Bringing People Together to do Good

Different and Whole and Beautiful

On one of my first days here at First Congregational, I spent some time wandering around the building. This isn’t an old building, and you all have been very tidy, but one thing all churches have is a collection of… stuff. If you’re remembering back to last week, I’ve never been to a church that’s as bad as the House on the Rock. But still. There’s stuff. And I kind of wanted to see what stuff we had.

We have occasional pieces of old furniture. We have books and games and toys. We have combination tape and cd players in almost every room. It’s not much, but there’s stuff.

If we had an older building — one where I could walk through attics and basements and poke my head into closets and nooks — then I’m sure I would find old computers and reel-to-reel tape recorders and slides and Christmas pageant costumes and banners and tons of other stuff.

But if I could walk through this church — or any church — in a different, more spiritual way, I would find something other than stuff. I would find piles and piles — roomfuls — of promises.

We are Christians. We are a promising people.

A lot of you have, at some point, stood in front of friends and families and promised someone that you would love and cherish them from that day forward, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, until death parted you.

And a few weeks ago, the Magill’s stood up here. They promised, by the grace of God to follow Jesus Christ and resist evil and show love, and to teach Kaelyn so that she might profess Christ as her Lord and savior. And we promised to support and love and care for Kaelyn.

Last week, we made promises to the Jamaica mission trip team. Next week you will make promises with and to me. Next year, we will make promises with and to our confirmands. We have piles of promises. We are Christians. We are a promising people.

And, because we have so many promises, they can feel light. But if you’ve ever had to break a promise — not just forget that you made it, but break it — you know that they’re not. Promises are heavy things. They can weigh us down. They are important. They are dangerous.

Today’s reading from Mark is about a promise. And it’s a bit of a flashback, and it will help if we have a little more context… if we turn that flashback into a montage of flashbacks.

Herod the Great was the king of Judea around the time that Jesus was born. Now, he wasn’t an independent king. Judea wasn’t an independent kingdom. He was the king of Judea with the permission of the Roman Empire. And, at Christmastime, we tell the story of wise men visiting Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and Joseph having a dream where an angel warns him that Herod is planning to kill Jesus, and the holy family should run away to Egypt. Herod the Great kills all the children in and around Bethlehem who are two years old and younger.

And the holy family doesn’t come back home until the Herod the Great dies.

Now, when Herod the Great dies, the Romans divide his kingdom among several of his children, three sons and a daughter: Herod, the other Herod, the other other Herod, and Salome.

Meanwhile, Jesus grows up. He meets John the Baptist. He’s baptized. He goes into the wilderness. He returns to civilization. He begins his ministry. His name starts to get around.

And John is still working… for a while.

One of Herod the Great’s sons, Herod Antipas, had fallen in love with his brother, Herod Phillips’s, wife, Herodias. And Herodias falls for him. And Herod Antipas divorces his wife and marries Herodias. And not only is Herodias Herod Antipas’s brother’s wife, she’s Herod Antipas’s niece. And John is against that sort of thing. And he says so.
Herod Antipas has John thrown in prison. And Herodias wants John killed. But Herod is afraid to kill John, because he knows that John is a holy man.

Now, it’s Herod’s birthday. And his daughter comes in and dances and everyone is impressed. So Herod says, “Whatever you want, I’ll give it to you. Even half my kingdom.” And his daughter, coached by her mother, asks for John’s head. And Herod, knowing that he made a promise in front of his guests, gives it to her.

Time passes. Jesus is getting famous. His name reaches Herod Antipas. And people around him are asking, “Who is this man?”

Some are saying he’s the prophet Elijah, who never died, but was taken into heaven while he was still alive. And some are saying he’s another prophet like the prophets of old. And Herod Antipas is saying that it’s John the Baptist, back from the dead.

