingdom, reaching for the light, God tends us and cares for us.

And, someday, we will be grown, bearing the fruits of the spirit. And, when the last of us is ready, God will pull away the weeds, and wipe away the tears, and take us into the kingdom that she has prepared for us since the foundation of the world. And then we will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Not as who we are now, but as who we are in the fullness of the grace of God.

Hallelujah.

Judgment

I majored in philosophy. 

Now, before you judge, I majored in philosophy during the philosophy boom of the late 90s, when there was a major philosopher shortage and all of the big philosophy firms were hiring. I had no idea that the philosophy market would collapse right before I graduated.

Either that, or I majored in philosophy because I was in my late teens, and I like big questions, and it was interesting (and maybe even a little romantic).

But regardless of the reason, I majored in philosophy.

And one of the things that philosophers like to do is pretend that people are rational. We imagine that people make decisions based on evidence and logic. And we’re not alone. A lot of people imagine the same thing. Science, economics, law, and other fields are all based on the idea that people are reasonable.

And that’s just not true.

There is a lot of evidence that people aren’t reasonable. But the way that I learned about human irrationality was this: I learned about the fundamental attribution error.

It’s a neat little trick that our brains—that our psychologies—play on us. And it works like this.

When do something bad, I think about all of the extenuating circumstances that drove me to that choice. speed because I’m going with the flow of traffic, and I’m late for something very important, and the speed limit is clearly set to low for this road, and everyone should understand that.

But when you do something bad, I don’t think about extenuating circumstances. I attribute your behavior to your character. I make assumptions about the kind of person you are. Youspeed because you’re a reckless driver with no respect for the other people on the road.

And we all do this. I do it. You do it. That person who cut you off in traffic or didn’t hold a door or responded too curtly to an email does it. We all tell ourselves, “I am a good person who does bad things for good reasons… and other people are jerks.”

We’ve spent a few weeks in Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

A couple of weeks ago, when we had our first reading from this sermon, I told you that it isn’t really a sermon. It’s possible—and maybe even probably—that Jesus never said these exact things in this exact order.

But Jesus was a teacher and a preacher. And while there was probably no one who remembered a whole sermon of his, people remembered bits and pieces. People remembered the themes and ideas and phrases and images that Jesus used again and again. And when Matthew was writing his gospel, he put Jesus on a mountain, like Moses on Sinai, and had him say these bits and pieces in this order.

And you can tell that Matthew took a bunch of things that Jesus said and just sort of cobbled them together because of this passage.

It starts with Jesus telling his disciples—and with Matthew telling us—not to judge.

“Do not judge,” he says, “so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get… if you want to take a speck out of your neighbor’s eye, you had better make sure there’s not a log in your own eye, first.”

And there’s something beautiful there. Don’t poke around in other people’s eyes when you can’t see clearly. Get the muck out of your own eyes before you try to help your neighbor with the stuff in theirs. Don’t judge people; get yourself together so that you can help people.

But then Matthew has Jesus turn around and say this:

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”

So Jesus starts by telling us not to judge, and then turns around and tells us to know what is holy and what is valuable… and who the dogs and swine are… and that sounds pretty judgmental to me.

And, I know, it’s Jesus saying this.

Jesus, who is God-become-one-of-us. Jesus, who knows our hearts. Jesus, who we meet in everyone who has need. Jesus, who feeds us at his table.

Jesus, who will come in glory and put some of us on his right and some of us on his left.

Jesus, who will send some of us into the kingdom that God has prepared for us since the foundation of the world, and who will leave some of us in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Jesus, who will judge with perfect knowledge… and perfect love… and perfect compassion.

There’s a tension here. And we need to face it honestly.

And it begins with this: I do not judge with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect compassion. I don’t know all the facts, I don’t love as I should, I can’t walk a mile in your shoes.

I’m not qualified to judge. I’m not qualified to call someone a dog or a pig. And neither are you.

There’s a tension here. And we need to face it honestly. And it begins with that humility.

And then it goes here: it is one thing to judge a thing, or a behavior, or a system, or an institution; it is an entirely different thing to judge a person.

And this is where it get hard.

As Christians, we have to be able to look at things and behaviors and systems and institutions and say, “This is good; and this is bad.”

As your pastor, I need to be able to look at an immigration system that rips children from parents, and places those children with families they don’t know… and say that it is wrong.

I need to be able to look at a system of mass incarceration that holds more than 21% of the world’s prisoners, where race is a major determining factor in whether you end up in jail, where money is a major determining fact in whether you stay there, and where it’s incredibly hard to get our of the system once you’re in it… and say that it is wrong.

I need to be able to look at the food we gather for the Referral Center, and the warm clothes we gather around Christmas, and all of the other ways that we help people in this community and beyond, both as individuals and as a church… and say that they are good.

And, I will admit, there are very few times when we can look at something and know for sure that it is wholly good or wholly evil. We rarely get to choose between good and evil. Most of the time, we have to choose between good and better, or between bad and worse. And it’s hard to know which is which.

Well-meaning people, acting in good faith, trying to do the best we can, can disagree about things.

But it is still true: it is one thing to judge a thing, or a behavior, or a system, or an institution; it is an entirely different thing to judge a person.

And that’s where the fundamental attribution error comes in. Because so often, when we look at ourselves and see that we’ve done something we’re not proud of, we say, “I am a good person who did a bad thing.” And sometimes we even add, “For a good reason.”

And so often, when we look at other people and see that they’ve done something we’re not proud of, we say, “That is a bad person. He is a dog. She is swine. I cannot give them what is holy. I cannot give them what is valuable. If I do, they will trample it under foot and maul me. They are a bad person.”

And, let’s be honest, there are whole industries—on television and radio and the internet—who will tell you who the bad people are. There are systems and institutions who will tell you who you should say that about. And it can feel so good to judge people that way.

But we are not Christ. We do not judge with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect compassion.

As Christians, we have to be able to look at things and behaviors and systems and institutions and say, “This is good, and this is bad, this is just, and this is unjust; this is merciful, and this is unmerciful; this is compassionate, and this is not compassionate.” Seeing those differences is one of the first steps towards making this world a place of greater justice and mercy and compassion.

And, at the same time, as Christians, we never look at people and say, “They are good, and they are bad.”

Because here’s the thing: Christ, who judges with perfect knowledge and love and compassion, withholds judgment for the sake of redemption.

In perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect knowledge, with no log in his own eye, Christ sees the divine spark, the image of God, in us, in we who are sinners, and redeems us. That is the promise of our faith.

And if Christ has done that for us, how can we refuse to do that for others? How can we, who are not qualified to judge, look at someone and say, “They are good, and they are bad”?

The answer is easy: we can’t. And the truth is that holy things—holy things like grace—are holy even when dogs have them. And the truth is that dogs like me probably need them more.

