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.

Daring in Our Welcome

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on April 22, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts 10:9-16.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it.

I’ve been here with you for just over two months. I’ve attended committee meetings, eaten with the Lion’s Ladies, snacked with the Crafty Stitchers, watched WOW Kids classes, sat in on Faith in Motion sessions, led worship, visited a few of you, and enjoyed some of the other privileges of being your pastor. And at every turn, I’ve been greeted by smiling faces and open arms.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it.

But welcoming me is easy. Like I said a few weeks ago on Palm Sunday, 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. I am a lot like most of you. And while we might not check all the same boxes, there’s a lot of overlap between you and me. It’s easy for us to be welcoming to each other.

Today we are having our annual celebration of extravagant welcome. We are reaffirming our covenant as an open and affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ. We are telling our community that, while we might not always be as good at it as we want to be, we are a welcoming church.

And that’s good. That’s a good start. But while we are celebrating what we have done and what we are doing, it’s important to recognize that there is still work to do.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it. But we are a welcoming church on the easy setting.

In today’s reading from Acts, Peter is on his roof, praying. Peter is a Christian. He is a disciple and an apostle of Jesus the Christ.

He is a leader in the church. And he knows what the church is: a community of Jewish people who have found the Jewish messiah and been saved for the kingdom of the God of the Jewish people.

He knows that the church is a place for people like him. He knows that Christianity is a religion for people like him. He knows that

Christ is a savior for people like him.

Maybe not people exactly like him, but people who check a lot of the same boxes.

What Peter does not know is that, right now, some people who are not like him are on their way. Because a man named Cornelius had a vision. An angel said to him,

Cornelius, your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Send men to Joppa to find a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with another man named Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.

So Cornelius sent the men. And Cornelius is a gentile. And Cornelius is an outsider. And, to Peter at least, Cornelius is not one of us.

And that’s when Peter has his vision. He is praying. He is hungry. He has a vision.

Heaven opens up. A sheet comes down. It is covered with beasts and reptiles and birds. And a voice says, “Peter…kill and eat.”

And that’s a problem. Because these are not Jewish foods. Peter knows that he cannot eat them. They are profane and unclean.

And I want to be clear about this. It’s easy for us to hear this story and think that the sheet is full of cheeseburgers and bacon wrapped shrimp. And c’mon Peter… eat.

But…

On Sunday nights, Mariah and I get together with some friends and watch The Amazing Race. That’s the show where pairs of people race around the world completing challenges and trying to win a million dollars. And some of the challenges involve eating weird things. They’ve had to eat frogs and crickets and scorpions and live octopus and cow’s lips.

And if anything on that list made you cringe, that’s what Peter feels when that sheet comes down. Only he can see it. And smell it.

And it’s easy for him to say, “Eww… I’m not eating that.”

And if nothing on that list made you cringe, then I look forward to rooting for you on Sunday nights when I watch The Amazing Race.

But Peter can see it and smell it. And it’s easy for him to say, “I’m not eating that.”

And there’s this voice from heaven, and it says, “Peter, what God has made clean, you cannot call profane.” And this happens a few times. And the sheet disappears. And heaven closes. And Peter is confused.

And the men who Cornelius sent arrive.

Peter goes with them. He meets Cornelius. He delivers the good news. The Spirit falls upon these gentiles. And they are baptized into the church… this church that just a little while ago Peter knew was people like him.

Maybe not people exactly like him, but people who check a lot of the same boxes. People who check the Jewish box.

Peter’s vision is not about food. It’s about people.

It’s not just about people. It’s about the frogs of people, the crickets of people, the scorpions of people, the live octopus of people, the cow’s lips of people. And to Peter, that’s Cornelius, and his household, and you, and me.

We are here today in this church because a voice said, “Peter, what God has made clean, you cannot call profane.” We are here today in this church because Peter listened to that voice, put aside his discomfort, and welcomed Cornelius and his household into the Christian community.

