A Simple Truth

A simple truth: someone else having enough does not hurt me.

There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa, the smart and justice-oriented daughter of the title family accuses her hapless and dimwitted dad, Homer, or being jealous of Apu, the proprietor of the local Kwik-E-Mart, for… reasons.

And Homer replies, “I’m not jealous, I’m envious. Jealousy is when you worry someone will take what you have. Envy is wanting what someone else has. What I feel is envy.”

And Lisa checks a dictionary and is astonished to discover that Homer—again, hapless and dimwitted—is right.

You will probably never need to know the difference between jealousy and envy. But that difference makes me wonder if there’s a word… not for when you’re worried that someone will take what you have, that’s jealousy… and not for when you want what someone else has, that’s envy… but for when you just don’t want someone else to have what they have.

I looked. I couldn’t find one. Even in German.

But, let’s admit it, we’ve all been there. We’ve all had that feeling sometimes, when we’ve looked at what someone else has and wanted it taken away from them.

In today’s reading, we don’t get any flourishes. We just get a parable. There’s no miracle. There’s no tricky question. There’s no dire prediction. There’s just a story. 

The kingdom of heaven is like this landowner.

You see, there was a landowner who had a vineyard. Early in the morning, he went out to hire some workers, and he agreed to pay them the normal daily wage. So they went to the vineyard and they began working.

Around nine in the morning, he went out again and saw some people standing around, so he hired them. And they went to the vineyard and they began working.

Around noon, he went out again and the same thing happened. And around three in the afternoon he went out again and the same thing happened.

And around five in the afternoon, he went out again and saw some people standing around, so he asked, “Why are you standing around?”

And those people replied, “No one has hired us.”

So the landowner hired them. And they went to the vineyard and they began working.

Eventually, evening rolled around and the workers lined up to get paid. The 5pm workers were first, then the 3pm workers, then the noon workers, then the 9am workers, and, finally, the early morning workers, who had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.

Now, if you were paying close attention, then you know that the early morning workers were the only ones who the landowner went out to hire. He went out at 9am and noon and 3pm and 5pm, but nothing in the story tells us that he intended to hire workers. He went out at those times and he saw people standing idle, who needed to work, so that they could make money, so that they could support their families; and so he hired them and put them to work.

And if you caught that little detail, then you have a hint about what’s coming.

The landowner paid the 5pm workers, the last of the people who he hired, the normal daily wage. And at the back of the line, the early morning workers, who had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat, got excited. They turned to each other and said, If he’s paying a day’s wage to the people who only worked for an hour, imagine how much we’re going to get!”

But when those early morning workers got to the front of the line, the landowner gave them… the normal daily wage. They got exactly what they were promised. And they grumbled. They said, “The people who you hired last only worked for an hour, but you have made them equal to us.”

And I don’t think they said that because they were afraid that the landowner was going to take something from them. The landowner had just paid them everything that they were promised. He wasn’t about to take anything away. They were not jealous.

And I don’t think they said that because they wanted what the other workers had. The other workers had nothing more than what those early morning workers had. They were not envious.

I think that they looked at what the landowner had given them, and they looked at what the landowner had given to the 5pm workers, and they thought, “That landowner has made us equal. He treats everyone the same. He gives everyone what they need.”

And then they thought, “But those people shouldn’t have what we have. They shouldn’t be equal to us. We don’t want them to have what we have.”

And they justified that feeling to themselves, “It’s the landowner’s vineyard and the landowner’s money, but we have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. It’s unfair that he should treat us equally. It’s unfair that we should both have what we need. So he should give us more, or he should take away what he has given to them.”

And, in the end, what they were saying was, “They should not be equal to us. We should be privileged. We are entitled to that.”

There is a saying that goes something like this (there are a few different versions): When you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

Here’s what it means. 

Imagine that there is an exclusive club that you like to go to. You are so used to being let in and seeing other people kept out that you are astonished and offended when you are told to wait outside with the rabble who are normally denied entry. You might feel like something is being taken away; and something is: access to the club. You might feel like you’re being hurt… because you’re being treated like everyone else.

Now, imagine that same exclusive club. You are so used to being let in and seeing other people kept out that you are astonished and offended when the doors are thrown open and everyone is allowed in. You might feel like something is being taken away; and something is: exclusivity. You might feel like you’re being hurt… because you’re being treated like everyone else.

And if you want to see that in action, listen to people with power—people who often look like me—talk about people without it. 

Listen to the people who complain about people on welfare owning smart phones or buying junk food. Listen to the men complaining about there being too many movies with women in the lead. Listen to the people complaining about how there are too many people around who don’t look like us.

It sounds a lot like they’re saying, “It’s unfair that we should be treated equally. They should not be equal to us. We should be privileged. We are entitled to that.”

But the simple truth is that what was unfair was that we were ever treated unequally. What is unfair is that there are people going hungry while others have food to spare. What is unfair is that there are people who are not represented in popular culture while others win all the awards. What is unfair is that people are red-lined out of neighborhoods while others live in comfort.

And the simple truth is that someone else having enough does not hurt me.

And the kingdom of heaven is like this… landowner.

You see, there was a landowner who had a vineyard. And early in the morning, he went out to hire some workers. And he did.

But as he went on about is day, he kept seeing people who needed work. He kept seeing people who were standing idle in the marketplace because no one would hire them. And he was moved to compassion. So he hired them.

Eventually, evening rolled around and the workers lined up to get paid. And the landowner paid each worker the normal daily wage. And the workers who the landowner had hired in the early morning grumbled. For they had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. And they said, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”

And the landowner said to them, “So? You agreed to work for the normal daily wage and that’s what you received. That is what belongs to you, take it and go. But I am generous and I choose to give these others what they need, as well. Why should you grumble? Someone else having enough does not hurt you.”

And the story doesn’t tell us what those early morning workers did. Maybe they had an epiphany, and took what they had been given, and left in joy. Or maybe they took what they had been given and left grumbling under their breath.

But either way, those early morning workers—and the 9am workers and the noon workers and the 3pm workers and the 5pm workers—had experienced the generosity of the kingdom of God. And it is a generous kingdom, where everyone has enough.

This is the second week of Lent. And, as I’ve said, Lent is traditionally a time of repentance and fasting.

And yes, when we choose to fast, there is a sense of discipline and self-denial. But there is also a reminder: that we can do with less… and that because we can do with less, others can have more. We who have have more than we need can give up a little extravagance so that others can have what they need.

For the kingdom of heaven is like this. It is a vineyard where everyone who needs work can work. It is a vineyard where no matter when you arrive today, you will be given enough for today. And no matter when you arrive tomorrow, you will be given enough for tomorrow. And where all of us, no matter whether we arrive in the early morning or the late afternoon, will have enough and more than enough.

Thanks be to God.

Kyrie Eleison

Welcome to Lent.

Lent is a strange season. Last week, I told you that it is traditionally a time of fasting and repentance. It is a time to think about who we are and who God wants us to be and how we get from the former to the latter. It is a time of contemplation…

…a time to contemplate our mortality with ashes on our heads and the whispered words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

…a time to contemplate our transgressions with prayer and self-denial and the words of a voice calling us to reorient our lives, “Repent, and believe in the good news.”

…a time to contemplate how utterly reliant we are on divine grace, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

It is a time to slow down, to think about the things we have done and left undone, and ask God to forgive us.

And that doesn’t quite fit into our modern lives. It doesn’t quite mesh with our modern sensibilities. We don’t usually think of ourselves as people who need forgiveness. I’ve talked about this before: other peoplemight need to be forgiven—they might even need us to forgive them—but we are good people who occasionally do bad things, and usually for good reasons.