I know that’s a tall order. I know how easy it is to judge people. I know how easy it is to say, “I am a good person who does bad things for good reasons… and other people are jerks.” I do it. You do it. We all do it.

But I also believe that we can meet that tall order. By the grace of God, we can do to others as we would have them do to us. We can judge others as we would have them judge us: with love and compassion; with mercy and grace.

We can take those holy things and give them to everyone… even the dogs like them… even the dogs like us.

We can build our houses, we can build our homes, we can build our lives, on the solid foundation fo the grace  of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!

Do Not Worry

Way back at the end of November, when we were decorating the church for Christmas, we got the Advent wreath and the Advent candles out.

I wanted to make sure that they were okay, so I lit them. Later, we finished decorating, turned out the lights, locked up the church, and left. And I was sure that I had blown out the candles… but there was a little itchy feeling in the back of my brain: what if I hadn’t blown them out? What if I burned down the church?

I get that feeling—that itchy feeling in the back of my brain—more often than I’d like. I’ve had to backtrack home to make sure that I locked a door or closed the garage door. And I always have, but the itchy feeling won’t go away until I check. It’s not OCD… it’s good old-fashioned irrational worry.

In today’s reading, we are still hearing from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus is talking about worry. So I’ve been thinking about worry.

And we are a people—we are a society—that worries.

We worry on a personal level about little things. I worry that I’ve left the garage door open or the front door unlocked.

We worry on a personal level about big things. I worry about accidentally burning down the church or hitting a patch of ice while I’m driving.

We even have a whole industry to help us mitigate our worry. I have car insurance in case I’m in an accident; health insurance in case I get sick or injured; home insurance in case something happens to my house; and a home warranty in case the water heater goes out. I even have that sewer line insurance in case something happens there.

And, of course, we worry on a social level about big things. We have people who tell us to worry: about terrorism and crime and the economy and immigration and a thousand other things. We live in a bubble of worry.

And here’s Jesus, standing on a mountain, preaching to the disciples, telling them—telling us—to stop freaking out.

“Do not worry,” he says, “God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. And you’re more valuable than they are. Won’t God take care of you? So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

And he’s serious. And he’s asking us about our faith.

‘Faith’ is a big word. It’s a word with a lot of history. It’s a word with a lot of baggage. But when you strip all of that away, ‘faith’ just means… ‘trust’.

We have faith in our family and friends… we trust them.

We have faith in our schools and workplaces and coworkers… we trust them.

We have faith in our pastor… I hope… we trust him.

And those faiths are important. And those faiths are little.

But there’s also this big faith. When you’re down and out, when you’re lost in the wilderness, when no one’s around, when your family and friends are miles away, when you are trapped and desperate… where are you going to turn?

Are you going to build up treasures on earth, thinking that they will protect you in times of trouble? Are you going to put your faith in wealth? Are you going to put your faith in money?

It’s common sense, isn’t it? Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life; and money meets every need (Ecclesiastes 10:19). It’s right there in the Bible.

And I’ll be honest: I’m lucky enough to have money. I serve a church that, in accordance with Conference guidelines, pays me well and provides good benefits. I get to have health and dental and vision and life insurance. I can own a house and pay for home insurance and a home warranty and sewer line insurance. My wife is excellent at budgeting, and makes sure that we can pay all of the bills, and that we have plenty saved for a rainy day.

I am incredibly lucky. I could go through most of my life trusting money to see me through.

But I am wise enough to know that could all go away. I could lose my job. I could get too sick for my health insurance to save me. I could end up underwater on my house. We could spend through our savings. We could face a time of trial that is too great for money to save us. I have seen it happen to others… and I know it could happen to me.

Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life; and money meets every need… until it doesn’t.

When you’re down and out, and in your pocket there’s not one penny, and as for friends, well, you don’t have any… where are you going to turn?

Are you going to build up treasures on earth, thinking that they will protect you in times of trouble? Are you going to put your faith in wealth? Are you going to put your faith in money?

Or are you going to build up treasures in heaven, trusting that the creator of the universe, who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field, will give us our daily bread and rescue us from evil? Are you going to put your faith in God?

I want to be careful here. I don’t think, in this day and age, that we should give up all that we have. I don’t think, in the winter in Iowa, that we should all sell our houses and empty our bank accounts. I don’t think that Jesus is calling us to homelessness and starvation.

But Jesus is telling us that we cannot serve both God and wealth. We cannot be Christians and lovers of money. We have to choose.

Now, there are some people who will tell you to make your faith in God subservient to your faith in money. They will tell you that the reward for your faithfulness to God is wealth here on earth. They will tell you that, if you give money to their church as a demonstration of your faith, God will put you behind the wheel of a large automobile or in a beautiful house. And those people are wrong.

What I am telling you—and what I believe Christ is telling us—is that we should make our wealth subservient to God. We should ask how we can use what we have to expand the kingdom of God… by feeding the hungry and giving something to drink to the thirsty; by welcoming the stranger and giving clothing to the naked; by caring for the sick and loving the prisoner.

And that…

Way back at the end of November, when we were decorating the church for Christmas, we got the Advent wreath and the Advent candles out.

I wanted to make sure that they were okay, so I lit them. Later, we finished decorating, turned out the lights, locked up the church, and left. And I was sure that I had blown out the candles… but there was a little itchy feeling in the back of my brain: what if I hadn’t blown them out? What if I burned down the church?

And I remembered that, as we were all leaving, Mark had said something about coming back to the church to pick something up or drop something off. So I pulled into a Casey’s parking lot in Eldridge, and I called Mark, and I asked him to make sure that the candles were out when he got back to the church.

And that might not seem like much. But I didn’t have to be worried about that anymore.

And the truth is that when we share what we have—when we share our time and our talent and those treasures that God has entrusted to us here on earth—there is more than enough. And no one needs to worry.

God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. And God has given humanity more than enough to go around. Our God is a God of extravagant generosity and infinite abundance. God has simply spread those gifts around in a way that gives us another gift: the chance to share, to give, and to accept gifts.

And when we do that—when a little bit of God’s kingdom has come and a little bit of God’s will is done—then everyone will have enough and more than enough, and debts will be wiped away, and we won’t face times of trial, and evil will shrink away to nothing, and no one will have to worry.

And that is good news.

Salt

A long time ago—before I was your pastor, before I was a fundraiser, before I even went to seminary—I was a cook. I worked in a little upscale restaurant in a midsize college burg. And while we were never going to win a Michelin star, we were pretty good. And while I’m never going to win a James Beard award, I’m pretty good.

And I know a couple of things about salt.

First, I know that salt goes in everything. A dish without salt is a dish without flavor.

Grilling meat? Salt. Pepper. Sear.

Roasting asparagus? A drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper (and, if you want, garlic and parmesan). Four hundred and twenty-five degrees for about fifteen minutes.

Making pasta? Boiling water. Pasta. Salt. More. More than that. You’re not quite trying to cook pasta in the Mediterranean, but an eight quart stock pot can take about a quarter cup of salt.

