Bigger Than You Think

This sermon was delivered at Peace Lutheran ELCA in Port Byron, Illinois on February 4, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Mark 1:26-39 and Isaiah 40:21-31.

Today’s gospel reading is a strange little episode… or maybe even a set of episodes. It’s transition after transition after transition.

Not long ago, John the Baptist was arrested, and Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. As he was traveling by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers fishing — Simon and Andrew — and he called them to follow him. And they did.

And it isn’t important to the story or this sermon, but Simon is another name for Peter. Jesus was calling the man who would hold the keys to the kingdom.

As Jesus, Simon, and Andrew continued along the Sea of Galilee, they saw two other brothers mending nets — James and John — and Jesus called them to follow him. And they did.

And they all went to Capernaum, where Jesus taught in the synagogue and cast our demons.

And then we’re to today’s reading. At a dizzying pace, the group goes to Simon’s house, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, they bring many sick people to the house, Jesus heals them, Jesus goes to a quiet place to pray, Simon and the others find him, and they head out to preach in the neighboring towns. Mark is a gospel that’s well-known for being in a hurry to get to the next thing. Even for Mark, the pacing here it a little ridiculous.

The hurry hides so much. Let’s slow down a little. Let’s take a deep breath. Let’s focus.

Jesus and his new disciples go to Simon’s house, where Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever. We don’t know how serious her illness is. We don’t know how long she’s had it. But she’s suffering. And it’s bad enough that the people in the house — Simon’s family — tell Jesus right away. Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand, lifts her up, and heals her. And she immediately begins serving her son-in-law and his brother and these three strangers they’ve brought home.

And then, at sunset, the people of Capernaum bring everyone who is sick or possessed by demons to Simon’s house. And the whole city is gathered around the door.

What started with one person — what started with Simon’s mother-in-law — ends with the whole city at the door.

And that should feel familiar. Again and again, we have to learn that so many things that we want to dismiss as isolated incidents — one person who is sick, one person who is haunted by demons — are merely the tips of icebergs. It’s almost never just Simon’s mother-in-law. It’s almost always an entire city.

If you’ve been following the news lately, you know at least some of the details of what I’m about to tell you. In September 2016, a former gymnast named Rachael Denhollander made a public accusation against Larry Nassar. At the time, Nassar was a doctor, a professor at Michigan State University, and the team physician for the United States Women’s Artistic Gymnastics Team. Denhollander accused Nassar of molesting her when she was a fifteen year old gymnast in Michigan.

She was not the first person to accuse Nassar. She was just the first one who people listened to.

In November of this year, Nassar pled guilty to seven counts. A couple of weeks ago, 156 women and family members gave victim impact statements at his sentencing. What began with one woman ended with one hundred and fifty-six people.

It’s almost never just Simon’s mother-in-law. It’s almost always an entire city.

And it isn’t just Larry Nassar and Rachael Denhollander. Over the last few years, men and women have made accusations against Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Louis C.K. Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, and countless others. And those are just the famous people.

It’s almost never just Simon’s mother-in-law. It’s almost always an entire city.

And it isn’t just sexual misconduct. Turn on the news and see one story about someone who came to this country as a child being deported…

…or a teenager dealing with bullying…

…or a family losing their house to a fire…

…and there are dozens or hundreds or thousands more that you don’t see.

It’s almost never just Simon’s mother-in-law. It’s almost always an entire city.

And in the face of that, it’s easy to lose hope. It’s easy to think that it’s too much. It’s easy to think that we can never do enough. It’s easy to think that we should go along to get along.

It’s easy to believe that if we peeled back the layers of our world, we would find nothing but a rotten core.

It’s easy to live as though we can just avert our eyes and stay in the house and distract ourselves and act as though nothing’s wrong. After all, Simon’s mother-in-law is up and about. We can just act like no one’s knocking at the door.

It’s easy to live as though we can just avert our eyes and stay in the house and distract ourselves and act as though nothing’s wrong... We can just act like no one’s knocking at the door. Click To Tweet

But have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? Our God is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. Our God does not faint or grow weary. Our God’s understanding is unsearchable.

Our God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

In the face of the evils of the world, it can feel like we alone in the house, hearing — straining not to hear, but hearing nonetheless — the knocking of the city at the door. And I want to own that feeling. That feeling is important. That feeling matters. There are times when we do not have the energy to deal with the city. There are times when we need to practice self-care and find a deserted place and pray.

But it is also true that when we set out to heal the sick and cast out demons, God is with us. When we set out to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, and welcome to the stranger, God is with us. When we set out to give clothing to the naked, care to the sick, companionship to the imprisoned, God is with us.

When we set out to comfort the victims of abuse, God is with us.

When we set out to redeem the perpetrators of abuse, God is with us.

And as much as we might feel beat down and broken and just plain tired sometimes, God does not faint or grow weary. No. God gives power to the faint. God strengthens the powerless.

This week — and if not this week, then this month; if not this month, then this year — you’re going to be somewhere and you’re going to hear a story. Maybe someone will tell it to you. Maybe you’ll overhear it. Maybe it will be given to you second-hand. It will be a story about someone who needs your help and comfort.

And that story will demand something of you.

Now, you might be tired; you might be run down; you might be busy mending nets. You might have to go out to a deserted place to pray. But that story will find you. And that story will demand something of you.

That story will be Jesus calling you to follow him. And the challenges of doing that will be bigger than you think. The challenges of doing that will be preaching and healing and casting our demons. The challenges of doing that will be persecution and denial and crucifixion. The challenges of doing that will be transformation and resurrection and eternal life.

But remember this…

When Rachael Denhollander made her accusation against Larry Nassar, she couldn’t have known how many people he had hurt. Maybe all she could see was USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University and a host of challenges that were bigger than she thought. But when she stood in a courtroom to tell her story, 155 women and family members stood with her. What began with one woman ended with one hundred and fifty-six people.

And God was with them.

When Christ calls you, your friends and neighbors in the church will stand with you. When Christ calls you, God will be with you. And I have faith that, in the face of challenges that are bigger than you think, God will give you power when you are faint and strength when you are powerless.

Because it turns out that, even though the challenges of following Jesus — of healing and feeding and welcoming and giving and caring — are usually bigger than we think, God is bigger than we think, too.

Because it turns out that, even though the challenges of following Jesus — of healing and feeding and welcoming and giving and caring — are usually bigger than we think, God is bigger than we think, too. Click To Tweet

And that is good news.

Wild, Dangerous, and Full of Grace

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on December 10, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8.

A couple of days after Thanksgiving, some friends of mine had a dinner party. They invited some people over, there was soup and sandwiches and drinks and conversation. My wife, Mariah, didn’t want to go — it was Saturday night and she had to preach the next morning — so I went on my own.

When I got home, I discovered that Mariah had put up the Christmas decorations. Our wreath was on the front door. Our little Christmas tree was in the window. Our nativity sets were out: a stately one on the mantle, a little rustic Peruvian one on an end table, and a duck nativity on some shelves.

And as I was reflecting on the readings for this morning, my mind kept wandering back to those nativity sets.

You see, Christmas is all about the nativity. In just a couple of weeks, we’ll be sharing a story about a manger and some shepherds, a man and an angel, a woman and her child.

And Advent anticipates that nativity. In some homes, people put up their nativity set week by week and Sunday by Sunday. First, an empty manger. A week after that, the shepherds. A week after that, the angels. A week after that, Mary and Joseph. And then, finally, on Christmas day, the Christ child.

And, if they want the wise men, they wait a couple of weeks. Those wise men have to travel a long way.