But the truth is that if the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—is what I have done for the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… or, worse, if the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—includes the things that I have failed to dofor the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… well, then I am desperate for mercy.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

In today’s reading, Peter asks a question. It’s a question you’ve probably asked. It’s a question we’ve all asked. If someone sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? How many chances should I give them? How many do-overs and mulligans and I-promise-this-time-will-be-differents do they get?

And Peter suggests he will be generous: “If someone sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? As many as seven times?”

And that does sound like a lot. We live in a world of three strikes laws and zero-tolerance policies. Seven times sounds like a lot.

But Jesus tells Peter to go past even that. There are some variations in the ancient texts of Matthew here. Maybe Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Maybe Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times… four hundred ninety times.” But, either way, that’s more than a lot.

And I remember once, when I was a kid, sitting on the steps to a chancel in a church, listening to the children’s sermon, being told that Jesus offered these numbers because he knew that we wouldn’t keep track.

You see, if we were supposed to forgive someone seven times, we might count. And when someone sinned against us the eighth time, we might say, “You have sinned against me eight times, and I have forgiven you seven times, and now I’m done. You are cut off.”

But if we have to forgive someone seventy times—or seventy times seven times—we would lose count. We would have to ask ourselves if we had forgiven them enough. And we would err on the side of forgiveness.

And there’s something there. But there’s also more.

You see, in Jesus’ world, seven was a number of perfection. It’s the number that it takes to get something right. So forgiving someone seven times is good; and forgiving someone seventy-seven times is better; and forgiving someone seventy times seven times is even better. How many times should you forgive someone? Until they get it right. Until you get it right.

After Jesus answers Peter, he tells a parable. He underlines his point.

Once upon a time, there was a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. The first slave who came before the king owed the king ten thousand talents. That is a huge amount of money. Imagine the amount you would make in, say, 150,000 years. It’s about that much.

The king asked for his money and the slave didn’t have enough. So the king ordered that the slave and his family and all that he had should be paid in order to settle the debt.

And the slave pled, “Lord, have mercy.” And the king, who had already lent him ten thousand talents, had pity on him. The king, who had already lent him ten thousand talents, released him from slavery and wiped the debt clean.

Now, that slave went out and found another slave who owed him 100 denarii. that’s a big amount of money. Imagine the amount you would make in a little more than three months. It’s about that much. Not as much as the first slave had owed the king… but nothing to sneeze at.

And the first slave demanded his money, but the second slave didn’t have enough.

And second slave pled, “Friend, have mercy.” But the first slave, who had lent him 100 denarii, had no mercy. The first slave, who had lent him 100 denarii, had him thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

And when the king heard about this, he took the first slave and said, “Are you kidding me?! You begged for mercy and I—I, who had already lent you ten thousand talents—gave it to you. But you couldn’t do the same for your friend and neighbor?”

And the king had the slave thrown into prison to be tortured until he could pay the debt… that he would never be able to pay.

Now, this is not an image of God that I like. This is not a picture of Jesus that I like. This is not an image of love.

This is an image of God that says, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you… because it will be done unto you.”

But here’s the thing: one of the things that we need to be forgiven for is how bad we are at forgiveness.

One of the things that we need to be forgiven for is how bad we are at forgiveness. Click To Tweet

Let me say that again: one of the things that we need to be forgiven for is how bad we are at forgiveness.

It the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—is what I have done for the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… or, worse, if the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—includes the things that I have failed to do for the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… then I am desperate for mercy.

I am the slave kneeling before the king pleading, “Lord have mercy.”

And it is a matter of my faith that God has responded to my pleas be releasing me from my slavery to sin. It is a matter of my faith that God has responded to my pleas by wiping my debts clean. And no matter how many times I wander off to find where demons dwell, every time I turn back to God and cry, “Lord have mercy,” she does.

God responds to our pleas by forgiving us… again and again and again… even when our debt is 100 denarii or ten thousand talents or our very souls.

God responds to our pleas by forgiving us… again and again and again… even when our debt is 100 denarii or ten thousand talents or our very souls. Click To Tweet

And yet we who are forgiven hold onto our grudges. We take pride in our punishments. We live in a world of three strikes laws and zero-tolerance policies. I am still angry at people who I haven’t seen in twenty years. I am still angry at people who I have never met.

And there is a place for anger. And there is a place for recognizing our own wounds.

But…

We are all, every one of us, on the receiving end of mercy. We are all, every one of us, on the receiving end of more mercy than we can imagine and more mercy than we will ever be asked to give out. And, knowing that, how can I deny to someone else a portion of the grace that I have received?

If someone sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? Until my forgiveness changes me. Until I become what God has called me to be.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Hard, Troublesome, Dangerous Love

There are some things you need to know. Maybe some things you just forgot.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked a little bit about numbers. I talked a little bit about the numbers that I obsess over. I talked a little bit about how I keep track of our attendance and membership and giving. And I talked a little bit about how I feel better about myself when those numbers are higher.

That wasn’t the core message of the sermon, but still… I know that there are people in this sanctuary who dream of being a big church, with lots of young families, and full Sunday School classrooms, and maybe even two services. And there are days when I am one of them.

Last week, I talked a little bit about being noticed. I talked a little bit about people seeing our generosity and asking, “Who are these people? Who do they think they are? Where are they getting this stuff?” I talked a little bit about hearing people ask those questions, and telling them the answers, and asking them to get in on it, too.

That wasn’t the core message of the sermon, but still… I know that there are people in this sanctuary who dream of being a noticeable church, with people coming from miles around to check us out, and folks talking about how amazing we are, and maybe even being a little bit famous. And there are days when I am one of them.

We are part of a culture that dreams big. We celebrate celebrity. We trust millionaires to make education policy or healthcare policy or whatever. We trust famous people to tell us the truth.

And even if we go through our daily lives mostly content, we all have those moments when we want to be on the red carpet, or in front of the big crowd, or on the cover of some magazine.

And even as a church, we have those moments when we look at megachurches and celebrity pastors and think, “Wouldn’t it be nice?”

In the second part of today’s reading, Jesus gets a moment.

He has taken Peter and James and John up a high mountain. And, in front of these three friends, he is changed. His face shines like the sun. His clothes become a dazzling white.

And then, appearing in front of them all: Moses and Elijah.

Moses, who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Moses, who went up the mountain and spoke to God face to face. Moses, who brought the law to the people. Moses, who led the people to the promised land.

Elijah, who raised a widow’s son. Elijah, who called fire down from heaven. Elijah, who prophesied to—and sometimes against—the king. Elijah, who did not die, but was taken into heaven by a whirlwind.

Moses and Elijah… the law and the prophets. And Jesus is talking with them.

And then, the pièce de résistance, a bright cloud rolls in and a voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!

Peter and James and John see Jesus… conversing with the law and the prophets… endorsed by God. And they are afraid. It’s overwhelming.

Something you need to know. Maybe something you just forgot.

Several weeks ago, I mentioned that one traditional criticism of Christianity is that our God doesn’t act like a God. Ancient pagans complained about it. Modern atheists complain about it.

This Jesus person doesn’t roll into the world with glory and honor. He doesn’t show up with the weapons of war. He doesn’t slaughter his adversaries in front of him. He doesn’t take the throne and demand worship and throw the unfaithful into a lake of fire.

He sometimes says that he’ll get around to that sort of thing eventually. But he just seems to do it.

He is… they complain… weak.

And they’re not wrong. Six days before he took Peter and James and John up the mountain to witness the transfiguration, he was in Caesarea Philippi. And he kept telling his disciples that he had to suffer; that he would be tortured and killed and raised again.

And he told them, “If you want to follow me, you need to deny yourself and take up your cross. If you try to save your life, you will lose it. And if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.”

