Bringing People Together to do Good

God or a King?

I didn’t preach this Sunday, so there’s no sermon today. Instead, here’s a classic from way back in 2012. I think I preached this at a Mennonite church in Ohio, but I don’t remember where.

One of the great themes of Israel’s history — one of the great themes of human history — is the choice between the the divine and the earthly. This is easily seen when it comes to idolatry in worship. Israel is constantly tempted to worship the gods of its neighbors, or worship natural creatures or worship objects made by human hands; and Israel repeatedly falls to that temptation.

It’s important to remember, though, that idolatry isn’t something that just happens in worship or on holidays or on sabbaths or on Sundays. God is not confined to the temple or the church. God is God everywhere and all the time.

And the Israelites’ first allegiance, before all other allegiances, was to be to God… every minute of every hour of every day regardless of where they were or what they were doing.

And what is happening here is not just a request for a king, but the facing of a choice: will Israel remain unique among the nations, ruled by God and God’s chosen, or will it become like other nations ruled over by a human king?

Let me back up a bit in this story, because I think most of us probably think of Israel as a nation that is sometimes a kingdom — after all, we know the names: Saul and David and Solomon and so on — and sometimes living in exile under some empire or another: Assyria, perhaps, or Babylon. We tend to think of Israel as having a king chosen by God or having some other king forced upon them by an oppressor.

But, as this story brings to light, there was Israel before there was Saul.

For generations, Israel has been ruled by people we call ‘judges’. You might recognize a few of the names – Deborah, Gideon, Samson – but others are probably, at best, forgotten: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Tola, Jair and so on. These, too, were rulers of Israel.

Israel repeatedly goes through this cycle: they would turn to other gods, they would fall under the rule of some foreign king, they would remember God and cry out and God would call forth someone to lead them to freedom. This someone was a judge. And the judge might simply liberate the Israelites and be done, or the judge might liberate the Israelites and rule over them for a time. And when the judge died, that was it: children did not take over, there were no dynasties, Israel returned to being a people with no king or chieftain but God.

And, of course, in due time, the cycle would repeat itself.

Samuel is the last judge of Israel. And he is the last judge of Israel in a time when the idea of the judge is losing credibility. Before Samuel, there was a priest named Eli who, more or less, ruled Israel. And while Eli wasn’t so bad as a priest, his sons “had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.” God ends up killing Eli and his sons and installs Samuel as judge over Israel.

And when Samuel grows old – despite having known what happened with Eli and his sons – he appoints his own sons as judges over Israel. And they, like Eli’s sons, are not good leaders: they “did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.”

Eli and Samuel have themselves planted a seed of kingship.

And now we return to where we came in. The people of Israel are faced with a choice: will they continue to be set aside as a nation ruled by God and God’s chosen or will they become like other nations ruled by a human hand?

And the answer is obvious: Israel wants a king.

There are moments in scripture… where you can hear the heavy sigh of the divine:

And the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.”

The people, in short, are just committing another kind of idolatry. It’s a sin that God seems to have grown used to.

So Samuel gives a warning to the people: A king will be terrible, he will take all of the best of Israel for himself and he will fulfill his own desires and you will end up as his slaves and you will cry out to God because of this king – who you chose – and you’re going to be stuck with him.

It’s a little bit ‘throw up your hands’, isn’t it: “That’s how you want to live your life? Fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you and don’t come crying to me.”

And Israel chooses a government not of God, but of human hands. Call it ‘political idolatry’.

It’s not a new thing for Israel.

And it’s not just an old thing for us.

I’m a member of the United Church of Christ. I was born and raised in that denomination and that, as it took me a long time to learn, isn’t a terribly common thing. We’re still a pretty young denomination – fity-five this year – so the older folks in our denomination came from one of our predecessor denominations. And even among the younger folks, most people come from somewhere else. They were raised as Presbyterians or Methodists or Catholics or what have you.

But I was born and raised in it. So I grew up in a culture where democracy is everywhere and the wisdom of crowds in trusted and every issue was settled with prayer and study and discussion and debate and, eventually, a vote. I was taught that God works – often very slowly – through crowds.

I can tell you that I sympathize with the Israelites. Sometimes a king would be nice. Sometimes I envy those churches where the pastor is just in charge. I like the idea of someone just being able to pick a hymnal, rather than having – true story – eight years of discussion to reach a decision. I like the idea of the pastor just being able to say that there will be no American flag in the chancel rather than – again, true story – “send it out for cleaning” and have it “be lost”.

There are certain advantages to having a king… when the king is good.

I also grew up in a household where politics was important. I suspect that the political life of our church – and by that I mean the liveliness of debate, not necessarily particular positions – fed our involvement in secular politics and vice versa. And I still consider politics important. I still follow debates and conventions and commercials and polls. I still stay up on election night following the returns and reacting to the calling of states like sports fans react to the calling of fouls. I love it. And I believe that this community life – arguments and debates and votes and protests – can really make the world a better place.

But it is easy — and I think we’ve been seeing this in American politics the last few years and were probably seeing it long before I was born; horrible pamphlets against John Adams by Americans for Washington — to lose sight of God and become convinced that the most important thing ever in the history of the world is party or platform or candidate or ideology. It is easy to let ourselves put all our faith and hope in creaturely politics and forget about – or at best give lip service to – the one to whom our ultimate allegiance is supposed to belong.

And that’s not just true in national politics or state politics or local politics. It’s true in office politics and church politics and all of those creaturely, human systems that we’ve created to get through the day-to-day.

Idolatry, it turns out, is easy in all of the areas of our lives. It is a simple thing to try to put the earthly above the divine.

So we, like Israel, are always faced with this question: do we chose divine leadership or human leadership? God or a king?

Idolatry, it turns out, is easy in all of the areas of our lives. It is a simple thing to try to put the earthly above the divine. So we are always faced with this question: do we chose God or a king? Click To Tweet

Well, we’re in a church, so we know the answer, right? When faced with the choice between God and pretty much anything else, the correct answer is… God. That’s right.

God or ice cream? God.

God or a new car? God.

God or untold riches? God.

God or a king? God.

It’s simple.

But it isn’t easy.

When Israel chooses to have a king, they are saying that God will not be king over them and God’s chosen won’t necessarily rule over them. But God’s chosen don’t disappear. Samuel doesn’t leave. Saul can take counsel from Samuel. And David can take counsel from Nathan. And the kings who come after also have prophets, chosen by God, to counsel them… whether they want it or not. Kings may make their proclamations, and God…

Well, as the UCC is fond of saying, God is still speaking.