This morning, though, we’re in the gospel according to Mark. And Mark doesn’t give us a nativity scene. There are no shepherd here, no angels, no manger. There’s no room at the inn because there’s no inn, no census, no journey to Bethlehem. There’s no Joseph, no Mary, and no child.

Instead, Mark starts in what feels like the middle of the story: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God… John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

It’s a strange scene, and it’s worth some context.

Israel is ruled by a foreign nation. In that nation, the emperor is worshipped as a god. But the tradition of that nation is that ancient religions are allowed to keep going. So, as long as the people of Israel aren’t too much trouble, they can keep worshipping God and going to the temple, and observing their customs.

But things are tense. Outright war is a few decades off, but war is on the horizon. There are people who want to work with this foreign empire.. There are people who want to fight it.

And then there’s this man, all camel hair and locusts and wild honey, living in the wilderness, crying out.

It doesn’t fit in with the nativity set. Not the stately one on the mantle, or the rustic Peruvian one on the end table, or even the duck set on the shelves. John is not stately or rustic… or a duck. John is wild and dangerous and full of grace.
There are no shepherds here, no angels, no manger. There’s no room at the inn because there’s no inn, no census, no journey to Bethlehem. There’s no Joseph, no Mary, and no child. Instead, there’s a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

But that’s not all.

This is the second Sunday of Advent. And on the second Sunday of Advent, we celebrate — we anticipate — peace.

Now, it is tempting to celebrate and anticipate the peace of the nativity set, of the shepherd and angels, of Joseph and Mary, of the baby Jesus, meek and mild, swaddled in a manger. And nativity sets have a peace about them. The stately figures on the mantle don’t quarrel. The little rustic Peruvian figures on the end table don’t fight. The ducks don’t march to war. But of course there’s peace there… none of them are people, none of them are caught up in this messy thing called life.

But here’s the thing: peace is not just the absence of conflict. It is the presence of justice.

When Mark opens his gospel, he knows what he’s going when he quotes the prophet Isaiah.

Today’s reading seem Isaiah opens with the hope of peace: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”
Then there is the part that Mark quotes, “A voice cries out… ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’

And then Isaiah continues: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Isaiah longs for peace. Mark longs for peace. I long for peace.

But the peace we long for isn’t a nativity set peace. It isn’t a meek and mild peace. It is a peace where valleys are lifted and mountains made low, where uneven ground is made level and rough places a plain. It is a peace where the glory of the Lord shines through.

It is a peace that — in a world that is constantly investing in the machinery of injustice and destruction and death — is a revolutionary act. It is the peace that comes from being baptized with the Holy Spirit. It is a peace that is wild and dangerous and full of grace.

And so here we are, on the second Sunday of Advent, celebrating and anticipating and waiting in hope for peace to come. But that is not enough.

Advent is a time of preparation. It is a season when we remember that God came into the world. It is a season when we renew ourselves as the body of Christ. It is a season when we prepare ourselves again to be poor in spirit; to hunger and thirst for righteousness; to be makers of peace.

Because peace is not something that we can wait for. Justice is not something that we can wait for. The Kingdom of God is not something that we can wait for.

It is something that we must make. It is hard work that we must do. It is the people and the community that we must strive to be.

Mark starts in what feels like the middle of the story: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God… John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

And we know — we know from what came earlier in the story and we know from what will come later — that baptism is not a safe choice. We know that being the church is not a safe choice. We know that following Christ is not a safe choice.

It means standing up for people who are being pushed down. It means giving our voices to people who are silenced. I means feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger and caring for the imprisoned.

It means being a a voice in the wilderness, crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

It means taking the risk of being transformed.

This Advent season and every Advent season, John calls to us, all camel hair and locusts and wild honey. This Advent season and every advent season, Isaiah calls to us, exhorting us to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. This Advent and every day, Christ calls us to be his disciples, to be his kingdom, to be a people who are full of hope and peace and joy and love.

In a little while, you’re going to something special and risky: you’re going to vote on whether to call a new pastor. I pray that the search committee and the Holy Spirit will guide you. I trust that the decision you make — whatever it is — will be the right one for this community.

And, if I can take a moment of pastoral privilege, I will say this:

In my house right now there are three nativity sets: a stately one on the mantle, a little rustic Peruvian one on an end table, and a duck nativity on some shelves. And I like those nativities. They are quiet and serene and have their own kind of peace.

But I know that the church is not a nativity set. We do not not stand still. We do not stay in our places. We are not quiet and serene. We move forward.

And on this day… every day… God calls us forward into a life that is wild and dangerous and full of grace.

Or, to put that another way, God calls us into abundant life. Amen.

The Present of the Church

This sermon was delivered at Church of Peace, United Church of Christ, in Rock Island, Illinois, on October 15, 2017. The scripture for this sermon is Mark 3:19b-31.

Last summer, I went to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod. This is the big meeting we have every two years where delegates from all over the denomination come together to elect officers and debate resolutions and do all of those kinds of things. And as part of this, there are youth and young adults who are encouraged to speak… to bring a ‘youth perspective’ to issues facing the church.

One of the resolutions this year was about gun violence. It was a resolution calling on Congress to allow the Center for Disease Control to study gun violence and to suggest methods to improve gun safety. And whatever you think about guns or gun control or anything like that, I want you to consider something: if today is an average day in America, 93 people will die from gun violence, 58 of those will be suicides, and the CDC is not allowed to study that.

And I want you to consider something else: if tomorrow is an average day, somewhere in America a classroom of children will have a drill where they hide in a closet and stay quiet. And they’ll have that drill because we’re afraid that someday won’t be an average day, and that staying quiet in a closet in a classroom will keep our sons and daughters alive.

When delegates were talking about this resolution, some young people got up to speak. They shared their stories of hiding in closets and making escape plans and going through active shooter drills and hearing the simulated sound of gunfire. And a little while later an adult stood up and said that he had been through active shooter training and that some elements of their stories — like the simulated gunfire — weren’t true.

Today’s reading starts with four simple words: “Then he went home.”

It sounds good. It sounds comfortable.

Jesus is a nice Jewish boy and — and even here in the third chapter of Mark — he’s been out in the world for a little while. He’s been baptized by John. He’s been tempted in the wilderness. He’s called some disciples. He’s healed people and cast out demons and preached to crowds and challenged Pharisees.

Then he went home.

And then things got out of hand.

Today, we’re continuing our series on choosing family. Today, we’re talking about sons and daughters. And that’s a bit of a clunky way of talking about children. And that’s a weird word. Sometimes, ‘children’ means ‘offspring’. My brother and I are the children of Robert and Janet Warfield. Sometimes, though, ‘children’ means ‘not adults’. A group of ten year olds is a group of children. A group of forty year olds is not.

And sometimes, in families, that line between being a child and being a child gets blurry. We all know that feeling, right? That feeling we get when we go home and we’re not just our parents’ children, but we’re treated like our parents’ children? That feeling when we know we have a role we’re supposed to play and a lane we’re supposed to stay in?

I wonder if Jesus felt that when he went home.

Because when Jesus went home, the crowd came together and they couldn’t even eat. And then things got out of hand. Some of the people were coming to be healed or have demons cast out or hear some good news. But others were saying, “He has gone out of his mind… He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”

And that, for sure, was not okay. If people really believed that Jesus was out of his mind — if people really believed that Jesus had Beelzebul and was casting out demons by the ruler of demons — that wouldn’t just be bad for him. That would be bad for his entire family. This was a time and a place and a community where you really could ruin a family name. Everything could fall apart. And Jesus’s family isn’t going to have any of it.