Salt goes in everything.

Second. I know that salt goes in early.

If you add the salt as you finish a dish, you end up with a strong salty flavor wherever the salt crystals happen to be. But if you add it at the beginning, it has time to mellow out and spread throughout the dish. You get a flavor that is subtle but noticeable… and delicious.

Salt goes in everything. And salt goes in early.

In today’s reading, we are at the beginning of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

Now, I have to be honest, this isn’t really a sermon. It is quite possible that Jesus never said these exact things in this exact order.

But Jesus was a teacher and a preacher. And even though it’s likely that no one remembered a whole sermon, people remembered bits and pieces. People remembered the themes and ideas that he talked about again and again. And when Matthew was writing his gospel, he put Jesus on a mountain, like Moses on Sinai, and had him say these bits and pieces in this order.

Luke does something similar. He puts Jesus on a plain, and has him say some different bits and pieces in a different order.

And I’m not pointing out just to show off how much I know about the Bible. I’m pointing that out because some of what we’re reading here is Jesus. And some of it is Matthew. And we don’t really know which is which.

But one of the things that Jesus says… is about salt.

“You are the salt of the earth;” he says, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

Now, I know that Jesus wasn’t talking about grilling meat or roasting asparagus or boiling pasta or cooking anything else.

You see, in the ancient world, salt was so much more than a ubiquitous seasoning that sat on the table. It was used in food, both as a seasoning and a preservative. Newborns were rubbed with salt (something, by the way, that you should not do). Salt was used in sacrifices.

Our word ‘salary’ even comes from the word for salt. Either because people were sometimes paid in salt, or because people were paid so that they could buy salt.

I even remember a story—and I’m sorry that I can’t remember the source—about a thief who broke into a house. He had filled his bag with precious things and began rooting through the kitchen. He stuck his hand in a jar and discovered that he was touching salt. That simple act connected him to the homeowner… and he put everything that he had taken back, and left in peace.

Salt was important. It was vital. And, “You,” he says, “are the salt of the earth.”

And salt goes in everything. And salt goes in early.

Last week, I talked about some of the things that Christianity asks us to believe: That there is a God who came to live as one of us among a dispossessed people under the rule of a great empire, who was executed by the powers of that empire and who got back up again, and who is working within us and among us to heal this broken world.

That no matter who we are, or where we are on life’s journey, or what struggles we are having, God has been there, too.

But Christianity isn’t just a list of beliefs. It’s a way of life. And there are a lot of different ideas about what that way of life should be. And Matthew gives us one vision of that way of life:

Be the salt of the earth. Be poor in spirit. Mourn for the world and its sorrows. Be meek. Hunger and thirst for righteousness. Be merciful. Be pure in heart. Make peace. Stand up for righteousness and for Christ, even when the whole world is against you. Do those things—be those things—and your reward will be great in the world to come.

And, later this morning, we’re going to vote on another vision of that way of life:

Be a Christian community. Worship the God who we encounter in Jesus Christ. Welcome and celebrate all people, and call each other towards greater wholeness in God. Serve one another and the wider community. Grow together in faith and towards God’s kingdom.

Now, these aren’t mutually exclusive ways of life. We can do all of these things… and so many more. But the key thing about a way of life is that it isn’t just for an hour on Sunday morning. And it isn’t just for the few hours a week we’re in this building. It’s all the time.

We are called to be the salt of the earth when we are spending time with our family and friends. We are called to be poor in spirit when we’re arguing with our kids. We are called to hunger and thirst for righteousness when we are adding something to our Amazon wish list. We are called to make peace when we are standing in the voting booth.

And, if we vote in favor of the proposed statement of identity and purpose later this morning, we are going to be called to worship God through our time at work or at school; to welcome celebrate all people when we’re sitting in traffic; to serve one another and the wider community when we’re walking downtown; and to grow together in faith in all of our interactions with each other and the world.

And that goes for all of us. There are not some of us who are called to be merciful, and others who are called to be pure in heart, and others who are called to stand up for righteousness and for Christ. We are all called to that work.

And there is not one committee that is called to take care of worship, and another that is called to welcome people, and another that is called to serve people, and another that is called to help us grow. We are all called to that work.

We are all called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world… all the time.

I’ll be honest: there are times when that’s going to be hard. There are going to be times when we fail. There are going to be times when we mess up.

There is another sermon about when we fail. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometime. It’s not this sermon. But I can tell you that it ends with some good news: no matter how often we fail, no matter how many times we mess up, no matter how often we feel like our salt has washed away or our light has flickered out… Jesus is there to help us get our flavor back and our candle relit.

But this sermon ends this way: you are the salt of the world. And salt goes in everything. And salt goes in early. Salt melts into the dish and brings out of the best. Salt preserves the good. Salt blesses the new. Salt seasons a sacrifice to God. Salt binds us together in peace and harmony.

And you are the salt of the world. You bring out the best. You preserve the good. You bless the new. You season a sacrifice to God. You bring people together in peace and harmony.

You can do amazing things. You can change the world. You can make the kingdom of God just a little bit bigger. You can heal this broken world.

And not just you… we.

We can do amazing things. We can change the world. We can make the kingdom of God just a little bit bigger.

By the grace of God, we can heal this broken world. Hallelujah. Thanks be to God!

I’ve Been Here Before

There is a scene from The West Wing. You’re going to find that I bring up that show every now and again.

Leo McGarry is the White House Chief of Staff. He’s also an alcoholic.

A few years before the scene in the show, he was sober. And then he fell off the wagon. It was an important night during the president’s first campaign, and he was meeting with some donors, and they decided to have a drink. So Leo had a drink. And then another one. And then another one.

And someone in the scene asks him how he could have a drink.

And he replies, “I’m an alcoholic. I don’t have one drink… I don’t understand people who have one drink. I don’t understand people who leave half a glass of wine on the table. I don’t understand people who say they’ve had enough. How can you have enough of feeling like this? How can you not want to feel like this longer?”

And he says, “My brain works differently.”

And I’m bringing up this scene because I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not sure that his brain really does work that differently

We are Christians. And Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things:

In a God who you can’t see and, sometimes, who you can’t even feel.

In the idea that that God came to live as one of us, 2,000 years ago, in a backwater province of a great empire, among a dispossessed people.

That that God-become-one-of-us was executed by the powers or that empire… and that he got back up again.

That the sprit of that God is in us and around us and advocating for us and empowering us.

That someday, this world that is so messed up in so many ways, will get better.

And sometimes, we have to take those things on faith. We have to trust that they are true. Even if we can’t quite be sure.

But there is something in Christianity that is empirically verifiable. There is something in Christianity that we can know is true… for certain… without one iota of doubt: the world is messed up; we are messed up.

We all have our thing. We all have our things. We all have those feelings that we will pursue no matter what, no matter how it gets in the way of being the people we want to be, not matter how much it hurts us… or our friends… or our families… or complete strangers.

