Bringing People Together to do Good

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.

It’s Been a Hard Week

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

It’s been a hard week.

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

And, earlier this week, he passed away.

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

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

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

It’s been a hard week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This wasn’t the first school shooting.

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

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

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

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

It’s been a hard week.

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

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

…for the sake fo Christ and the gospel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Abraham laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that might be uncomfortable. That might be hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cost of Grace

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

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

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

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

And I cannot imagine how he did that.

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

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

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

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

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

And I cannot imagine how he did that.

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

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

Forgiveness shouldn’t be this easy.

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

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

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

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

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

Almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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