Sure, someday there will be glory. But, for now…

…there will be times when we suffer.

…there will be times, as we share the love of Christ with the world, when the world will push back.

…there will be times, when we say that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here, when our friends and neighbors in Christ will call us heretics.

…there will be times when it will be hard.

And, I’ll be honest with you, if we live our lives in a way that is always easy—where people always like us, and are always comfortable with us, and always applaud and celebrate us—then we are not following Christ.

If it was always easy to follow Christ—if people always liked us, or were always comfortable with us, or always applauded and celebrated us—then we wouldn’t be following Christ. Christ does not call us to easy. Christ calls us to love. And, sometimes, love is hard. Sometimes, love gets you in trouble. Sometimes, love is downright dangerous.

And hard, troublesome, dangerous love is exactlywhat Jesus calls us to. Hard, troublesome, dangerous love is exactly what Jesus does.

Jesus—the son of God, the beloved with whom God is well pleased, the one to whom we should listen—loves the world in this way:

He puts his glory aside. He hides his honor. He puts down the weapons of war and lets his adversaries come at him. He steps down off the throne and asks us to love one another, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love the stranger, to love our enemies. He seeks out the unfaithful and redeems them.

He seeks out the unfaithful and redeems us. Again and again and again. And he asks us to do the same for each other.

And, I’ll be honest with you, it is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we dream the dreams of this world.

It is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we prioritize being big, or having lots of young families, or having full Sunday School rooms, or getting to a place where we need to have two services.

It is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we prioritize being seen, and having people come from miles around, and getting people to talk about us, and maybe even getting a little bit famous.

It is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we prioritize anything else.

Because when we prioritize the success of this world, fear creeps in…

…what if loving that person makes our members uncomfortable?

…what if loving that family makes other people talk and spread rumors?

…what if loving those people gets a member to walk out, or a donor to stop giving?

It is hard to love with the hard, troublesome, dangerous love of Christ—it is, maybe, impossible to love with the hard, troublesome, dangerous love of Christ—when we put anything else before that love.

Now, don’t worry, that doesn’t mean that I’m not looking at the numbers. That doesn’t mean that I’m not working on things like membership and engagement and giving.

But it does mean this: our focus—our unwavering focus as individuals Christians and as a congregation—is on love. It is on love for people who are part of this congregation and for people who are not. It is on love for people who are Christians and for people who are not. It is on love for people who like us and for people who do not.

It is on love when that love is easy and bright and wonderful… and it is on love when that love looks like a cross and is hard to bear.

For when we love—when we pick up our cross, and give up our lives, and love—we see Christ in all his glory: radiant and dazzling. When we love, fear flees. When we love, God provides.

Thanks be to God!

A True Story

A true story:

Sendhil Mullainathan is a professor of economics at Harvard, and Eldar Shafir is a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton. A few years ago, they decided to work together to study a subject that doesn’t get a lot of attention: scarcity. 

They wanted to know what happens to our brains and our behavior when we don’t have enough money or food or time or whatever. And they wanted to know how we could help people who don’t have enough money or food or time or whatever.

One day, they told an economist colleague of theirs that they were studying scarcity. And he replied, “There’s already a science that studies scarcity. You might have heard of it. It’s called economics.”

And that colleague was right. Economics is the study of how we manage limited resources. You only have so much money: do you buy a new coat, or enjoy a night out on the town? The government only has so much money: does it spend it on cancer research, or on highway safety? Those questions, and so many more like them, are economic questions. 1Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Kindle Edition, (New York: Times Books, 2013), 10-11.

And economics, and economists, are incredibly powerful. Most of our big political debates revolve around not having enough. Will we spend our limited money on tax cuts? On a giant wall along the southern border? On big infrastructure projects like high speed rail? On grand social programs like a federal jobs guarantee? We only have so much. What will we use it for?

And that makes it sound like we live in a world where there is not enough. That makes it sound like scarcity is the organizing principle of our society. We can’t help everyone. We have to make some tough choices. We have to be adults about this.

And I am pretty convinced that that’s a big lie.

In today’s reading, Jesus has been rejected. And he’s gone out to a deserted place to be alone.

You see, he was visiting his home town, he was teaching in the synagogue there, and the people were astounded by him. They said, “Who is this guy? Who does he think he is? Is this not the son of that carpenter guy? It this not the son of Mary? It this not the brother of James? C’mon. Where is he getting this stuff?”

And they were offended by him. And he left. And he went out to a deserted place to be alone.

But the crowds heard about this. They knew where he was. They followed him from the towns. And they brought sick people with them.

And Jesus had compassion on them, and healed the sick among them, and night fell.

And the disciples decided to be adults about this. They came to Jesus and said, “It’s getting late. We should send these people back to the towns so that they can get some food.”

And Jesus replied, “Don’t you have food?”

And the disciples looked at what they had and knew that it wasn’t enough. And they said to him, “We have five loaves and a couple of fish.”

And Jesus replied, “That’ll work.”

And he took the bread and the fish. He blessed it. He handed it to the disciples. They passed it around. Everyone ate and was filled. And they collected twelve baskets—twelve baskets!—of leftovers.

They fed five thousand men, plus women and children, with five loaves and a couple of fish.

That sounds like a miracle. It is a miracle.

We could not feed five thousand men, plus women and children, with five loaves and a couple of fish. We certainly would not have twelve baskets of leftovers if we tried. We would be sending people away hungry and empty handed. Jesus feeds all of these people and it is definitely a miracle.

But we have more. We have more than five loaves. We have more than a couple of fish. We have more.

And we have a little voice in the back of our heads—and a whole lot of big voices in our public discourse—saying, “We can’t help everyone. We have to make some tough choices. We have to be adults about this.”

After they fed the people, Jesus sent the disciples away in a boat. He dismissed the crowds. He went up to the mountain to pray. And when morning came, the boat was out at sea. So he decided to walk to it.

When the disciples saw him coming… they freaked out. They thought it was a ghost, a spirit, a threat. And they cried out in fear.

So Jesus said to them, “Take heart. It’s me, Jesus. Do not be afraid.” Which is exactly the kind of thing a ghost would say.

So Peter says to this… thing… walking on the water, “If you’re really Jesus, command me to get out of the boat and walk to you on the water.”

So Jesus does. And Peter climbs out of the boat. And he steps onto the water. And he starts walking towards Jesus. And it is a miracle.

And then the wind picks up. And Peter gets scared. And I am sure that there was a voice in the back of his head saying, “You cannot be doing this. This cannot work. This is not how the world works.”

And Peter starts to sink.

A true story:

Gary Anderson is a professor of ancient Christianity and Judaism at Notre Dame. His wife was once in charge of an adult swimming class. And that class included people who had had near-drowning experiences when they were younger. They were afraid of the water, and they would tense up when they were in it.

And if you swim, then you know a simple truth: in order to float, you have to relax. If you listen to the little voice in the back of your head that says, “You can’t do this,” then you will tense up. If you tense up, you will sink. If you sink, you will panic. If you panic, you will thrash about. If you thrash about, you will drown.

To float, you have to trust the water.2Anderson, Gary A. Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition, Kindle Edition (New Haven: Yale University, 2013), 108.

I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. Faith is trust.

Having faith in Christ means trusting Christ. The Christ who was born in a manger, to a dispossessed people, in a backwater province of a great empire… and who healed the sick in a crowd… and who fed five thousand men, plus women and children, with five loaves and a couple of fish… and who walked on water… who went to the cross… and who got up again.

Having faith in God means trusting God. The God who created the whole world… and who feeds the birds of the air, even though they neither sow nor reap… and who clothes the lilies of the field, even they neither toil nor spin… and who came to be one of us.

