Bringing People Together to do Good

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

Bigger Than You Think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…or a teenager dealing with bullying…

…or a family losing their house to a fire…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that story will demand something of you.

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

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

But remember this…

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

And God was with them.

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

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

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

And that is good news.

Wild, Dangerous, and Full of Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s not all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It means taking the risk of being transformed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 9:2-7 (For Christmas)

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 53:7-9 (for Good Friday)

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Isaiah 58:5-8 (for Ash Wednesday)

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Pin It on Pinterest