Daring in Our Welcome

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on April 22, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts 10:9-16.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it.

I’ve been here with you for just over two months. I’ve attended committee meetings, eaten with the Lion’s Ladies, snacked with the Crafty Stitchers, watched WOW Kids classes, sat in on Faith in Motion sessions, led worship, visited a few of you, and enjoyed some of the other privileges of being your pastor. And at every turn, I’ve been greeted by smiling faces and open arms.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it.

But welcoming me is easy. Like I said a few weeks ago on Palm Sunday, I am — and this is not an exhaustive list — a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America. I am a lot like most of you. And while we might not check all the same boxes, there’s a lot of overlap between you and me. It’s easy for us to be welcoming to each other.

Today we are having our annual celebration of extravagant welcome. We are reaffirming our covenant as an open and affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ. We are telling our community that, while we might not always be as good at it as we want to be, we are a welcoming church.

And that’s good. That’s a good start. But while we are celebrating what we have done and what we are doing, it’s important to recognize that there is still work to do.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it. But we are a welcoming church on the easy setting.

In today’s reading from Acts, Peter is on his roof, praying. Peter is a Christian. He is a disciple and an apostle of Jesus the Christ.

He is a leader in the church. And he knows what the church is: a community of Jewish people who have found the Jewish messiah and been saved for the kingdom of the God of the Jewish people.

He knows that the church is a place for people like him. He knows that Christianity is a religion for people like him. He knows that

Christ is a savior for people like him.

Maybe not people exactly like him, but people who check a lot of the same boxes.

What Peter does not know is that, right now, some people who are not like him are on their way. Because a man named Cornelius had a vision. An angel said to him,

Cornelius, your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Send men to Joppa to find a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with another man named Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.

So Cornelius sent the men. And Cornelius is a gentile. And Cornelius is an outsider. And, to Peter at least, Cornelius is not one of us.

And that’s when Peter has his vision. He is praying. He is hungry. He has a vision.

Heaven opens up. A sheet comes down. It is covered with beasts and reptiles and birds. And a voice says, “Peter…kill and eat.”

And that’s a problem. Because these are not Jewish foods. Peter knows that he cannot eat them. They are profane and unclean.

And I want to be clear about this. It’s easy for us to hear this story and think that the sheet is full of cheeseburgers and bacon wrapped shrimp. And c’mon Peter… eat.

But…

On Sunday nights, Mariah and I get together with some friends and watch The Amazing Race. That’s the show where pairs of people race around the world completing challenges and trying to win a million dollars. And some of the challenges involve eating weird things. They’ve had to eat frogs and crickets and scorpions and live octopus and cow’s lips.

And if anything on that list made you cringe, that’s what Peter feels when that sheet comes down. Only he can see it. And smell it.

And it’s easy for him to say, “Eww… I’m not eating that.”

And if nothing on that list made you cringe, then I look forward to rooting for you on Sunday nights when I watch The Amazing Race.

But Peter can see it and smell it. And it’s easy for him to say, “I’m not eating that.”

And there’s this voice from heaven, and it says, “Peter, what God has made clean, you cannot call profane.” And this happens a few times. And the sheet disappears. And heaven closes. And Peter is confused.

And the men who Cornelius sent arrive.

Peter goes with them. He meets Cornelius. He delivers the good news. The Spirit falls upon these gentiles. And they are baptized into the church… this church that just a little while ago Peter knew was people like him.

Maybe not people exactly like him, but people who check a lot of the same boxes. People who check the Jewish box.

Peter’s vision is not about food. It’s about people.

It’s not just about people. It’s about the frogs of people, the crickets of people, the scorpions of people, the live octopus of people, the cow’s lips of people. And to Peter, that’s Cornelius, and his household, and you, and me.

We are here today in this church because a voice said, “Peter, what God has made clean, you cannot call profane.” We are here today in this church because Peter listened to that voice, put aside his discomfort, and welcomed Cornelius and his household into the Christian community.

We are here today in this church because Peter listened to that voice, put aside his discomfort, and welcomed Cornelius and his household into the Christian community. Click To Tweet

And 2,000 years of history can make this hard to see, but Peter did that on the hard setting.

And we are called to do that, too.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it. But we are called to reach beyond the welcome we’ve extended so far. We are called to welcome – and be welcomed by – the people who make us the most uncomfortable. The people who make us nervous when they move into our neighborhoods. The people who we cross the street from when we see them coming. The people who make us cringe when they sit in our sanctuary.

And while that is hard to do, I am not kidding about it.

Now, I need to be clear here. I am not suggesting that anyone owes hospitality to anyone who has hurt them or abused them. There are times when we have to ignore someone, when we have to turn away from someone, when we have to walk away from someone. There are times when that is the right thing to do.

But still… we are called to be daring in our hospitality.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us what we need to do to enter the Kingdom of God. He tells us what it means to believe in Christ. It means giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty and welcome to the stranger. He tells us what it means to have faith in Christ. It means clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner.

Being daring in our hospitality means doing those things when they are easy and when they are hard.

It means giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty and clothing to the naked even when we think that they might be taking advantage of us.

It means welcoming the stranger even when they are a refugee from a dangerous country or someone who came into our nation illegally.

It means caring for the sick even when they are contagious and we are afraid.

It means visiting the prisoner even when they are in prison for a heinous crime… and letting the parolee into our fellowship even when that makes us uncomfortable.

It might even mean learning new skills, crafting new policies, creating new programs, or renovating our building. It could mean coming face-to-face with the law and the courts. It certainly taking risks. It absolutely means being open to being changed.

When Peter met Cornelius, he said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.”

And when Peter preached to Cornelius and his household, he said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

Cornelius changed because of the work that God did in him. And Peter changed, too, because of the work that God did in him.

That is the work of welcome. In welcome – in extravagant welcome, in holy welcome, in divine welcome – the one who is welcomed is changed. In welcome – in extravagant welcome, in holy welcome, in divine welcome – the one who welcomes is changed.

In welcoming each other – people who are like us, people who are not like us – we welcome God and Christ and the Holy Spirit.

That is a risky thing. That is a daring thing. That is a holy thing.

May God grant us the grace to be daring in our welcome.

In welcoming each other we welcome God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. We do a risky, daring, holy thing. May God grant us the grace to be daring in our welcome. Click To Tweet

Parties and Feasts

I didn’t preach this Sunday, so there’s no new sermon today. This is an old one that I preached at Congregational United Church of Christ in Whitewater, Wisconsin, on September 15, 2013, when I was working for Back Bay Mission. The scripture for this sermon is Luke 15:1-10.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to him… and the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling.

I know this scene. I imagine that I’ve seen it in some painting or in the pages of an illustrated Bible.

Jesus is in the middle, all white robes and trimmed beard and wavy hair… because Jesus is always in the middle, all white robes and trimmed beard and wavy hair.

There are tax collectors and sinners in robes and rags, because tax collectors and sinners are always in robes and rags. They are the outcast, the marginalized, the disregarded, the unacknowledged, the hated, the despised. And they sit near Jesus, listening with rapt attention as he speaks about the cost of discipleship and the saltiness of salt.

And there in the corner talking amongst themselves are the Pharisees, men of dark robes and long beards and gaunt faces, because the Pharisees are always men of dark robes and long beards and gaunt faces who stand in the corner and talk amongst themselves.

And they are grumbling, saying things like, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

We know this scene. It’s a scene that’s made to seep into our bones and tell us who is good and who is bad. Here is Jesus: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Here are the Pharisees: paying their tithes on mint and dill and cumin, but neglecting justice and mercy and faith. We know whose side we are supposed to be on.