We are here today in this church because Peter listened to that voice, put aside his discomfort, and welcomed Cornelius and his household into the Christian community. Click To Tweet

And 2,000 years of history can make this hard to see, but Peter did that on the hard setting.

And we are called to do that, too.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it. But we are called to reach beyond the welcome we’ve extended so far. We are called to welcome – and be welcomed by – the people who make us the most uncomfortable. The people who make us nervous when they move into our neighborhoods. The people who we cross the street from when we see them coming. The people who make us cringe when they sit in our sanctuary.

And while that is hard to do, I am not kidding about it.

Now, I need to be clear here. I am not suggesting that anyone owes hospitality to anyone who has hurt them or abused them. There are times when we have to ignore someone, when we have to turn away from someone, when we have to walk away from someone. There are times when that is the right thing to do.

But still… we are called to be daring in our hospitality.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us what we need to do to enter the Kingdom of God. He tells us what it means to believe in Christ. It means giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty and welcome to the stranger. He tells us what it means to have faith in Christ. It means clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner.

Being daring in our hospitality means doing those things when they are easy and when they are hard.

It means giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty and clothing to the naked even when we think that they might be taking advantage of us.

It means welcoming the stranger even when they are a refugee from a dangerous country or someone who came into our nation illegally.

It means caring for the sick even when they are contagious and we are afraid.

It means visiting the prisoner even when they are in prison for a heinous crime… and letting the parolee into our fellowship even when that makes us uncomfortable.

It might even mean learning new skills, crafting new policies, creating new programs, or renovating our building. It could mean coming face-to-face with the law and the courts. It certainly taking risks. It absolutely means being open to being changed.

When Peter met Cornelius, he said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.”

And when Peter preached to Cornelius and his household, he said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

Cornelius changed because of the work that God did in him. And Peter changed, too, because of the work that God did in him.

That is the work of welcome. In welcome – in extravagant welcome, in holy welcome, in divine welcome – the one who is welcomed is changed. In welcome – in extravagant welcome, in holy welcome, in divine welcome – the one who welcomes is changed.

In welcoming each other – people who are like us, people who are not like us – we welcome God and Christ and the Holy Spirit.

That is a risky thing. That is a daring thing. That is a holy thing.

May God grant us the grace to be daring in our welcome.

In welcoming each other we welcome God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. We do a risky, daring, holy thing. May God grant us the grace to be daring in our welcome. Click To Tweet

The Cost of Grace

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

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

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

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

And I cannot imagine how he did that.

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

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

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

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

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

And I cannot imagine how he did that.

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

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

Forgiveness shouldn’t be this easy.

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

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

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

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

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

Almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dragged into the Sunlight

This sermon was delivered at Peace Lutheran ELCA in Port Byron, Illinois on June 25, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1-11.

When I was little, thirty years ago or so, my family used to go to a restaurant called the Golden Gate. It was a diner kind of place, and I can remember with some fondness regularly getting what I’m sure was not-very-good chicken noodle soup and not-very-good hot dogs and not-very good crinkle cut french fries. Like so many things from childhood, it brings back good memories of things that probably weren’t as good as I think they were.

Being little, I didn’t always have good restaurant manners. And one day, I went to the bathroom and, since bathrooms have such good acoustics, I sang. There’s some debate over what I sang. I think it was Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”. My brother, I think, thinks it was Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. Either way, my brother — seven years older than me and therefore in the throes of teenage embarrassment — had to come get me. And everyone was mortified.

I hate that story. I think it’s the most embarrassing story ever in the history of the whole world.

My family loves that story. They think it’s cute. It’s the kind of story that I had to beg them not to tell people.

And I still hate it.

But I’m telling it to you for two reasons. First, I don’t live here. This is just a story that some guy filling in for your pastor is telling you. And I hope you’ll forget it sometime this afternoon.

Second, we all have stories like this. We all have stories that are the most embarrassing stories ever in the history of the whole world. And we all have stories that are worse. I have stories that are worse. We have all done things or said things or thought things that would leave the people who love us horrified.