Faith is trust.

And, I know, it’s a hard trust. 

I would like to believe that if I were on a boat, and I saw Jesus walking towards me on the water, and he told me to step onto the water and walk towards him, I would do it. But I also know that I know—without a doubt—that I cannot walk water. And I would sink faster than Peter.

I would like to believe that if I were standing with Christ in front of a crowd, and I only had five loaves and a couple of fish, and Christ asked me to feed the crowd, I would do it. But I also know that I know—without a doubt—that five loaves and a couple of fish cannot feed five thousand men, plus women and children. And Christ would have to perform a miracle to feed those people.

You see, I have that little voice in the back of my head that says, “You cannot be doing this. This cannot work. This is not how the world works.”

And I hear the big voices in our public discourse that say, “We can’t help everyone. We have to make some tough choices. We have to be adults about this.”

But here’s the thing: I don’t need to have that kind of faith.

I have never had to walk on water. Walking on water is like everything I learned in trig class… it has never come up.

And I have never had to feed a crowd with five loaves and a couple of fish. Doing that is like everything I put on the study guide for The Scarlet Letter… it has never come up.

I am called to do much simpler things. You are called to do much simpler things. 

A true story:

In 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. The island was devastated and people were hungry. So chef José Andrés started feeding doctors and nurses at a hospital, because no one was feeding them, and they were hungry.

But then calls started coming in. The whole island was hungry. So the chef and his crew started commandeering kitchens in restaurants and schools and a basketball arena (because sports stadiums are giant kitchens with entertainment). And they bought food. And people donated food. And people volunteered. And they served 150,000 meals a day.

We are not called to walk on water, or feed a crowd with five loaves and a couple of fish. We are called to do much simpler things: to share from our abundance, to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And the truth is, in this world that God has made, you can do this, sharing works, it is how the world works. The truth is, in this world that God has made, we can help everyone. That is the choice we have to make. That is being an adult.

And, yeah, if we do that, there are going to be people who say, “Who are these people? Who do they think they are? Where are they getting this stuff?”

And then we can tell them. And they can join in, too. Thanks be to God!

Footnotes   [ + ]

Judgment

I majored in philosophy. 

Now, before you judge, I majored in philosophy during the philosophy boom of the late 90s, when there was a major philosopher shortage and all of the big philosophy firms were hiring. I had no idea that the philosophy market would collapse right before I graduated.

Either that, or I majored in philosophy because I was in my late teens, and I like big questions, and it was interesting (and maybe even a little romantic).

But regardless of the reason, I majored in philosophy.

And one of the things that philosophers like to do is pretend that people are rational. We imagine that people make decisions based on evidence and logic. And we’re not alone. A lot of people imagine the same thing. Science, economics, law, and other fields are all based on the idea that people are reasonable.

And that’s just not true.

There is a lot of evidence that people aren’t reasonable. But the way that I learned about human irrationality was this: I learned about the fundamental attribution error.

It’s a neat little trick that our brains—that our psychologies—play on us. And it works like this.

When do something bad, I think about all of the extenuating circumstances that drove me to that choice. speed because I’m going with the flow of traffic, and I’m late for something very important, and the speed limit is clearly set to low for this road, and everyone should understand that.

But when you do something bad, I don’t think about extenuating circumstances. I attribute your behavior to your character. I make assumptions about the kind of person you are. Youspeed because you’re a reckless driver with no respect for the other people on the road.

And we all do this. I do it. You do it. That person who cut you off in traffic or didn’t hold a door or responded too curtly to an email does it. We all tell ourselves, “I am a good person who does bad things for good reasons… and other people are jerks.”

We’ve spent a few weeks in Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

A couple of weeks ago, when we had our first reading from this sermon, I told you that it isn’t really a sermon. It’s possible—and maybe even probably—that Jesus never said these exact things in this exact order.

But Jesus was a teacher and a preacher. And while there was probably no one who remembered a whole sermon of his, people remembered bits and pieces. People remembered the themes and ideas and phrases and images that Jesus used again and again. And when Matthew was writing his gospel, he put Jesus on a mountain, like Moses on Sinai, and had him say these bits and pieces in this order.

And you can tell that Matthew took a bunch of things that Jesus said and just sort of cobbled them together because of this passage.

It starts with Jesus telling his disciples—and with Matthew telling us—not to judge.

“Do not judge,” he says, “so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get… if you want to take a speck out of your neighbor’s eye, you had better make sure there’s not a log in your own eye, first.”

And there’s something beautiful there. Don’t poke around in other people’s eyes when you can’t see clearly. Get the muck out of your own eyes before you try to help your neighbor with the stuff in theirs. Don’t judge people; get yourself together so that you can help people.

But then Matthew has Jesus turn around and say this:

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”

So Jesus starts by telling us not to judge, and then turns around and tells us to know what is holy and what is valuable… and who the dogs and swine are… and that sounds pretty judgmental to me.

And, I know, it’s Jesus saying this.

Jesus, who is God-become-one-of-us. Jesus, who knows our hearts. Jesus, who we meet in everyone who has need. Jesus, who feeds us at his table.

Jesus, who will come in glory and put some of us on his right and some of us on his left.

Jesus, who will send some of us into the kingdom that God has prepared for us since the foundation of the world, and who will leave some of us in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Jesus, who will judge with perfect knowledge… and perfect love… and perfect compassion.

There’s a tension here. And we need to face it honestly.

And it begins with this: I do not judge with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect compassion. I don’t know all the facts, I don’t love as I should, I can’t walk a mile in your shoes.

I’m not qualified to judge. I’m not qualified to call someone a dog or a pig. And neither are you.

There’s a tension here. And we need to face it honestly. And it begins with that humility.

And then it goes here: it is one thing to judge a thing, or a behavior, or a system, or an institution; it is an entirely different thing to judge a person.

And this is where it get hard.

As Christians, we have to be able to look at things and behaviors and systems and institutions and say, “This is good; and this is bad.”

As your pastor, I need to be able to look at an immigration system that rips children from parents, and places those children with families they don’t know… and say that it is wrong.

I need to be able to look at a system of mass incarceration that holds more than 21% of the world’s prisoners, where race is a major determining factor in whether you end up in jail, where money is a major determining fact in whether you stay there, and where it’s incredibly hard to get our of the system once you’re in it… and say that it is wrong.

I need to be able to look at the food we gather for the Referral Center, and the warm clothes we gather around Christmas, and all of the other ways that we help people in this community and beyond, both as individuals and as a church… and say that they are good.

And, I will admit, there are very few times when we can look at something and know for sure that it is wholly good or wholly evil. We rarely get to choose between good and evil. Most of the time, we have to choose between good and better, or between bad and worse. And it’s hard to know which is which.

Well-meaning people, acting in good faith, trying to do the best we can, can disagree about things.

But it is still true: it is one thing to judge a thing, or a behavior, or a system, or an institution; it is an entirely different thing to judge a person.

And that’s where the fundamental attribution error comes in. Because so often, when we look at ourselves and see that we’ve done something we’re not proud of, we say, “I am a good person who did a bad thing.” And sometimes we even add, “For a good reason.”

And so often, when we look at other people and see that they’ve done something we’re not proud of, we say, “That is a bad person. He is a dog. She is swine. I cannot give them what is holy. I cannot give them what is valuable. If I do, they will trample it under foot and maul me. They are a bad person.”

And, let’s be honest, there are whole industries—on television and radio and the internet—who will tell you who the bad people are. There are systems and institutions who will tell you who you should say that about. And it can feel so good to judge people that way.

But we are not Christ. We do not judge with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect compassion.