But the picture is wrong. The Pharisees aren’t bad guys.

The Pharisees are concerned with a very basic question: How can the people be Jewish – distinctly Jewish – while living under the constant threat of assimilation? How can the people be Jewish when they are ruled over by Gentiles? How can the people be Jewish when they are surrounded by Greek and Roman culture? How can the people be Jewish when it would be so much easier to abandon that identity and become just another Hellenized people in a backwater province on the edge of the Roman empire?

We know this question. Christians have been asking it for a while: How can we be Christian – distinctly Christian – while living under the constant temptation of secular Western consumer culture? How can we be Christian in a world where religion that sets you apart is a private matter and public religion has no flavor? How can we be Christian when we are surrounded by the lure of privilege and power and prosperity? How can we be Christian when it is so much easier to abandon that identity and become just like everyone else?

And, like many Christians today, the Pharisees settled upon an answer: there are the rules; here are the boundaries; if the people – not just the priests and Levites, but all of the people – keep the rules and stay inside the boundaries, then no one will risk assimilation and they will remain a people.

So, when they see this rather popular man flaunting the rules and crossing the boundaries and inviting other people to do the same, they grumble. Just like a lot of Christians grumble when they see people flaunting the rules and crossing the boundaries: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

There are grumblers today, of course: modern day Pharisees. There always have been.

I don’t know how you do communion here, but in my church and in the church I grew up in we pass the bread already broken and we pass the cup in little plastic single-serving cups. A lot of churches do this and what people don’t know is that this practice of little communion cups started in the 1890’s because some people were afraid of what it would mean to drink from the same cup as, y’know, one of those people… who might have diptheria or tuberculosis. Not that those diseases had ever been passed by a common cup.

It wasn’t just the physical disease, you see, but the moral disease… the risk of associating with those people.

We see the same thing with those churches that demand the submission of women or advocate so-called reparative therapies for people who are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered. These aren’t about what’s best for the people but about making sure that the people are kept in their places and the wrong sort of people don’t get too close and, if necessary, remaking those people into people just like us. It’s about making sure that rules aren’t broken and boundaries aren’t crossed and this group remains a distinct people.

We even see it when people say that giving money or food or housing to the poor or hungry or homeless will just make them entitled and dependent, that it will rob them of their initiative and work ethic and dignity. As though being homeless isn’t hard enough work. As though not having enough to live on doesn’t rob you of your dignity.

There are a million ways we worry about rules and borders and grumble when we see Jesus: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

And Jesus replies to this grumbling with three parables.

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine sheep in the middle of the wilderness where they can all be stolen by thieves – or eaten by wolves – and go after the one sheep that you lost? And when you find that sheep, which one of you wouldn’t call all of your friends and neighbors over for a party?

Or if a woman lost a coin worth slightly less than a day’s wages. Wouldn’t she comb over every inch of the house looking for it and, when she found it, call all of her friends and neighbors over for a party that will probably cost more than the value of the coin in the first place?

Or… Let me tell you about this guy who had two sons. One of the sons went to him and said, “Dad, I’d like to pretend you’re dead and have you give me my share of the inheritance and I’ll go have the life I want to have.” And when that went horribly wrong because the son wasn’t responsible with what he had been given, and he came home begging for mercy just like his mother said he would, that father threw a huge party that, frankly, was kind of insulting to the other son who had stayed on the farm and worked hard and never once had a party thrown for him.

I mean… who among you wouldn’t do the same thing?

The answer, I imagine, is pretty close to ‘all of us’. All of use would not do the same thing.

The sheep is gone. It’s a business loss. It’s a write off. You have to be kidding if you think I’m going to leave the rest of these sheep in danger to go after one. You have to be insane to think I’m going to celebrate finding a lost sheep.

The coin is probably under the couch. I’ll find it next time I vacuum. We will not be having a big expensive party to mark the occasion. Though, in fairness, I’m probably not going to vacuum unless I’m having people over anyway.

The kid can get a job and pay rent like a normal person.

We are not, in general, us white-bread American mainline Protestants, a people of parties and feasts. Perhaps for a birth or a birthday or a marriage or an anniversary. But not for a lost sheep or a lost coin. Possibly not even for a son who tries to return home after leaving us and acting like we don’t matter.

We are not even a people of parties and feasts when it comes to being given our daily bread or forgiven our debts or not being led into temptation or being delivered from evil.

But I think what Jesus might be suggesting to the Pharisees – to the people who grumble and worry about rules and boundaries – is that maybe we could be such a people: a people of parties and feasts.

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who pay tithes on mint and dill and cumin,” but, “They are the people who celebrate every sinner who returns to the fold!”

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who have a private table,” but, “They are the people who eat and drink with anyone!”

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who have different people in different places and demand that we be like them,” but, “They are the people who, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, celebrate you as a beloved child of God!”

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who will offer you food when you’re hungry if you promise to get into a job training program and work to pay back your debt to them,” but, “They are the people of abundance who share everything they have without thought or concern; they will celebrate that you are eating a meal they gave you or moving into a home they built for you!”

Maybe when people speak of us they will say, “They are a people of great joy and abundant life! They are a people of parties and feasts!”
Last night you threw a party, a shrimp boil. And yes, that was a fundraiser for Back Bay Mission and we thank you profusely. What you did last night will house the homeless and feed the hungry and help people get back on their feet (of get on their feet for the first time). What you did last night will strengthen neighborhoods and seek justice and transform lives. And we thank you.

But I’d like to think it was also a celebration.

I’d like to think that we celebrated every house that has been built or rehabbed and, more importantly, every family who has found a home.

I’d like to think that we celebrated every bag of food that has been handed to the poor and to the homeless and, more importantly, every stomach that has been filled.

I’d like to think that celebrated every mission trip that has served in housing rehabilitation and the Micah Day Center and the food pantry and, more importantly, that we celebrated every person who discovered within themselves and their communities the power to change lives for the better.

I’d like to think that we celebrated every life that the Mission has touched and every life that Whitewater Congregational has touched and every life that the United Church of Christ has touched and every life that Christ has touched, which is every life.

I’d like to think that we marked ourselves as a people of feasts and parties who can say to the outcast, the marginalized, the disregarded, the unacknowledged, the hated, the despised, the weary, the broken, the proud, the righteous, the tax collectors, the sinners, the Pharisees, the scribes, the people of this whole wide world: “All you have to do to be part of this people, this community, this church, this love is show up. And we will celebrate one another.”

I’d like to think that we marked ourselves as a people about whom others will say, “They welcome sinners and eat with them.”

Because that would be good news, indeed.

A Sign and a Wonder

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on April 8, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are John 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35.

There are stories about Bill Murray; you know, the guy from Groundhog Day.

Some of them are not true. And the stories that aren’t true tend to follow the same format: Bill Murray walks up to someone when no one else is around, does something weird, and tells the one person who is there, “no one will ever believe you.”

So, for example: One time, when I was driving a long way and it was late, I stopped at a Wendy’s. The place was empty. I got my food and sat down for a late dinner when Bill Murray — you know, the guy from Ghostbusters — walked in. He walked right up to my table, picked up my burger, unwrapped it, and took a big bite. Then he looked me right in the eyes, slapped my burger down on the table, and said, “no one will ever believe you.”

And then he just walked out. And that story is not true.

But some of the stories are true. One time, Bill Murray — you know, the guy from Lost in Translation — walked into a bar in Austin, Texas, during the SXSW Festival with two of the guys from Wu-Tang Clan and started bartending.

And no matter what someone ordered, he only served shots of tequila. And that story is true.