To put it in Christian terms: we all experience temptation and we all give in. I know I do.

In today’s reading, Jesus is tempted. It says so right in the Bible: the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Last week, we saw Jesus come to John the Baptizer in the river Jordan. And he asked John to baptize him. And John tried to respond the same way any of us would respond, “No. You are the Messiah, the king of kings and the lord of lords. I need to be baptized by you.”

And Jesus said, “No. We’re doing it this way.”

And John baptized Jesus. And as Jesus was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened. The Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

And you would think that would be the end of the story. Jesus is baptized, his sonship is confirmed, now it’s time to go into the world and recruit some disciples and perform some miracles and get on with things.

But no… we’re doing it this way. That same Spirit grabs Jesus and takes him into the wilderness: away from John and the river and his family and his community. And he fasts for forty days and forty nights and he is famished. And here comes the tempter.

“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? You’re hungry? Turn these stones into bread.”

“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? Here is the pinnacle of the Temple. Throw yourself down from here and have angels rescue you.”

“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? Here are all the kingdoms of the world. You can have all of them. Just worship me.”

And I have to believe that Jesus was tempted. I have to believe that he was tempted because scripture says so: the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit did not fail. And I have to believe that he was tempted because he is fully God and fully human, and temptation is part of being fully human.

Jesus resisted temptation. And part of how Jesus did that is by relying on scripture.

“You want me to turn stones into bread? ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

“You want me to throw myself off of the pinnacle of the Temple so that I can be rescued? ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

“You want me to worship you? ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

And the devil leaves… and that’s great. But the reality of temptation is that quoting scripture doesn’t always work. And the devil can quote scripture, too. And Jesus is still hungry.

The reality of temptation is that it is universal. We all have those moments when we are tempted to step away from the life that God wants us to have. For some of us, it’s the usual tempting culprits. I don’t need to name them. You know them.

For some of us, they are things that we can justify. For some of us, it’s the things that we can justify using scripture:

Homophobia: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)

Greed: “Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life, and money meets every need.” (Ecclesiastes 10:19)

Child abuse: “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” (Proverbs 13:24)

Refusing to help someone who is poor: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

The devil is a master of making sin look righteous. And he can quote scripture, too.

(And, by the way, that’s the danger of taking just a verse: context matters; interpretation matters; love matters.)

And, for some of us, the culprit is the high we get from judging someone else who is being tempted or who has succumbed to temptation.

Temptation is universal. We have all been there. We have all failed. We are all in this together.

But here’s the thing: God has been there, too. Christ faced the devil. He prevailed, but he was tempted. It says so right in the Bible: the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

There is a scene from The West Wing. Josh is the Deputy White House Chief of Staff. And he has PTSD. Leo arranges for him to see a psychiatrist. And after Josh sees the psychiatrist, he talks to Leo. And Leo tells him a story:

This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

We are Christians. And Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things. And I’ll be honest, the biggest thing it asks us to believe is that God has been there, too.

Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things. And I’ll be honest, the biggest thing it asks us to believe is that God has been there, too. Click To Tweet

The world is messed up; we are messed up. We are stuck in this hole and we don’t know how to get out. And Christ jumps in with us. And that’s crazy. It is so crazy that generations of people have criticized Christianity on the grounds that our God is too weak, and doesn’t crush his enemies under his foot, and doesn’t rule the world by force, like any real god would do.

Christ jumps in with us. And that’s crazy.

But Christ can truly say, “It’s okay. I’ve been here before. I know the way out. Follow me.”

That doesn’t mean that things will be easy. Being a Christian—taking the waters of baptism—doesn’t solve our problems all in one go.

After Jesus sends the devil away, he is still hungry. And angels show up to wait on him. And that… that doesn’t happen for us. Unless, by the grace of God, we serve each other. Unless we put aside that temptation to judge our friends and neighbors who are struggling with temptation. Unless we admit that we’ve all been there. 

Unless we jump in the hole and say, “I’ve been down here before, and together, by the grace of God, we can find the way out.”

We are messed up, but we are not alone. We have each other. And we have a God who has been there before. Thanks be to God!

Baptism

Way back in June, we had a baptism. James and Brianne stood at the front of the church, and I held a kind of squirmy Kaelyn, and I baptized her in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And it was a wonderful day. We welcomed Kaelyn into our family… our little corner of the Kingdom of God.

And, later, someone asked me how I felt about what was obviously my first baptism. And I laughed it off.

But the truth is, that wasn’t my first baptism. It was just my first baptism that wasn’t in a hospital… and my first baptism where the clock wasn’t ticking, or where the clock hadn’t already struck.

You see, baptism is one of our sacraments. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace.

In the Catholic and Orthodox churches, there are seven of these sacraments: baptism, confession, communion, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing the sick. For our Lenten program later this year, we’ll be reading a memoir by Rachel Held Evans organized around those seven sacraments.

In the United Church of Christ—and in most Protestant churches—there are two sacraments. We push confession, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing the sick aside. They’re important, but they’re not sacraments. We stick with baptism and communion. 

And we stick with those two because, we say, they were instituted by Christ himself. 

Communion on the night he was betrayed, when he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and shared it with his friends, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.” And likewise, after supper, when he took the cup and blessed it and shared it, saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you. As often as you drink of it, do this in remembrance of me.”

And baptism when… well…

A few weeks ago, during Advent, we met Zechariah and Elizabeth. 

They had a son, named John, and they were told that he would be great in the sight of the Lord. He would turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. The spirit and power of the prophet Elijah would go before him. He would make ready a people prepared for the Lord. And I can only imagine how proud they must have been when they imagined the great man that their son would be.

And in today’s reading, we see John… all grown up.

He lives in the wilderness. He wears camel hair clothes and a leather belt. He lives on locusts and wild honey. And the locusts might be a misunderstanding of a word for pancake, or they might be the pods from the carob tree, or they might be insects. He baptizes people in the water of the river Jordan for repentance. He calls Pharisees and Sadducees—Pharisees and Sadducees(!)—a brood of vipers.

He talks about the one who will come after him: the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

And then the one who will come after him… shows up.

It has to be a strange moment. Here is Jesus, the Messiah, king of kings and lord of lords, standing before John in the Jordan, asking to be baptized.

And John responds the same way anyone would respond, “Why are you asking me to baptize you? You’re the Messiah, the king of kinds and lord of lords. I’m not fit to tie your shoes. I need to be baptized by you.”

And Jesus says, “No. We’re doing it this way.”

And John baptizes him, and the heavens open, and the Holy Spirit descends, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Baptism is a sacrament. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. And it’s hard to get a more outward and visible sign of God’s grace than the heavens opening and the Spirit descending, and a voice saying, “I am well pleased with you.”

But understand this, because this is so important. Baptism is not a sacrament because Christ performed the first baptism. Baptism isn’t even a sacrament because Christ was the first person to be baptized. 