As Christians, we have to be able to look at things and behaviors and systems and institutions and say, “This is good, and this is bad, this is just, and this is unjust; this is merciful, and this is unmerciful; this is compassionate, and this is not compassionate.” Seeing those differences is one of the first steps towards making this world a place of greater justice and mercy and compassion.

And, at the same time, as Christians, we never look at people and say, “They are good, and they are bad.”

Because here’s the thing: Christ, who judges with perfect knowledge and love and compassion, withholds judgment for the sake of redemption.

In perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect knowledge, with no log in his own eye, Christ sees the divine spark, the image of God, in us, in we who are sinners, and redeems us. That is the promise of our faith.

And if Christ has done that for us, how can we refuse to do that for others? How can we, who are not qualified to judge, look at someone and say, “They are good, and they are bad”?

The answer is easy: we can’t. And the truth is that holy things—holy things like grace—are holy even when dogs have them. And the truth is that dogs like me probably need them more.

I know that’s a tall order. I know how easy it is to judge people. I know how easy it is to say, “I am a good person who does bad things for good reasons… and other people are jerks.” I do it. You do it. We all do it.

But I also believe that we can meet that tall order. By the grace of God, we can do to others as we would have them do to us. We can judge others as we would have them judge us: with love and compassion; with mercy and grace.

We can take those holy things and give them to everyone… even the dogs like them… even the dogs like us.

We can build our houses, we can build our homes, we can build our lives, on the solid foundation fo the grace  of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!

Do Not Worry

Way back at the end of November, when we were decorating the church for Christmas, we got the Advent wreath and the Advent candles out.

I wanted to make sure that they were okay, so I lit them. Later, we finished decorating, turned out the lights, locked up the church, and left. And I was sure that I had blown out the candles… but there was a little itchy feeling in the back of my brain: what if I hadn’t blown them out? What if I burned down the church?

I get that feeling—that itchy feeling in the back of my brain—more often than I’d like. I’ve had to backtrack home to make sure that I locked a door or closed the garage door. And I always have, but the itchy feeling won’t go away until I check. It’s not OCD… it’s good old-fashioned irrational worry.

In today’s reading, we are still hearing from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus is talking about worry. So I’ve been thinking about worry.

And we are a people—we are a society—that worries.

We worry on a personal level about little things. I worry that I’ve left the garage door open or the front door unlocked.

We worry on a personal level about big things. I worry about accidentally burning down the church or hitting a patch of ice while I’m driving.

We even have a whole industry to help us mitigate our worry. I have car insurance in case I’m in an accident; health insurance in case I get sick or injured; home insurance in case something happens to my house; and a home warranty in case the water heater goes out. I even have that sewer line insurance in case something happens there.

And, of course, we worry on a social level about big things. We have people who tell us to worry: about terrorism and crime and the economy and immigration and a thousand other things. We live in a bubble of worry.

And here’s Jesus, standing on a mountain, preaching to the disciples, telling them—telling us—to stop freaking out.

“Do not worry,” he says, “God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. And you’re more valuable than they are. Won’t God take care of you? So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

And he’s serious. And he’s asking us about our faith.

‘Faith’ is a big word. It’s a word with a lot of history. It’s a word with a lot of baggage. But when you strip all of that away, ‘faith’ just means… ‘trust’.

We have faith in our family and friends… we trust them.

We have faith in our schools and workplaces and coworkers… we trust them.

We have faith in our pastor… I hope… we trust him.

And those faiths are important. And those faiths are little.

But there’s also this big faith. When you’re down and out, when you’re lost in the wilderness, when no one’s around, when your family and friends are miles away, when you are trapped and desperate… where are you going to turn?

Are you going to build up treasures on earth, thinking that they will protect you in times of trouble? Are you going to put your faith in wealth? Are you going to put your faith in money?

It’s common sense, isn’t it? Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life; and money meets every need (Ecclesiastes 10:19). It’s right there in the Bible.

And I’ll be honest: I’m lucky enough to have money. I serve a church that, in accordance with Conference guidelines, pays me well and provides good benefits. I get to have health and dental and vision and life insurance. I can own a house and pay for home insurance and a home warranty and sewer line insurance. My wife is excellent at budgeting, and makes sure that we can pay all of the bills, and that we have plenty saved for a rainy day.

I am incredibly lucky. I could go through most of my life trusting money to see me through.

But I am wise enough to know that could all go away. I could lose my job. I could get too sick for my health insurance to save me. I could end up underwater on my house. We could spend through our savings. We could face a time of trial that is too great for money to save us. I have seen it happen to others… and I know it could happen to me.

Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life; and money meets every need… until it doesn’t.

When you’re down and out, and in your pocket there’s not one penny, and as for friends, well, you don’t have any… where are you going to turn?

Are you going to build up treasures on earth, thinking that they will protect you in times of trouble? Are you going to put your faith in wealth? Are you going to put your faith in money?

Or are you going to build up treasures in heaven, trusting that the creator of the universe, who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field, will give us our daily bread and rescue us from evil? Are you going to put your faith in God?

I want to be careful here. I don’t think, in this day and age, that we should give up all that we have. I don’t think, in the winter in Iowa, that we should all sell our houses and empty our bank accounts. I don’t think that Jesus is calling us to homelessness and starvation.

But Jesus is telling us that we cannot serve both God and wealth. We cannot be Christians and lovers of money. We have to choose.

Now, there are some people who will tell you to make your faith in God subservient to your faith in money. They will tell you that the reward for your faithfulness to God is wealth here on earth. They will tell you that, if you give money to their church as a demonstration of your faith, God will put you behind the wheel of a large automobile or in a beautiful house. And those people are wrong.

What I am telling you—and what I believe Christ is telling us—is that we should make our wealth subservient to God. We should ask how we can use what we have to expand the kingdom of God… by feeding the hungry and giving something to drink to the thirsty; by welcoming the stranger and giving clothing to the naked; by caring for the sick and loving the prisoner.

And that…

Way back at the end of November, when we were decorating the church for Christmas, we got the Advent wreath and the Advent candles out.

I wanted to make sure that they were okay, so I lit them. Later, we finished decorating, turned out the lights, locked up the church, and left. And I was sure that I had blown out the candles… but there was a little itchy feeling in the back of my brain: what if I hadn’t blown them out? What if I burned down the church?

And I remembered that, as we were all leaving, Mark had said something about coming back to the church to pick something up or drop something off. So I pulled into a Casey’s parking lot in Eldridge, and I called Mark, and I asked him to make sure that the candles were out when he got back to the church.

And that might not seem like much. But I didn’t have to be worried about that anymore.

And the truth is that when we share what we have—when we share our time and our talent and those treasures that God has entrusted to us here on earth—there is more than enough. And no one needs to worry.

God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. And God has given humanity more than enough to go around. Our God is a God of extravagant generosity and infinite abundance. God has simply spread those gifts around in a way that gives us another gift: the chance to share, to give, and to accept gifts.

And when we do that—when a little bit of God’s kingdom has come and a little bit of God’s will is done—then everyone will have enough and more than enough, and debts will be wiped away, and we won’t face times of trial, and evil will shrink away to nothing, and no one will have to worry.

And that is good news.

Salt

A long time ago—before I was your pastor, before I was a fundraiser, before I even went to seminary—I was a cook. I worked in a little upscale restaurant in a midsize college burg. And while we were never going to win a Michelin star, we were pretty good. And while I’m never going to win a James Beard award, I’m pretty good.

And I know a couple of things about salt.

First, I know that salt goes in everything. A dish without salt is a dish without flavor.

Grilling meat? Salt. Pepper. Sear.

Roasting asparagus? A drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper (and, if you want, garlic and parmesan). Four hundred and twenty-five degrees for about fifteen minutes.