And it’s not just stories about Bill Murray; you know the guy from Rushmore. Some stories are true and some stories are not true.

And I’ve always felt a little bad for Thomas.

Last week, we heard Mark’s version of Easter morning. This week, our gospel reading starts with John’s version of Easter evening. But we have to start by backing up… just a little.

In the gospel of John, on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone. She saw that the stone had been rolled away, and she ran to get Peter and another disciple. And Peter and that other disciple went into the tomb and saw that it was empty. And they went home.

But Mary Magdalene stayed at the tomb. And she saw Jesus. And she talked to Jesus. And then she went to the disciples and said, “I have seen the Lord.”

And I don’t know if they believed her. Because on the evening of the first day of the week — so this is Easter evening — some of the disciples were together. Judas probably wasn’t there. He betrayed Jesus. He probably wasn’t hanging out with the other disciples. And Thomas wasn’t there. We don’t know why. He was just gone.

And the disciples were together, locked in a house, because they were afraid. Mary Magdalene had told them the good news… and they were still afraid.

And on the evening of the first day of the week, Jesus appeared to some of the disciples. He greeted them. He showed them the nail marks in his hands. He showed them the spear wound in his side. And he breathed on them and gave them the Holy Spirit. And they rejoiced.

Sometime later, the disciples who were together that evening — who had seen Jesus that evening — told Thomas about this. And he didn’t believe them. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he said, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And then, about a week later — so this is a week after Easter — Jesus appeared to the disciples while Thomas was with them. And he said, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

And Thomas believed. Here was Jesus — with nail marks and a spear wound — and Thomas saw and believed.

And Jesus chided him.

“Have you believed because you have seen me?” he asked, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And we call Thomas ‘Doubting Thomas’. We have the nerve to do that. We, who want to know it there’s video of Bill Murray — you know, the guy from Rushmore — serving tequila shots as SXSW, have the nerve to say that Thomas wasn’t trusting enough. Thomas, whose friends were saying that Jesus — you know, the guy who was crucified and buried — was had risen from the dead.

Thomas just wanted some evidence.

And that’s okay. We know what that’s like. We live in an age when people demand evidence. And we should demand evidence. Evidence is not the opposite of faith. Faith needs evidence. And that’s okay.

Thomas just wanted some evidence. We know what that’s like. We live in an age when people demand evidence. And we should demand evidence. Evidence is not the opposite of faith. Faith needs evidence. And that’s okay. Click To Tweet

Three things are true.

First, most of the disciples believed that Christ had risen because they saw Jesus, and the nail marks in his hands, and the spear wound in his side. They knew Jesus. They had seen him turn water to wine. They had seen him heal a paralyzed man. They had seen him raise Lazarus from the dead. But they believed because they saw Jesus.

Second, Thomas believed that Christ had risen because he saw Jesus, and put his finger in the nail marks in his hands, and put his hand in the spear wound in his side. He knew Jesus. He had seen him turn a few loaves and fish into a feast. He had seem him heal a woman with hemorrhages. He had seen him forgive sins. But he believed because he saw Jesus.

Third, Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And while he said that to Thomas, I think he meant it for all of them. Because all of them had seen.

The disciples saw the risen Lord. They had their evidence.

But it is also true that there are people who have not seen Jesus, or the nail marks in his hands, or the spear wound in his side. But even they have seen something. Even we have seen something. We have seen the power of Christ. We have seen the signs and wonders that Christ has done.

Because, when we are the church, we are one of those signs. When we are the church, we are one of those wonders.

When we are the church, we are one of those signs. When we are the church, we are one of those wonders. Click To Tweet

Later — after Jesus had ascended into heaven, after Matthias had been chosen to replace Judas, after Pentecost, after Peter and John defended themselves in front of the high priest — the believers were together.

And they were of one heart and one soul. And they held everything in common. And they gave their testimony.

And there wasn’t a person in need among them. If there was someone in need, they gave to them. Even if it meant selling their land and houses, they did it.

Do you want to see a sign and a wonder? Do you want to see evidence of the transformative power of Christ?

Find a community that is so willing to share that there is not a person in need among them. Find a community that is so open and welcoming that every outcast feels at home the moment they walk in the door. Find a community that loves everyone just they way they are and too much to leave them that way.

Find a community that protects the environment, cares for the poor, forgives readily, rejects racism, fights for the powerless, shares its resources, embraces diversity, loves God, and enjoys this life.

Find the church.

When the disciples gathered together on an Easter evening a long time ago, they weren’t asking for evidence. And I doubt they were expecting a miracle. But they saw Jesus, and the nail marks in his hands, and the spear wound in his side. And they believed. And they were changed.

When they told Thomas, who wasn’t there, he didn’t believe them. But later, he saw Jesus. he put his finger in the nail marks and his hand in the spear wound. And he believed. And he was changed.

Right now, there are people — people in your lives, people in this sanctuary — who are desperate for evidence that power and violence and death will not win. Right now, there are people — in your lives and in this sanctuary — who are desperate for evidence that this is a world ruled by justice and peace and love.

Right now, there are people who are desperate for evidence that there is more magic in this world than Bill Murray — you know, the guy from What About Bob? — serving tequila shots. People who are desperate for evidence that there is a God who hears their prayers, who dances with them when they are joyful, who mourns with them when they cry, who loves them just they way they are and too much to leave them that way.

We are that evidence. I am that evidence. You are that evidence.

I know. That’s a huge responsibility. That’s a big ask. We’re not always going to be good at it.

But I have faith that God is working in me, because I have seen how God has changed me. I have faith that Jesus is showing me the nail marks in this world and the spear wounds in the side of the oppressed. I have faith that the Spirit is moving me.

And I have faith that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit are at work in you, too.

I have faith that God is working in me, because I have seen how God has changed me. I have faith that Jesus is showing me the spear wounds in the side of the oppressed. I have faith that the Spirit is moving me. And in you, too. Click To Tweet

And when someone asks for evidence of a loving God, I have faith that I can point to this congregation — this congregation that, at its best, protects the environment, cares for the poor, forgives readily, rejects racism, fights for the powerless, shares its resources, embraces diversity, loves God, and enjoys this life — and say, “here are people who have been transformed by Christ.”

And then I can tell a story about the Christ we have been transformed by: you know, the Christ who was born in a manger in an occupied land, who was betrayed by his friend and crucified by the powers of this world, and who showed us once and for all that death does not have the final word and that this is a world ruled by love. Amen.

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on April 1, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Mark 16:1-8.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

In churches around the world today, congregations are shouting with joy that the stone has been rolled away, that Jesus is not in the tomb, that hope has been restored to the world. This is a joyful day. Christos Anesti! Le Christ est ressucité! Atgyfododd Crist! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

And, as usual, the women are there first.

Go into any of those churches who are shouting with joy today, and chances are good that you’ll see someone who looks like me standing in front of the congregation, giving his Easter sermon.

While we are fortunate to be part of a denomination that ordains women — about half of the ordained pastors in the United Church of Christ are women, and this congregation has had five women serve as settled or interim pastors, stretching all the way back to Mabel Mannington in 1918…

…while we are fortunate to be part of a denomination that ordains women, we know that many do not. In churches around the world, you are far more likely to see a man preaching this morning than a woman.

But it is important to remember that it is women who went to the tomb; and, for countless generations it has been women who have kept the church going. In the same churches where men are giving their Easter sermons, women are teaching Sunday school and caring for the children; playing the piano and singing in the choir; running food pantries and delivering casseroles; sitting with the dying and serving funeral luncheons.

Women buy spices late on a Saturday night. And women get up early on Sunday morning to go down to the cemetery and anoint the body of the crucified.