Now, I don’t have children, but I’ve seen that expression on parents’ faces — I’ve been the cause of that expression on parents’ faces — when they think their child is misbehaving in a public place. It’s a combination of embarrassment and shame and fear of judgement. And imagine that feeling, but a thousand times worse because there’s not going to be any understanding shrugs from strangers. People are saying that Jesus is out of his mind, that he’s an agent of the devil.

So Jesus’s family goes out to restrain him. That word — ‘restrain’ — is important. It’s the same word that gets used when people go out to arrest Jesus later. That’s how serious this is. Jesus’s own family goes out to kind-of-arrest him because he is a threat to the family; because he is a child who is out of control; because he isn’t playing the role he is supposed to play.

And when that guy at Synod stood up and said that those young people had embellished their stories, he didn’t touch them, but he restrained them, too. They were children who were out of control; they weren’t playing the role they were supposed to play.

But those youth didn’t stand for it. The next morning, there were speak outs, when anyone can take the microphone and share their thoughts or make an announcement. And some young people — some sons and daughters of this denomination — stood up and reminded us all of two things. First, that they are not the future of the church, but the present of the church; after all, they were speaking at Synod because we needed their perspective. Second, that no one would dismiss the experiences of older delegates, and no one had the right to dismiss theirs.

I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of the youth of the United Church of Christ. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as committed to a standing ovation. Because here’s the thing: Jesus did something like that, too.

When Jesus’s family went out to restrain him, they found the crowd. And some people said to Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you.” And Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers? They’re here. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”

Look, I know. That sounds like rejection. It sounds like Jesus is saying that his mother and his brothers and his sisters aren’t his family. It sounds like the people who raised him don’t matter anymore. it sounds like he won’t be coming home again.

And, so often, that’s what it sounds like when the young people in our communities — when our sons and our daughters — insist on a new way of doing things. We see congregations shrinking and fraternal organizations closing and millennials and post-millennials killing fast casual restaurants and cereal and napkins and diamonds and dozens of other things… and we think they are rejecting us.

But Jesus isn’t rejecting anyone. He’s inviting his family into a new possibility.

You see, Jesus isn’t be the holy infant, so tender and mild, anymore.

He’s been baptized. He’s been tempted in the wilderness. He’s called some disciples. He’s healed people and cast our demons and preached to crowds and challenged Pharisees. And while he might still be Mary’s child, he isn’t Mary’s child anymore.

And his family has a choice. They can try to restrain him, or they can walk alongside him. They can try to hold him back, or they can be part of a common vision and a supportive community. They can try to arrest him, or they can follow him into the Kingdom of God.

This work — the work of being church — will not soon be over. Tomorrow there will be hungry people to feed. Next week there will be strangers to welcome. Next month there will be sick people to visit. And on an average day next year there might be 93 deaths from gun violence, 58 of them suicides. The work of the kingdom goes on and I doubt I’ll live to see it finished. Our ancestors laid the foundation, and we have continued the work, and our children — and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren and our great-great-grandchildren — will keep going until that long bending arc of history finally reaches justice.

Our sons and daughters are not the future of the church. Our parents and grandparents aren’t the past of the church. Together, we are all the present of the church. Together, we hold onto the best of the past and embrace the best of the future. Together, we bring diverse perspectives and powerful experiences. Together, we strive to be one family defined by the will of God.

And when we do that, the possibilities are endless.

Amen.

The Cost of Grace

This sermon was delivered at Metropolitan Community Church of the Quad Cities in Davenport, Iowa, on September 17, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35.

A little over a month ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia, a young man named James Alex Fields Jr drove a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of people, hitting a sedan, which hit a minivan, which pushed into the crowd, injuring nineteen people and killing one. The person who was killed was Heather Heyer, who was a paralegal and a waitress, and who stood in solidarity with people who needed someone who was relatively privileged to stand in solidarity with them.

If it had been any other day, James, like so many other misguided young white men who kill, would have been tagged as mentally ill or misguided or a bit of a loner. But this time the nation saw a pattern. James was misguided. James was a bit of a loner. James may have even been mentally ill. But James was also an unabashed white supremacist who chose to march with others like him while chanting racist and anti-semitic slogans. And who chose to drive into a crowd of people.

And a couple of days later, Heather’s father Mark stood in front of cameras and forgave James.

And I cannot imagine how he did that.

In today’s first reading, we see Joseph and his brothers. When Joseph was younger, he had some dreams. And he told his brothers those dreams. And his brothers were jealous because those dreams seemed to mean that Joseph was important. So they sold him into slavery and told their father that he had been killed. Y’know, like brothers do.

Joseph became a slave in Egypt. And because of his master’s wife, he became a prisoner in Egypt. And because of his skill at interpreting dreams, he became a chief administrator in Egypt.

And then there was a famine. Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food. Eventually, they met Joseph, who kept his identity secret. And, after some trickery and accusations and false imprisonments and threats, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and there was joy and celebration. And it turned out that Joseph really was important.

And then Joseph’s father, Jacob, died. And here are Joseph’s brothers, worried that Joseph might still be upset that they sold him into slavery all those years ago. So they go to him and they say, “Dad said — y’know, on his deathbed — that you should forgive us.”

And Joseph replies, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good… Have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

And I cannot imagine how he did that.

If there is anyone who has the right to hold a grudge, it’s Heather Heyer’s parents. Her death wasn’t an accident. It was at once purposeful and impersonal, the act of someone with a hateful ideology who wanted to hurt as many people as he could.

If there’s anyone who has the right to tell his brothers to pound sand, it’s Joseph. Whatever good had come out of his ordeal, he was enslaved and imprisoned and lost out on years of his life.

Forgiveness shouldn’t be this easy.

No, that’s not right. Forgiveness should be one of the easiest things in the world. Mark Heyer shouldn’t have to live with the burden of hating James Fields. Joseph shouldn’t have to live with the burden of a grudge against his brothers. No one should have to live with the ceaseless work of stoking the fires of our anger. Forgiveness should be one of the easiest things in the world.
Being forgiven shouldn’t be this easy. Grace shouldn’t be so cheap. And it can almost sound like Jesus says that.

There once was a man who was called before the king. Now, the man owed the king, like, two million dollars. And he did not have two million dollars. The king was going to make him sell everything he had to pay the debt. But the man fell on his knees and begged for mercy. And the king was moved. And the king was merciful. And the king forgave the debt. And the man walked out.

Before long, that man ran into a neighbor who owed him, like, ten bucks. And the man told his neighbor to pay up. But his neighbor didn’t have ten bucks and he — who owed so little — fell on his knees and begged for mercy. And the man wouldn’t have any of it and had his neighbor thrown into prison and other people saw all of this and told the king.

And the king… got mad. And the man was called before the king. And the king said, “I had mercy on you and forgave your debt, but you can’t forgive your neighbor?” And he sent the man to prison.”

And, for a moment, it almost sounds like Jesus is saying that being forgiven is hard. It almost sounds like Jesus is saying that grace comes at a cost. It almost sounds like Jesus is saying that being forgiven requires something.

Almost.

It’s easy for us to fall into that way of thinking. It’s easy for us to think that, in order to be forgiven, Joseph’s brothers have to fall on their knees and recount their wrongs and beg Joseph for mercy. It’s easy to think that, in order to be forgiven, James Fields has to fall on his knees and make his confession and beg Mark — and, even more, Heather’s spirit — for mercy.

It’s easy for us to think that, in order to be forgiven for all that we have done, we have to fall on our knees and break down in tears and beg God for mercy.