And we don’t just have those stories as individuals. We have those stories as families, as communities, and as a nation. There are parts of our history we do not look at. They are hidden in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness. And there are parts of our present there, too.

So let me tell you another story. It isn’t a story about me, but it’s a story that is embarrassing to me; it’s a story that’s shameful for me. And it’s a story that I want you to remember.

A few years ago, a 20 year old Bangladeshi woman named Rehana Khatun went to work in a textile factory. The building she worked in hadn’t been built to handle the vibrations of hundreds of sewings machines day in and day out; and people who worked on the lower floors had noticed cracks forming in the walls. But the powerful apparel industry didn’t want building codes enforced, so they weren’t enforced. And Rehana couldn’t afford to lose her slighty-less-than-thiry-cents-an-hour, so she climbed the stairs and went to work.

And that day, the building collapsed. And Rehana was trapped under the rubble. And while she was one of the survivors, both of her legs had to be amputated. And now she can’t work.

Rehana is part of a lawsuit right now, suing a Canadian company whose supply chain went through that textile factory. Last year, a similar lawsuit against an American company was dismissed. The American company didn’t directly employ the workers who were killed or injured, so they didn’t have a ‘duty to care’.

That’s a hard story to hear. It’s embarrassing. It’s shameful. It’s sinful. But one of the reasons that so many products that we buy are so affordable is that the human costs of of producing them are paid by people like Rehana Khatun. Physically, those human costs are hidden in Bangladesh or China or Sudan. Mentally, they’re hidden in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is sending out the disciples as missionaries. He’s already told them to preach the good news, to cure the sick and raise the dead and cleanse lepers and cast out demons. He’s already told them not to take much with them. He’s already told them not to worry about what to say.
And now we’re here. “A disciple is not above the master,” he tells them, “think about what they’ve said about me; they’ll say worse about you. But don’t be afraid. For nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”

And I want to be clear: that’s a threat.

All of those things that we hide in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness are going to be dragged into the sunlight. That’s the kind of thing that sounds great when it’s about other people. I know there are people who would love to see the truth come out if it were the truth about Donald Trump or the truth about Hillary Clinton. We like to hear other people’s deep, dark, secret truths.

But it sounds a lot worse when it’s about us. It sounds worse when it’s the most embarrassing story ever in the history of the whole world. It’s a lot worse when it’s the truth about the role that we’ve played in Rehana Khatun’s life and the lives of millions — maybe even billions — of people like her.

And I’m sure that Peter and the two Jameses and Andrew and John and Philip and Bartholomew and Thomas and Matthew and Thaddeus and Simon and Judas — oh, especially Judas — all have things they would rather hide.

But more than a threat, it’s a promise. Justice happens in the light. Restoration happens in the light. Healing happens in the light.

Nothing will change as long as the stories of the people we hurt are kept safely in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness. It’s keeping those stories safely hidden that lets us continue as though nothing is wrong. It’s when we hear those stories that we can begin to act, that the world can change.

And that’s why I want you to remember Rehana Khatun’s story. It’s why I want you to remember Philando Castile’s story; killed by a police office during a routine traffic stop. It’s why I want you to remember Andrea Constand’s story; a victim of sexual assault by a well-loved celebrity. It’s why I want you to remember Lucas James’s story; a victim of the fire in Grenfell Tower in London. And I could go on.

Telling the stories of those for whom the world thought that it did not have a duty to care is part of the hard work of justice. And it is the first step on the road to healing.

But more than a promise, it’s good news.

In today’s reading from Romans, Paul writes, “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. Therefore we have been buried with him. And if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”

Or, as Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

God knows us. God knows all of the things that we keep in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness. And God loves us. God loves us just we are, with all of our baggage and all of our issues and all of our embarrassment and all of our shame. And God loves us enough to help us change.