And it’s hard to tell if Herod is wistful or afraid. But I suspect he knows that something is coming. Something is happening. The world that he thought he knew is changing. And it’s all because he kept a promise he should never have made. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

There is a disorder called ‘scrupulosity’. It’s characterized by a pathological worry that we’re not living up to our religious duties. If you watch The Simpsons, scrupulosity is Ned Flanders calling Rev. Lovejoy, worried that he’s coveting his own wife; or that he’s meek, but could probably stand to be meeker.

And I think Herod is experiencing his own bout of scrupulosity here. He made a promise. And because people saw him make that promise, he felt like he had to keep it; even though he knew that it would be terrible if he did. And now, hearing about Jesus, he is afraid that his promise has come back to haunt him.

We are Christians. We are a promising people. And we can find ourselves in a situation like the one Herod Antipas is in. Not the same situation, I hope; but a similar one. In a world where we never forget that we made a promise — or in a world where we feel like we can never break a promise or let go of one — well… we wouldn’t just keep our promises, our promises would keep us, too.

But we aren’t just a promising people. We are a covenanted people. We remember that when we come together at this table; this table hosts a feats that is both simple and luxurious.

On those days we remember that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus ate together with this disciples. We remember that he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and shared it, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.” We remember that after dinner, he took the cup and blessed it and shared it, saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”

We remember that we are a covenanted people: that God has made a promise to us, and that we have made promises to God. But covenants aren’t just promises. They are promises with room for grace. They are a promises that can be broken… and that can be put back together again.

There is a Japanese practice — an art, really — called kintsugi. It’s a method of fixing broken ceramics with a special lacquer that’s mixed with gold or silver or platinum. It makes the repair very visible. As soon as you see the piece, you know that it has been broken and that it has been repaired. It is not what it was before. It is different… and it is whole… and it is beautiful.

Any given mug or vase or plate will, eventually, break. And, it we really care about it, we can put it back together again. Different and whole and beautiful. Different and whole and beautiful because it has been broken. Different and whole and beautiful because it has been put back together again.

Covenants are the same way. Eventually, we break them. Sometimes, we put little chips in them, or hairline cracks. Sometimes, we knock big chunks out of them, or split them right in half.

We fail to love and cherish as we should. Especially when things are for worse.

We fail to resist evil. We wander off to find where demons dwell. And we leave others to do the same.

We fail to trust those who have left on a mission and come back to return to us as leaders who can show us new ways to make the world a more merciful place.

And Herod failed because he kept his promise. He didn’t make room for the grace to save a life, to say to his daughter, “I know I said ‘anything’, but I didn’t mean that I would do something evil.”

There’s another sermon about when we need to break promises. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometimes. But it’s not this sermon.

We fail to keep those piles and piles — roomfuls — of promises that we’ve made. But… we can repent. We can return to those promises with grace, and put them back together again. God can come to them with a grace that is brighter than gold or silver or platinum, and put them back together again. And, by the grace of God, they can be different and whole and beautiful.

That is the beauty of the Christian covenant. We can always return to it.

And when we return to it, God does more than repair the covenant. God repairs us. With gold and silver and platinum… and love and hope and grace. God makes us different… and whole… and beautiful. Not because we have never been broken, but because we have.

There are going to be times when we cannot keep the promises we’ve made. There are going to be times when we need to hold our promises lightly. And I’m not saying that’s okay; I’m saying that’s life. That among the piles and piles of promises we have in this church and in our homes and in our lives, there will be some that are broken. And we will be broken with them… at least a little bit.

But there is joy. Because we can bring our broken promises — and we can bring our broken selves — to this place. And God will bring a sacred lacquer and a healing balm, and painstakingly repair us, making us different and whole and beautiful. Thanks be to God!

Who We Will Be

A couple of years ago, Mariah and I went on vacation to the House on the Rock. If you’ve never been there, I really can’t do it justice. In the 1950s, this guy named Alex Jordan Jr built this crazy museum on Deer Shelter Rock in Wisconsin. There are rooms and gardens and displays, and they’re all incredibly weird.