Baptism is a sacrament simply because Christ joined us in being baptized; and simply because we can join him in that baptism. Whether it’s through a few drops on our heads or being dunked in a river.

And even more: through baptism we join in each other in this family, in the this little corner of the Kingdom of God, and in the whole great big Kingdom of God. Whether we are being baptized in a church on a bright sunny summer morning or in a hospital at the last possible minute or anywhere or anywhen else.

It is no secret that we live in deeply divided times. One of the beautiful things about the United Church of Christ in general—and about First Congregational United Church of Christ in particular—is our diversity. I don’t want to overstate things, we could be a lot more diverse. But one of the joys of serving this church and this denomination is that I get to work with all sorts of people.

And that isn’t always easy. We don’t always get along. We argue.

Sometimes, we argue over important things. Sometimes, we argue over petty things. Sometimes, we argue in a spirit of love. Sometimes, we argue in a spirit of anger. Sometimes, that happens in church. Sometimes, that happens in families. Sometimes, that happens in politics. It happens everywhere. We live in deeply divided times.

Even as a pastor, it can be easy to be pessimistic and fall into the same patterns that we see everywhere else. As a church and as a nation, we face serious challenges; and we live in deeply divided times… and I have this chance to stand in front of you on Sunday morning— behind the authority of the pulpit—and speak to you.

And in the midst of the brokenness of this world, when I preach on controversial things anyway, it can be tempting to speak like John did to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It can be tempting to preach his little sermon:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

And I’m not going to promise that you will never hear that sermon. I’m not going to promise that I will never preach it.

But today—on this Baptism of Christ Sunday—I am hopeful. Because in spite of all of the divisions in the church and in the world, we in this sanctuary, and in churches around the world, are united by the bonds of our baptism.

In spite of all of our differences and disagreements… Maybe even because of them, we are one body, guided by one spirit, called to one hope under the rule of one Lord, sharing one faith, cleansed by the waters of one baptism, worship one God the mother of all.

That is a truth… and that is an opportunity.

You may have noticed that there is something new in the order of worship today. Already this year, I’ve moved some things around… and today, after the sermon, is a time for silent reflection. We’re going to try this for a little while and see how it works; we’re going to take a moment to think about what we heard in the scripture and what we heard in the sermon and what we’ve encountered in our worship and how we can apply it in our lives.

And I’m not going to end every sermon like this.

But today, I want you to think about that person—or, maybe, those people—who you don’t get along with. And I want you to think about the water that touched Christ… and the water that touched you… and the water that touched them. I want you to think about water and the spirit and the promise that binds us together. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

And the next time that person—or, maybe, those people—are getting you riled up or getting on your last nerve… the next time you feel the bile of anger and hatred rise up in you… think about that water… and the way that it connects you… as beloved children of God.

Baptism is a sacrament. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. 

But it isn’t a sacrament because Christ performed the first baptism. And it isn’t a sacrament because Christ was the first person to be baptized. It is a sacrament because Christ—whose shoes we are not fit to tie, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, who carries the winnowing fork, and who will one day clear the threshing floor—joined us in being baptized and bound us inextricably together as one people.

Hallelujah. Amen.

Refugees

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

In today’s reading from Matthew, we hear this line from the prophet Jeremiah about Rachel, in the city of Ramah, weeping for her children.

You see, a long time ago, there was a man named Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. And Jacob fell in love with Rachel. He was so in love with her that he agreed to work for her father for seven years in order to win her hand in marriage. And, after seven years, he was tricked into marrying Rachel’s sister Leah, instead. And Rachel’s father explained that Leah was the older sister, and that it was only right that she marry first.

So Jacob worked another seven years in order to win Rachel’s hand. And she bore him two children: Joseph and Benjamin. And, through them, she was the ancestor of three of the tribes of Israel: Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin.

And, much later, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in Jerusalem… and they assembled the people in Ramah… and they sent them into exile in Babylon, cut off from the land that God had promised them.

And Jeremiah writes about this, the destruction of the people, the exile in Babylon:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Last week, I heard this story.

A woman from Honduras left that country to escape an abusive relationship. She left her home and her friends, and she hitchhiked and rode buses and walked thousands of miles to Tijuana, Mexico. And she carried her five-month-old daughter the whole way.

When she got to Tijuana, she put her name on a list to be allowed to ask for asylum in the United States. She did not ask for asylum; she put her name on a list that would eventually allowher to ask for asylum. But… the list had a four month wait. So she hopped a fence. And she was caught. And she was taken into custody.

Now, her daughter was sick. And she had been treating her with antibiotics. But Customs and Border Protection took the antibiotics away. And when she asked for a doctor, she was called an invader and told that she wasn’t in a position to ask for anything. And she and her daughter were kept in a freezing cell; what other migrants call una hielera, an icebox.

Later, they were released. And they got to some family and they went to the hospital. Her daughter’s health deteriorated, she stopped breathing, and the woman was told to… to prepare for her daughter to die. She had pneumonia. What could they do?

The story has a happy-ish ending. The baby lived. Others haven’t been so lucky. A couple of migrant children have died. A few adults have died. Others have come close.

And I know that there are people in this sanctuary who disagree with what that mother did. I know that there are people who will say that she shouldn’t have travelled all those miles and that she shouldn’t have jumped that fence.

But no matter how we feel about what she did, I cannot imagine how it must feel for someone to be so frightened that she picks up her daughter and travels thousands of risky miles for nothing more than the hope that her family could start a new life in a distant country. And I cannot image how it must feel for her to do all of that… and then be called an invader… and have medicine taken away… and watch her daughter almost die.

But Jeremiah gives me the words:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

And Mary might know how it feels.

In today’s reading from Matthew, we hear this line from the prophet Jeremiah about Rachel, in the city of Ramah, weeping for her children… and we meet these wise men.

You see, there are these wise men from the east. And they see a star rising in the west, over the country of Judea, a backwater province in a great empire. They are the kind of wise men who know what stars mean, and they say, “That star means that a child has been born; the king of the Jews.”

So they go to Judea. They go to Herod, who is already king of the Jews. They go to Herod, who was made king of the Jews by Mark Antony and the Roman Senate. They go to Herod, who was made king of the Jews according to the will of Rome.

And they say to him, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

And when Herod hears this, he is afraid.

Herod is powerful. And he likes his power. And he knows who he owes his power to.

This is the king of the Jews who built the Temple Mount, and then installed a golden eagle—a symbol of Rome—at its gate. He built fortresses to protect himself during an insurrection. He taxed his people relentlessly, used secret police to monitor the people, tried to suppress protests, and had opponents removed by force. He is a despot and a tyrant.

He has to be thinking, “No child has been born in my house… But there is a Messiah to come, who will overturn the order that made me king and gave the throne of Judea to my house. And that Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.”