God speaks through prophets. God speaks through apostles. God speaks through a pastor from Atlanta and a woman who won’t sit at the back of the bus and people marching on the national mall. God speaks through protestors in front of statehouses and crowds chanting along streets and people standing in silence on college campuses. God speaks through letters to the editor and blog posts and tweets. God speaks in the strong voice of the great orator and in the small voice of the child who stands up for what is good. God speaks in the misery of the cross and the glory of the resurrection.

Where there is love, God speaks.

Where there is mercy, God speaks.

Where there is a desire for justice, God speaks.

Where the low are lifted up and the high are humbled, God speaks.

Where there is love, God speaks. Where there is mercy, God speaks. Where there is a desire for justice, God speaks. Where the low are lifted up and the high are humbled, God speaks. Click To Tweet

Kings were chosen long ago. And we keep choosing them today.

We might call them presidents or prime ministers or bosses or supervisors or what have you, but they are still there: power structures that we created with human beings — and all the difficulties that entails — sitting atop them. And some are good and some are bad. And more often some are simply better and some are worse.

But we are not without God. And we are not without God’s chosen. We still have our Samuels and our Nathans. And the beauty of how God works, is that God can choose anyone at anytime or even everyone at every time… and God can choose us to speak or to listen.

And if we listen – if we open our ears… if we ask and we seek and knock – then we can hear God’s call to peace and grace and love and life abundant. And if we wish, we can follow that call. And if we follow that call, we can speak to all those kings and call them to come with us.

And that is good news.

Blasphemy!

The Pharisees are plotting against Jesus. They know that he’s a threat to the social order. They want him gone. They want him discredited. And they have a plan.

You see, Jesus has been going around healing people and casting out demons. Last week, we heard a story about Jesus restoring a man’s withered hand. And since then, he has been curing diseases and exorcising demons. And he has gathered disciples and given them the authority to cast out demons. And it all looks a little strange.

And now he’s at home. And the scribes from Jerusalem are spreading rumors. “He’s gone out of his mind,” they’re saying, “he is casting out demons using authority given to him by the king of demons.”

Even his family wants to hold him back. These rumors are bad for their reputation.

And Jesus responds with this: A house divided against itself cannot stand. Satan isn’t going to go around casting out his own demons. If he does that, he’s just fighting against himself and his days are numbered. No, this is not the work of the devil. And I’ll tell you what. All of your sins and blasphemies can be forgiven, except… blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an eternal sin. There are no backsies.

Now, we’re good mainline Protestants. We don’t talk about sin very much. But we just had a baptism, an outward and visible sign of the grace of God, a outward and visible sign of the forgiveness of sins. So let’s walk out of our comfort zone a little bit. Let’s talk about sin.

In today’s reading from Genesis, the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden have just eaten the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. A talking snake offered it to the woman, who took it and ate it. And she offered it to the man, who took it and ate it. And now they know things they didn’t know before.

And they know that they are naked. And they are afraid. And when they hear God walking through the Garden, they hide. And that tips God off. “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree?”

The man confesses his crime and blames the woman. The woman confesses her crime and blames the snake. And the snake — who earlier was pretty chatty — says nothing.

So God curses the snake. And God curses the woman. And God curses the man. And God curses the earth. The whole world breaks. That’s part of sin. My sin isn’t just between me and God. It makes the entire world a little bit worse. It takes the entire world a little bit farther away from the world that God created.

Sin is personal: I sin. But sin is also systemic: it hurts everyone. And that matters.

Sin is personal: I sin. But sin is also systemic: it hurts everyone. And that matters. Click To Tweet

When I was in college, I hung out for a while with a group that was not-so-affectionately known as the ‘turbo Christians’. They were deeply conservative evangelicals, but they were the only Christian group on campus and there was this girl and you know how things are when you’re eighteen.

The turbo Christians knew about sin. There were lists of sins. There were books about sin. I remember reading something about Christian dating and the deep importance of keeping four feet on the floor at all times; because while not doing that might not be a sin in and of itself, it was a temptation to sin. Sin loomed large in the turbo Christian imagination.

We’re good mainline Protestants. We don’t talk about sin very much. Turbo Christians talked about sin a lot. And they talked about the personal side of sin a lot. They told me that my sin was between me and God. And God was very angry with me about it.

And I had to repent.

And I got worried. Really worried. I was repenting constantly. Because, let’s face it, I sinned.

But… the turbo Christians seemed so unconcerned with the systemic side of sin. If they saw starving people in Africa, they would tell them to repent and be saved. But no one would preach about the sins that kept food from them.

Now, I’m not saying this to cast blame or say someone is wrong. I probably focus on systemic sins at the expense of personal ones. I probably need to spend more time confessing my own sins. And others focus on personal sins at the expense of systemic ones, and probably need to spend more time confessing that they hold up an unjust order. We all have things we’re not repenting of.

We are all sinners, every one of us, including me. We are all hurting God though our sins, every one of us, including me. We are all hurting our friends and neighbors through our sins, every one of us, including me. We are all hurt by the sins of our friends and neighbors, every one of us, including you.

We are all hurt by our own sins, left naked and afraid, trying to hide, knowing that we will be found out.

But… there’s good news. There’s always good news.

After God tells the man and the woman about how their sin has cursed the world, God sends them out into that world. But before God does that, God makes clothes for them. They might be afraid, but they are no longer naked. And throughout the Bible God will keep showing up and saying, “Don’t be afraid.” God will keep comforting and forgiving and saving. Again and again.

And that brings me back to this story from the gospel. This story where the Pharisees and scribes are plotting against Jesus. This story where rumors are going around.

“Truly I tell you,” says Jesus, “people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.”

There is always forgiveness. There is always healing.

But Jesus goes on, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

That doesn’t sound good. In fact, several years ago, some atheists on the internet — you know, the opposite of turbo Christians — decided to show how serious they were by recording themselves ‘committing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ and posting it to YouTube. They got on camera and said things like, “I don’t believe the Holy Spirit exists” and “I blaspheme the Holy Spirit”.

Fortunately for them, that’s not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Saying “I blaspheme the Holy Spirit” is like saying “I want to say thank you” instead of “thank you”. It’s like saying “I apologize” instead of “I’m sorry”. It’s talking about the thing instead of doing the thing.

Where the scribes in this story messed up is that they saw Jesus healing people and attributed his power to the devil. They saw Jesus doing good and called it evil. And I want to be clear, I still don’t think they committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

But, maybe, they got a little closer.

You see, we commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit when we knowingly and with malice see the work that the Spirit is doing in the world and call it evil. When we become so depraved and so lost that we truly and deeply believe that comforting and forgiving and saving, that healing and caring and loving, are evil. It’s a pit so deep that we cannot see the light at the top.