But the cost of grace is so much less… and so much more.

The man who had two million dollars forgiven wasn’t free just because he had his two million dollars forgiven. He wasn’t free until he could escape the cycle of borrowing and lending that had ensnared him. And I want to be clear here: he wasn’t in that cycle just because he had owed two million dollars; he was in that cycle also because he cared about the ten dollars he had lent out.
It was only in forgiving the debt of his neighbor that he could truly be free of the debt he owned. As long as he still cared so desperately and angrily about his neighbor’s debt, he was still trapped by his own.

Or, as St. Francis put it so elegantly, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

I don’t know if Joseph’s brothers ever let go of their jealousy and their hatred. I hope that they did. I hope that they could accept that they were forgiven and live the rest of their days in mercy.

I don’t know if James Fields will ever let go of his prejudice and hatred. I hope that he will. I hope that what he has done and what he now faces will change him. I hope that he will accept the forgiveness that has been offered to him. I hope that he will live the rest of his days as an instrument of mercy.

And I don’t know if I will ever let go of the thousand little slights that I hold onto. It seems like too much. It seems like too much to say that I will not be part of the systems of debt and shame and anger. It seems like too much to let go. But I pray that I will. I pray that reaching out for God’s grace will force me let go of the weights that hold me back: the people I hold down.

The cost of grace is so little. God offers it freely.

The cost of grace is so much. We have to give up all those things that make us think that we’re better. Or that we’re more important. Or that we have a right to throw our neighbor in prison or the power to sell our brother into slavery.

And I pray that you and I and all of us can pay that price. Then we will have a world of peace and love and pardon; of faith and hope and light and joy. Then we will live in the Kingdom of God.

Dragged into the Sunlight

This sermon was delivered at Peace Lutheran ELCA in Port Byron, Illinois on June 25, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1-11.

When I was little, thirty years ago or so, my family used to go to a restaurant called the Golden Gate. It was a diner kind of place, and I can remember with some fondness regularly getting what I’m sure was not-very-good chicken noodle soup and not-very-good hot dogs and not-very good crinkle cut french fries. Like so many things from childhood, it brings back good memories of things that probably weren’t as good as I think they were.

Being little, I didn’t always have good restaurant manners. And one day, I went to the bathroom and, since bathrooms have such good acoustics, I sang. There’s some debate over what I sang. I think it was Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”. My brother, I think, thinks it was Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. Either way, my brother — seven years older than me and therefore in the throes of teenage embarrassment — had to come get me. And everyone was mortified.

I hate that story. I think it’s the most embarrassing story ever in the history of the whole world.

My family loves that story. They think it’s cute. It’s the kind of story that I had to beg them not to tell people.

And I still hate it.

But I’m telling it to you for two reasons. First, I don’t live here. This is just a story that some guy filling in for your pastor is telling you. And I hope you’ll forget it sometime this afternoon.

Second, we all have stories like this. We all have stories that are the most embarrassing stories ever in the history of the whole world. And we all have stories that are worse. I have stories that are worse. We have all done things or said things or thought things that would leave the people who love us horrified.

And we don’t just have those stories as individuals. We have those stories as families, as communities, and as a nation. There are parts of our history we do not look at. They are hidden in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness. And there are parts of our present there, too.

So let me tell you another story. It isn’t a story about me, but it’s a story that is embarrassing to me; it’s a story that’s shameful for me. And it’s a story that I want you to remember.

A few years ago, a 20 year old Bangladeshi woman named Rehana Khatun went to work in a textile factory. The building she worked in hadn’t been built to handle the vibrations of hundreds of sewings machines day in and day out; and people who worked on the lower floors had noticed cracks forming in the walls. But the powerful apparel industry didn’t want building codes enforced, so they weren’t enforced. And Rehana couldn’t afford to lose her slighty-less-than-thiry-cents-an-hour, so she climbed the stairs and went to work.

And that day, the building collapsed. And Rehana was trapped under the rubble. And while she was one of the survivors, both of her legs had to be amputated. And now she can’t work.

Rehana is part of a lawsuit right now, suing a Canadian company whose supply chain went through that textile factory. Last year, a similar lawsuit against an American company was dismissed. The American company didn’t directly employ the workers who were killed or injured, so they didn’t have a ‘duty to care’.

That’s a hard story to hear. It’s embarrassing. It’s shameful. It’s sinful. But one of the reasons that so many products that we buy are so affordable is that the human costs of of producing them are paid by people like Rehana Khatun. Physically, those human costs are hidden in Bangladesh or China or Sudan. Mentally, they’re hidden in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is sending out the disciples as missionaries. He’s already told them to preach the good news, to cure the sick and raise the dead and cleanse lepers and cast out demons. He’s already told them not to take much with them. He’s already told them not to worry about what to say.
And now we’re here. “A disciple is not above the master,” he tells them, “think about what they’ve said about me; they’ll say worse about you. But don’t be afraid. For nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”

And I want to be clear: that’s a threat.

All of those things that we hide in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness are going to be dragged into the sunlight. That’s the kind of thing that sounds great when it’s about other people. I know there are people who would love to see the truth come out if it were the truth about Donald Trump or the truth about Hillary Clinton. We like to hear other people’s deep, dark, secret truths.

But it sounds a lot worse when it’s about us. It sounds worse when it’s the most embarrassing story ever in the history of the whole world. It’s a lot worse when it’s the truth about the role that we’ve played in Rehana Khatun’s life and the lives of millions — maybe even billions — of people like her.

And I’m sure that Peter and the two Jameses and Andrew and John and Philip and Bartholomew and Thomas and Matthew and Thaddeus and Simon and Judas — oh, especially Judas — all have things they would rather hide.

But more than a threat, it’s a promise. Justice happens in the light. Restoration happens in the light. Healing happens in the light.

Nothing will change as long as the stories of the people we hurt are kept safely in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness. It’s keeping those stories safely hidden that lets us continue as though nothing is wrong. It’s when we hear those stories that we can begin to act, that the world can change.

And that’s why I want you to remember Rehana Khatun’s story. It’s why I want you to remember Philando Castile’s story; killed by a police office during a routine traffic stop. It’s why I want you to remember Andrea Constand’s story; a victim of sexual assault by a well-loved celebrity. It’s why I want you to remember Lucas James’s story; a victim of the fire in Grenfell Tower in London. And I could go on.

Telling the stories of those for whom the world thought that it did not have a duty to care is part of the hard work of justice. And it is the first step on the road to healing.

But more than a promise, it’s good news.

In today’s reading from Romans, Paul writes, “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. Therefore we have been buried with him. And if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”

Or, as Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

God knows us. God knows all of the things that we keep in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness. And God loves us. God loves us just we are, with all of our baggage and all of our issues and all of our embarrassment and all of our shame. And God loves us enough to help us change.

I am no longer the little kid at the Golden Gate restaurant. We do not have to be a world where there are more Rehana Khatuns, or Philando Castiles, or Andrea Constands, or Lucas Jameses. Through Christ, we can die to sin and live for God, we can lose the life that sin demanded and live the life that Christ calls us to.

And the first step in doing that is taking those things that we have hoarded in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness, and dragging them into the sunlight, and letting them go.

And in Christ we can do just that. Even if it’s the most embarrassing story ever in the history of the whole world. Hallelujah. Amen.

Without Permission

This sermon was delivered at Union Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on June 4, 2017. The scripture for this sermon are Numbers 11:24-30 and Acts 2:1-21.