So he sends the wise men to Bethlehem. And he tells them, “When you have found the child, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

The wise men follow the star to Bethlehem and find Jesus and his family. And they pay him homage and give him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. On the one hand, these are practical gifts. Money and—in a time before daily bathing—perfumes. On the other hand, these are symbolic gifts. Gold for a king, frankincense for the worship of a God, myrrh as a perfume used in burial.

And then, in a dream, a warning comes: “Do not return to Herod. He isn’t planning on paying homage.” So they go home by a different route.

And then, in a dream, a warning comes to Joseph: “Herod knows. He will search for the child and he will kill him. Take the child and his mother. Flee to Egypt and start there until I tell you. Now! Run!”

And Herod sends his troops to Bethlehem. He knows when that star rose, so he knows when the child was born. And his troops kill every child in and around Bethlehem who is two years old or younger.

And if you listen closely, you can hear it: a voice in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

Jesus was Lord at his birth. And then he was a refugee.

And I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Mary to be so frightened that she picked up her son—Jesus Christ, our lord and our savior, king of kings and lord of lords, our wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace—and walked hundreds of miles to start a new life in a distant land.

And I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Mary to think about her friends and family in Bethlehem, who did not receive a warning, who did not make it out, and who wailed and wept because their children were no more.

But I do know this: we have a choice.

We can stand with Herod, secure in our power and our comfort, building monuments and fortresses… but knowing that if we do that, we can only do that because of the violence being done in our name: because someone, somewhere, is taking medicine away from a five-month-old.

Or we can stand beside Mary. 

Mary, who is pregnant and scared and far from home, looking for a place to stay, and being told that there is no room left at the inn.

Mary, who is fleeing the slaughter of the innocents. 

Mary, who is sitting at the border in una hielera, scared to death because her child is sick and she has no medicine.

And that doesn’t mean that, as a country, we have to let everyone who shows up at our borders in.

But it does mean that, as a church, as Christians, as a little consulate of the Kingdom of God, we do have to take responsibility for everyone who is so afraid that they will pick of their child and walk God-only-knows-how-far in the hope of starting a new life in a new land.

And we have to do that because when we welcome that child—when we take responsibility for that refugee—we are welcoming Jesus Christ, our lord and our savior, king of kings and lord of lords, our wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace. 

And by welcoming him into our home, we step into his kingdom.

And when we do that… when we do that, Rachel will cease her weeping and be consoled, because she will know that her children are safe.

Astonished and Amazed

I have gotten in trouble for a sermon once. 

When I say ‘in trouble’, I don’t mean that someone had a question or wanted to have a conversation about something that they disagreed with. 

When I say ‘in trouble’, I mean that I was pulled aside after the service and given a lecture about how what I preached was dangerous and wrong. 

I have gotten in trouble for a sermon once. And it was a children’s sermon.

Now, what I had said to the kids was that you don’t need permission to do good. You don’t need permission to love someone, or be kind to someone, or to stand up for someone.

And what this particular parent heard was, “You don’t ever need permission to do anything… you can do whatever your want.”

I don’t have any children of my own, but I can understand how that might not be a message that you want your child to hear. Sometimes, it’s important to get permission. And, when it comes to children and their parents, it’s important to be clear about what sorts of things need a parent’s permission and what sorts of things don’t.

So… I stand by the message of that children’s sermon. You do not need permission to do good. You do need permission to do other things. And one of the things that you probably should get permission for is staying in Jerusalem after the Passover festival when your parents are heading home.

Let me back up a little bit.

In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus is twelve years old.

We don’t get many stories about Jesus as a child. The gospels tend to jump from the nativity story—if they have one at all—straight to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he’s around thirty years old. 

That’s a big chunk of time to skip. And there are countless theories about what Jesus was doing during that time. There are people who think that he was a carpenter with his dad. There are people who think that he traveled to India to learn the wisdom of Eastern sages. There are people who think any number of other things.

But when it comes to the stories that we have in the Bible, this is the one that we hear about Jesus being a kid.

Every year, his family would go from their home in Nazareth to the temple in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. According to ancient sources, there would have been a huge number of people—millions of Jews—from all over the area in Jerusalem for the Passover. They would made their sacrifices at the temple, celebrate for about a week, and then head home.

And this year, like every other year, when Passover ended, Mary and Joseph joined up with the other travelers heading in the direction of Nazareth and started their journey home. And they assumed that the twelve-year-old Jesus was somewhere in the group.

And, after about a day, they realized that Jesus was… not so much in the group.

So they went back to Jerusalem and looked for him. And, after three days, they found him at the temple… listening to teachers and scholars, and asking questions, and answering their questions. And everyone was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

Everyone was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

It is easy to believe that, in this moment, with Jesus surrounded by teachers and scholars, questioning and answering with the best of them… it is easy to believe that, in this moment, Jesus is special.

And of course Jesus is special. He is the Word become flesh. He is the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father, through whom all things were made. Of course he is special.

But he is also not the only young person to sit around a group of adults and amaze them. I know that because I have met the young people in this church: the kids who come forward during our Time with Young Worshippers, the young people in our confirmation class, and youth who were part of our Christmas program. 

Week in and week out, I am blessed to see our young people do amazing things.

And it isn’t just our young people.

It’s Malala Yousafzai, who was blogging about her life in Taliban-occupied Pakistan for the BBC; who was shot for her activism; and who went on to found a nonprofit organization, write a book, win a Nobel Peace Prize, and become a tireless advocate for the right to education.

It’s the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, who endured unimaginable tragedy. And who responded to that tragedy by organizing rallies, giving interviews to magazines, appearing on television, and becoming tireless advocates for better gun control. And who have done that while making sure to include voices from other, less privileged, communities.

It’s Sophie Cruz, an eight year old American citizen whose parents are undocumented. And who has passed notes to the Pope, spoken to President Obama, and given speeches at rallies in support of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans.

And, so many years ago, it’s Ruby Bridges, being escorted to William Frantz Elementary School by U.S. Marshalls. The first black student at an all-white school in New Orleans.

And it’s so many others. I won’t even try to list names. While people my age (and older) are complaining about the kids being on their phones all the time, and constantly playing Fortnite, and listening to Dear Even Hansen all the time; actual young people—ordinary young people—are changing the world.

Young people are in the temple… listening to teachers and scholars… asking and answering questions… and being amazing.

When Mary and Joseph find Jesus at the temple, they are astonished. And Mary says to Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

And Jesus answers her, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Jesus is no baby meek and mild. He is a soon-to-be-teenager.

“Where did you think I would be?” he asks, “What did you think I would be doing?”

And he’s right. Almost thirteen years earlier an angel had visited Mary and said to her,

You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

She knew what kind of son she would be raising. Where did she think he would be? What did she think he would be doing?

Every young person who has tried to change the world has been asked that question: why are you treating us like this? Why are you adding to our anxiety? 

And some have faced much worse. Malala was shot. I’ve read the things that have been written about the kids from Parkland. People threatened to kill Ruby Bridges… to her face… every day… while she walked to that elementary school in New Orleans.