And I don’t think for a moment that it’s even possible for us to get that far away from God.

I believe that even the most hardened among us, even the most villainous people in history, even the most depraved humans in the world, still have a conscience that pulls them towards God. I believe that even when we are in the deepest pits of despair about our own self-worth, we can still see the light of Christ. I believe that even when we are naked and afraid, hiding and worried about being found out, God is waiting with a needle and thread to clothe us and comfort us.

Even when we are naked and afraid, hiding and worried about being found out, God is waiting with a needle and thread to clothe us and comfort us. Click To Tweet

That is the good news that we preach, and the good news that we live out, that as long as even the smallest part of you longs to be made whole, God is there for you.

Today, we welcomed Kaelyn into our church family through the sacrament of Christian baptism.

Now, baptism has many promises. We baptize as an outward sign that God has promised to forgive sins, and that God will keep that promise. We baptize as a way of promising that we will always be here for her, even if she wanders off to find where demons dwell. We baptize as a reminder of our baptisms, and the fact that we always stand in need of forgiveness.

And we baptize as a reminder that we have a superpower. We can forgive each other. We can make clothes for someone who is naked and afraid, we can sit with someone in the pit of despair, we can point people towards a God and a community that stands ready to accept them. We can tell the world (and each other) that no matter who you are, or what you’ve done, or where you are on life’s journey, you are so welcome here, as a friend and neighbor of Jesus Christ.

We can tell the world (and each other) that no matter who you are, or what you’ve done, or where you are on life’s journey, you are so welcome here, as a friend and neighbor of Jesus Christ. Click To Tweet

And that is good news. Amen.

Rest is a Right

Rest is a right. I want you to remember that. And, more than that, if we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, rest is one of them. Rest is a right.

It’s right there in the Bible: Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy. Set it apart. Six days you can do all of your work, but the seventh day belongs to God. And you shall not do any work on that day. And not just you. Your children, your servants, your livestock shall not do any work. The foreigner who lives among you shall not do any work.

And do you know why? Because you were slaves… and God saved you.

And let’s be clear. The author of Deuteronomy does not mean that you have six days to work at your job and one day off to do all of the other things you need to do. Six days healing or teaching or farming, and one day to clean the house and shop for groceries and take the car into the shop and mow the lawn and all of the other things that have to happen.

No. Six days to labor and do all of your work. One day that is holy and set apart.

Rest is a right. I want you to remember that. Rest is a right.

We live in a society that celebrates busy-ness and productivity and hustle. We come in early and skip lunch and stay late. And when we’re not at our job, we’re at our side job. And if we don’t have a job that pays the bills, we have two jobs or three jobs. And if we’re parents, we have a host of activities to help our kids get ahead. And it we’re kids, we have an endless parade of homework and test prep and extracurricular activities.

And, too often, we forget about that sabbath. We get up early, we go to bed late, we live in a fog of stress.

We forget that rest is a right. Rest is holy. Rest is sacred.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples are walking through the grain fields. The disciples are hungry, so they start plucking heads of grain from the stalk and suddenly they’re doing work: they’re making a path through the grain, they’re harvesting a little of it. And the Pharisees see this. And they ask Jesus why his disciples are breaking the sabbath.

And we might think that’s a bit much. But I respect the Pharisees for that. They took the sabbath seriously. For six days you can do all of your work, but the seventh day belongs to God. And that matters. Everyone had a day off. Everyone had a day to rest. Everyone had a day that was holy and sacred. Everyone had a sabbath.

It was enforced. There was a law.

But Jesus does that thing that Jesus does. He one-ups them. He reminds them of this story about David.

In this story, David wasn’t the king of Israel yet. Saul was. And Saul knew that David was a threat to his rule. So David was on the run.

On the sabbath, David went to the priest and… lied to him. He said that he was on a mission from Saul and he had an appointment with some men, but… well, do you have any bread?

Now, the priest only had the bread of the presence. These were special loaves that were made and placed on a special table in the sanctuary of the temple. There always had to be twelve loaves on the table and the loaves stayed there for a week. On the sabbath, the priests would make new loaves for the table, and take the old loaves for themselves. And the priests — and only the priests — could take those loaves and eat them in a holy place. There was a law.

But the priest didn’t skip a beat. He made sure that David and his friends were ritually pure — this was holy bread — and then he gave it to David.

And Jesus says to the Pharisees, “You see, the sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath. The son of man is lord even over the sabbath.”

And the Pharisees aren’t quite convinced. They keep an eye on this Jesus fellow.

So Jesus goes to the synagogue. When he gets there, he meets a man with a withered hand. And the Pharisees are watching to see if he will heal that man. They know he can do it; there is no question about his power. But it’s the sabbath. There is a law.

And Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath? To heal? Is it lawful to do harm on the sabbath? To kill?” And then he answers his own question by healing the man.

You see, God created the world out of love. God set apart the sabbath to give us rest. And rest — true, deep, honest, joyful rest — is found in communion with God. In a world that is broken, a world of work, a world of drudgery, a world where we eat our bread by the sweat of our brow, a world of things that just need to get done, the sabbath sets apart that time to… just be.

Rest is holy. Rest is sacred.

But… two things.

First, like all things that are holy and sacred, sabbath is best when it is shared. The sabbath is most the sabbath when everyone can enjoy it. And that means that it is always lawful to do good on the sabbath or any other day. It is always lawful to give someone else the chance to enjoy that holy and sacred time a little more. By giving them the bread of the presence or by healing a withered hand.

Or by fighting to make sure that no one has to work every day of the week, and that families have affordable child care, and that our young people have the free time to be young people.

Second, like all things that are holy and sacred, we can make the sabbath into work. We can make it into a list of things that we should do and things that shouldn’t do. But the sabbath doesn’t work like that. It is a time for that communion with God, a time to just be. And if God calls you through a field, make a path. If God calls you to eat, pluck the grain from the head. If God calls you to give, give. If God calls you to heal, heal.

Rest is holy. Rest is sacred. So be holy. Be sacred.

Rest is holy. Rest is sacred. So be holy. Be sacred. Click To Tweet

Now… I know I’m supposed to say something about how the best way to honor the sabbath and keep it holy is to come to worship. And I do hope that worship is part of your sabbath. I hope that you find true, deep, honest, joyful rest in worship, or at crafty stitchers, or with the Lions Ladies, or with a youth group, or in a committee meeting, or in fellowship, or somewhere else in this church.

But I also think that worship is how we prepare for sabbath.

Soon, we will pray. And we pray here in part so that we can practice praying. So that we can pray everywhere. With care and compassion and laughter and love.