I am no longer the little kid at the Golden Gate restaurant. We do not have to be a world where there are more Rehana Khatuns, or Philando Castiles, or Andrea Constands, or Lucas Jameses. Through Christ, we can die to sin and live for God, we can lose the life that sin demanded and live the life that Christ calls us to.

And the first step in doing that is taking those things that we have hoarded in the shadows of locked rooms in secret bunkers in the wastelands of forgetfulness, and dragging them into the sunlight, and letting them go.

And in Christ we can do just that. Even if it’s the most embarrassing story ever in the history of the whole world. Hallelujah. Amen.

Jesus the Refugee

This sermon was delivered at Union Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on January 1, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Matthew 2:13-23 and Hebrews 2:10-18.

I’m a geek.

I’m enough of a geek that, when I was traveling for work a couple of weeks ago and that latest Star Wars movie came out, I went to see what I’m pretty sure was the first showing at a theater in D’Iberville, Mississippi.

Now, I’m not going to spoil the movie for you. I’m going to tell you what anyone who follows Star Wars — and what a lot of people who don’t — already knows.

At the beginning of the original Star Wars movie, there’s a famous opening crawl: that famous yellow text floats out into space before the camera pans down to reveal a rebel spaceship running away from a much larger, much more menacing, Imperial Star Destroyer. The opening crawl sets the scene: a galactic civil war, a first victory for the rebellion, an armored space station called the Death Star, stolen plans, and so on.

It’s almost entirely unnecessary. All of the important information in the crawl is also contained in the actual movie.

But someone thought, “Let’s make a movie about the things in the opening crawl. Let’s make a movie about how the rebellion won that victory and stole those plans. Let’s have the last scene of the new movie flow seamlessly into the first scene of the original movie.”

I’m willing to bet that they also thought, “We could make a lot of money doing that.”

And it’s a good movie; it tells that story. And by telling that story, it changes the original movie. It adds depth. It adds perspective.

And I’m telling you this because Matthew is giving us an opening crawl.

You see, the nativity stories in Luke and Matthew have a problem: the prophets had declared that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but everyone knew that Jesus was from Nazareth.

Luke solves this problem through a story that you’ve heard. It is the basis for every public reading of the nativity:

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.”

Joseph takes Mary from his home in Nazareth to his ancestral home in Bethlehem to be registered, Jesus is born, they go home. Easy.

Matthew does something different. Jesus is just born in Bethlehem. There’s no comment. There’s no census. There’s no journey from Nazareth. Joseph and Mary are just there.

And to get Jospeh and Mary and Jesus to Nazareth, Matthew gives us an opening crawl.

Wise men come from the East seeking the Messiah. They’ve seen a star and they know that there is a new king of the Jews. King Herod had been given the title King of Judea by Rome and he feels threatened. He begins to plot against this child.

The wise men are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod. Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt. Herod orders his men to kill all of the children in and around Bethlehem; everyone two years old and younger. But, of course, they miss Jesus, because Jesus is in Egypt.

And, when Herod dies, Joseph and Mary and Jesus return from Egypt. But Herod’s son is ruling over Judea. So they settle in Galilee, in Nazareth.

And then Matthew skips a few years, brings in John the Baptist, and starts Jesus’ ministry.

It’s a bit of an opening crawl. You can imagine it in yellow letters floating into space before the camera pans down… probably not to a scrappy rebel spaceship. A conflict between two kings! A massacre! A family on the run! Excitement! Adventure! Wonder!

And now we’re ready for the main story.

Now, Matthew never wrote a prequel to flesh out his opening crawl. We have to imagine.

Imagine having just had your first child. You’re a new mother or a new father. You have hopes and dreams for your son. Maybe it’s been a few months or a year. You’re starting to build a nice little life as a family.

But, in the middle of the night, you get  a message. One word: run!

You start grabbing things. You can’t take everything you own, there isn’t time. You can’t take everything you can carry, you need to be fast and light. You can only take the necessities.

You run. You settle in a foreign land. You work, you pray, you start to build a life. Some of the people here are kind and they help you. Some of the people here are cruel and they tell you to go back where you came from. And you wish you could. This isn’t home.