Some of you may know that I work for a mid-size nonprofit in Mississippi. And some of you may know that we work on a bunch of issues around poverty. Well, a few weeks ago, I was at a fundraising event and I talked about poverty and I met a guy who was in a similar line of work. And we were chatting after the event and he quoted Jesus to me: “The poor you will always have with you.”

I pushed back a little, but he was insistent: “The poor you will always have with you.”

What he meant, and he was very clear about this, was that Jesus had told us that there would always be poor people. What he meant was, on the one hand, that our work would always matter; and, on the other hand, that I had job security in the misery of others.

I rarely get to preach to the same congregation two weeks in a row, so I hope you’ll indulge me if I repeat a refrain that I used last week: we are small… and we have small imaginations.

Last week, I told the first part of a story.

The disciples had been through a lot. They had seen Jesus betrayed and arrested and denied and crucified and resurrected. And they stood before Jesus and asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

And Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father had set by his own authority. Power will come. You will be my witnesses.”

And he was lifted up, and a cloud passed by, and he was gone.

And now, it is Pentecost.

We know this story. There are some stories we hear every year, and this is one of them. The disciples are gathered together when a there’s a rush of wind and tongues of fire appear around them. And suddenly they are filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in other languages. And the people of Jerusalem are amazed by this and someone says, “Eh. They’re drunk.”

Because, as I hope you are reminded every Pentecost, when you are drunk, you can speak other languages.

And Peter answers that accusation:

“We are not drunk,” he says, “it’s nine in the morning. What is happening now was foretold by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’”

And he goes on for a bit. And three thousand people are baptized. Not bad for nine in the morning.

But if we focus on that, it’s easy to miss something important.

You see, Peter is doing something pretty gutsy. He’s saying to a crowd in Jerusalem, “Do you know this prophecy from Joel? That’s happening right now.” And I know there are people in the world today who don’t hesitate to say that kind of thing, but most of us are pretty careful. We don’t boldly and definitively interpret prophecy to other people.

And here’s the thing: Peter doesn’t really have permission to boldly and definitively interpret ancient prophecies to crowds in Jerusalem. He isn’t a rabbi. He isn’t a priest. He doesn’t have years of schooling. He hasn’t written a treatise on Joel or on the last days or anything like that. He’s just this guy who used to hang out with this troublemaker named Jesus. And a few minutes ago, people thought he was drunk at nine in the morning.

But here he is:

“What is happening now was foretold by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’”

This has happened before.

When the Israelites came up out of Egypt and were wandering in the desert, they complained. Leading them was too heavy a burden for Moses. And he got so frustrated that he said to God, “Kill me, so I don’t have to deal with these people.”

And God responded by having Moses bring seventy elders together outside the camp in the meeting tent. God took the spirit that he had put on Moses and put some of it on the elders, and they prophesied. And, for just a while, they shared Moses’s burden.

But, there were also these two men. Eldad and Medad weren’t in the meeting tent. They were still in the camp. And the same spirit that God put on the seventy elders — the same spirit that God put on Moses — rested on them.

And they prophesied.

And someone told on them and one of the elders got upset. But Moses… thought it was kind of cool: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” he said, “and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

You see, here’s the thing about the Spirit. She isn’t confined to elders in a tent. She isn’t confined to rabbis and priests. She can go anywhere. She shows up where she’s needed. She can be with Eldad and Medad in the camp. She can be with the disciples in Jerusalem.

She can be with us… here and now. She can be pouring out, causing us to prophesy and see visions and dream dreams.

We are small and we have small imaginations. And, as I said last week, those small things that so many people want are important. They are powerful. They matter. Our heavens are so small we could make them right here, right now. And for some reason, that I have never really understood, we don’t.

And I wonder if the reason that we don’t is that we constantly have people telling us that making those little heavens is reserved for elders in a meeting tent.

I wonder if the reason that we don’t is that we constantly have people telling us that making those little heavens is reserved for priests or preachers or politicians.

I wonder if the reason that we don’t is that we constantly have people telling us that making those little heavens is reserved for scholars or saints or saviors.

I wonder if the reason that we don’t make those little heavens — even my little heaven, where everyone has enough money and food and housing and all of these pesky little problems are solved — is that we constantly have people telling us that making those little heavens is reserved for someone else.

And I wonder when we’ll learn to reject that idea.

Last week I told the first part of a story:

The disciples had seen Jesus betrayed and arrested and denied and crucified and resurrected. And they stood before Jesus and asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

And Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father had set by his own authority. Power will come. You will be my witnesses.”

And he was lifted up, and a cloud passed by, and he was gone.

But today it is Pentecost. It is the birthday of the church. The Holy Spirit has come and filled us and made us into Christ’s body here and now.

And that power isn’t just for the elders. That privilege isn’t just for the disciples. That burden isn’t just for Moses. That responsibility isn’t just for priests. No one has a monopoly on prophecy. No one has a monopoly on visions. No one has a monopoly on dreams.

No one has a monopoly on generosity or hospitality or love. No one is alone in this work. All of us can do something.

I don’t know if the poor will always be with us. Maybe, in the end, God has to come in power and glory and make a new heaven and a new earth and we’ll all just be standing there watching the miracle unfold.

But, in the meantime, I will trust that God has given me — has given us — the power to bring the world a little closer to the world that God wants. A world of abundance and generosity and wholeness. A world of shalom.

Hallelujah, Amen.

Great Big World

This sermon was delivered at Union Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on May 28, 2017. The scripture for this sermon is Acts 1:6-14.

The disciples keep losing Jesus.

A little over six weeks ago, Christians around the world told a story. A passover supper. A betrayal for thirty pieces of silver. A prayer in a garden: “Remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” A crowd, a kiss, and men with swords. A denial: “Woman, I do not know him.” A trial. A sentence. A cross. A tomb.

A little over six weeks ago, Christians around the world told a story about the disciples’ expectations being thrown out the window, about their hopes being dashed. Jesus was supposed to be Messiah, the new King of Israel, the savior of their nation. But there he was, hung on a cross, laid in a grave.

The disciples keep losing Jesus.

Exactly six weeks ago, Christians around the world told the other part of that story. A tomb. An angel. A message: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen.” A strange encounter on the road to Emmaus. A meeting in a house. Signs and wonders.

Exactly six weeks ago, Christians around the world told the other part of that story, about the disciples’ expectations being restored, about their hopes springing back to life. The Messiah, the new King of Israel, the savior of their nation was resurrected. Here he was. Surely, now, he would do what the knew every prophecy foretold.

The disciples keep losing Jesus.

And now we’re here, in this moment.

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

“It is not for you to know,” says Jesus, “the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. Power will come. You will be witnesses.”

And he is lifted up, and a cloud passes by, and he is gone.

Now, the disciples have never been the sharpest knives in the drawer. They’re going to stand there for a minute, looking up at heaven, dumbfounded. But the question that they asked matters. It’s an important question. It’s a powerful question.

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

The disciples are standing in front of the Messiah who has been raised from the dead. They are standing in front of the Son of Man who will judge the nations. They are standing in front of the Son of the God who is the father of orphans and protector of widows, who gives the desolate a home to live in and leads the prisoners to prosperity. And the question they ask is, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

The disciples were small… and they had small imaginations.

Now, small things aren’t bad. Small things are important. Small things are powerful. God uses small things: a lost coin, a mustard seed, a few loaves and a few fish… us. Small things matter.

And small people with small imaginations are the first part of so many of our stories.

When Abraham was 99 years old, God appeared to him. And God told Abraham that Abraham and his wife, Sarah, would have a son. And Sarah laughed. “After I have grown old,” she said, “and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” She had a small imagination. But the story went on.