Making pasta? Boiling water. Pasta. Salt. More. More than that. You’re not quite trying to cook pasta in the Mediterranean, but an eight quart stock pot can take about a quarter cup of salt.

Salt goes in everything.

Second. I know that salt goes in early.

If you add the salt as you finish a dish, you end up with a strong salty flavor wherever the salt crystals happen to be. But if you add it at the beginning, it has time to mellow out and spread throughout the dish. You get a flavor that is subtle but noticeable… and delicious.

Salt goes in everything. And salt goes in early.

In today’s reading, we are at the beginning of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

Now, I have to be honest, this isn’t really a sermon. It is quite possible that Jesus never said these exact things in this exact order.

But Jesus was a teacher and a preacher. And even though it’s likely that no one remembered a whole sermon, people remembered bits and pieces. People remembered the themes and ideas that he talked about again and again. And when Matthew was writing his gospel, he put Jesus on a mountain, like Moses on Sinai, and had him say these bits and pieces in this order.

Luke does something similar. He puts Jesus on a plain, and has him say some different bits and pieces in a different order.

And I’m not pointing out just to show off how much I know about the Bible. I’m pointing that out because some of what we’re reading here is Jesus. And some of it is Matthew. And we don’t really know which is which.

But one of the things that Jesus says… is about salt.

“You are the salt of the earth;” he says, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

Now, I know that Jesus wasn’t talking about grilling meat or roasting asparagus or boiling pasta or cooking anything else.

You see, in the ancient world, salt was so much more than a ubiquitous seasoning that sat on the table. It was used in food, both as a seasoning and a preservative. Newborns were rubbed with salt (something, by the way, that you should not do). Salt was used in sacrifices.

Our word ‘salary’ even comes from the word for salt. Either because people were sometimes paid in salt, or because people were paid so that they could buy salt.

I even remember a story—and I’m sorry that I can’t remember the source—about a thief who broke into a house. He had filled his bag with precious things and began rooting through the kitchen. He stuck his hand in a jar and discovered that he was touching salt. That simple act connected him to the homeowner… and he put everything that he had taken back, and left in peace.

Salt was important. It was vital. And, “You,” he says, “are the salt of the earth.”

And salt goes in everything. And salt goes in early.

Last week, I talked about some of the things that Christianity asks us to believe: That there is a God who came to live as one of us among a dispossessed people under the rule of a great empire, who was executed by the powers of that empire and who got back up again, and who is working within us and among us to heal this broken world.

That no matter who we are, or where we are on life’s journey, or what struggles we are having, God has been there, too.

But Christianity isn’t just a list of beliefs. It’s a way of life. And there are a lot of different ideas about what that way of life should be. And Matthew gives us one vision of that way of life:

Be the salt of the earth. Be poor in spirit. Mourn for the world and its sorrows. Be meek. Hunger and thirst for righteousness. Be merciful. Be pure in heart. Make peace. Stand up for righteousness and for Christ, even when the whole world is against you. Do those things—be those things—and your reward will be great in the world to come.

And, later this morning, we’re going to vote on another vision of that way of life:

Be a Christian community. Worship the God who we encounter in Jesus Christ. Welcome and celebrate all people, and call each other towards greater wholeness in God. Serve one another and the wider community. Grow together in faith and towards God’s kingdom.

Now, these aren’t mutually exclusive ways of life. We can do all of these things… and so many more. But the key thing about a way of life is that it isn’t just for an hour on Sunday morning. And it isn’t just for the few hours a week we’re in this building. It’s all the time.

We are called to be the salt of the earth when we are spending time with our family and friends. We are called to be poor in spirit when we’re arguing with our kids. We are called to hunger and thirst for righteousness when we are adding something to our Amazon wish list. We are called to make peace when we are standing in the voting booth.

And, if we vote in favor of the proposed statement of identity and purpose later this morning, we are going to be called to worship God through our time at work or at school; to welcome celebrate all people when we’re sitting in traffic; to serve one another and the wider community when we’re walking downtown; and to grow together in faith in all of our interactions with each other and the world.

And that goes for all of us. There are not some of us who are called to be merciful, and others who are called to be pure in heart, and others who are called to stand up for righteousness and for Christ. We are all called to that work.

And there is not one committee that is called to take care of worship, and another that is called to welcome people, and another that is called to serve people, and another that is called to help us grow. We are all called to that work.

We are all called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world… all the time.

I’ll be honest: there are times when that’s going to be hard. There are going to be times when we fail. There are going to be times when we mess up.

There is another sermon about when we fail. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometime. It’s not this sermon. But I can tell you that it ends with some good news: no matter how often we fail, no matter how many times we mess up, no matter how often we feel like our salt has washed away or our light has flickered out… Jesus is there to help us get our flavor back and our candle relit.

But this sermon ends this way: you are the salt of the world. And salt goes in everything. And salt goes in early. Salt melts into the dish and brings out of the best. Salt preserves the good. Salt blesses the new. Salt seasons a sacrifice to God. Salt binds us together in peace and harmony.

And you are the salt of the world. You bring out the best. You preserve the good. You bless the new. You season a sacrifice to God. You bring people together in peace and harmony.

You can do amazing things. You can change the world. You can make the kingdom of God just a little bit bigger. You can heal this broken world.

And not just you… we.

We can do amazing things. We can change the world. We can make the kingdom of God just a little bit bigger.

By the grace of God, we can heal this broken world. Hallelujah. Thanks be to God!

I’ve Been Here Before

There is a scene from The West Wing. You’re going to find that I bring up that show every now and again.

Leo McGarry is the White House Chief of Staff. He’s also an alcoholic.

A few years before the scene in the show, he was sober. And then he fell off the wagon. It was an important night during the president’s first campaign, and he was meeting with some donors, and they decided to have a drink. So Leo had a drink. And then another one. And then another one.

And someone in the scene asks him how he could have a drink.

And he replies, “I’m an alcoholic. I don’t have one drink… I don’t understand people who have one drink. I don’t understand people who leave half a glass of wine on the table. I don’t understand people who say they’ve had enough. How can you have enough of feeling like this? How can you not want to feel like this longer?”

And he says, “My brain works differently.”

And I’m bringing up this scene because I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not sure that his brain really does work that differently

We are Christians. And Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things:

In a God who you can’t see and, sometimes, who you can’t even feel.

In the idea that that God came to live as one of us, 2,000 years ago, in a backwater province of a great empire, among a dispossessed people.

That that God-become-one-of-us was executed by the powers or that empire… and that he got back up again.

That the sprit of that God is in us and around us and advocating for us and empowering us.

That someday, this world that is so messed up in so many ways, will get better.

And sometimes, we have to take those things on faith. We have to trust that they are true. Even if we can’t quite be sure.

But there is something in Christianity that is empirically verifiable. There is something in Christianity that we can know is true… for certain… without one iota of doubt: the world is messed up; we are messed up.

We all have our thing. We all have our things. We all have those feelings that we will pursue no matter what, no matter how it gets in the way of being the people we want to be, not matter how much it hurts us… or our friends… or our families… or complete strangers.

To put it in Christian terms: we all experience temptation and we all give in. I know I do.

In today’s reading, Jesus is tempted. It says so right in the Bible: the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Last week, we saw Jesus come to John the Baptizer in the river Jordan. And he asked John to baptize him. And John tried to respond the same way any of us would respond, “No. You are the Messiah, the king of kings and the lord of lords. I need to be baptized by you.”

And Jesus said, “No. We’re doing it this way.”

And John baptized Jesus. And as Jesus was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened. The Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

And you would think that would be the end of the story. Jesus is baptized, his sonship is confirmed, now it’s time to go into the world and recruit some disciples and perform some miracles and get on with things.