Soon, we will eat at the Lord’s table. And we eat here so that we can practice eating. So that we can eat everywhere. At a table that is open, where there is always room for one more, where no one has to worry about going hungry.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And in one story about that creation, God works for six days to make the entire universe. And on the seventh day, God rests. God takes God’s sabbath. But there’s something else that is so important happening there. You see, gods rest in temples. And when God rests on that seventh day, God is declaring the entire world a holy and sacred place where we can be at rest and at peace. Where we can find true, deep, honest, joyful rest in communion with God.

And this time together on Sunday morning is, in part, a little bit of time to practice. It is a little bit of time to practice being in communion with God so that we can go into this great big holy and sacred world that God creates and sustains and be in communion with God.

It is a little bit of practice giving bread to the hungry. It is a little bit of practice making a path through the world. It is a little bit of practice plucking grain from the head. It is a little bit of practice healing this creation.

Rest is a right. I want you to remember that. Rest is a right. It is holy. It is sacred. And everyone should have the chance to rest; to rest from work; to rest in God. And we can make that a reality by carrying the holiness and sacrality that we find here out into the world, little by little, until the whole thing is a sabbath space and a sabbath time. Thanks be to God!

Carry the holiness and sacrality that we find here out into the world, little by little, until the whole thing is a sabbath space and a sabbath time. Click To Tweet

Again, from Above, of Water and Spirit

Today is Trinity Sunday, a day when churches around the world — not just the United Church of Christ, but Catholics and Anglicans and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Methodists — recognize and celebrate one of the great mysteries of our faith. We worship one God in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

It is easily one of the hardest bits of our faith to grasp. If it sounds difficult and nonsensical, that’s because it is. It’s difficult and nonsensical and true. It’s one of those things about God that we just can’t get our heads around. It’s one of those things about God that we can’t understand. And I cannot explain it.

There’s a video that shows up on my Facebook feed almost every year around this time. I’ll post it on the website along with this sermon.

In it, two Irishmen named Donall and Conall meet St. Patrick. And they ask him to explain the Trinity. But, since they’re just simple Irishmen without fancy theological educations, they ask him to explain it in simple terms. With an analogy.

So Patrick starts this way. The Trinity is like water. Water is always water, but it can be a liquid or a solid or a gas. Water or ice or vapor. But Donall and Conall and quick to point out that he’s saying that there’s one God in three forms, not three Persons who are one God. That’s modalism. And it’s a heresy.

So Patrick switches gears. The Trinity is like the sun. There is the star and the light and the heat. But Donall and Conall correct him. He’s saying that the Father creates the Son and the Spirit and that they’re not coeternal and equal. That’s Arianism. And it’s a heresy.

So Patrick switches gears again. The Trinity is like a three leaf clover. And Donall and Conall stop him before he even gets started. He was about to say that the Father and the Son and the Spirit are like leaves of a clover, different parts of one thing. But they aren’t different parts of God. They are God. Patrick was about to confess partialism. And that’s a heresy.

And they go around a bit more and Patrick finally gets fed up and says that the Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason, but is understood only through faith. We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the essence, each person God and Lord, equal in glory and coeternal in majesty.

And Donall and Conall ask why he didn’t just say that to start with, with suggest celebrating their conversion by putting on big green foam hats and drinking too much.

And the Trinity really is that hard to get. I do have a fancy theological education and I spend time with this stuff. I can tell you about it. I can recite the mystery. I can say and believe that we worship one God in three divine persons. But I can tell you that I also don’t get it and I cannot explain it in any way that really satisfies me.

Which brings me to our reading from John.

In the other gospels, there’s a scene where a rich young man comes to Jesus and asks what he has to do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus says to him, “You know the commandments. Keep them.”

And the rich young man says, “I have kept them since my youth.”

And Jesus says, “Then there’s just one more thing. Sell all that you have and distribute the money to the poor and follow me.”
In this passage in John, Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, and a teacher of Israel. And he doesn’t ask what he has to do to inherit eternal life, but Jesus tells him, anyway: You must be born again, from above, of water and spirit.

And where the other gospels are clear, that’s a little opaque. And Nicodemus is understandably confused. And Jesus is a little condescending about that.

“You’re a teacher of Israel,” he says, “and you don’t understand these things?”

But then he goes on, “I have been telling you what is true. I have testified to what I’ve seen. But you don’t get it. And if I’ve been telling you about earthly things and you’re not getting it, how are you going to get it if I tell you about heavenly things? Look, I know about heavenly things because I’ve been there. You’re just going to have to believe in me.”

Or something like that.

Now, I have had plenty of people ask me if I’m born again. I’ve had people encourage me to get born again. I have had people pressure me to say the sinner’s prayer and sign the back page of the pamphlet and be born of of water and spirit. And maybe you have, too.

And I gotta tell you. I’m kind of with Nicodemus here.

Now, I have had plenty of people ask me if I’m born again. And maybe you have, too. And I gotta tell you. I’m kind of with Nicodemus here. Click To Tweet

Now don’t get me wrong, I proclaim Jesus my lord and savior. I proclaim Jesus the lord and savior of the whole world. I have been changed by Christ and by the faith that I put in him. I sometimes even do my best to follow him. I repent on a regular basis. And I have confidence that he has saved me. And I kind of even know what I mean by that.

And, maybe, I’ve been born again, from above, of water and spirit. But I don’t know. Because I don’t know what that means. Should I have had a big conversion moment? Should I have passed through the dark night of the soul? Should I be able to point to the day and time and place that I was born again, from above, of water and spirit? Or can it be a gradual thing? A slow realization of what happened when I wasn’t paying attention?

And if I appear ignorant it is because I am ignorant. God is far bigger and more majestic than I can imagine. I see through a glass darkly, at best. There are a few things that I’m very confident about. But even though I am a preacher and a teacher in this congregation, I do not understand all of these things. If I appear ignorant it is because I am ignorant.

And that’s okay. Today’s reading from Isaiah is a reminder of that.

Isaiah was one of the great prophets. He was one of the big guys. And in the sixth chapter of his book, he receives a vision. He sees God, sitting on a throne, filling the temple, with angels attending him. And he says aloud, “Woe is me. I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and yet I have seen the Lord.”

Isaiah sees God and it is too much.

And an angel swoops down to him, holding a hot coal with a pair of tongs. And the angel puts the coal to Isaiah’s lips and tells him that his suit has departed and his sin has been blotted out.

And God asks, “Who shall I send? Who will deliver my message to the people?”

And Isaiah, with his coal stained lips, can say, “Here am I; send me.”