“Why are you treating us like this?” people ask, “Why are you adding to our anxiety?”

And we know the answer. If we raise our youth up right…

If we teach the the lessons that the author of Colossians asks us all to learn. Be clothed with compassion and kindness and humility and meekness and patience. Be clothed with love. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Teach and admonish with all wisdom. Sing with gratitude.

Let the peace and word of Jesus Christ, son of the Most High, who was once a twelve year old, at the temple, amazing the teachers and scholars, live in you.

If we raise our youth up right… what else do we think they would be doing than making the world a place of greater compassion and mercy and justice and love? If we raise our youth up right… where else do we think they would be than on the front lines of the issues that will affect them for the rest of their lives?

What else would be expect them to do… than be Christ-like?

When Mary and Joseph found Jesus at the temple, they were astonished.

And—the scripture goes on—after Jesus answered them, they did not understand what he said to them.

And—the scripture goes on—after they took him by the hand, and they all went home to Nazareth together, Mary treasured all these things in her heart.

There are going to be times when our youth ask permission for the things they should ask permission for. And there are going to be times when they don’t. And there are going to be times when we think they should have asked permission, but when they really shouldn’t have had to.

There are going to be times when we can give wisdom to our youth. And there are going to be times when those of us who are a little bit older need to clothe ourselves in compassion and kindness and humility and meekness and patience… and listen to the wisdom of our youth. They are, after all, learning much more than we’ll ever know.

And we will have the chance to be amazed at their understanding and their answers; to watch them grow in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor; and and to treasure all of these things in our hearts.

We’ll have the chance to let a child lead the way. Hallelujah. Amen.

The Christmas Story

God loved the world like this:

In the days when Israel was ruled by Rome, God sent an angel to a young woman named Mary, who was engaged to a man named Joseph, and that angel said,

You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

And when it was time for Mary to have her son, she and Joseph was in the town of Bethlehem. And because there was no room at the inn, they stayed in a stable. And Mary gave birth to the her son. And because they were in a stable, she took that Son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger. And the Son of the Most High was made low.

And in that same region there were shepherds: dirty, and smelly, and hanging out with sheep all the time. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them and said,

Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

And that angel and a host of angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

And the shepherds went to Bethlehem, and found a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. And they ran around telling everyone. The lowly telling the world about the Son of the Most High… made low.

And that is how the Word of God, who is with God and who is God, a light in the darkness through whom all things were made, came into the world to be one of us.

God loved the world like this: He made himself low for our sake. He made herself low… for us.

For the last four Sundays, we have been in the season of Advent. We have lit candles for hope and peace and joy and love. We have prepared for Jesus Christ to come into the world.

And now, on Christmas Eve, we stand on the threshold. We wait in holy anticipation for God to enter this world. Not as a conquering supernatural creature, but as a baby. Not in a palace in the capital of an empire, but in a manger in a small town in a backwater province. Not welcomed by kings and potentates, but by shepherds.

And we light a candle for Christ… our light in the darkness.

We know who we are through the stories that we tell. And we tell this story: that God came into the world as one of us, that God came into the world among the poor, and that if we want to find God we look among the least of us.

We know who we are through the stories that we tell. And this is a story that you’ve heard before. You’ve heard it on its own.

You’ve heard it mashed together with other stories in a Christmas pageant. You’ve heard Linus tell it, standing in a spotlight on a stage in a school auditorium, near a sad and small Christmas tree sitting on Schroeder’s little piano.

It’s a story that we hear every year. And we can get so used to it that it can fade into the background. It can become just this story that we tell amid all of the other things that happen during the Christmas season.

A few years ago, in my last job, I was flying home from Biloxi. I had been there for a board meeting or a staff development event or something. And I was at my usual layover in Atlanta or Dallas-Fort Worth. And I had done that thing where you wait for a couple of hours at the gate… and then you get on the plane… and then they discover a problem… and then you get off the plane… and then you go to another gate and wait there.

And I was tired and crabby and I just wanted to go home. And this guy started talking to me. And, somewhere in there he asked me what I did. And most of you know that I was a fundraiser for an organization that helps people living in poverty. So I slipped into fundraiser mode and told him what I did and what my employer did… and I think I stopped just short of asking him for money.

And then he asked me how I liked it. And—because I was tired and crabby and I just wanted to go home—I said something like this: “It’s okay. I get to eat food and live indoors.”

And a guy who was standing a little bit ahead of us in line looked back and said, “So you’re better off than the people you’re serving.”

I had gotten so wrapped up in my life and my work and my stress that I had forgotten why I did it. I was so tired that I had forgotten that there are people who drink so that it’s easier to sleep on the concrete under a bridge. I was so crabby that I had forgotten that there are people who are at the end of their ropes. I wanted to get home so badly that I had forgotten that there were people with no home to go to.

And I know that Christ was among them.

I know that it is Christmas Eve. This is a night of celebration and family and community and love. Christ is coming into the world! As a baby… in a small town in a backwater province… wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger… visited by shepherds.

But I can tell you that Christ has been here all along. He stays out of the way during the day, and sleeps on a bench in Lincoln Park at night, and goes to the Referral Center when he can.

She is sitting in a detention center at the border… and in a refugee camp in Jordan… and in a prison cell in Fort Madison.

They are walking out of their house because their parents didn’t accept them, and they are desperately seeking a community that will welcome them in, and give them a hug, and tell them that they are the precious child of a loving God.

Christ has been here all along. And we meet him in the hungry and the thirsty and the lonely, the naked and the sick and the imprisoned. And we tell this story—about a baby wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger—so that we can remember that.

Christ has been here all along. And we meet him in the hungry and the thirsty and the lonely, the naked and the sick and the imprisoned. Click To Tweet

We know who we are through the stories that we tell. And the Christmas story is about a poor and vulnerable God, who we meet among poor and vulnerable people, and who we serve through love and generosity.

It is, as G.K. Chesterton said, a story “built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”

It can be hard to remember that. It can be hard to remember that when we’re dealing with all of the stresses of our lives, like when we’re in an airport and we’re tired and we’re crabby and we just want to go home.

And it can be hard to remember during the holidays, when we have families to entertain, and parties to attend, and decorations to put up, and presents to buy, and food to cook.

So we light a candle. We light a candle for Christ.

We light a candle for a little baby who was wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger… and for every baby who needs love… which means, for every baby.

We light a candle for a man who ended up on the wrong side of power… and for everyone who is marginalized and threatened and hurt.

We light a candle for a God who loved the world like this: She made herself low for our sake… she became a light in the darkness, for us.

We light a candle… for Christ.

And we don’t just do that this week. We don’t just do that tonight.

Every week, someone carries a light into this sanctuary and places it on these candles on this table. They are symbols of the light of Christ, the light that shines in the darkness and that the darkness cannot overcome, the true light that enlightens everyone.