In today’s gospel reading, it is the first day of the week after Jesus was crucified. The first day of the week after is an important moment. If you’ve ever had a first-day-of-the-week-after then you know that. Your universe has changed. Your world has been turned upside down. But the rest of the world is still moving on. For you, it’s the first day of the week after; for everyone else, it’s just another day.

We haven’t seen Peter since he denied Jesus three times. We haven’t seen the other disciples since Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane. But on Sunday morning — on the first day of the week after — when the sun has risen, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome are on their way to the tomb.

And they might not know it yet, but this is the work of the church.

It’s easy to think that the gospel is about the miracles and the parables. It’s easy to think that the church is about worship and programs. It’s easy to think that, if we just had a more impressive sign or a more dynamic pastor, we would grow our membership and this sanctuary would be full to overflowing and we’d have to build a new one to hold all of the people.

And that’s not untrue. But it’s not the whole truth.

The gospel is also about quiet words with a woman at a well and eating with prostitutes and tax collectors. The church is also about stocking a young family’s fridge and sitting down with someone who’s crying. And if we let our care and our warmth radiate out, and we invite people to come and see for themselves, then our sanctuary would be full to overflowing and we’d have to build a new one to hold all the people.

Maybe. I’m not making guarantees. The gospel is about the miracles and the parables. And the gospel is about going to the tomb on the first day of the week after.

And something amazing happens when these three women go to the tomb. They are wondering who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb so that they can anoint the body of their crucified Lord. And they look up, and the stone has already been rolled back.

And sitting in the tomb is just… this guy. And he tells them, “Don’t be alarmed. You’re looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here. He’s been raised. Look, there’s the place where they laid him. It’s empty. Go tell Peter and the disciples that he’s going to Galilee and he’ll see them there.”

And the women are seized by terror and amazement. And they flee the tomb. And they say nothing to anyone.

And that sounds bad.

Allow me a moment of biblical nerdery. Today’s reading is from the gospel of Mark. And in our earliest copies of Mark, from the fourth century, the gospel just ends there. The women fled, they were afraid, they said nothing to anyone. End of gospel.

And some Christians decided that that was a bad ending. So they added to the gospel. Some added the shorter ending, where Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and she does in fact go and tell the disciples what she was told to tell them. Some added the longer ending, where Jesus appears to the eleven remaining disciples and adds some teachings and ascends to heaven.

And there are theories about what happened. Maybe Mark meant to end his gospel there. Maybe Mark meant to write a better ending but never got to it. Maybe Mark wrote a longer ending but we lost it.

But no matter what, the ending we have — the ending that we’re sure Mark wrote — is this: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

And that matters.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome went to the tomb to anoint the body of the crucified. They might not have known it yet, but they went to do the work of the church. They went to do something perfectly ordinary.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome went to the tomb to anoint the body of the crucified. They might not have known it yet, but they went to do the work of the church. Click To Tweet

And by doing that — by showing up in the every day work of the church on the first day of the week after — they discovered something amazing. There was no big sign, there was no praise band, there was no powerpoint presentation, there was no dynamic preacher. There was just the truth: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

And they were amazed. And they were afraid. Because that was a transformative moment. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome were no longer the women they were on the last day of the week before. They were no longer the women they were in the last hour of the night before. They were no longer the women they were in the minute before they walked into that tomb. They had been changed. They knew the truth: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

And that kind of transformation is amazing and terrifying.

But here’s the thing: when we learn that truth, we don’t need to say anything to anyone. When we learn that truth, people will see it on our faces and in our actions. When we learn that truth, people will know that we are Christians by our love, by our love; they will know we are Christians by our love.

And here’s the other thing. Maybe we learn that truth in worship. Maybe we learn that truth from hymns. Maybe we learn that truth from our dynamic… young… handsome… pastor. But I think — I strongly suspect, I’m pretty sure — that all of those things are a response to that truth. We find that truth — we learn that truth — in the every day work of being the church.

We find it in teaching Sunday school and WOW Kids and Faith in Motion. We find it in playing the piano and singing in the choir. We find it in giving to the Referral Center and making casseroles. We find it in sitting with the dying and making funeral luncheons. We find it in showing up in the moment and on the first day of the week after. We find it in dancing for joy and mourning with our friends and neighbors.

We find it, in short, in being ministers to each other and to the whole wide world.

We find that truth — that Christ is risen — in being ministers to each other and to the whole wide world. Click To Tweet

We are fortunate to be part of a denomination that invites men and women and people who don’t conform to the traditional gender binary to participate in every aspect of the life of the church, from delivering an Easter sermon to cleaning the kitchen and everything in between.

And we are fortunate to be part of a church that invites everyone to be transformed by that work.

Today is the first day of the week after. And just like Mark’s gospel, we don’t know how this ends. But there is today. And there is tomorrow. And there is next week and next month and next year. There is work to be done every day. And sometimes it’s terrifying. And sometimes it’s amazing. And always it’s transforming.

Because in all of it, all of us can learn a little more of that truth and what it means: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

A Meditation for Maundy Thursday

This meditation was delivered at  First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 29, 2018 (Maundy Thursday). The scripture was John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

Those of you who are members of First Congregational United Church of Christ might have read the little bio of me that you received before you called me as your pastor. And, of you did, you might remember that about a year ago, I was consecrated as a diakonal minister by the United Church of Christ’s Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.

And as part of that, I got this bowl, and this towel, and this story.

In the 1850s or so, the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union — one of the predecessors to the United Church of Christ — sent Louis Edward Nollau to the United States to minister to the First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest. On his way across America, he ended up stuck in St. Louis. So he became the pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Church.

And he founded some nonprofit organizations. One of them was an orphanage.

When he proposed the idea of an orphanage to the congregation at St. Peter’s, they said, “Rev. Nollau, we don’t have what we need to open an orphanage.” And he replied, “We have exactly what we need… we have an orphan.”

A boy named Henry Sam moved into the parsonage, and more joined him. And that community became the German Protestant Children’s Home, and then Evangelical Children’s Home. Today, it’s named Every Child’s Hope, it’s way more than an orphanage, and it serves more than 1,400 children every year.

All because there was an orphan, and there was someone who understood today’s gospel reading.

Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He washed them to make a point about how they should treat each other; how we should treat each other.

Today is Maundy Thursday. The word ‘maundy’ comes from a Latin phrase: mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos: A new command I give you: Love one another as I love you.

Jesus loved his disciples by washing their feet. He washed them to make a point about how they should treat each other; how we should treat each other. And he washed their feet because they were dirty.

We have all that we need to love one another as Jesus has loved us. We have people who are hungry and who are thirsty and who are strangers. We have people who are naked and who are sick and who are in prison.

We have all that we need to love one another as Jesus has loved us. We have people who are hungry and who are thirsty and who are strangers. We have people who are naked and who are sick and who are in prison. Click To Tweet

All that Pastor Nollau and his congregation needed to open an orphanage was an orphan. All that we need to love one another is someone who needs to be loved; which is to say, anyone at all.

Amen.

The Parade of the Powerful, the Protest of the Pitiful

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 25, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Psalm 118:19-29 and Mark 11:1-11.

As with many of our readings during Lent, today’s reading takes place in the lead up to Passover. And to understand what’s happening in today’s reading — what’s happening when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt — we need to understand Passover.

Remember that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. And Moses, one of God’s prophets, led them out of slavery and out of Egypt.

And remember that Moses didn’t do that by asking nicely. And Pharaoh didn’t just let the people go.

