Monday, March 19, 2018

Sermon, "Elijah in the Wilderness," 1 Kings 19:1-16

Sermon 3/16/18
1 Kings 19:1-16

Elijah in the Wilderness

            Today, in our last Sunday of Lent before we begin our Holy Week journey, we turn our attention to the prophet Elijah and his time in the wilderness. Elijah is kind of an enigmatic figure in the Bible. We don’t know very much about him. He just sort of starts appearing in the story in the midst of 1 Kings, ready to take on Ahab, King of Israel. Ahab is leading Israel astray. In fact, in Chapter 16 of 1 Kings we read that “Ahab … did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him,” which is saying something, since the books of Kings recount a long line of kings who didn’t follow God. Ahab marries Jezebel, a daughter of a neighboring king and a priestess of Baal. And Ahab, too, begins to serve Baal, the idol-god of area Canaanite religion. He worships Baal and builds an altar for Baal and all of this, we read, kindles God’s anger at Ahab more than God had ever been angry at all the kings before him.
And then, Elijah appears on the scene. Unlike some of the other prophets of the Bible, there is no book of Elijah. We don’t have any of his writings. But it is Elijah to whom Jesus and others refer, along with Moses, to symbolize the law and the prophets. His place in Israel’s history is hugely significant, even though he appears for just these few brief chapters in 1 Kings. Jezebel has been having prophets of God killed. She’s basically seeking to execute any prophets of God who speak against her, Ahab, their god Baal, and the prophets of Baal. So Elijah sets up a confrontation – Elijah verses hundreds of prophets of Baal. Through a series of tests, Elijah shows that Baal is false and his prophets are false while God is ever faithful. The people fall to their knees, worshiping God, and Elijah seizes all the prophets of Baal and has them killed. When Ahab tells Jezebel what happened, she seeks to capture and kill Elijah.
That’s where our scene for today begins. Elijah is afraid, and he’s on the run, fearing for his life. He journeys into the wilderness and sits under a solitary tree. He asks God to let him die. Tired, hungry, dehydrated, he falls asleep. But a messenger of God touches him and wakes him saying, “Get up and eat.” Elijah sees food and water prepared for him. He eats, and sleeps again. The scene is repeated, with the messenger telling Elijah, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He eats and drinks again, and he’s given strength for his forty -day journey to the mount of God. He spends the night in a cave, and God’s voice comes to him, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” God replies, “Go out and stand on the mountain, for God is about to pass by.” There’s a great wind. But God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake. But God is not in the earthquake. Then a fire. But God is not in the fire. And then the sound of sheer silence. Elijah steps out from the cave, and God asks again, “What are you doing, Elijah?” Elijah repeats his complaint. And God tells him to go and anoint a new king. God tells Elijah that Elijah will anoint his successor, a new prophet, Elisha, to follow in his place, and that there will still be seven thousand Israelites who have not worshipped Baal, but instead remain faithful to God.
If our scripture today reminds you of some of the other texts we’ve been studying this Lent, that’s good – it should! Like Hagar, Elijah is fleeing from danger. Like Hagar, and like Jonah, who we talked about at our midweek Lenten study this week, Elijah ends up sitting under a tree, forlorn, feeling pretty sorry for himself. Like Moses, Elijah has been trying to lead people and be faithful to God and ends up feeling overwhelmed. Like Moses, Elijah heads to a mountain in the wilderness when he is seeking a word from God in the midst of his turmoil. In fact, it is the very same mountain, although we hear it called by different names. Elijah’s Mount Horeb and Moses’ Mount Sinai are one and the same. And for both Moses and Elijah, the mountain in the wilderness is a place where they encounter God, and find strength for the journey. Just as for Moses, the strength Elijah receives comes in the presence of God revealed. For Moses, he got to look on God’s back, to see where God had passed by. For Elijah, God comes in the silence.
            Last week, when we celebrated the life of Lucy Brassard, her family asked that we include a period of silence during the burial. I’d never had anyone ask me for that before, but Lucy’s son Matt explained that having silent time with God was an important part of Lucy’s spiritual life. So as we laid Lucy to rest, we spent some time in silence, taking a break from words, quieting our spirits. I still remember with crisp clarity the power of God-filled silence I experienced one year at Camp Aldersgate. My youth group had gone to Aldersgate for a winter retreat weekend. It was a sunny day, and the whole camp was blanketed in snow. Our youth group, junior and senior high kids, we’d all gone for a walk in the woods behind one of the sections of cabins. My friends were goofing around, but I walked just a little farther, to a small boat launch on Brantingham Lake. The Lake was frozen over, covered in snow like everything else, and the sun was shining on the snow. And the silence was palpable. I felt God’s presence deeply, in the silence. I don’t remember a particular message from God, but I remember being filled with a sense of peace that I carried with me.
            I sometimes long for that peaceful, God-filled silence. Early in my adult life, I developed a kind of tinnitus called pulsatile tinnitus. It’s when you hear a pulsing that seems to match your heartbeat in your ear. It is most noticeable at night, when everything is quiet, and suddenly the pulsing seems very, very loud. When it first started, my doctor had me go through all sorts of tests to rule out possible causes, and everything checked out. My hearing was fine, my blood was flowing fine, my brain was fine! Sometimes that happens with tinnitus. No identifiable cause. The solution was pretty simple: Nighttime is usually the only time that the pulsing bothers me, and so now, for years, I always sleep with a fan on. But I really miss being able to enjoy deep silence. It makes my heart a little sad to need some kind of noise. And it feels like a great big metaphor for our world, our lives, our society. It isn’t always easy to do: just be silent. Silence is powerful, and it can make us uncomfortable.