And every week, someone takes this these symbolic lights out of this sanctuary.

And, it’s true, all of us carry the light of Christ… in our hearts… out into the world.

And, it’s also true, all of us go into the world to look for that light, to look for Jesus in the places where he hangs out today… in the mangers of our world… among the shepherds of our world.

And every week, every day, every hour, we have the chance to bring good news of great joy to all people, to share good will with all of our neighbors, and, through our actions, to praise God.

Every week, every day, every hour, we have the chance to bring good news of great joy to all people, to share good will with all of our neighbors, and, through our actions, to praise God. Click To Tweet

Gloria in excelsis Deo. Glory to God in the highest!

Love

Right after I graduated from seminary, a lot of my friends began their first calls at their first churches. And that meant that, for the first time, they had to preach… every week.

And if you’ve never had to preach a sermon every week, then you might not know that preparing a sermon is a lot of work. You have to read the scripture, and think about it, and maybe do some research on it. You have to come up with stories and examples, which can mean more research. You have to figure out what jokes you’re going to tell and who you’re going to steal them from.

You have to check Facebook and Twitter, do a couple of crossword puzzles, see what’s new on Kickstarter, clean your house, plan dinners for the next couple of weeks. It’s work.

And, eventually, Saturday night rolls around and you’re left staring at a blank page.

Right after I graduated from seminary, a lot of my friends began their first calls at their first churches. And that meant that, for the first time, they had to preach every week. And that meant that on Saturday night there was always at least one person posting on Facebook, “Does anyone have an idea about how to preach on, say, Luke 1:39-55?”

There is always the temptation to wait for inspiration to strike. Which is why, as some of you know, I write my sermons on Mondays. By the end of the day on Monday—by the time of an evening meeting or hanging out with friends—I try to have a sermon done, or a solid first draft, or a good start.

Because “inspiration is for amateurs,” said the painter Chuck Close, “the rest of us show up and get to work.”

A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptizer. And, in today’s reading, we hear that when Elizabeth was pregnant with John, her relative Mary came to visit. Mary is also pregnant, and John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit and proclaims Mary blessed.

And Mary responds with poem that has become famous. It has become a prayer and a song and something that people in churches around the world and across time recite:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

It’s a little bit of a love song to God. And today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, when we light a candle for love.

We light this candle in recognition of the love that God has for this world. And God loves the world in this way: she sent her son into it to live fully and completely as one of us.

We light this candle in recognition of the love that we, like Mary, have for God; to remember that we come together to magnify the Lord who has looked on us with favor.

We light this candle in recognition of the love that we are called to have for each other and for all creation; even though we don’t always love as we should.

We light a candle for love.

And it is easy to think that this love is a feeling… that it’s like inspiration.

And, sometimes, it is. Some of us can remember back to our early days with our spouse or partner and how quickly that feeling of love came up. Some of us can remember back to our youth, and how love—or, at least ‘like like’—lurked around every corner. 

And some of you can remember the first time you held your child in your arms, and the feelings of love that overwhelmed you. I imagine that Zechariah and Elizabeth felt that love when they first saw their son John. And I imagine that Joseph and Mary felt that love when they first saw their son Jesus.

Sometimes, love is a feeling. And it can be an overwhelming feeling. It can turn us into heroes and fools. We do amazing things—and, sometimes, incredibly stupid things—for love.

But love is more than a feeling. Love is an action.

Now, don’t get me wrong, how we feel matters… a little bit. We can love and do it badly. We can love and make mistakes.

But love is still an action. Love is lived out. Love is giving food to someone who is hungry and drink to someone who is thirsty and clothing to someone who is naked; it is welcoming the stranger and caring for the sick and visiting the prisoner. Love is patience and kindness and forbearance and belief and hope and endurance.

Love is action, whether we’re feeling it or not.

And the fact is that love can be hard. It can be hard to love our families and our friends. That’s true in the everydayness of the year. It’s especially true around the holidays.

Right now, we are surrounded by images and movies showing meticulously decorated houses and home-cooked gourmet meals that meet every expectation of diet and taste. We are busily picking out gifts that say, “I spent enough to show that I care, but not so much that you, the recipient, feel bad about what you’re about to give me.”

We measure ourselves against impossible standards of togetherness. And, sometimes, get a little resentful towards all those people who aren’t helping us meet the Hallmark ideal.

It can be hard to love our families and our friends. But it can be even harder to love all of those people who we don’t know; who we’ve never met; who we’ve only seen out of the corner of our eye, if at all.

We can see that in our rhetoric around things like poverty and immigration. A simple phrase like ‘undeserving poor’ or ‘illegal immigrant’ can show us how hard it can be to love our neighbors who are also strangers, whether they are walking into the Referral Center, or waiting in line at an immigration checkpoint in Tijuana, or sitting in a refugee camp in the Middle East.

It can be hard to love our families and our friends. It can be even harder to love all of those people who we don’t know. It can be almost impossible to love our enemies.

Love can be hard.

And when something is hard, it can be easy to set it aside. It can be easy to say, “I don’t have what it takes to love my family and friends right now. I don’t have what it takes to love those strangers right now. I don’t have what it takes to love my enemies right now.”

It can be easy to set the hard things aside and wait for inspiration to strike.

But inspiration is for amateurs. Professionals show up and get to work. And we are Christians. And, as Christians, we are called to be professionals at love. We are called to show up and get to work.

And that’s why it is so important that love isn’t just a feeling. That’s why it’s so important that love is action, whether we’re feeling it or not.

Because, even if we’re not feeling it… we can do it.

When that painter, Chuck Close, said that inspiration is for amateurs, what he meant was this. Sometimes, when you are painting—or playing an instrument or writing a sermon—you don’t have anything.

And so you take a color and you paint a line. Or you play a few notes. Or you write, “Right after I graduated from seminary, a lot of my friends began their first calls at their first churches. And that meant that, for the first time, they had to preach… every week.”

And then you paint another line and another and another. Or you play another note or a phrase or a snippet of melody. Or you write a few more words, and then a sentence, and then a paragraph.

And, gradually, something comes out of the work. And, gradually, you start to feel the thing coming out of the work.

Being inspired just means getting filled with the spirit. And by doing the work, we make room for the spirit to get in the mix. And, before too long, we are inspired to do the thing we were already doing.

If you want to love… go out and love. If you want to be filled with the spirit of love… go out and love.

Love can be hard. We do not love as we should. I am not always good at love.

So I light a candle.

I light a candle as a reminder that I don’t have to feel love to give love.

I light a candle as a reminder that the work of loving is what makes room for the spirit of love.

I light a candle as a little light in the darkness that I can follow in love. A little light in the darkness that tells me that I can love my way into… well, that I can love my way into greater love.

I light a candle to say, let my soul magnify the Lord, let my spirit rejoice, and let God, in her mercy, make me an instrument of her love.

I light a candle… for love.

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