When the Israelites were leaving Egypt and arrived at the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his armies on their heels, they complained to Moses. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt,” they said, “that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” They had small imaginations. But the story went on.

When God spoke to Jonah, he told him to go and preach to the city of Nineveh. And Jonah ran away. He had to be thrown off a boat and swallowed by a fish and spit out on dry land before he would do what God wanted. Because he didn’t want the people of Nineveh to repent and he didn’t want God to forgive. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning,” he said, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” He had a small imagination. But the story went on.

And when the disciples are standing in front of Jesus, they most they can imagine is that he is the savior and restorer and king of Israel. They have small imaginations.

They are no different from us.

Right now, there are billions of people around the world who are living in poverty. Right now, there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who are living in chronic hunger. Right now, there are millions of people around the world who are living without anyplace to safe to stay. And there are so many more who are on the edge of poverty or who don’t have quite enough to eat or who live in substandard housing.

There are a lot of problems to solve. And they’re all solvable.

Right now, there is someone dreaming of heaven… and it’s being able to pay a doctor’s bill. And that’s a problem we could solve.

Right now, there is someone dreaming of heaven… and it’s feeling full for the first time since they can’t remember when. And that’s a problem we could solve.

Right now, there is someone dreaming of heaven… and it’s a warm place to sleep for just one night. And that’s a problem we could solve.

We are small, and we have small imaginations. And those small things that so many people want are important. They are powerful. They matter.

Our heavens are so small we could make them right here, right now. And for some reason, that I have never really understood, we don’t.

But God is not small. God is the father of orphans and protector of widows; all of the orphans and all of the widows. God gives the desolate a home to live in and leads the prisoners to prosperity; all of the desolate and all of the prisoners. God pours down rain in abundance and provides for the needy. All of the needy. Every. Single. One of us.

God dreams of a world where no one worries about paying bills. God dreams of a world where food overflows a table, rich food and well-aged wines. God dreams of a world where everyone has a place to live in comfort. God dreams of a world of abundance and generosity and wholeness. God dreams of a world of shalom.

We are small, and we have small imaginations. God is big, and imagines a world that we cannot imagine. My little heaven — where everyone has enough money and food and housing and all of these pesky little problems are solved — pales in comparison. I am small and I have a small heaven. God is big, and imagines a great big world.

And that brings us back to the disciples.

The disciples are small, and they have a small heaven. So they ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

“It is not for you to know,” says Jesus, “the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. Power will come. You will be witnesses.”

And he is lifted up, and a cloud passes by, and he is gone.

And the disciples stand there, for a minute, looking up at heaven, dumbfounded. But that is only the first part of the story.

Because suddenly there are two men next to them. And the men say to them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Now, the story continues next week. There will be tongues of fire and people hearing the good news in their own languages and rumors of new wine. So come back next week… it’s just getting good.

For now, though, listen to these men. We spend so much time looking up at our little heavens. And those heavens are important. They are powerful. They matter.

But these men don’t tell the disciples that one day, they’ll be taken up into heaven with Jesus. They say that Jesus will come out of heaven and back to the world. And the good news is that Jesus isn’t bringing our little heaven with him. Jesus is bringing God’s great big world — a world of abundance and generosity and wholeness, a world of shalom — with him. And our little heavens pale in comparison.

Thank God.

Many Beliefs, One Spirit

This sermon was delivered at Church of Peace, United Church of Christ in Rock Island, Illinois on February 26, 2017. The scripture for this sermon is Luke 12:42-53.

“Keep your lamps,” says the old gospel song, “trimmed and burning.”

Jesus has just finished a parable.

“Be like slaves waiting for their master to come home from a wedding banquet,” he said, “ready to open the door and greet him. When he comes home and finds them alert, he’ll have them sit down to eat… and he will serve them. You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. Be ready, for no one knows the house. If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?

I grew up in the United Church of Christ and, let’s face it, this isn’t the kind of question we ask. We don’t have tests of faith, we have testimonies of faith. We don’t demand adherence to ancient creeds, we respect them. We don’t have a list of beliefs, we concentrate on caring for the poor and the marginalized and the oppressed and the ignored.

The Christianity I grew up in was focused like a laser on caring for the least of these.

It wasn’t about where we would spend eternity. It was about what we were doing here and now.

So you can imagine my surprise when I got older and went to college and discovered that there were Christians with… a different perspective.
In college, I met Christians who firmly believed that you can divide the world into two groups.

On one side were the people who had accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal lord and savior… who believed the the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God… who had very strict views on sexuality… and… and… and.

On the other side was everyone else, doomed to spend an eternity in hell.

And when those Christians met me, they made a judgment. They decided that I was a nominal Christian, a cultural Christian, a ‘fake’ Christian… destined to spend an eternity in hell.

They believed that my lamp was not trimmed and burning. They believed that when the master came home from the wedding banquet, he would find me unready.

And, to be fair, I made a pretty similar judgment about them.

Except, I don’t believe in hell. So my judgment was less consequential.

But I saw people who has tests of faith instead of testimonies of faith, who demanded adherence to ancient creeds but didn’t study them, who had a list of beliefs and ignored the poor and the marginalized and the oppressed and the ignored. And I thought they were nominal Christians, cultural Christians, ‘fake’ Christians.

I believed that their lamps were not trimmed and burning. I believed that when the master came home from the wedding banquet, he would find them unready.

We were two sides of the same coin. If Jesus had told this parable, I can only hope that we would have had the presence of mind to ask the question that Peter asked, the question that begins our reading today: “Is this parable for us, or for everyone?”

Today, we’re continuing our series on unity and diversity. And any time we talk about unity and diversity, this question comes up. Is this for us, or for everyone? Are we the people who need to hear this, or are there others? Is this about me, or is it about them?

In a world made up of many beliefs — religious, spiritual, political, cultural — this is a question that gets asked about diversity a lot: is this about something I need to do, or something they need to do?

And Jesus, as he usually does, has a parable of sorts:

“Who is this manager who the master will put in charge of the other servants to take care of them? It will be good for that manager if, when the master returns, the master finds him doing his work. That manager will be put in charge of all of the master’s possessions.

“But suppose the manager says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he starts abusing the other servants and eating and drinking and getting drunk? The master will show up when the manager least expects it. And the master will cut that manager to pieces.

“The servant who knows the master’s will and does not do it will be beaten with many blows. But the servant who doesn’t know, and does things that deserve a beating, will be beaten lightly.”

It is, admittedly, no ‘blessed are the meek.’

But sit for a moment with the fact that Jesus is talking about a master beating his slaves and then set that aside. Because what Jesus is saying doesn’t depend on the beatings. Jesus is saying something simple: if you know what the right thing is, and you do the wrong thing, the consequences will be severe; if you don’t know what the right this is, and you do the wrong thing, the consequences will be light.

We will be judged according to our knowledge. This is about us. It’s always about us.

You may know that my wife and I watch The People’s Court. On that show, there are a lot of cases about dogs. There are cases where one dog bites another dog, or where a dog bites a person, or where a person injures a dog. Dogs are a major cause of litigation in the television court system.

And one of the points that Judge Marilyn Milian always makes is that we don’t punish dogs for being dogs. When a dog feels threatened and snaps and bites, that’s not the dog’s fault. But the person — the person who shouldn’t have had the dog leashed or muzzled or safely indoors — the person knew better. So the person can be held responsible.

We will be judged according to our knowledge. Or, as Jesus puts it, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

And that’s dangerous.