But even that doesn’t mean that Isaiah gets everything. What he gets is what God has given him. He has his message and his mission. And I bet that if you asked him to explain the trinity, he would be lost. And if you asked him if he was born again, from above, of water and spirit, he would just give you a confused look.

You see, it wasn’t given to Isaiah to understand all things. It was given to Isaiah to understand the message that he was to deliver.

And I think that the same is true of me and of you.

John Dorhauer, the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, once said something like this. Denominations — you know, the United Church of Christ, the Catholics, the Anglicans, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and so on — denominations exist because people get together and say, “If not for us, this aspect of the gospel will be forgotten. This part of the gospel will be overlooked.”

And I think that something like that is true for each of us. We are not given to understand everything. We are certainly not given to understand everything about God. But we are each given to understand something. We are each carrying a little part of the Kingdom of God.

And, at the same time, we are not responsible for everything. It is not my job to create heaven on earth. It is not your job to realize the Kingdom of God. But we are each responsible for something. We are each carrying a little part of the Kingdom of God.

And when we come together — when we each bring our little piece to the table — we can join God in doing something amazing. We can see a new heaven and a new earth rise around us. We can see a new Garden of Eden blossom around us. We can see the Kingdom of God live within us.

And then, maybe, we will understand.

And when we come together we can join God in doing something amazing. We can see the Kingdom of God live within us. And then, maybe, we will understand. Click To Tweet

People Will Talk. There Will Be Stories.

Last week, I talked to you a little bit about Matthias.

After Jesus was betrayed, arrested, and crucified, after he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, the apostles were down one person. Judas, who had set the events of Holy Week into motion through his betrayal, wasn’t with them any more. And the remaining apostles decided to fill his seat with someone new.

So the community of believers nominated two people. And the apostles prayed and cast lots. And the dice landed a certain way. God said, “Matthias”. And suddenly this man was a leader of the early church. Whether he was ready or not.

And, while we don’t hear anything else about Matthias in the Bible, you may have noticed that there are stories and legends about him. Some say he went to minister in Cappadocia, some in what is now the Republic of Georgia, some in Ethiopia. Some say he died in Sebastopolis, some in Jerusalem. Some say he was stoned, some he was beheaded, some he died peacefully at home.

We don’t know the truth about Matthias. But we do know that people talked. There are stories.

And if that happened to Matthias…

Something similar is happening in today’s reading. Today is Pentecost. And every Pentecost, we hear this story.

The community of believers is all together when there is a rush of wind and tongues of fire appear. And the Holy Spirit enters the believers and they begin speaking in other languages. A crowd forms around them, and everyone in that crowd hears what the believers are saying — stories about God’s deeds of power — in their own language. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontusians, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans… everyone hears the believers speak in their own tongue.

And some people in the crowd are amazed. “How is it,” they ask, “that we are hearing them speak and understanding them, each in our language? What does this mean?”

And a few of them say, “Eh, those people are drunk.”

And that’s weird. Think about that for a moment. Someone in that crowd hears the believers speaking and thinks, “Wait, those believers are Galileans, I am Phrygian, we don’t speak the same language, but I am understanding every word they say… they must be drunk.”

Someone in that crowd hears the believers speaking and thinks, “Wait, those believers are Galileans, I am Phrygian, we don’t speak the same language, but I am understanding every word they say… they must be drunk.” Click To Tweet

But I imagine that started spreading through the crowd. And while some of the people were amazed, others were saying, “Look at those people, they’re drunk. It’s nine in the morning and they’re filled with wine. What is wrong with them?” And a few of the people who heard that believed it. And they turned to others and said the same thing. And suddenly people were talking. There were stories.

And, I imagine, a few of the believers heard those stories. And they thought to themselves, “These people think we’re drunk! Maybe I should just be quiet. Maybe this strange spirit will leave me alone and I can be quiet and they won’t think I’m drunk and I don’t want them to think that.”

But then Peter stands up. Peter, who never quite got Jesus’ parables. Peter, who denied that he even knew Jesus during the crucifixion. Peter, who has sometimes been ill-prepared for his call and for life in general. That Peter. Peter stands up and says, “We are not drunk. It’s nine in the morning.”

And then he says this:

“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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

And suddenly we know why people were saying that the believers were drunk. Power does not like prophecy. Power does not like visions. Power does not like dreams. Because prophecy is almost never on the side of the powerful.

You can ask Dr. King, who was one of the most reviled men in America when he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. You can ask the kids from Stoneman Douglas High School, who have been called crisis actors and pawns. You can ask the folks who have protested police shootings of Black people, who are called thugs and dragged through the mud. You can ask countless, countless others.

And you can ask Jesus, who was betrayed and arrested and crucified.

Power hears prophets and says, “they must be drunk… they are naive… they don’t know how the world works… they are demanding the impossible… they are dangerous… … …crucify them.”

Power does not like prophecy; because prophecy is almost never on the side of the powerful.

And that can be scary. Because when the spirit shows up, it shows up. As a rush of wind or tongues of fire, or a tug at our hearts. Whether we’re ready or not. And it we listen to it, people will talk. There will be stories.

If we put up a rainbow flag, people will talk.

If we put out a Black Lives Matter sign, people will talk.

If we march for our lives, people will talk.

If we point out that residents in Flint, Michigan, are still being asked to drink bottled water…

If we tell people that the work requirements being added to Medicaid are set up to affect Black residents and exempt white residents…

If we wonder aloud why so many Palestinians were injured or killed while the United States opened a new embassy in Jerusalem…

If we say that it’s wrong to say, about anyone, “they’re not human; they’re animals”…

If we talk about yet another school shooting, one that brings the bodycount for students higher than the one for members of the military this year…

If we are wild and dangerous and full of grace, people will talk. There will be stories.

And, as an aside, I do know the examples I just gave. I’m sure a few of you will be talking about me later.

And that can be scary. After all, we are people. We all want other people to like us. We don’t want to hear someone say — about us — “they must be drunk… they are naive… they don’t know how the world works… they are demanding the impossible… they are dangerous… … …crucify them.”

But…

In today’s reading from Romans, Paul is writing to a church that he has never visited. He know that the church in Rome is struggling and suffering. And, oh, you should hear the things they were saying about the Christians in Rome. Oh, you should see the things they were doing to the Christians in Rome. And Paul reminds them that the suffering they are going through now is for a purpose.

You see, the whole of creation is groaning. It is in labor. And what is being made, what is being born, is amazing. It is nothing less than the kingdom of God. And while we can’t quite see it yet, all things are coming together for the good. And this suffering will be diminished to nothing by the glory of what is to come.

And if you want the challenge of being the church… if you want the challenge of following Christ… if you want the challenge of being filled with the Spirit… there it is.