But no… we’re doing it this way. That same Spirit grabs Jesus and takes him into the wilderness: away from John and the river and his family and his community. And he fasts for forty days and forty nights and he is famished. And here comes the tempter.

“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? You’re hungry? Turn these stones into bread.”

“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? Here is the pinnacle of the Temple. Throw yourself down from here and have angels rescue you.”

“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? Here are all the kingdoms of the world. You can have all of them. Just worship me.”

And I have to believe that Jesus was tempted. I have to believe that he was tempted because scripture says so: the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit did not fail. And I have to believe that he was tempted because he is fully God and fully human, and temptation is part of being fully human.

Jesus resisted temptation. And part of how Jesus did that is by relying on scripture.

“You want me to turn stones into bread? ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

“You want me to throw myself off of the pinnacle of the Temple so that I can be rescued? ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

“You want me to worship you? ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

And the devil leaves… and that’s great. But the reality of temptation is that quoting scripture doesn’t always work. And the devil can quote scripture, too. And Jesus is still hungry.

The reality of temptation is that it is universal. We all have those moments when we are tempted to step away from the life that God wants us to have. For some of us, it’s the usual tempting culprits. I don’t need to name them. You know them.

For some of us, they are things that we can justify. For some of us, it’s the things that we can justify using scripture:

Homophobia: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)

Greed: “Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life, and money meets every need.” (Ecclesiastes 10:19)

Child abuse: “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” (Proverbs 13:24)

Refusing to help someone who is poor: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

The devil is a master of making sin look righteous. And he can quote scripture, too.

(And, by the way, that’s the danger of taking just a verse: context matters; interpretation matters; love matters.)

And, for some of us, the culprit is the high we get from judging someone else who is being tempted or who has succumbed to temptation.

Temptation is universal. We have all been there. We have all failed. We are all in this together.

But here’s the thing: God has been there, too. Christ faced the devil. He prevailed, but he was tempted. It says so right in the Bible: the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

There is a scene from The West Wing. Josh is the Deputy White House Chief of Staff. And he has PTSD. Leo arranges for him to see a psychiatrist. And after Josh sees the psychiatrist, he talks to Leo. And Leo tells him a story:

This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

We are Christians. And Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things. And I’ll be honest, the biggest thing it asks us to believe is that God has been there, too.

Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things. And I’ll be honest, the biggest thing it asks us to believe is that God has been there, too. Click To Tweet

The world is messed up; we are messed up. We are stuck in this hole and we don’t know how to get out. And Christ jumps in with us. And that’s crazy. It is so crazy that generations of people have criticized Christianity on the grounds that our God is too weak, and doesn’t crush his enemies under his foot, and doesn’t rule the world by force, like any real god would do.

Christ jumps in with us. And that’s crazy.

But Christ can truly say, “It’s okay. I’ve been here before. I know the way out. Follow me.”

That doesn’t mean that things will be easy. Being a Christian—taking the waters of baptism—doesn’t solve our problems all in one go.

After Jesus sends the devil away, he is still hungry. And angels show up to wait on him. And that… that doesn’t happen for us. Unless, by the grace of God, we serve each other. Unless we put aside that temptation to judge our friends and neighbors who are struggling with temptation. Unless we admit that we’ve all been there. 

Unless we jump in the hole and say, “I’ve been down here before, and together, by the grace of God, we can find the way out.”

We are messed up, but we are not alone. We have each other. And we have a God who has been there before. Thanks be to God!

Baptism

Way back in June, we had a baptism. James and Brianne stood at the front of the church, and I held a kind of squirmy Kaelyn, and I baptized her in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And it was a wonderful day. We welcomed Kaelyn into our family… our little corner of the Kingdom of God.

And, later, someone asked me how I felt about what was obviously my first baptism. And I laughed it off.

But the truth is, that wasn’t my first baptism. It was just my first baptism that wasn’t in a hospital… and my first baptism where the clock wasn’t ticking, or where the clock hadn’t already struck.

You see, baptism is one of our sacraments. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace.

In the Catholic and Orthodox churches, there are seven of these sacraments: baptism, confession, communion, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing the sick. For our Lenten program later this year, we’ll be reading a memoir by Rachel Held Evans organized around those seven sacraments.

In the United Church of Christ—and in most Protestant churches—there are two sacraments. We push confession, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing the sick aside. They’re important, but they’re not sacraments. We stick with baptism and communion. 

And we stick with those two because, we say, they were instituted by Christ himself. 

Communion on the night he was betrayed, when he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and shared it with his friends, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.” And likewise, after supper, when he took the cup and blessed it and shared it, saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you. As often as you drink of it, do this in remembrance of me.”

And baptism when… well…

A few weeks ago, during Advent, we met Zechariah and Elizabeth. 

They had a son, named John, and they were told that he would be great in the sight of the Lord. He would turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. The spirit and power of the prophet Elijah would go before him. He would make ready a people prepared for the Lord. And I can only imagine how proud they must have been when they imagined the great man that their son would be.

And in today’s reading, we see John… all grown up.

He lives in the wilderness. He wears camel hair clothes and a leather belt. He lives on locusts and wild honey. And the locusts might be a misunderstanding of a word for pancake, or they might be the pods from the carob tree, or they might be insects. He baptizes people in the water of the river Jordan for repentance. He calls Pharisees and Sadducees—Pharisees and Sadducees(!)—a brood of vipers.

He talks about the one who will come after him: the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

And then the one who will come after him… shows up.

It has to be a strange moment. Here is Jesus, the Messiah, king of kings and lord of lords, standing before John in the Jordan, asking to be baptized.

And John responds the same way anyone would respond, “Why are you asking me to baptize you? You’re the Messiah, the king of kinds and lord of lords. I’m not fit to tie your shoes. I need to be baptized by you.”

And Jesus says, “No. We’re doing it this way.”

And John baptizes him, and the heavens open, and the Holy Spirit descends, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Baptism is a sacrament. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. And it’s hard to get a more outward and visible sign of God’s grace than the heavens opening and the Spirit descending, and a voice saying, “I am well pleased with you.”

But understand this, because this is so important. Baptism is not a sacrament because Christ performed the first baptism. Baptism isn’t even a sacrament because Christ was the first person to be baptized. 

Baptism is a sacrament simply because Christ joined us in being baptized; and simply because we can join him in that baptism. Whether it’s through a few drops on our heads or being dunked in a river.

And even more: through baptism we join in each other in this family, in the this little corner of the Kingdom of God, and in the whole great big Kingdom of God. Whether we are being baptized in a church on a bright sunny summer morning or in a hospital at the last possible minute or anywhere or anywhen else.

It is no secret that we live in deeply divided times. One of the beautiful things about the United Church of Christ in general—and about First Congregational United Church of Christ in particular—is our diversity. I don’t want to overstate things, we could be a lot more diverse. But one of the joys of serving this church and this denomination is that I get to work with all sorts of people.

And that isn’t always easy. We don’t always get along. We argue.

Sometimes, we argue over important things. Sometimes, we argue over petty things. Sometimes, we argue in a spirit of love. Sometimes, we argue in a spirit of anger. Sometimes, that happens in church. Sometimes, that happens in families. Sometimes, that happens in politics. It happens everywhere. We live in deeply divided times.

Even as a pastor, it can be easy to be pessimistic and fall into the same patterns that we see everywhere else. As a church and as a nation, we face serious challenges; and we live in deeply divided times… and I have this chance to stand in front of you on Sunday morning— behind the authority of the pulpit—and speak to you.

And in the midst of the brokenness of this world, when I preach on controversial things anyway, it can be tempting to speak like John did to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It can be tempting to preach his little sermon:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

And I’m not going to promise that you will never hear that sermon. I’m not going to promise that I will never preach it.