            It’s like we can’t function without noise. Like we have to have a constant stream of chatter coming at us otherwise we’ll be left alone with our own thoughts, and we just can’t handle that. I wonder if we can hear God in the midst of the noise. People sometimes lament that God is silent, but Elijah’s experience tells us that God is sometimes speaking in the silence. But if we cover up the silence with our own noise, how will we hear? Part of the reason why we need wilderness time, why we have to intentionally take our spirits to risky, vulnerable places is so that we can find a space for God-laden silence.
            Elijah makes his complaint to God twice. He says both before and after God’s revealing in the sheer silence: “I have been very zealous for you God, very passionate in my service to you. The Israelites have all turned away from you, and killed your prophets. And I’m the only prophet left, and they want to kill me too.” And from the silence, God answers Elijah. We hear the first part of God’s response in our reading today, but the sum of it is basically this: God says, “You don’t have it quite right, Elijah. There are in fact still thousands of faithful Israelites, who have never worshiped other Gods. And also, you aren’t the only prophet. There is a prophet named Elisha that you will name as the prophet in your place. And also, I still have work for you to do. Go, and appoint a new king in the place of Ahab.” I really love God’s response, and all the things God manages to say in a few short sentences. God lets Elijah know that in his fear, he’s not seeing things quite clearly. The situation seems completely bleak to Elijah, but God knows that it is not. God also doesn’t let Elijah off the hook. Even though Elijah says he’s done, God says, “Yes, but I’m not done with you.” And God reminds Elijah that he is not alone. I think this is both an encouragement to Elijah and a gentle chastisement. Sometimes when we’re trying so hard to follow God, and we feel discouraged and face setbacks, we become convinced that we are the only ones who are trying to do what is right in God’s eyes. God reminds Elijah, and reminds us, that there are others – both Israelites, and prophets like Elisha, who serve God too. Elijah isn’t alone, and if he can remember that, he won’t feel like he has nowhere left to turn, no hope. Elijah isn’t the only one in the wilderness. Neither are we.
I’ve mentioned before that I took a sabbatical year from pastoral ministry. Pastors are able to take time away from an appointment to a local church periodically for study, renewal, training, and reflection. I was finishing up a particularly challenging appointment to a local church, and I decided to apply for a sabbatical year. The thought of immediately heading to a new congregation to be the pastor, connecting to a new congregation, mustering the energy it would take to start fresh – it was overwhelming. I couldn’t do it. So I applied for a sabbatical year, intending to do some research, and explore the themes of charity and justice that are so important to me. But I will confess: I didn’t think I’d go back to a local church, to being a church pastor, after my year off. I felt like I had been worn down to nothing. I felt like I had nothing left to give as a pastor. I felt for the first time like maybe I was no longer called to ministry, or like the season of my call had ended. I’d had tough times before, but I’d never felt like that: like I was done being a pastor. But that’s how I was feeling when I applied for sabbatical. I don’t want to be overdramatic: everywhere I’ve served I’ve been blessed by wonderful parishioners. But something about this appointment just seemed to drain me emotionally, spiritually, and physically, and I felt done. And I tried, really hard, with a lot of energy and dedication in the year that followed, to figure out a different way to serve God with my life other than being a pastor.
            But the answer I got from God? Nope: You can serve me by being a pastor, just like I said. While I was on sabbatical, I kept serving as a pastor, which seems a little crazy. But I served there quarter time – just enough time to preach and do some pastoral care, really. But enough time to never really stop being a pastor. And in that time, that time when I insisted I didn’t have it in me to be a pastor anymore, God reminded me that I’d never stopped being one, and that my call was still my call, and that God wasn’t done with me yet. God set me in a congregation that I couldn’t help but grow to love, and I found myself as part of a meaningful covenant group of pastors who strengthened and encouraged me. God built up my spirit again during that time when I had a different rhythm of life and ministry, and helped me emerge from the wilderness refreshed and restored. God wasn’t done, I wasn’t done, and God had not left me alone. 
            Elijah says he’s done with being a prophet. Done, in fact, with living in the world altogether if it is a world where he’s going to be hunted down by angry rulers. But God comes to Elijah in the wilderness, not without compassion, but nonetheless, what God basically tells Elijah is: “Nope, you’re not done. But I will give you some bread for the journey, some life, some hope, so that you can make it through. And so Elijah finds himself with a full stomach, with a plan of action, with another prophet in Elisha who will become like a son to him, and with hope for the future.
            When have you felt “done”? Maybe you feel like that right now! Like you can’t possibly continue on from here. Like everything hard that has come your way is just too much. I do believe that sometimes God is leading us in new directions, leading us to new things. But I promise this: God is not done with you, and God is not done with the work, the call, the mission, the journey that God has for you. So, get up and eat! Nourish your spirit, or the journey will be too much. Make sure you are letting God feed your soul. Make sure you aren’t ignoring what God sets before you to strengthen you. From the silence, God is speaking to you. Amen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Sung Communion Liturgy for Easter Sunday