There’s the Streets of Yesterday, a recreation of an early twentieth century town; the Heritage of the Sea, with a 200 foot model of a sea monster and a bunch of nautical exhibits; a collection of pneumatic orchestras where air hoses make violins and trumpets and drums play themselves; the world’s largest indoor carousel; and room after room of just… stuff.

And I vaguely remembered it from childhood. And it showed up in a novel I read. And so Mariah and I went there. On the last day of the season. And we walked through it… by ourselves.

And here’s the thing. When I was a kid, it was probably an enchanting place. I mean, the world’s largest indoor carousel! But now, well. It’s dusty, and everything’s broken, and there’s carpet on the walls, and almost everything is a model or a replica or something that you could pick up a bunch of at a roadside stand in the 50s. It’s creepy.

And I don’t think that it’s changed that much in the twenty or thirty odd years since I went there as a kid. I suspect that it was always this way. It was always dusty and rundown and, dear God, there has always been carpet on the walls.

But I’ve changed. Some of the magic and easy wonder of childhood has worn away. I see the world through different eyes.
Time changes us. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. And that can be hard to remember. And it can be hard to remember that this is true for everybody.

In today’s reading from 2 Samuel, we see David, in triumphant glory, sitting on the throne of Israel. All of the tribes of Israel — and the elders of the tribes of Israel — are with him. They are making a covenant, and they anoint David to be the king of all Israel. He is thirty years old and he will rule for forty years. And he will become a symbol of Israel. His name will be synonymous with a golden age. Centuries and millennia later, people will long for that kingdom to be restored.

And it’s worth remembering the story. Because David has not always been the king of Israel. He was not born into the royal family; he was not raised to sit on the throne.

David is the youngest son of a shepherd. He was a shepherd and a musician. He became a warrior and a trusted member of King Saul’s court. And when God chose David over Saul, he became a fugitive and a rebel. When he and Saul reconciled, he became the heir to the throne. And now he is here; the king of Israel, becoming greater and greater, because God is with him.

And it’s worth remembering the rest of the story. Because this is not who David will always be. He will sin against God and his neighbor. His favorite son will rebel against him and die. He and his kingdom will pass away.

Time changes everyone. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. Time changes everyone. Even David… even Jesus.
In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus has come home. He has been out in the world preaching and teaching and healing. He has gathered disciples and crowds come to see him. And now he is doing the hardest thing that a preacher can do: he is preaching in the worshipping community that he grew up in.

There are people there who have known him since he was a child. And they’re saying, “This is Jesus, right? Mary’s kid? Remember when he was little? Remember that time he…? Or that time he…? Ha! Who is he to tell us anything?”

But Jesus isn’t who he was, once upon a time. He isn’t a little baby, meek and mild. He isn’t a kid doing all the things that kids do. He is a hidden king, with a throne in heaven, ruling over the whole earth, rebuking the wind and calming the waves, raising people from the dead, bringing the kingdom of God into the world.

So he leaves. He moves on. He gets back to work where his work will be appreciated.

He has gone out. He has come home. He goes out again.

And he calls us to the same work.

Today, we are blessing and commissioning our Jamaica mission trip team. I spoke to one of the members of this team the other day and they told me about their first trip to work with the boys at Sunbeam Children’s Home. They told me how it pulled them out of their comfort zone, how they saw the faith of those boys, and how the trip had rejuvenated their faith.

And I know that person is not alone. I know from experience — I know from watching hundreds of volunteers go through Back Bay Mission, I know from watching friends who have gone on mission trips, I know from my own mission work — that going out to serve changes us. Sometimes those are big changes. Sometimes those are little changes.

Going to serve — whether it’s a flight away or a drive away or a walk away; whether it’s halfway around the world or across the country or down the street — plants a seed in us. And we care for that seed by loving our neighbor. And it grows.