But today—on this Baptism of Christ Sunday—I am hopeful. Because in spite of all of the divisions in the church and in the world, we in this sanctuary, and in churches around the world, are united by the bonds of our baptism.

In spite of all of our differences and disagreements… Maybe even because of them, we are one body, guided by one spirit, called to one hope under the rule of one Lord, sharing one faith, cleansed by the waters of one baptism, worship one God the mother of all.

That is a truth… and that is an opportunity.

You may have noticed that there is something new in the order of worship today. Already this year, I’ve moved some things around… and today, after the sermon, is a time for silent reflection. We’re going to try this for a little while and see how it works; we’re going to take a moment to think about what we heard in the scripture and what we heard in the sermon and what we’ve encountered in our worship and how we can apply it in our lives.

And I’m not going to end every sermon like this.

But today, I want you to think about that person—or, maybe, those people—who you don’t get along with. And I want you to think about the water that touched Christ… and the water that touched you… and the water that touched them. I want you to think about water and the spirit and the promise that binds us together. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

And the next time that person—or, maybe, those people—are getting you riled up or getting on your last nerve… the next time you feel the bile of anger and hatred rise up in you… think about that water… and the way that it connects you… as beloved children of God.

Baptism is a sacrament. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. 

But it isn’t a sacrament because Christ performed the first baptism. And it isn’t a sacrament because Christ was the first person to be baptized. It is a sacrament because Christ—whose shoes we are not fit to tie, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, who carries the winnowing fork, and who will one day clear the threshing floor—joined us in being baptized and bound us inextricably together as one people.

Hallelujah. Amen.

Refugees

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

In today’s reading from Matthew, we hear this line from the prophet Jeremiah about Rachel, in the city of Ramah, weeping for her children.

You see, a long time ago, there was a man named Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. And Jacob fell in love with Rachel. He was so in love with her that he agreed to work for her father for seven years in order to win her hand in marriage. And, after seven years, he was tricked into marrying Rachel’s sister Leah, instead. And Rachel’s father explained that Leah was the older sister, and that it was only right that she marry first.

So Jacob worked another seven years in order to win Rachel’s hand. And she bore him two children: Joseph and Benjamin. And, through them, she was the ancestor of three of the tribes of Israel: Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin.

And, much later, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in Jerusalem… and they assembled the people in Ramah… and they sent them into exile in Babylon, cut off from the land that God had promised them.

And Jeremiah writes about this, the destruction of the people, the exile in Babylon:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Last week, I heard this story.

A woman from Honduras left that country to escape an abusive relationship. She left her home and her friends, and she hitchhiked and rode buses and walked thousands of miles to Tijuana, Mexico. And she carried her five-month-old daughter the whole way.

When she got to Tijuana, she put her name on a list to be allowed to ask for asylum in the United States. She did not ask for asylum; she put her name on a list that would eventually allowher to ask for asylum. But… the list had a four month wait. So she hopped a fence. And she was caught. And she was taken into custody.

Now, her daughter was sick. And she had been treating her with antibiotics. But Customs and Border Protection took the antibiotics away. And when she asked for a doctor, she was called an invader and told that she wasn’t in a position to ask for anything. And she and her daughter were kept in a freezing cell; what other migrants call una hielera, an icebox.

Later, they were released. And they got to some family and they went to the hospital. Her daughter’s health deteriorated, she stopped breathing, and the woman was told to… to prepare for her daughter to die. She had pneumonia. What could they do?

The story has a happy-ish ending. The baby lived. Others haven’t been so lucky. A couple of migrant children have died. A few adults have died. Others have come close.

And I know that there are people in this sanctuary who disagree with what that mother did. I know that there are people who will say that she shouldn’t have travelled all those miles and that she shouldn’t have jumped that fence.

But no matter how we feel about what she did, I cannot imagine how it must feel for someone to be so frightened that she picks up her daughter and travels thousands of risky miles for nothing more than the hope that her family could start a new life in a distant country. And I cannot image how it must feel for her to do all of that… and then be called an invader… and have medicine taken away… and watch her daughter almost die.

But Jeremiah gives me the words:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

And Mary might know how it feels.

In today’s reading from Matthew, we hear this line from the prophet Jeremiah about Rachel, in the city of Ramah, weeping for her children… and we meet these wise men.

You see, there are these wise men from the east. And they see a star rising in the west, over the country of Judea, a backwater province in a great empire. They are the kind of wise men who know what stars mean, and they say, “That star means that a child has been born; the king of the Jews.”

So they go to Judea. They go to Herod, who is already king of the Jews. They go to Herod, who was made king of the Jews by Mark Antony and the Roman Senate. They go to Herod, who was made king of the Jews according to the will of Rome.

And they say to him, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

And when Herod hears this, he is afraid.

Herod is powerful. And he likes his power. And he knows who he owes his power to.

This is the king of the Jews who built the Temple Mount, and then installed a golden eagle—a symbol of Rome—at its gate. He built fortresses to protect himself during an insurrection. He taxed his people relentlessly, used secret police to monitor the people, tried to suppress protests, and had opponents removed by force. He is a despot and a tyrant.

He has to be thinking, “No child has been born in my house… But there is a Messiah to come, who will overturn the order that made me king and gave the throne of Judea to my house. And that Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.”

So he sends the wise men to Bethlehem. And he tells them, “When you have found the child, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

The wise men follow the star to Bethlehem and find Jesus and his family. And they pay him homage and give him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. On the one hand, these are practical gifts. Money and—in a time before daily bathing—perfumes. On the other hand, these are symbolic gifts. Gold for a king, frankincense for the worship of a God, myrrh as a perfume used in burial.

And then, in a dream, a warning comes: “Do not return to Herod. He isn’t planning on paying homage.” So they go home by a different route.

And then, in a dream, a warning comes to Joseph: “Herod knows. He will search for the child and he will kill him. Take the child and his mother. Flee to Egypt and start there until I tell you. Now! Run!”

And Herod sends his troops to Bethlehem. He knows when that star rose, so he knows when the child was born. And his troops kill every child in and around Bethlehem who is two years old or younger.

And if you listen closely, you can hear it: a voice in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

Jesus was Lord at his birth. And then he was a refugee.

And I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Mary to be so frightened that she picked up her son—Jesus Christ, our lord and our savior, king of kings and lord of lords, our wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace—and walked hundreds of miles to start a new life in a distant land.

And I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Mary to think about her friends and family in Bethlehem, who did not receive a warning, who did not make it out, and who wailed and wept because their children were no more.

But I do know this: we have a choice.

We can stand with Herod, secure in our power and our comfort, building monuments and fortresses… but knowing that if we do that, we can only do that because of the violence being done in our name: because someone, somewhere, is taking medicine away from a five-month-old.

Or we can stand beside Mary. 

Mary, who is pregnant and scared and far from home, looking for a place to stay, and being told that there is no room left at the inn.

Mary, who is fleeing the slaughter of the innocents. 

Mary, who is sitting at the border in una hielera, scared to death because her child is sick and she has no medicine.

And that doesn’t mean that, as a country, we have to let everyone who shows up at our borders in.

But it does mean that, as a church, as Christians, as a little consulate of the Kingdom of God, we do have to take responsibility for everyone who is so afraid that they will pick of their child and walk God-only-knows-how-far in the hope of starting a new life in a new land.

And we have to do that because when we welcome that child—when we take responsibility for that refugee—we are welcoming Jesus Christ, our lord and our savior, king of kings and lord of lords, our wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace. 

And by welcoming him into our home, we step into his kingdom.

And when we do that… when we do that, Rachel will cease her weeping and be consoled, because she will know that her children are safe.

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