You see, it isn’t enough for me to say that my lamp is trimmed and burning. I need to actually keep my lamp trimmed and burning. I need to take a razor and slide the carbon off the wick. I need to snip off the straggly bits of cotton. I need to clean the soot out of the vents and the glass and the gallery. I need to light it. I need to protect it.

I need to care for what has been entrusted to me.

Now, sometimes I need to care for what has been entrusted to you. Some things have been entrusted to all of us. We are all in each other’s care and no one among us has been relieved for the responsibility of caring for the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.
We are all called to love God. We are all called to love our neighbor. And, sometimes, we need to hold each other accountable.

But…

As long as your lamp is trimmed and burning, I don’t need to critique how you trim the wick. I don’t need to watch you snip off the straggly bits of cotton. I don’t need to tell you how to clean the vents and the glass and gallery.
And I don’t need to tell you what color the glass should be, or what material the gallery should be made from, or how your lamp should be shaped.
As long as your lamp is trimmed and burning — as long as you are loving God, as long as you are loving your neighbor — that’s enough.

It’s a lot. It’s too much. And it’s enough.

There is grace enough for galleries of gold and silver and clay. There is grace enough for glass that is clear or blue or red or rainbow. There is grace enough for cylinders and bulbs and vases and times when the glassblower sneezed.

The light of Christ burns just as bright in every lamp.

There is grace enough for people who have accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal lord and savior, and for people who don’t understand what that means.

There is grace enough for people who believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God, and for people who see the Bible as a collection of testimonies written over centuries and standing in need of interpretation and reinterpretation.

There is grace enough for people who want and need rules, and for people who long to be freed from rules.

The light of Christ burns just as bright in every lamp.

Even in this divided time, there is grace enough for republicans and democrats and libertarians and socialists.

Even in this divided time, there is grace enough for blue lives matter and black lives matter.

Even in this divided time, there is grace enough for you… and there is grace enough for me.

The light of Christ burns just as bright in every lamp. The light of Christ burns just as bright in every life. The light of Christ burns just as bright in every act of love… and compassion… and mercy.

And the light of Christ — the fire of the holy spirit — will light the whole world. Hallelujah. Amen.

Jesus the Refugee

This sermon was delivered at Union Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on January 1, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Matthew 2:13-23 and Hebrews 2:10-18.

I’m a geek.

I’m enough of a geek that, when I was traveling for work a couple of weeks ago and that latest Star Wars movie came out, I went to see what I’m pretty sure was the first showing at a theater in D’Iberville, Mississippi.

Now, I’m not going to spoil the movie for you. I’m going to tell you what anyone who follows Star Wars — and what a lot of people who don’t — already knows.

At the beginning of the original Star Wars movie, there’s a famous opening crawl: that famous yellow text floats out into space before the camera pans down to reveal a rebel spaceship running away from a much larger, much more menacing, Imperial Star Destroyer. The opening crawl sets the scene: a galactic civil war, a first victory for the rebellion, an armored space station called the Death Star, stolen plans, and so on.

It’s almost entirely unnecessary. All of the important information in the crawl is also contained in the actual movie.

But someone thought, “Let’s make a movie about the things in the opening crawl. Let’s make a movie about how the rebellion won that victory and stole those plans. Let’s have the last scene of the new movie flow seamlessly into the first scene of the original movie.”

I’m willing to bet that they also thought, “We could make a lot of money doing that.”

And it’s a good movie; it tells that story. And by telling that story, it changes the original movie. It adds depth. It adds perspective.

And I’m telling you this because Matthew is giving us an opening crawl.

You see, the nativity stories in Luke and Matthew have a problem: the prophets had declared that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but everyone knew that Jesus was from Nazareth.

Luke solves this problem through a story that you’ve heard. It is the basis for every public reading of the nativity:

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.”

Joseph takes Mary from his home in Nazareth to his ancestral home in Bethlehem to be registered, Jesus is born, they go home. Easy.

Matthew does something different. Jesus is just born in Bethlehem. There’s no comment. There’s no census. There’s no journey from Nazareth. Joseph and Mary are just there.

And to get Jospeh and Mary and Jesus to Nazareth, Matthew gives us an opening crawl.

Wise men come from the East seeking the Messiah. They’ve seen a star and they know that there is a new king of the Jews. King Herod had been given the title King of Judea by Rome and he feels threatened. He begins to plot against this child.

The wise men are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod. Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt. Herod orders his men to kill all of the children in and around Bethlehem; everyone two years old and younger. But, of course, they miss Jesus, because Jesus is in Egypt.

And, when Herod dies, Joseph and Mary and Jesus return from Egypt. But Herod’s son is ruling over Judea. So they settle in Galilee, in Nazareth.

And then Matthew skips a few years, brings in John the Baptist, and starts Jesus’ ministry.

It’s a bit of an opening crawl. You can imagine it in yellow letters floating into space before the camera pans down… probably not to a scrappy rebel spaceship. A conflict between two kings! A massacre! A family on the run! Excitement! Adventure! Wonder!

And now we’re ready for the main story.

Now, Matthew never wrote a prequel to flesh out his opening crawl. We have to imagine.

Imagine having just had your first child. You’re a new mother or a new father. You have hopes and dreams for your son. Maybe it’s been a few months or a year. You’re starting to build a nice little life as a family.

But, in the middle of the night, you get  a message. One word: run!

You start grabbing things. You can’t take everything you own, there isn’t time. You can’t take everything you can carry, you need to be fast and light. You can only take the necessities.

You run. You settle in a foreign land. You work, you pray, you start to build a life. Some of the people here are kind and they help you. Some of the people here are cruel and they tell you to go back where you came from. And you wish you could. This isn’t home.

You hear news. The ruler of your homeland is massacring children. Every child under the age of two has been killed. And while you hear people in the cafés talking about the statistic, you start seeing faces and hearing voices and recalling names. You know those parents. You know those children. You know those families.

You go to your home that isn’t home and look at your family — your family that you brought to this strange land — and you weep.

You hear news. The ruler of your homeland has died. Your home, your real home, is safer. You get up, you take what you have, and you go back to your home country. But your real home is still too dangerous, so you settle nearby. You go home… ish.

And time passes. And your son grows up. And you wonder if he remembers being a refugee. You wonder if he remembers his real home, or the foreign land, or fearing for his life.

That’s Joseph. That’s Mary. That’s Jesus.

In Matthew, Jesus wasn’t born peacefully in a manger. Shepherds didn’t come down from the hills to greet him. Angels didn’t sing him to sleep. Cows didn’t low. In Matthew, Jesus is a child of war, threatened by a king, taken for his own protection to a foreign land.

In Matthew, Jesus is a refugee.

And that matters. I don’t know if Matthew intended to, but it does. Once we flesh out that opening crawl — once we see Jesus as a refugee — it changes things. Everything that happens from here on out — all of the sayings, all of the parables, all of the healings, all of the miracles — are the acts of a refugee. Everything that happens from here on out — the last supper, the betrayal, the crucifixion, the resurrection — are the acts of someone who had to leave his home when he was a child… and never return.

“Blessed are the merciful.” The words of a refugee.

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The words of a refugee.

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” The words of a refugee.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words of a refugee.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know anything about being a refugee. I’ve never had to run from my home. I’ve never had to flee my country.

But I know this. Refugees span every walk of life.

Politicians? Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger.

Scientists? Max Born, Albert Einstein.

Writers? Joseph Conrad, Rigoberta Manchú.