When Jesus leaves his hometown again, he gathers his disciples. He gives them the authority to cast our demons, and heal the sick, and call people to repentance, and deliver the good news. And he sends them out into the world in pairs. And he tells them not to take anything: no staff, no bread, no bag, no money, no extra clothes (but to wear sandals, because protecting your feet is just good advice). They are going to be dependent entirely on the hospitality of the people they meet.

They will go out. They will come back. And, even though the Bible doesn’t say anything about it, they will be changed. They will meet new people. They will experience new things. They will do things that they have never done before.

Time changes everyone. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. Time changes everyone. Even David, even Jesus, 

Time changes everyone. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. And, by the grace of God, we have a choice about how we will spend that time. By the grace of God, we have a choice about who we will be tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, when today is once upon a time. By the grace of God, we have the choice to grow closer to God through service to our neighbor.

Last week, I used a saying that a friend of mine uses all the time: There is no such thing as other people’s children. This morning, I’m going to use a saying that I got from Connie Schultz. Connie is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who used to write for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She’s also the wife of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. A few years ago, she spoke at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod, and I heard her say this: Christianity is about serving others and fixing ourselves, not the other way around.

Let me say that again: Christianity is about serving others and fixing ourselves, not the other way around.

And that’s not quite right. We don’t quite fix ourselves. But when we serve others, we open ourselves up and invite God to fix us. Christianity is about being open to God’s healing love… through our service to others… whether those others are the boys at Sunbeam, or kids at the border, or families in DeWitt. That is who we are. That is what we do.

Today, we are blessing and commissioning our Jamaica mission trip team. We are doing that so that we can send them out in love. We are doing that so that they can be changed. We are doing that so that next week they will not be who they are today. And we do that so that we can welcome them home again… so that next week we will not be who we are today.

Time will change us. Service will change us. The Holy Spirit will change us into people who are a little bit closer to the people who God calls us to be.

Hallelujah.

Other People’s Children

You all know that Mariah and I don’t have children.

Now, I’m almost 40, so this happens less often than it used to, but it still happens. Someone asks when we’re going to get around to having kids, or reminds us that there’s still time, or tells us that we’re going to regret it if we never have children. But the fact is that we thought about it, and we prayed about it, and we made a choice.

Some people are called to have children. We are not. And that’s okay.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t like kids; in fact, we love them. And while we might not have children of our own, we take the idea that it takes a village to raise a child seriously. We are there for the children in our neighborhood, and our congregations, and our communities. And we are happy to do our part.

But, because I’m not a parent, I’m going to borrow some credibility from a friend of mine who is. Like a lot of my friends who are women and who are around my age, she’s a mom with two young children. And, honestly, her husband is kind of a big kid sometimes. And, to be fair, so is she. But she is a mom. And she takes being a mom seriously.

And one of the things that she likes to say is, “There is no such thing as other people’s children.”

I’m going to say that again. It’s that important. There is no such thing as other people’s children.
And Jesus knows that.

In today’s reading from the gospel of Mark, we have two stories; one wrapped inside the other. Both of them are stories about healing. Both of them are stories about other people’s children.

Jesus has just crossed the Sea of Galilee and stepped off the boat when a man named Jairus comes up to him. Jairus is a leader in the local synagogue and his daughter — who was about twelve years old — is on the verge of death. And he begs Jesus again and again to come and help, tears in his eyes, his voice cracking, “Come, please, and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

And, because there’s a child in need, Jesus goes with Jairus.

But while they’re walking, the crowd is pressing in. Everyone wants to see Jesus.

And in that crowd is a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. As long as Jairus’s daughter has been alive. She’s spent all of her money on doctors. She has nothing left and has nothing to show for it. And just like Jairus said, “Come, lay your hands on my daughter so that she can be made well,” this woman says to herself, “If I can just lay my hands on the hem of his cloak, I can be made well.”

She gets close to him. She lays her hands on his cloak. Jesus feels the power go out of him.