Instead, God sent ten plagues through Egypt. The Nile turned to blood. Frogs flooded the land. Gnats were everywhere. Wild animals swarmed the land. Livestock got diseases. People and animals got boils. A great storm came to Egypt. Locusts devoured the crops. There was darkness for three days. And, in the final plague, God killed the firstborn of every family in Egypt. From the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the Egyptians’ livestock.

The name of the holiday — Passover — comes from the fact that each Israelite family slaughtered a lamb and rubbed its blood on their doorpost so that the spirit of the Lord would pass over their home and spare their children.

And, in the chaos, the Israelites fled. Passover is about revolution and revolt. And a little bit about killing the oppressors.

To understand what’s happing in today’s reading, we need to understand Passover. Because here we are on Palm Sunday… in Judea… in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea… while it is occupied by the Roman Empire.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Jews come to Jerusalem for Passover. All of them remember the time when their ancestors threw off the mantle of oppression. Some of them talk about throwing off the mantle of oppression now. And, every year, the Romans get nervous. The Romans don’t want an uprising. They don’t want a rebellion. They don’t want revolution and revolt.

And when Empires get nervous, they flex their muscle. They put their power on display. They have military parades. And, around Passover, the Romans would march troops into Jerusalem and a reminder: the Jews could have their own God and keep their own festivals, but only because the Romans let them.

And here comes this guy, riding in on a colt. And it’s not even his colt. Two of his disciples — two of his students — had to go into town and ‘borrow’ a colt for him. And people are spreading their cloaks on the road and leafy branches on the road.

And they’re shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

In the face of Roman power, the people are saying, “No. This is our king.”

Two marches: a parade of the powerful and a protest of the pitiful.

This is my fifth Sunday with you. You’re getting used to my preaching. You’re starting to see which parts of the gospel I emphasize. And one thing you’ll find is that this choice comes up a lot. God has set before us the way of life and the way of death. And we have a choice about which path we walk down.

We can join the parade of the powerful or the protest of the pitiful.

We can bow to the rulers of this world or we can shout, “Blessed is the kingdom of God! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

We can join the parade of the powerful or the protest of the pitiful. We can bow to the rulers of this world or we can shout, “Blessed is the kingdom of God! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Click To Tweet

And, let’s face it, it is easy to be on the side of the Egyptians. It is easy to march with the Romans. And it is especially easy for many of us in this congregation.
God knows it’s easy for me.

I am — and this is not an exhaustive list — a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America. If we were in Egypt, I’d be one of Pharaoh’s people. If we were in Rome, I’d be one of Caesar’s people. By any measure you care to take, I am among the rulers of this world. And, while I may have hard times, I move through this world much more easily than by friends and neighbors who are not those things.

I am privileged.

And so are many of you. While you might not check all of the same boxes I do, you probably check a lot of them. We are a fairly privileged congregation.

And I want to be clear. Having privilege does not mean that we don’t struggle. Having privilege does not mean that we don’t have trauma. Having privilege is not something to feel guilty about. It is simply a fact.

But it is also a fact that makes it easier to be on the side of the Egyptians. It is a fact that makes it easier to march with the Romans.

It makes it easy for us not to fly a rainbow flag… after all, we know we’re welcome here.

It makes it easy for us not to say, ‘Black lives matter’… after all, we know that our lives do.

It makes it easy for us not to walk out with students chanting ‘never again’… after all, we don’t have lockdown drills.

It makes it easy for us not to call for the dream to be kept alive… after all, we won’t be deported.

It makes it easy to do the things that the rulers of this world demand of people who are privileged: to sit back, and enjoy our lives…

…and do nothing.

It makes it easy to join the protest of the pitiful.

I did not mis-speak. The power of this world is nothing compared to the power of God.

Moses went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Let the people go.’ And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he tried to hold on. He tried to keep the Israelites in slavery through blood and frogs and gnats and wild animals. Through diseased livestock and boils and storms and locusts. Through three days of darkness. Through the death of the firstborn.

The Egyptians tried to keep their privilege in the face of God’s overwhelming power.

And now we’re here on Palm Sunday… in Judea… in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea… while it is occupied by the Roman Empire. And the Romans are trying to hold onto their empire in the face of God’s overwhelming power. They just don’t know it yet.

And Jesus is riding into Jerusalem on a colt. It’s not even his colt. Two of his disciples — two of his students — had to go into town and ‘borrow’ a colt for him. And people are spreading their cloaks on the road and leafy branches on the road.

And they’re shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

In the face of Roman protest, the people are saying, “No. This is our king.”

Jesus on a colt is God’s power. In the coming days Jesus will be betrayed and arrested and tried and he will take up his cross. Jesus will be stripped of his clothes and hung on his cross; he will die and be put in the tomb. There will be three days in the grave. There will be the resurrection of God’s only begotten son.

God will do that thing that God does: she will will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly; they will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty; he will use what is weak in this world to show that he is powerful and sovereign and the God of all creation.

And the question that we are asked on this Palm Sunday and every Sunday and every day — the question that is before us especially when we are privileged by our race or sex or gender identity or sexual orientation or age or class or anything else — is where we will be when that happens.

Will we be with the Egyptians and the Romans? With Pharaoh and Caesar Desperately trying to cling to our privilege and comfort in the world-as-it-is? Pitifully protesting against the world that God is creating?

Or will we be with the crowds? Spreading our coats on the road and leafy branches on the road. Shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of God! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Will we use our privilege for the sake of God’s Kingdom? Will we enter though the gates of righteousness to meet Jesus Christ, our lord and king?

Will we use our privilege for the sake of God’s Kingdom? Will we enter though the gates of righteousness to meet Jesus Christ, our lord and king? Click To Tweet

And, since I don’t like to end a sermon on a question, and since it’s the kind of thing that I ask the kids to do, and since church is where we practice how we should be in the world, please join me in an echo prayer:

Hosanna! [Echo]

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! [Echo]

Blessed is the coming kingdom of God! [Echo]

Hosanna in the highest heaven!” [Echo]

Amen! [Echo]

Will You Be Transformed?

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 18, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33.

Some of you may know that, before I came to serve as your pastor, I worked for Back Bay Mission. The Mission is a community ministry of the United Church of Christ in Biloxi, Mississippi. And it has a variety of programs centered on helping people who live in poverty. There’s a day center, a housing rehabilitation program, a community garden, and supportive housing… among other things.

And one of the most powerful programs there is the mission trip program. Every year, hundreds of people from dozens of congregations go to the Mission to work in its ministries. They repair houses, serve people in the food pantry, clean showers in the day center, and meet people living in poverty or homelessness on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

One of the groups that comes every year is a huge youth group from one of Chicago’s affluent western suburbs. There are always young people in this group who have never really encountered someone who is experiencing homelessness. Sure, they’ve seen people on the streets asking for money, and they’ve almost certainly known a classmate who was staying with relatives, but they’ve never talked to a homeless person about being homeless.

Well, one year this group was sitting in the common room listening to one of the people who the Mission had been serving. Mr. Jesse is a 70-something-year-old veteran who had been on the streets for years before the Mission got him in an apartment. And he told his story.

And when he was done, this young woman raised her hand. Mr. Jesse called on her, and she cocked her head to one side – you could see the wheels turning – and she asked, “You mean we don’t just house veterans? That’s not something we just do?”
And that’s a good question. It cuts to the heart of who we are as a society. We don’t just house vets. We don’t just house anyone. We don’t just feed people. We don’t just provide healthcare for people. We don’t just welcome people.

We don’t just do these things. We just don’t do these things.

In today’s gospel reading, we’re given a frightening image.