If we are the church — if we are daring in our welcome; if we are wild, dangerous, and full of grace — then people will talk and there will be stories. And some people will say, “Who are these people? What does this mean?” And some people will say, “Eh, those people are drunk.”

And a few of us might say, “These people think we’re drunk! Maybe we should just be quiet. Maybe this spirit will leave us alone and we can be quiet and they won’t think we’re drunk and I don’t want them to think that.”

And maybe even I will say that. I’ll admit it. I want people to like me.

But that spirit is here whether we’re ready or not. When we don’t know how to speak, that spirit is speaking on our behalf. When we don’t know how to pray, that spirit is interceding with sighs too deep for words. When we don’t know what to say, that spirit speaks to us so that we may speak.

When we don’t know how to be, that spirit lifts us up and carries us.

That spirit — that very spirit that comes as a rush of wind and tongues of fire, that very spirit that brings prophecies and visions and dreams — stands with us.

When we don’t know how to be, that spirit lifts us up and carries us. That spirit — that very spirit that comes as a rush of wind and tongues of fire, that very spirit that brings prophecies and visions and dreams — stands with us. Click To Tweet

And, yes, being a spirit-filled people is scary. It might even be a little dangerous. People will talk. There will be stories.

But that spirit — that spirit that makes some people ask, “Who are these people? What does this mean?”; that spirit that makes some people say, “Eh, those people are drunk.” — is the Holy Spirit that is giving birth to a new world of justice and mercy and love that we can barely imagine.

And that is the spirit that will see us through to the other side. And that is good news.

Grace Sees Us Through

A week or two ago, I had a stress dream.

I was running late for Sunday worship. I couldn’t find any clean dress pants, so I threw on some jeans and a t-shirt and got in the car. And, in the dark, I started my drive to church. Now, in my dream, the road to church was long and winding and went through a cemetery and a small town.

And as I was driving through that small town, I saw a gas station. I looked at my gas gauge and — even though I was already late — I knew that I needed to stop for gas. And then, I looked at my clock… and I had forgotten about daylight savings time and it was already ten o’clock!

I was so, so late. And I was trying to think of how to walk into the end of the service in a way that wasn’t, y’know, completely embarrassing.

And then I woke up.

And I know dreams are never about what they’re about. But I think that this one was a manifestation of a really basic fear. A fear that most of us have. The fear that I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m ill-prepared both for this call and for life in general, and that — at some point — I am going to mess up badly and be reliant entirely on the grace of God and this community to see me through.

Y’know… adulthood. And adolescence. And a fair amount of childhood. Being a person, really.

And, after that dream, I was happy to see this passage from Acts appear in the lectionary.

This story — this little bit of early church polity — takes place early in Acts. The background is simple: Jesus was arrested and crucified and buried. After three days, he rose. And, about forty days later, he ascended into heaven.

And this was set in motion by Judas, who betrayed Jesus. And it’s not surprising that, after that betrayal, he isn’t part of the community anymore.

But the eleven remaining apostles think that there should be twelve of them. There’s a seat empty. So they start the process of filling the position. The whole community of believers — about 120 people at that point — nominate two men: Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias.

We don’t know much about either of these guys. We know that they were with the community from the time of Jesus’ baptism by John until he ascended into heaven. And that’s a weird thing to say, since none of the apostles were at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus didn’t start picking his disciples until after he had been baptized and spent forty days in the wilderness. But the point is clear, Joseph and Matthias had been with the community for a long time.

Beyond that, we know nothing. We don’t know if they were educated. We don’t know what their professions were. We don’t know what their families were like. We don’t know what their qualifications were.

But the apostles prayed. And they cast lots. And Matthias became one of the twelve. He became one of the leaders of the early church. All because the dice landed a certain away. All because God said, “Matthias.”

And nowhere in this story — nowhere in this example of how the early church chose leaders — does Matthias get a say in this. He doesn’t volunteer. He doesn’t campaign. He doesn’t give a speech to accept the nomination. No balloons come falling down. The dice land a certain way. God says, “Matthias.” And that’s it. God chooses Matthias, whether he’s ready or not.

And beyond that, we know nothing. We never hear about Matthias again. He doesn’t show up in the New Testament again. And even the legends and traditions are hard to reconcile. Sometimes, he goes to Cappadocia. Sometimes to what is now the Republic of Georgia. Sometimes to Ethiopia.

Sometimes he dies in Sebastopolis. Sometimes in Jerusalem. Sometimes he is stoned. Sometimes he’s beheaded. Sometimes he dies of old age.

We simply don’t know what he did… or where he went… or whether he was a good apostle. All we know is that the dice landed a certain way and that God said, “Matthias”. All we know is that Matthias was chosen.

And, from the rest of the Bible, we know what kinds of people God usually chooses. They’re not the most qualified. They’re not the best of the best. They’re not earth’s mightiest heroes.

What they are, often, are people who are ill-prepared both for their call and for life in general, who are entirely reliant on the grace of God and their community to see them through. They are, often, people more-or-less like us.

And while I’m not sure that casting lots is the best way to fill leadership positions, there’s something important happening here. There’s something that I think we can all understand.

Sometimes it goes like this. Something needs to be done. The community pushes a couple of people forward. Maybe they’re even people who maybe, possibly, could do the thing that needs to be done. And God says, “that one.” And, suddenly, we’re standing in front of the congregation… chosen. Whether we’re ready or not.

God says, “that one.” And, suddenly, we’re standing in front of the congregation… chosen. Whether we’re ready or not. Click To Tweet

And sometimes that thing that needs to be done is vacuuming the church, or getting communion ready, or providing special music, or leading a prayer, or reading scripture, or leading the time with young worshippers, or giving a sermon, or leading a meeting, or chairing a committee, or anything else.

And the fact is that the community doesn’t always push us towards the thing we think we’re good at. And God doesn’t always call us to the place that we’re ready to go. We just get chosen. Whether we’re ready or not.

And if that sounds scary… it is. And if it sounds amazing… it is.

And I know that because I’m standing in front of you this morning. And, if I can be a little vulnerable for a moment, sometimes I am scared. And sometimes I am amazed. And sometimes I am both of those things at once.

And while it might not sound like the greatest invitation ever, you can be, too.

This is one of the beautiful things about the church. In the church – in this community of people who strive to love each other as Jesus loved us – we don’t have to be afraid. We can rely on the grace of God and this community to see us through.

We can try new things… and grace will see us through.

We can heed God’s call… and grace will see us through.

We can be ill-prepared for for God’s call and life in general… and grace will see us through.

We can mess up badly…and grace will see us through.

