Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

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

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

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

And, as usual, the women are there first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that sounds bad.

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

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

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

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

And that matters.

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

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

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

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

And that kind of transformation is amazing and terrifying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Parade of the Powerful, the Protest of the Pitiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am privileged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and do nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hosanna! [Echo]

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

Blessed is the coming kingdom of God! [Echo]

Hosanna in the highest heaven!” [Echo]

Amen! [Echo]

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.

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.

The Present of the Church

This sermon was delivered at Church of Peace, United Church of Christ, in Rock Island, Illinois, on October 15, 2017. The scripture for this sermon is Mark 3:19b-31.

Last summer, I went to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod. This is the big meeting we have every two years where delegates from all over the denomination come together to elect officers and debate resolutions and do all of those kinds of things. And as part of this, there are youth and young adults who are encouraged to speak… to bring a ‘youth perspective’ to issues facing the church.

One of the resolutions this year was about gun violence. It was a resolution calling on Congress to allow the Center for Disease Control to study gun violence and to suggest methods to improve gun safety. And whatever you think about guns or gun control or anything like that, I want you to consider something: if today is an average day in America, 93 people will die from gun violence, 58 of those will be suicides, and the CDC is not allowed to study that.

And I want you to consider something else: if tomorrow is an average day, somewhere in America a classroom of children will have a drill where they hide in a closet and stay quiet. And they’ll have that drill because we’re afraid that someday won’t be an average day, and that staying quiet in a closet in a classroom will keep our sons and daughters alive.

When delegates were talking about this resolution, some young people got up to speak. They shared their stories of hiding in closets and making escape plans and going through active shooter drills and hearing the simulated sound of gunfire. And a little while later an adult stood up and said that he had been through active shooter training and that some elements of their stories — like the simulated gunfire — weren’t true.

Today’s reading starts with four simple words: “Then he went home.”

It sounds good. It sounds comfortable.

Jesus is a nice Jewish boy and — and even here in the third chapter of Mark — he’s been out in the world for a little while. He’s been baptized by John. He’s been tempted in the wilderness. He’s called some disciples. He’s healed people and cast out demons and preached to crowds and challenged Pharisees.

Then he went home.

And then things got out of hand.

Today, we’re continuing our series on choosing family. Today, we’re talking about sons and daughters. And that’s a bit of a clunky way of talking about children. And that’s a weird word. Sometimes, ‘children’ means ‘offspring’. My brother and I are the children of Robert and Janet Warfield. Sometimes, though, ‘children’ means ‘not adults’. A group of ten year olds is a group of children. A group of forty year olds is not.

And sometimes, in families, that line between being a child and being a child gets blurry. We all know that feeling, right? That feeling we get when we go home and we’re not just our parents’ children, but we’re treated like our parents’ children? That feeling when we know we have a role we’re supposed to play and a lane we’re supposed to stay in?

I wonder if Jesus felt that when he went home.

Because when Jesus went home, the crowd came together and they couldn’t even eat. And then things got out of hand. Some of the people were coming to be healed or have demons cast out or hear some good news. But others were saying, “He has gone out of his mind… He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”

And that, for sure, was not okay. If people really believed that Jesus was out of his mind — if people really believed that Jesus had Beelzebul and was casting out demons by the ruler of demons — that wouldn’t just be bad for him. That would be bad for his entire family. This was a time and a place and a community where you really could ruin a family name. Everything could fall apart. And Jesus’s family isn’t going to have any of it.

Now, I don’t have children, but I’ve seen that expression on parents’ faces — I’ve been the cause of that expression on parents’ faces — when they think their child is misbehaving in a public place. It’s a combination of embarrassment and shame and fear of judgement. And imagine that feeling, but a thousand times worse because there’s not going to be any understanding shrugs from strangers. People are saying that Jesus is out of his mind, that he’s an agent of the devil.

So Jesus’s family goes out to restrain him. That word — ‘restrain’ — is important. It’s the same word that gets used when people go out to arrest Jesus later. That’s how serious this is. Jesus’s own family goes out to kind-of-arrest him because he is a threat to the family; because he is a child who is out of control; because he isn’t playing the role he is supposed to play.

And when that guy at Synod stood up and said that those young people had embellished their stories, he didn’t touch them, but he restrained them, too. They were children who were out of control; they weren’t playing the role they were supposed to play.

But those youth didn’t stand for it. The next morning, there were speak outs, when anyone can take the microphone and share their thoughts or make an announcement. And some young people — some sons and daughters of this denomination — stood up and reminded us all of two things. First, that they are not the future of the church, but the present of the church; after all, they were speaking at Synod because we needed their perspective. Second, that no one would dismiss the experiences of older delegates, and no one had the right to dismiss theirs.

I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of the youth of the United Church of Christ. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as committed to a standing ovation. Because here’s the thing: Jesus did something like that, too.

When Jesus’s family went out to restrain him, they found the crowd. And some people said to Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you.” And Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers? They’re here. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”

Look, I know. That sounds like rejection. It sounds like Jesus is saying that his mother and his brothers and his sisters aren’t his family. It sounds like the people who raised him don’t matter anymore. it sounds like he won’t be coming home again.

And, so often, that’s what it sounds like when the young people in our communities — when our sons and our daughters — insist on a new way of doing things. We see congregations shrinking and fraternal organizations closing and millennials and post-millennials killing fast casual restaurants and cereal and napkins and diamonds and dozens of other things… and we think they are rejecting us.

But Jesus isn’t rejecting anyone. He’s inviting his family into a new possibility.

You see, Jesus isn’t be the holy infant, so tender and mild, anymore.

He’s been baptized. He’s been tempted in the wilderness. He’s called some disciples. He’s healed people and cast our demons and preached to crowds and challenged Pharisees. And while he might still be Mary’s child, he isn’t Mary’s child anymore.

And his family has a choice. They can try to restrain him, or they can walk alongside him. They can try to hold him back, or they can be part of a common vision and a supportive community. They can try to arrest him, or they can follow him into the Kingdom of God.

This work — the work of being church — will not soon be over. Tomorrow there will be hungry people to feed. Next week there will be strangers to welcome. Next month there will be sick people to visit. And on an average day next year there might be 93 deaths from gun violence, 58 of them suicides. The work of the kingdom goes on and I doubt I’ll live to see it finished. Our ancestors laid the foundation, and we have continued the work, and our children — and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren and our great-great-grandchildren — will keep going until that long bending arc of history finally reaches justice.

Our sons and daughters are not the future of the church. Our parents and grandparents aren’t the past of the church. Together, we are all the present of the church. Together, we hold onto the best of the past and embrace the best of the future. Together, we bring diverse perspectives and powerful experiences. Together, we strive to be one family defined by the will of God.

And when we do that, the possibilities are endless.

Amen.

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