“Very truly,” says Jesus, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

And that’s scary because, not to spoil the story, I think something bad is going to happen to Jesus. ‘Those who love their life must lose it’ and ‘whoever serves me must follow me’ sound a lot like Jesus is asking us, “Would you die for this?”

That’s a good question. It might even be an important question.

You might know about RuPaul Charles. He’s an actor, model, singer, author, and, yes, drag queen. He’s probably the most commercially successful drag queen in history. And he has this great quote: we’re born naked, the rest is drag. Not just the clothes, hairstyles, and makeup, but the respectability, civility, politeness, and propriety. All of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit.

And ‘what would you die for?’ is a good question to strip away the drag and figure out who we are underneath. Not ‘what do you fantasize about dying for?’ This isn’t about being an action hero. What would you die for? What would you run into a burning building to save? Who would you take a bullet for? Really. Like, really really.

‘What would you die for?’ is a good question. It might even be an important question. But it’s not the question Jesus is asking.

There’s another question that goes along with ‘What would you die for?’ And that question is ‘What would you live for?’ It’s a good question. It might even be an important question. It is certainly a hard question.

All of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit. And it’s easy to slide into the performance and start living for other people’s expectations. It’s easy to slide into the performance and live the lives that other people have planned for us. It’s easy to slide into the performance and live a life that isn’t our own.

And ‘what would you live for’ is a good question to strip away the drag and figure out who we are underneath. What would you spend every day doing? Who would you spend every hour with?

‘What would you live for?’ is a good question. It might even be an important question. But it’s still not the question Jesus is asking.

Jesus is asking a much scarier question.

And it’s scary because, not to spoil the story, something amazing is going to happen to Jesus. He is like a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies… and bears much fruit. He is the judgement of the world, who drives out the ruler of this world, and draws all people to himself. He strips away the drag and shows us who we are underneath.

The question Jesus is asking is, ‘Will you be transformed?’

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that the day is coming when God will make a new covenant with his people. It won’t be a covenant that’s written on paper or carved in stone. It won’t be a set of rules that we try — and fail — to follow. It will be inside of us. It will be written on our hearts. It will be part of who we are.

Jesus is calling us into that life. Jesus is calling us into knowing God. Jesus is calling us into being the people of God.

And that’s scary.

It’s scary because all of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit. And following Jesus — going where Jesus is — means giving up those performances. It means not living the lives that other people expect. It means not living the lives that other people have planned for us. It means not living the lives that aren’t our own. It means taking off the drag and standing naked before world, as who God means for us to be: servants of Christ and servants to each other.

It means housing people and feeding people and caring for people and welcoming people. No matter who they are. No matter where they are on life’s journey. No matter what.

I don’t know what happened to the young woman who asked Mr. Jesse that question — “You mean we don’t just house veterans? That’s not something we just do?” — on a mission trip to Biloxi, Mississippi. But I have faith that somewhere on that trip — sometime while she was rebuilding a house or cleaning showers or handing out food or talking to someone she was serving — she met Jesus. And I have faith that she was changed. Maybe not all at once, but a little. I have faith that a word of God’s law was written on her heart. I have faith that Christ drew her a little closer to himself.

And I have faith that the same thing can happen to us. Whether in Jamaica or Haiti, whether in Kentucky or Colorado, whether in Biloxi or right here in DeWitt, when we serve, we give ourselves the opportunity to meet Jesus. And when we meet Jesus, we are transformed. Maybe not all at once, but a little. A word of God’s law is written on our hearts. Christ draws us a little closer.

When we serve, we meet Jesus. When we meet Jesus, we are transformed. A word of God’s law is written on our hearts. Christ draws us a little closer. Click To Tweet

And as we continue to serve day by day, our heart become cleaner and our spirits become more willing.

Because it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying to the ways of the world — to the lives that the rulers of this world demand from us — that we are born to eternal life.

Even Me. Even You.

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 11, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21.

When I was in college, I met some Christians who believed in the contract. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the contract, but I’ve seen it many times. It’s usually at the end of a thin little pamphlet.

These pamphlets lay out a version of Christianity that’s neat and simple and clean. God is good and you are a sinner. And because God is good and you are a sinner, God has no choice but to condemn you to eternal punishment in hell. But God sent his — and in these pamphlets, God is emphatically a him — God sent his son to take your punishment. Christ died on the cross in your place. He took the punishment you so richly deserve. And if you accept him as your personal lord and savior, you can trade eternal hellfire for eternal bliss. And you should do it now. Because you could die.

That’s the first part of the contract: believe these things.

Then these pamphlets have some version of the sinner’s prayer:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen. 1Billy Graham’s Sinner’s Prayer, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinner%27s_prayer

That’s the second part of the contract: say this prayer.

And then, right below that prayer, there’s a place to sign and date. And there are a lot of people who can tell you the year and month and day — the hour and the minute — that they signed on the dotted line and gave their life to Jesus Christ.

That’s the third part of the contract: sign here.

And that’s okay. Different people walk different paths. Different people have different stories. And while I might not have signed a contract on the back of a pamphlet, other people have. And that matters to them. And the fact that it matters to them, matters to me.

These Christians who I knew believed in the contract. Maybe not literally — most of them had probably never signed the back of a pamphlet — but they believed in it all the same. They believed the things they were supposed to believe. They prayed the sinner’s prayer. They knew when they had accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior.

And I was never one of them.

Don’t get me wrong. I get it. It would be nice to have that kind of control over my fate. It would be nice to be that sure of my salvation. It would be nice if I could guarantee eternal life just by believing these things and saying this prayer and signing on the dotted line. It would be nice.

And there’s always the temptation to believe that I have that power. To think that I’m in control. To think that I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.

But I don’t. I’m not in control. I’m neither a master nor a captain. Thank God.

There’s something that comes along with the temptation to be in control: the temptation to judge. And there’s something that comes along with the temptation to judge: the temptation to condemn. If I know the list of things that we have to believe, then I can scrutinize your beliefs and tell you where you fall short. If I know the prayer that we have to pray, then I can listen to your prayer and tell you which words are wrong. If I know that my signature is on the contract, then I can tell you why it’s wrong if yours isn’t.

And I can look at the world and all of its horrors — its poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred; or, in simpler language, its sin — can condemn it. I can do that. I’m good at it.

But I don’t have that power. I’m not in control. I’m neither a master nor a captain. Thank God.

Because when God saw this world — its poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred; or, in simpler language, its sin — God did not condemn it. God loved it.

And God loved the world this way: God gave his only begotten son so that everyone who had faith in him would not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send her son to condemn the world, but to save it.

And that means all of it. Not half of it. Not some of it. But the entire world.

We are in the middle of Lent. We’re almost to the end. Soon, we’ll remember that Jesus was betrayed, that he died, that he was buried, and that he rose again.

We are in the middle of Lent. We’re almost to the end. For not, we remember that we have been dead. We have been dead through our trespasses. We have been dead through poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred. In the simplest of language, we have been dead through sin.

That doesn’t mean we’ve been in the ground; it means something worse. It might seem hard to believe, but we have been walking around like zombies. We’ve been missing out on the chance to really live. We have stayed in the dark because we’ve been too afraid to to let the world see us. We’ve stayed in the dark because we’ve been too afraid to let God see us.

We’ve been so afraid that God will condemn us, that we’ve condemned ourselves.

We’ve been so afraid that God is like us, that we’ve condemned ourselves.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even in this season of Lent — even in this season of prayer and penance — there is good news. Especially in this season of Lent — especially in this season of prayer and penance — there is good news.