We can heed God's call and grace will see us through. We can be ill-prepared for for God's call and life in general and grace will see us through. We can mess up badly and grace will see us through. Click To Tweet

And because grace will see us through, we don’t have to know exactly where we’re going. You see, just like we don’t know where Matthias went, there is no way he could have known where he was going.

He couldn’t know if he was going to Cappadocia, or what is now the Republic of Georgia, or Ethiopia. He couldn’t know if he would die in Sebastopolis or Jerusalem. He couldn’t know if he would be stoned or die peacefully at home. He couldn’t know what life would be like.

All he could know is that the dice had landed a certain way and that God had said, “Matthias.” All he could know is that he was chosen. And all he could do is rely on grace to see him through.

And we can walk forward – even when it’s scary – and know that God’s grace and the grace of this congregation will see us through. Even when we can’t find clean dress pants so we have to wear jeans and a t-shirt, and we have to stop for gas, and we missed the change to daylight savings time, and we are very late.

And we can rely on the God’s grace and the grace of the holy spirit even when it’s worse than that.

Hallelujah!

An Ever-Widening Circle

Previously, at First Congregational United Church of Christ.

A couple of weeks ago, when we were having our annual celebration of extravagant welcome, I preached on the beginning of the story of Peter and Cornelius. To recap, since it’s important:

Peter was an apostle of Jesus Christ. And he knew that the church was a community of Jewish people who followed the Jewish messiah who would restore the homeland of the Jewish people, who were the chosen people of the Jewish God.

But God had told a man — a gentile — named Cornelius to send men to Peter. And he did.

And to prepare Peter, God sent him a vision of unclean foods and told him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And Peter knew that this vision and this statement wasn’t about food… it was about people.

So, when the men who Cornelius sent to Peter showed up, Peter went with them (even though they were gentiles) and went to Cornelius’ household (even though they were gentiles) and preached the good news to them (even though they were gentiles).

And now we’re here. But, like any other time when there’s a good ‘previously on…’, we’ll get to that later.

In today’s reading from John, Jesus is giving his disciples a commandment. With a catch.

“Love one another,” he tells them, “as I have loved you.”

Now, Jesus isn’t saying this as a king to his people… or as a messiah to his nation… or as a master to his servants… or as a teacher to his students… or even as a pastor to his congregation. He’s saying it as a man to his friends. He has shared everything with them. But now he’s getting ready to leave them and it’s hard and all he wants is for them to love each other as he has loved them.

Now, we are in the season of Easter. Today is the sixth Sunday of Easter and we have heard the full story. We know that Jesus will be betrayed and arrested and crucified and buried. And we know that Jesus will rise. But this passage in John takes place before that. Jesus knows what is coming. And he knows that the disciples will rejoice in the resurrection. But he also knows that before they rejoice in the resurrection, they will mourn in the betrayal and arrest and crucifixion and burial. And he is preparing them.

What should they do when he’s gone?

“Love one another,” he tells them, “as I have loved you.”

And that’s a good commandment. But, as I said, there’s a catch.

“No one has greater love than this,” he continues, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

“Love one another,” he tells them, “as I have loved you.” And that’s a good commandment. But, as I said, there’s a catch. “No one has greater love than this,” he continues, “to lay down one's life for one's friends.” Click To Tweet

You see, God loved the world like this. God sent his only begotten son into the world, as flesh and blood. And that son suffered and died. And that son came into the world so that we might live through him.

And Jesus loved us like this. He was that son. He laid down his life. He came into the world so that we might live through him.

And all he wants us to do is love one another like that. So… easy, right?

Now, I think we established early in my tenure here that I am a nerd. And we all know that my day off is Friday. Which is a perfect combination because a lot of new movies — like, for example, Avengers: Infinity War — open on Thursday nights. And so, at noon a couple of Fridays ago, I was sitting in an IMAX theater with my 3D glasses and popcorn-for-lunch. And I was watching the greatest superhero team-up of all time fight some super-villains over the fate of the universe.

And… I like to imagine myself among those heroes. It’s a bit of escapism. Maybe Chris Marlin-Warfield, mild-mannered out-of-shape pastor, could put on a silly costume and fight intergalactic evil.

I think all of use have those fantasies. At least a little bit. We imagine ourselves as heroes. We imagine that we would run into the burning building, or towards the gunfire, or right at the intergalactic evil. We imagine that we would win the day for justice and righteousness. Even if it meant sacrificing ourselves.

And that’s easy to imagine. It’s harder to do. And that’s okay. I’m not going to ask you to run into a burning building or towards the gunfire. Because I don’t think that Jesus is saying something as simple as, “be the hero who dies saving everyone else.”

But I am going to ask you to run right at the intergalactic evil. Because I think Jesus is asking us to do something much harder than being the hero who dies saving everyone else. I think he is asking us to be the the heroes who live for each other.

When we see someone who is hungry, to give them something to eat. When we see a stranger, to welcome them. When we see someone who is in prison, to sit with them. If only for a moment, to lay down our own lives, and help someone else carry the burdens of their own.

Because God loved the world like this. He came into the world as this man Jesus. He walked alongside us. He carried our burdens. He laughed with us and cried with us and healed us. He was with us. And he still is. And he always will be.

And there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life — to lay aside one’s divinity and power and majesty — for one’s friends.

And that brings me back around to Peter and Cornelius.

You see, it is, in its own weird way, easy to lay down our lives for our friends. Our friends are exactly the kinds of people we would want to lay down our lives for. That’s why they’re our friends, right?

A long time ago, I was unemployed for a while and my friends helped me out. And when our friends have been down on their luck, Mariah and I have helped them out. It’s what friends do.

But God keeps expanding the circle of friendship.

When Peter delivers the good news to Cornelius and his household, God pours the holy spirit out on them. And the Jewish Christians who have come along with Peter were amazed. They couldn’t believe it. They knew that the church was a community of Jewish people who followed the Jewish messiah who would restore the homeland of the Jewish people, who were the chosen people of the Jewish God. And here was God pouring the holy spirit out on these gentiles.

God is widening the circle… and Peter sees it.

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,” he says, “who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

And they are baptized.

And… when Jesus is talking to his disciples — when he gives them that commandment — he tells them a deep truth. They didn’t choose him. He chose them.

And Cornelius did not choose God. And Peter did not choose Cornelius. God chose Cornelius and his household and poured out the holy spirit. God showed Peter that the circle of the chosen people was bigger than Peter thought. And I will insist that God has made that circle infinitely big. I will insist that God has chosen everyone. I will insist that the world is awash in the holy spirit.

And so when Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you,” he is saying, “love everyone as I have loved you.”

