Bringing People Together to do Good

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

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

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.

Without Permission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, it is Pentecost.

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

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

And Peter answers that accusation:

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

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

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

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

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

But here he is:

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

This has happened before.

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

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

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

And they prophesied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last week I told the first part of a story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hallelujah, Amen.

Great Big World

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

The disciples keep losing Jesus.

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

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

The disciples keep losing Jesus.

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

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

The disciples keep losing Jesus.

And now we’re here, in this moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The disciples were small… and they had small imaginations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are no different from us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that brings us back to the disciples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank God.

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