Because God saw us, dead through our sin, shambling in the dark, and loved us. And God loved us this way: God gave his only begotten son so that everyone who had faith in him would not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send her son to condemn the world, but to save it.

And that means all of it. Not half of it. Not some of it. But the entire world. Even you. Even me.

Now, I want to be fair. The pamphlets are right. I am a sinner. I am a sinner because I choose to sin. I am a sinner because I’m caught up in systems that leave me no choice but to sin. I am trapped in a world where I do not know how to be the person who I believe God is calling me to be. The pamphlets are right. I am a sinner.

And if it were up to me, I would condemn myself.

And I want to be even more fair. The pamphlets are right. I can be sure of my salvation. I can know that eternal and abundant life is there. The pamphlets are right. Another life is possible.

But here is something I am sure of, here is a way that the pamphlets are wrong: There is nothing I can do that will save me.

There is nothing that I can believe that will make God love me. There is no prayer I can say that will make God save me from my sin. There is nowhere I can sign that will make God extend her grace to me.

Because God has always loved me. God has already saved me. God is grace-filled and grace-giving. That is who God is.

Grace is not a contract. Grace is not a deal. Grace is a gift.

And there is nothing we can do to earn it. God gives it to us because that’s who God is.

Being a Christian — having faith in Christ — doesn’t mean believing a list of things or praying a certain way or praying or signing on the dotted line. Christians around the world and throughout history have believed so many things and prayed in so many ways. Being Christian must be about more than the list of things we believe or the ways that we pray.

Being a Christian means — at least in part — trusting that God is rich in mercy. It means trusting that even when we were dead through our sins, God raised us up. It means trusting that we do not need to stay in the darkness and condemn ourselves for our sins. It means trusting that we can step into the light, in all of our brokenness, and God will still love us.

Being Christian means trusting that we can step into the light, in all of our brokenness, and God will still love us. Click To Tweet

That is why I can be sure of my salvation. That is why I can know that eternal and abundant life is there. That is the other life that is possible.

And it means trusting that this is true for everyone. Not half of us. Not some of us. But the entire world. Even me. Even you.

And here’s the thing. That work is much harder than believing the things and saying the prayer and signing on the dotted line. That work is much more important than having a moment of conversion. That work is much braver than judging ourselves and the world. Because when we can walk into the light and open up to God — when we can be vulnerable to God’s love — then we can begin to love others.

And then we can be what God intended us for be: created in Jesus Christ for good works, which God created beforehand to be our way of life. Amen.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Sometimes, We Flip Tables

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 4, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22.

When I was in elementary school — and, probably when you were in elementary school — every classroom had rules. They were written on the chalkboard, or printed on a poster, or tacked to a bulletin board. And they were things like ‘Respect Others’ and ‘Follow Directions the First Time They’re Given’ and ‘Keep Hands, Feet, and Objects to Yourself’. And they always had capital letters. Because they were, with capital letters, The Rules.

When I was in high school and college, there were these bracelets… and bookmarks and coffee mugs and t-shirts and baseball caps and dozens or hundreds our thousands of other products with four letters and a question mark on them. WWJD? What Would Jesus Do?

And while that question might feel a little bit circa-1996, it’s part of an ancient tradition. Augustine, way back in the fifth century, wrote an essay on the Gospel of John — and our gospel reading today comes from John — where he told people that, in Christ, God had become low for them. And while we might be too proud to imitate a lowly person, we should at least try to imitate the lowly God. 1Augustine, In Iohannis evangelium, tractatus 25, 16

‘What would Jesus do?’ is an ancient question.

And something I’ve noticed over the years is that a lot of people answer that question with some version of The Rules.

Sometimes, The Rules are a kind of fruit of the spirit thing. Jesus would be loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind and good and faithful and gentle and self-controlled.

Sometimes, The Rules are a rundown of the ten commandments we heard from the book of Exodus today. Jesus would worship God alone, keep the sabbath, and honor his mother and father. And Jesus would never worship idols, take God’s name in vain, murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet his neighbor’s stuff.

Sometimes, The Rules are a blend of Biblical commandments and cultural preferences. Jesus would preach against abortion and same-sex marriage. Jesus would support a lower corporate tax rate and be tough on crime.

And sometimes — especially in Sunday School classrooms and with small children — The Rules are the same ones that are posted in elementary school classrooms across the country. Jesus would respect others and follow directions the first time they’re given and keep his hands, feet, and objects to himself.

And I get it. Rules are useful. Rules matter. Rules are important. And we need rules in classrooms and workplaces and, yes, churches. Don’t murder is a good rule. Try to be kind is a good rule. Go 25 miles an hour near schools when children are present is a good rule.

But here’s the thing. Sometimes the rules aren’t enough.

In today’s gospel reading, it’a almost Passover. Families are coming, from near and far, to the temple in Jerusalem to make their sacrifice: a lamb or a goat, one year old and without blemish. And, while they’re here, they’ll pay their temple tax.

But some families are traveling a long way. And it’s hard to travel with an animal. So it makes sense to have some people at the temple who can sell an animal for the sacrifice. And folks have set up shop. There is always a marketplace in the outer court of the temple, and there are always people selling lambs and goats and cattle and doves. If anyone needs to make a sacrifice — and people have to make sacrifices — they can buy the appropriate animal right here at the temple.

And because some of those families are traveling a long way, they might not have the right money to pay the temple tax. So it makes sense to have some people at the temple who can exchange money. And folks have set up shop.

But there’s always a problem when you have some people who have to do something — like bring a sacrifice to the temple or pay a temple tax — and some other people who are ready to make money off of that. The people who are selling sacrificial offerings are charging too much. And the people who are exchanging money are using unfair exchange rates and charging unreasonable fees.

And, of course, it’s the people who are using all that they have to get to the temple and offer their sacrifice and pay their tax who are getting hurt.

And none of that is against the rules. I mean, sure, you shouldn’t exploit the poor and you should be fair in business. But, strictly speaking, there’s no rule against charging a lot for an animal. Strictly speaking, there’s no law against taking advantage of the exchange rate. It’s how the market works. Demand is high, prices are high.

We all know this story.

We all know some business that found a way to make money while following the letter of the law and skirting the spirit. We all know someone who can bend the rules to their advantage without ever quite breaking them. It’s how the world works. My clothes are affordable because someone somewhere is paid far too little. My phone is affordable — I mean, barely affordable — because a child is working in a rare earth mine somewhere in Africa. And his family lives on a dollar a day.

And it’s how the temple worked; at least a little bit. The temple needed that marketplace, and the people in that marketplace needed to make money. And that meant taking money from people who gave everything they had to get to Jerusalem at Passover.

The ancient Roman Empire was not a place of economic equality. A few people were very rich. A few more people were economically secure. And most people — the vast majority of people — barely scraped by or didn’t scrape by at all.

And, sometimes, the answer to ‘What would Jesus do?’ is ‘Flip some tables and chase people with a whip.’

Sometimes, the answer to ‘What would Jesus do?’ is ‘Flip some tables and chase people with a whip.’ Click To Tweet

This is not a Jesus who is loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind and good and faithful and gentle and self-controlled.

This is not a Jesus who respects others and follows directions the first time they’re given and keeps his hands, feet, and objects to himself.

This is a Jesus who is face to face with the fact that the rules don’t always work. This is a Jesus who is face to face with the fact that people will find brilliant ways to follow the rules and exploit the poor.

This is a Jesus who is angry. Who is mad. Who is willing to burn the whole thing down.

And we need to take that seriously.

We’re in the midst of Lent, a time when we make a point of turning back towards God. Of praying for forgiveness for the things we have done and left undone, said and left unsaid, thought and left unthought. Of contemplating how we can do a better job of imitating Christ, the lowly God.