He turns to the crowd and asks who touched him. And this woman steps forward and falls to her knees and tells him what she did. And Jesus says, “Daughter…” That word is important, he says, “Daughter… your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”
In that moment, she is his child. Because Jesus knows that she is someone’s child. And Jesus knows that there is no such thing as other people’s children.

No sooner does he tell her to go in peace than some people come from Jairus’s house and say to Jairus, “Your daughter is dead. There is nothing we can do. Stop bothering Jesus.”

And Jesus says something that should sound familiar. We talked about it last week. “Don’t be afraid. Have faith. I got this.”

And they go to Jairus’s house. And Jesus revives his daughter. And he tells them to tell no one… and to get her something to eat.

Jesus knows that this is Jairus’s child. And Jesus knows that there is no such thing as other people’s children.

It would be easy for me to say that we are all Jesus’s children. And that’s true. It’s true in a broad, abstract, metaphorical sense. It’s true in the kind of way that a Hallmark card is true. But it is also true in a deep, personal, visceral sense.

It’s true in this way… I recently read a story by a woman whose husband is a pediatrician. This woman wrote that her husband understands how babies cry. He understands what those cries mean. They’ll be out at a restaurant or a store or wherever and hear a baby crying and he’ll turn to her and say, “That baby is hungry,” or “That baby is sick,” or, “That baby is mad as hell.”

But sometimes, he’ll hear a child crying and he’ll suddenly sit up straight, cock his head to the side for a second, and then stand up and start running. Because he knows that cry means that child is hurt… and needs help… now.

And we are Christ’s children — all of us, the people in this sanctuary and the people out there in the world — all of us are

Christ’s children in that deep, personal, visceral sense. He knows our cries. he knows that we’re hurt. He knows that we need help.

And he commands us to love each other and he loves us. And there is no such thing as other people’s children.


The great theologian Karl Barth didn’t quite say, “when you preach, hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

There have been a lot of children in the news lately.

On my first Sunday as your pastor, it was the children of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Earlier in June, it was a young undocumented immigrant from Des Moines who was deported and died on a street corner in Mexico.

Over the last couple of weeks, it’s been children at the border between the United States and Mexico, who have been separated from their parents and put in detention facilities.

And even when they’re not in the news, there are children in this world suffering. They are mining the rare earth elements for our computers and smart phones. They are laboring in sweatshops making sure that we have fashionable but affordable clothing. They are being abused and neglected and forgotten.

And there are hundreds… thousands… tens of thousands… millions of them.

And there are people who are telling us that it’s okay. Those kids don’t live in our neighborhoods. They don’t go to our schools. They don’t come to our church. They are other people’s children. And wouldn’t that be nice… if it were true?

But it’s not. Those kids live in our neighborhoods and go to our schools and every single one of them is welcome to sit on these steps during the time for young worshippers and join us at this holiest of tables. And there is no such thing as other

people’s children.

There’s no such thing as other people’s children.

There’s no such thing as other people’s grandchildren.

There’s no such thing as other people’s cousins and nieces and nephews. There’s no such thing as other people’s brothers and sisters. There’s no such thing as other people’s aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents.

There’s no such thing as other people’s family. And that means that there is no excuse when we see a child in pain. Or a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years or a man with tears in his eyes, a crack in his voice, begging for help, saying, “My child is on the verge of death.”

And I know that you know this. Because next week, we’re going to send a team off to an orphanage in Jamaica. And we’re going to bless shorts that our Crafty Stitchers have made for those boys. Because those are our boys. We know that there’s no such thing as other people’s children.


When Jairus comes to Jesus and begs him to heal his daughter, Jesus cannot do anything but go with him. When a woman touches the hem of Jesus’s cloak and hopes for healing, Jesus cannot do anything but let his healing power go to her. When Jesus hears someone cry, he goes to their aid. That is what Jesus is like and it is how we know that Jesus is God… because that is what God is like.

And that is what God calls us to be like. We’re not always going to be good at it — God knows I’m not always good at it, it may even be that I’m not often good at it — but that doesn’t let us off the hook.