You hear news. The ruler of your homeland is massacring children. Every child under the age of two has been killed. And while you hear people in the cafés talking about the statistic, you start seeing faces and hearing voices and recalling names. You know those parents. You know those children. You know those families.

You go to your home that isn’t home and look at your family — your family that you brought to this strange land — and you weep.

You hear news. The ruler of your homeland has died. Your home, your real home, is safer. You get up, you take what you have, and you go back to your home country. But your real home is still too dangerous, so you settle nearby. You go home… ish.

And time passes. And your son grows up. And you wonder if he remembers being a refugee. You wonder if he remembers his real home, or the foreign land, or fearing for his life.

That’s Joseph. That’s Mary. That’s Jesus.

In Matthew, Jesus wasn’t born peacefully in a manger. Shepherds didn’t come down from the hills to greet him. Angels didn’t sing him to sleep. Cows didn’t low. In Matthew, Jesus is a child of war, threatened by a king, taken for his own protection to a foreign land.

In Matthew, Jesus is a refugee.

And that matters. I don’t know if Matthew intended to, but it does. Once we flesh out that opening crawl — once we see Jesus as a refugee — it changes things. Everything that happens from here on out — all of the sayings, all of the parables, all of the healings, all of the miracles — are the acts of a refugee. Everything that happens from here on out — the last supper, the betrayal, the crucifixion, the resurrection — are the acts of someone who had to leave his home when he was a child… and never return.

“Blessed are the merciful.” The words of a refugee.

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The words of a refugee.

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” The words of a refugee.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words of a refugee.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know anything about being a refugee. I’ve never had to run from my home. I’ve never had to flee my country.

But I know this. Refugees span every walk of life.

Politicians? Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger.

Scientists? Max Born, Albert Einstein.

Writers? Joseph Conrad, Rigoberta Manchú.

There are refugees who are musicians and actors and athletes and artists and a thousand other things. They are white and black and brown and every other color. They are men and women. They are adults and children. They are just like us. But, to paraphrase Maria von Trapp — a refugee who you know from The Sound of Music — they have no home… they feel like a parcel that has been mailed and moved from place to place.

And I know this. There are a lot of refugees.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 21 million people who have had to flee their countries. In addition to that, there 38 million people who are still in their countries, but who have been forced from their homes. And in addition to that, there are millions of people who are stateless, with no country, no nation, no home.

More than half of those refugees come from just three countries: Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria. And more than two-thirds of them live in the Middle East and Africa. There are more than two-and-a-half million refugees in Turkey alone.

And there are about half a million here in America.

Jesus is a refugee. And he has tens of millions of brothers and sisters.

And, as the author of Hebrews says, he, “is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

The author of Hebrews — it’s a letter that’s often attributed to Paul, but he didn’t write it — is writing to Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem. The original audience for this letter knows persecution. They know what it’s like to be home but not home. They are not refugees from their country. But they are refugees from the Kingdom.

And they know that Jesus is not ashamed of them. They know that Christ had to become just like them. They know that Jesus has suffered like them. They know that Christ is among them.

Later, Matthew will write that we find Christ among the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. We know that Christ became like them, that Jesus has suffered like them, that Christ is among them.

Christ is the stranger. Jesus is a refugee.

And we have faith that we, too, are refugees; that we are strangers in a strange land; that we are home and not home; that we are in the world, but not of it; that we are refugees from the Kingdom.

We have faith that we can look to our brother Jesus who became like us and suffered like us and fled his home when he was a child, and he is not ashamed of us.

We have faith that we can look at our brothers and sisters from Somalia and Afghanistan and Syria and every corner of the earth — the refugees, the displaced, the stateless — and know that they are not ashamed of us. And we are not ashamed of them.

We have faith. And because of that faith we can welcome the stranger and the refugee with open arms. For we know that they are Christ.

Because Jesus was a refugee.

Hallelujah. Amen.

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