There are refugees who are musicians and actors and athletes and artists and a thousand other things. They are white and black and brown and every other color. They are men and women. They are adults and children. They are just like us. But, to paraphrase Maria von Trapp — a refugee who you know from The Sound of Music — they have no home… they feel like a parcel that has been mailed and moved from place to place.

And I know this. There are a lot of refugees.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 21 million people who have had to flee their countries. In addition to that, there 38 million people who are still in their countries, but who have been forced from their homes. And in addition to that, there are millions of people who are stateless, with no country, no nation, no home.

More than half of those refugees come from just three countries: Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria. And more than two-thirds of them live in the Middle East and Africa. There are more than two-and-a-half million refugees in Turkey alone.

And there are about half a million here in America.

Jesus is a refugee. And he has tens of millions of brothers and sisters.

And, as the author of Hebrews says, he, “is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

The author of Hebrews — it’s a letter that’s often attributed to Paul, but he didn’t write it — is writing to Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem. The original audience for this letter knows persecution. They know what it’s like to be home but not home. They are not refugees from their country. But they are refugees from the Kingdom.

And they know that Jesus is not ashamed of them. They know that Christ had to become just like them. They know that Jesus has suffered like them. They know that Christ is among them.

Later, Matthew will write that we find Christ among the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. We know that Christ became like them, that Jesus has suffered like them, that Christ is among them.

Christ is the stranger. Jesus is a refugee.

And we have faith that we, too, are refugees; that we are strangers in a strange land; that we are home and not home; that we are in the world, but not of it; that we are refugees from the Kingdom.

We have faith that we can look to our brother Jesus who became like us and suffered like us and fled his home when he was a child, and he is not ashamed of us.

We have faith that we can look at our brothers and sisters from Somalia and Afghanistan and Syria and every corner of the earth — the refugees, the displaced, the stateless — and know that they are not ashamed of us. And we are not ashamed of them.

We have faith. And because of that faith we can welcome the stranger and the refugee with open arms. For we know that they are Christ.

Because Jesus was a refugee.

Hallelujah. Amen.

He Will Be Our Brother

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on September 25, 2016. The scriptures for this sermon are Luke 16:19-31 and 1 Timothy 6:6-19.

There’s a word in Albanian: Besa. It means something like ‘faithfulness’ or ‘honor’ or ‘keeping a promise’. But for centuries, it’s been lived our through hospitality.

It was lived out this way during World War II, when Albania – a little country on the Adriatic Sea and just northwest of Greece – was the only country in Europe to end the war with more Jewish people than it started with… despite being occupied first by fascist Italy and then Nazi Germany.

It was lived out during the Kosovo war in the mid-90s, when Albania – a little country with a population of about 2.7 million – accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees from Kosovo.

It was lived out before that when the rule was that there was an extra bed made-up in every house in case a guest arrived. It was lived out when the rule was that homeowners had to accept any guest who showed up.

It was lived out when someone wanted to build a hotel and the town turned out to protest. “Why build a hotel,” the people asked, “when a person can knock on any door and have a place to stay? What kind of people do you think we are that strangers would need a hotel?”

“Before the house belongs to the owner,” the saying goes, “it first belongs to God and the guest.”

I’m not trying to romanticize this idea. Besa was never perfect. There are hotels in Albania. But I like the image. The United Church of Christ is supposed to be a place of extravagant welcome, and I think that besa might look something like that.

And that extravagant welcome is what’s missing in today’s gospel reading.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day,” says Jesus, “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”

I’m a professional fundraiser. And in my office at home I have a file box filled with mailings that I get from nonprofit organizations. A lot of fundraisers have these. They’re where we go when we need to write an appeal or a thank you note or a newsletter article and we need inspiration. Good writers borrow, as they say; great writers steal outright.

And if you’re like me and get a lot of mailings from a lot of nonprofits, then you’ve seen a thousand pictures of Lazarus. You’ve heard a thousand stories about Lazarus. You’ve read statements from Lazarus himself: I’m covered in sores, I long to satisfy my hunger with what falls from your table… for just the cost of a small coffee you can change my life.

He’s in the mail. He’s on the news. He’s on your Facebook feed.

All of us can look out at our gates and see Lazarus there.

And the point that Jesus is making with this parable shouldn’t surprise us: when we see Lazarus, we have to do something. As author, filmmaker, rapper, and professor MK Asante puts it: “When you make an observation, you have an obligation.”

And there are consequences for not doing something.

Because when Lazarus dies, he goes to be with Abraham. And when the rich man dies, he goes… somewhere else.

And that leads to a moment that’s a problem for me.

From that other place, the rich man looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus. He calls out to Abraham, begging for mercy, “Send Lazarus,” he says, “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony.”

And Abraham says, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

Now, I get what Abraham’s saying here. I get the revenge fantasy afterlife.

I get saying to this rich man, “You spent your whole life in purple and fine linen acting as though your front gate was an impenetrable barrier. You couldn’t be bothered to notice Lazarus. And now the shoe’s on the other foot and you’re getting exactly what you deserve.”

I get it. I just don’t believe it. I believe that the gate has been opened. I believe that the chasm has been filled. I believe that when we cry out for help, Jesus answers with compassion. But I get why Abraham says this.

Because the biggest chasm there is is the one between people who live in comfort – dressing in purple and fine linen and eating sumptuously every day – and the people who live in agony. And it’s a chasm that we dig every day.

“Those who want to be rich,” writes the author of Timothy, “fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

My desire for wealth… leads me into temptation. My desire for stuff… plunges me into ruin and destruction. My love for money… pierces me with many pains.

Because when I love money, I will do terrible things to get it. And when I want to protect my stuff, I will put up locked gates and dig great chasms. I will blame the poor for their poverty. I will say that charity is dangerous.

I will say that five-year old Omran Daqneesh, born into war, bloody and dust-covered, sitting quietly in an ambulance after being pulled out of the rubble that’s where his family’s home once stood shouldn’t be welcomed into my neighborhood because bad elements might tag along for the ride. After all, if I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you that just three would kill you, would you take a handful?

And that’s not who I want to be. That’s not the world I want to live in.

I don’t believe in the revenge fantasy afterlife. And I don’t think Jesus believes in the revenge fantasy afterlife. But I think this parable is true.

I think this parable is true because when we love money we create a world. We put up locked gates and we dig great chasms. And the thing about gates and chasms is that they work both ways. Locks that keep Lazarus out can keep me in. A chasm that he cannot cross, I cannot cross. I can’t build a world where lives are separated from one another without being separated from the giver of life.

I cannot serve both mammon and God.

And what Jesus tells us time and time again is that we can serve God; we can live in a world without gates and chasms, without purple and fine linen and sumptuous feasting on one side and Lazarus on the other. We can live – not quaint, biological, little-l live, but big, abundant, eternal, amazing, capital-L Live – in the Kingdom of God. And we can do that right now.

We can do that by giving up our hopes in the uncertainty of riches and putting our hope in the God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. We can do that by doing good. We can do that by being rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.

I know we can do this because Jesus says we can do it. And I know we can do it because, while someone did make the Skittles comment last week, someone also said this: “Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to my home? We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”

I know we can do it because the person who wrote that wasn’t a politician, or a world leader, or a preacher. The person who wrote that was a six-year-old boy.

He saw someone in need and responded the way that the rich man should have responded to Lazarus.

He saw someone in need and responded the way that Abraham should have responded to the rich man.

He saw someone in need and responded the way that I believe – with all of my heart and all of my soul and all of my strength and all of my mind – that Jesus responds to us.

He responded with besa. He responded with grace. He responded with the gospel.

“Go get him and bring him to my home. We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”