We will not help everyone. We will not heal every wound. We will not bring justice to fruition. We will not repair the whole entire world. But we are still responsible to do our part in the work that we will not complete. We must still care for the seeds and the saplings of trees that our children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren will sit under.

That is the work we are called to. That is the work this table strengthens us for. When we see a father with tears in his eyes begging for help, to go and heal his daughter. When we see a woman who is suffering to heal her. When we hear a child crying to stand and run.

Because we are one family, made up of the children of God. That means that we can take comfort in the parent who cares for us all. Hallelujah.

But that means that there is no such thing as other people’s children. That we have work to do to care for them all. That we have the responsibility to show them that there is nothing to fear, that they can have faith, and that — by the grace of God — we got this.

Fear and Faith

I don’t play favorites. I don’t have favorite things.

If you ask me what my favorite food is, I will name every cuisine on the planet. If you ask what my favorite movie is, I’ll name ten or twenty, and they’ll be different movies on different days. If you ask who my favorite muppet it, it’s Animal… and Gonzo… and Rolf… and Dr. Teeth… and all of the others, too.

I don’t have favorite things.

So I don’t have a favorite scripture. When you’re a pastor, that question — what’s your favorite scripture? — comes up more than you would think. And I usually say that it’s Luke 4:18-19, the moment when Jesus is in a synagogue reading from the scroll of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And that’s a good scripture, but it’s not really my favorite scripture. It’s just one of them.

And this scene in Mark is one of the others… because you can hear Jesus let out a frustrated sigh.

Let me set the scene. It’s night. Jesus and the disciples and some other people are on a few small boats crossing the sea, and a storm comes up. It’s only a windstorm, but still. The scene on every boat is the same. The waves are beating against the hull and coming up over the side and it’s just a small boat and it’s being swamped. And they all know the stories. They all know the tragedies. This is how boats go down. They are perishing.

And in one of the boats, Jesus is in the back… asleep.

So the people in that boat run to the back and shake him awake, and they say, “Teacher, there’s a windstorm. The waves are beating against the hull and coming up over the side and it’s just a small boat and we’re being swamped… do you not care that we’re perishing?”

And Jesus rebukes the wind and tells the sea to be still. Then — and this is where you can hear the frustrated sigh — he says to the people, “Why are you afraid? Do you still not have any faith? C’mon guys.”

And the people, missing the point, are awestruck, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

And I say they’re missing the point because the question they should be asking is, “Why are we afraid?”

Fear is one of the most basic emotions. We have all been afraid. We’ve all felt the flight response click on or stood frozen in terror.

And it isn’t just us. If you have a dog, you’ve probably learned to recognize the signs of fear: tail tucked and backing away; or turning to run while keeping the scary thing in view. Fear is built into us.

It is, maybe, a basic part of the world that God created. And, if it is, then — like everything else in this world — it is good… and it is broken.

There’s another sermon about when fear is healthy and when it’s not. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometime. But it’s not this sermon.

For now, just remember this: there are different kinds of fear. Sometimes, fear can be a good thing. Fear can have a purpose. A little bit of fear when you’re on the sea and a storm comes up can make you pay closer attention and move faster to protect your boat and your life. Fear can be a good thing. Fear can have a purpose.

But fear can also be a bad thing. Fear can distort love. A little bit of fear when you meet a stranger can harden your heart and make you put up walls. Fear can be a bad thing. Fear can distort love.

Remember that.

But…

Today’s Old Testament reading is from Job. According to the story, Job is a wealthy and righteous man. He has a large family, and thousands of camels and oxen and donkeys, and many servants. And he makes his sacrifices to God. He is blameless and upright. He turns away from evil.

Now, all of the beings in heaven come before God. And God brags about Job a little bit, about how he is blameless and upright and turns away from evil. And one of the beings of heaven says to God, “Well, of course he is. You protect him at every turn. Let me screw with him, and we’ll see if he remains blameless and upright.”