And today is Sunday, which is always a celebration of Easter, when Christ rose. It is a day of joy and gladness. Of wondering how we can do a better job of imitating Christ, the risen Son.

And today is also a communion Sunday, when we gather at Christ’s table to remember his sacrifice and take part in the bread of life and the cup of blessing. Of asking how we can do a better job of imitating Christ, who invites everyone into his kingdom.

Today is a day to ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’

And, yeah, sometimes the answer to that question is to cultivate the fruits of the spirit. Some days, we work on love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control.

And, yeah, sometimes the answer to that question is to look at the ten commandments. Some days, we work on worshipping God alone, keeping the sabbath, and honoring our mothers and fathers. Some days, we work on getting out of the systems that push us towards idol worship, taking God’s name in vain, murdering, committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting our neighbor’s stuff.

And, yeah, sometimes the answer to that question is to follow the rules. Some days, we work on respecting others and following directions the first time they’re given and keeping our hands, feet, and objects to ourselves.

But sometimes we ask ourselves whether we’re angry enough at the injustices of the world. Sometimes we ask ourselves if we’re mad enough that the powerful can play by the rules and still hurt the weak, and that the weak can play by the rules and still be hurt.

Sometimes, we ask ourselves whether we are foolish enough to burn the whole thing down and faithful enough to trust that God will build something better. Click To Tweet

Are we willing to disrupt business as usual? Are we ready to flip some tables? Are we filled with zeal not only for God’s house, but for God’s kingdom?

Because when we are, we move that much closer to not just asking what Jesus would do, but to doing what Jesus would do. To imitating the God who became low for us, and to creating a world of greater justice and mercy for all. Amen.

Footnotes   [ + ]

It’s Been a Hard Week

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on February 25, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Genesis 17:1-7 and Mark 8:31-38.

It’s been a hard week.

As many of you know, my dad hasn’t been doing well. He’d had dementia for a long time. He’s been in a memory care unit for years. He had a Transient Ischemic Attack — which is king of like a stroke but not a stroke — a few weeks ago.

And, earlier this week, he passed away.

There’s a line from a song that’s been going through my head for a while. I think the song is about a breakup, but the artist is clever, so it might be about something else. The line goes: I saw this coming, but still I am caught by surprise.

It’s been a hard week. You’re not seeing me at my best.

At the same time that my dad took a turn for the worse, I was supposed to be starting a new job as your pastor. I was so excited to come to my new office and meet with Pam and go to a council meeting and start getting to know all of you. I’ve been looking forward to this for what feels like ages. And I know that life here has continued while I’ve been gone.

It’s been a hard week.

In today’s gospel reading, it’s a hard moment.

Jesus has been preaching and teaching in the Galilean countryside. Just a moment ago, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Then he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” And they answered him, “The Messiah.”

And that declaration — that “You’re the Messiah” — matters. Peter has a very clear and very common idea about who the Messiah is and who the Messiah is supposed to be. The Messiah is supposed to be a great king. The Messiah is supposed to liberate Israel from foreign rule. The Messiah is supposed to restore Israel to greatness.

And so, when Jesus starts saying that he must suffer, and be rejected, and be killed, and rise again, Peter is angry. That’s not the way things are supposed to go.

And Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to tell him… something. We don’t know what he said, but it must have been something like, “It’s not supposed to be this way. You’re wrong.”

And Jesus explodes: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

And he calls the crowd over — like everyone needs to hear just how wrong Peter just was — and gives them the bad news.

Anyone who wants to follow Jesus has to pick up their cross and follow him… to suffering, to rejection, to death. Do you want to save your life? You will lose it. Are you willing to lose your life for Christ and the gospel? You will save it.

It’s a hard passage. It’s a hard message. And it’s been a hard week.

But the hardest thing about this week hasn’t been my dad. And it hasn’t been missing out on a first week that I was looking forward to.

It’s been this: I knew that I would be preaching from this pulpit, across the street from a high school. And lurking in the background — in the back of my mind with that song lyric — is the fact that a week and a half ago a young man walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and reminded all of us that we are dust, and to dust we will return.

This wasn’t the first school shooting.

Marysville Pilchuck High School was four years ago. Santa Monica College was five years ago. Sandy Hook Elementary School was six years ago. Northern Illinois University was ten years ago. Virginia Tech was eleven years ago. And since I’ve skipped so many already, I’ll skip so many more and end with this: Columbine High School was almost twenty years ago and it wasn’t the first school shooting.

And, of course, there have been so many more that haven’t been in schools.

For most of my life, the question has not been if this will happen again, but when and where. We see it coming, and still we are caught by surprise.

And, I’ll be honest, I am a little afraid. I’m afraid that there will be a day when I have to call the pastor at Newtown Congregational Church right near Sandy Hook Elementary School, and ask how I am supposed to do my job — how I am supposed to be a pastor, how I am supposed to comfort a community, how I am supposed to preach the gospel — in the aftermath of a tragedy like that.

It’s been a hard week.

But we knew that coming in, didn’t we?

Jesus told us that, while Christian life may have joy and gladness, it is not a life of comfort. We have to take up our crosses…

…for the sake fo Christ and the gospel.

…for the sake of the widow and the orphan and the alien.

…for the sake of the hungry and the thirsty and the stranger.

…for the sake of the naked and the sick and the imprisoned.

…for the sake of everyone who cries out for justice.

We have to take up our crosses. We can do that with joy and gladness. But we do that knowing that we are risking suffering and rejection and even death.

But here’s the thing. The cross isn’t the end. Even in Lent, the cross isn’t the end.

When Abram as ninety-nine years old, God came to him and told him that he would be exceedingly fruitful. A nation would come from him. Kings would come from him. And he would be called Abraham, ancestor of a multitude. And he was ninety-nine years old.

And Abraham laughed.

It must have seemed so unlikely. It must have seemed so impossible. How could Abraham, who was ninety-nine, and Sarah, who was ninety, have a child? How could they be the ancestors of a multitude?

But it happened. Old age is not the end. The cross is not the end.

Abraham had to have faith that God’s promise to give him a people would be realized. Peter had to have faith that Jesus’s promise that he would rise would be realized. And we have to have faith that God’s promise to us will be realized.

I don’t know what the world of that promise — what a world of justice and mercy and abundant life — will look like. But I know that world will only come about if we take up our crosses, in faith that suffering and rejection and death are not the end of the story, and work on making that world here and now.

A world where we have had the last school shooting will only come if we take up our crosses and support the leadership of the young people who are working for change.

A world where we have had the last mass shooting will only come if we take up our crosses and have hard conversations about the place of guns in our society.

And that might be uncomfortable. That might be hard.

But we knew that coming in, didn’t we?

It’s been a hard week. It’s been a hard week for me. It’s been a hard week for some of you. It’s been a hard week for the students, faculty, and staff of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. And it’s been a hard week for a community in Florida that lost too many of its children on Ash Wednesday.

And no matter how hard it is, on the other side of suffering and rejection and death is new life. On the other side of Lent and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is resurrection.

No matter how hard it is, on the other side of suffering and rejection and death is new life. On the other side of Lent and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is resurrection. Click To Tweet

But to put that another way… on this side of new life is plenty of discomfort. On this side of resurrection are hard times. And the only way to get from here to there is to pick of my cross and follow Jesus.

My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Parkland, Florida, and everyone who suffers from violence. I’m going to think about what to do. I’m going to pray for the courage to do it. I’m going to pick up my cross. And I’m going to do my best to live for the Lord. Amen.

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