And Jesus loved us like this. God laid aside her divinity and her power and her majesty for a world that she loved and that was broken. And God came into the world as one of us and walked alongside us and carried our burdens and laughter with us and cried with us and healed us. God was with us in the person of Jesus the Christ. And God is still with us. And God always will be with us.

And there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Christ’s love is an ever-widening circle. And Christ calls us — Christ commands us — to let our love be an ever-widening circle. To love our friends. To welcome new people as our friends. To open ourselves up to new friendships. And to love those friends as Christ has loved us.

Or, to put that another way, Christ calls us — Christ commands us — to be the church. Hallelujah. Amen.

Christ’s love is an ever-widening circle. And so when Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you,” he is saying, “love everyone as I have loved you.” Click To Tweet

Loved People Love People

After college, I spent a couple of years working as a cook in a chef owned and operated restaurant in Galesburg, Illinois. And while it wasn’t going to win any Michelin stars, it was a good restaurant and one of the more upscale ones in Galesburg.

And it was a traditional kitchen… meaning that there was a lot of yelling and swearing and name calling and threatening.
That’s part of kitchen culture. Paul Bocuse yelled. Auguste Escoffier swore. Marie-Antoine Carême probably called people names. Eugenie Brazier probably threatened people.

Chefs throughout history and throughout the world have done all of those things. My chef wasn’t nearly bad as chefs at other restaurants. But the people who taught him yelled and swore at him. And he yelled and swore at me. And, when it came time for me to oversee someone else in that kitchen… I yelled and swore at him.

Tony isn’t going to hear this or read this. But, dude… sorry. I mean, hurry up, but still… sorry.

Hurt people hurt people. It’s true in these middle-sized things like workplaces. We have entire cultures based around hurt people hurting people.

It’s true in the little things, too. I’ve woken up on the wrong side of the bed or started my day with a problem and I’ve taken that out on my wife or my coworkers or my dog or some random person on the road. They might have never even noticed, but it’s happened. Hurt people hurt people.

And, of course, it’s true in the big things. We all know that children who are abused are more likely to grow up to abuse others. We all know that the children of people who abuse alcohol or other drugs are more likely to grow up to abuse those things themselves. History is not destiny; any child can grow up to be healthy and whole. But the scars of the past have effects in the present, and abuse tends to create a generational cycle. Hurt people hurt people.

And one of the ways that hurt people hurt people is by convincing people that hurting someone is the same as loving them. We get a distorted view of love. We start to think that love is the same as lust… or fame… or power. We trade love for the illusion of love.

One of the ways that hurt people hurt people is by convincing people that hurting someone is the same as loving them. We get a distorted view of love. We trade love for the illusion of love. Click To Tweet

Today’s reading is from the First Epistle of John. Now, there are a lot of Johns. There the John who wrote a gospel. There’s the John who wrote Revelation. And there’s the John who wrote these three letters that are in our Bibles. And this is one of those letters.

And this John, in this letter, is writing for a reason. You see, there was a group of people in his community who were docetists. That’s the fancy theological word for the idea that Jesus’ body was an illusion. According to the docetists, Jesus didn’t really suffer; he didn’t really die. And they believed that they were saved. And they believed that they were loved.
And John wants his readers to know that these people are wrong. That they had traded Christ for the illusion of Christ. That they had traded love for the illusion of love.

John wants his readers to know that God loved the world like this. God sent her only begotten son in the world as flesh and blood. And that son suffered and died and rose and ascended and will come again. And that son came into the world so that we might live through him.

John wants us to know that this is God’s love; that God is this love. And everything depends on that. Because anything else is an illusion.

So, on the one hand, we have the love of the docetists. It looks like love. We might even be tricked into thinking that it is love. But it is an illusion. It is play-acting. It is a fantasy.

And, on the other hand, we have the love that John wants us to know: God’s eternal and extravagant love. The love that compels God to create the world. The love that compels God to redeem the world. The love that compels God to come into the world, as one of us, and preach a message of love even to the point of suffering and death.

Hurt people hurt people. Sometimes, hurt people distort our view of love. Sometimes, hurt people trade love for the illusion of love.

But… maybe…

John has this strange turn of phrase. “Since God has loved us so much,” he writes.

Since God has loved us so much…

Since God has sent her only begotten son as flesh and blood into this world that she created, and that son lived and loved and suffered and died and rose and ascended and will come again…

Since God has sent his son into this world so that we might live through him…

“Since God has loved us so much,” John writes, “we also ought to love one another.”

Think about that sentence. We might believe that we should love each other because it’s the right thing to do. We might believe that we should love each other because whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them, and we all want to be closer to God. We might believe that we should love each other because of some abstract principle.

But… maybe…

Hurt people hurt people. And all of us — everyone in this sanctuary, everyone in the world — is a hurt person. Some of us are a little hurt. Some of us are a lot hurt. But every single one of us is hurt.

And all of us — everyone in this sanctuary, everyone in the world — hurts other people. Some of us hurt other people a little. Some of us hurt other people a lot. But every single one of us hurts other people.

And if we want to understand sin just a little, we can look at that cycle of hurt people hurting people. Of everyone being hurt and everyone hurting someone else.

And that’s why the good news is so important. That’s why it matters that Jesus isn’t just a story. That’s why it matters that the gospels aren’t just ancient works of fiction. That’s why it matters that Jesus’ life and suffering and death and resurrection aren’t just illusions. That’s why it matters that God’s love is real.

Hurt people hurt people. But… maybe… loved people can love people.

God loves us in this way. God creates and sustain and redeems a whole world. God comes into that world as one of us. God is born and lives and loves and suffers and dies and rises and will come again. God walks alongside us and shoulders our burdens. God laughs with us. God cries with us. God heals us. God is with us.

God loves us. God loves you. God loves me. God loves the butterfly in the garden and the wasp in her nest. God loves the tulip rising out of the flowerbed and the thistle in the field. God loves us. Really loves us. Really, really loves us.

And that opens up a world of possibility.

Hurt people hurt people. And we are hurt people. And because we are hurt people, we hurt people. But… because God loves us, we are also loved people. And because we are loved people, we can love each other. And not just each other, but everyone. We can love our friends and our enemies. We can love the butterfly in the garden and the wasp in her nest. We can can love the tulip in the flower bed and the thistle in the field. We can love.

Let me repeat that, because it’s that important: because we are loved people, we can love each other. And not just each other, but everyone. We can love our friends and our enemies. We can love the butterfly in the garden and the wasp in her nest. We can can love the tulip in the flower bed and the thistle in the field. We can love.

Because we are loved people, we can love each other. And not just each other, but everyone. Click To Tweet

And I cannot think of any news better than that.

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.

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