And God says, “Okay.”

And Job’s sons and daughters and most of his servants are killed. And his livestock is stolen. And he himself ends up with terrible sores all over his body and ends up sitting in ashes, scraping himself with a piece of broken piece of pottery. And it’s just him and his wife and his three friends.

And Job’s wife tells him to just die. And his friends tell him that he’s suffering because he sinned; even if he doesn’t know what sin he committed and even if he has always been upright and blameless. And Job… Job is fearless. Job pleads his case. Job demands an answer from God.

And today’s reading from Job is the beginning of that answer. And, if I can summarize a speech by God, it goes something like this:

I made an entire, huge, amazing cosmic order with seas and rain and snow and stars and constellations and lions and ravens and ostriches and hawks and behemoths and leviathans. And I’m not going to explain how it all works to you. I’m going to need you to trust that I know what I’m doing.

It’s easy for us to think that faith is about believing things: that God exists, that Jesus is the son of God, that something about the cross and the tomb and Easter morning saved us all. And when we think that faith is about believing things, it’s easy to think that the opposite of faith is doubt.

But the story of Job makes it clear that faith is about something else. Faith is about trusting God. And our story from Mark — our story about Jesus, on a boat, asking a question — makes it clear that the opposite of faith is fear: “Why are you afraid? Do you still not have any faith?”

And that adversarial figure from the beginning of Job has a point: it’s easy to trust God when things are going great. It’s easy to have faith when the seas are smooth. It’s harder to do when they’re not.

And that adversarial figure from the beginning of Job has a point: it’s easy to trust God when things are going great. It’s easy to have faith when the seas are smooth. It’s harder to do when they’re not. Click To Tweet

And there are a lot of people telling us that they’re not. There are a lot of people telling us to be afraid. They are telling us to be afraid of immigrants and crime and guns and fascists and a thousand other things… and ideas… and people. And I am sure that some of us here are afraid. I’m sure that some of us here are running around our boat in a panic shouting, “we are perishing!”

A storm has come up. It can be overwhelming.

But… here’s Jesus, in the back of the boat, wondering why we’re running around, letting out a heavy sigh, and asking us, “Why are you afraid? Do you still not have any faith?”

And I want to say, “Yes. I’m afraid. There’s a storm upon us. It’s overwhelming. People are perishing. And it would be great if you would rebuke the winds and calm the sea, but that isn’t happening. And it would be great if you would answer me out of a whirlwind, but that isn’t happening. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to work on bailing the water out of the boat.”

You see, there’s another sermon about how Jesus will walk with us and everything will be alright by-and-by. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometime. But it’s not this sermon.

We live in a tension between fear and faith. We live in the world-that-is and the hope of the world-that-is-yet-to-come. We pray as though everything depends on God, because it does. We act as though everything depends on us, because it does.

We live in a tension between fear & faith. We live in the world-that-is and the hope of the world-that-is-to-come. We pray as though everything depends on God, b/c it does. We act as though everything depends on us, b/c it does. Click To Tweet

But… here’s the thing. I don’t have a favorite scripture, but the one I return to again and again is that passage from Luke:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And I have faith, I really have faith, that as long as we are doing that work, we have nothing to fear. As long as we are bringing good news to the poor, as long as we are proclaiming release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, as long as we are freeing the oppressed and proclaiming a time of the Lord’s favor, we have nothing to fear. We might have that little tickle in the back of our minds that makes us pay closer attention and move faster. But we have nothing to truly fear. Because when we are doing that work, God is with us.

And, more importantly, we are with God, who is always right there, in the back of the boat, telling us that we have nothing to fear. But we do have work to do. Amen.

Blasphemy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I had to repent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is always forgiveness. There is always healing.

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

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

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

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

But, maybe, they got a little closer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is good news. Amen.

Rest is a Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was enforced. There was a law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest is holy. Rest is sacred.

But… two things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Top

Pin It on Pinterest