Sung Communion Liturgy for Easter Sunday
(Tune: REGENT SQUARE (Suggested: “Easter People, Raise Your Voices,” UMH 304))

At the table, Easter people
Gather now, let voices ring
Lift your hearts to God, Creator
Lift your hearts, and praises bring.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Resurrection people, sing!

In God’s image, we’re created
Called to life from breath and dust.
Yet we turn from God, who loves us,
Building walls and breaking trust
God, forgive us! God forgive us! Holy God, deliver us!

Through the ages, God pursued us,
Calling us through prophets bold
Yet we would not heed the message
Or believe the truth they told
God, Hosanna! We, your people, in your mercy now enfold!

In the right time God sent Jesus
God-made-flesh, God face-to-face
Showing us the ways of justice
Healing, preaching, teaching faith
Sing Hosanna! Sing Hosanna! Jesus, Savior, Gift of Grace!

With disciples he shared supper
Cup of life and living bread
Symbols of his body, broken
Signs of his redeeming love
We remember! We remember! Grace and mercy we are fed. 

Pour on us your Holy Spirit,
We, your people gathered here.
Take these gifts of bread and cup now
Make them be as Christ for us
We, your people, we, your people
with the world Christ’s body share!

Let us live as Easter people
Bound no more by death and fear
We are children of God’s kin-dom
God’s redemption time is here
Now we gather, now we gather, gather for this holy meal!


Prayer after Communion:

Blessed, Forgiven, God, we thank you
For this Holy Mystery
Send us forth to love and serve you,
With your eyes the world to see.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Easter people we will be!  

Text: Beth Quick, 2017.

Creative Commons License
A Sung Communion Liturgy for Easter Sunday by Rev. Dr. Beth Quick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Book Review: Unafraid by Adam Hamilton

I received an advance copy of Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in the Wilderness in Uncertain Times to review, the latest book by Adam Hamilton, which comes out later this week. Hamilton is pastor of the Church of the Resurrection, the largest United Methodist Church in the United States. This book is published by Penguin Random House. Not positive this is a first, but I think it is, and probably marks an effort to draw a wider audience for his work. 

If you are familiar with Hamilton's other books, you will find Unafraid to have a similar accessible feel. Chapters are short, they contain many personal stories and illustrations, and the book emerges from a sermon series Hamilton preached at his church. It is longer and more in depth than many of his other works, and in terms of style and depth of research, I'd compare it with his earlier Making Sense of the Bible. Paired with his new publisher, Hamilton also makes a clear attempt to reach a wider audience with this work. The book is clearly grounded in his Christian identity, but comments throughout the book are addressed to those who might not start from the same perspective. 

Fear is "False Events Appearing Real," Hamilton quotes from a familiar proverb. (26) Hamilton proposes we respond to fear when we "Face [our] fears with faith, Examine [our] assumptions in light of the facts, Attack [our] anxieties with action, [and] Release [our] care to God." (27) He returns to this acronym throughout the book, sometimes highlighting one particular part of the saying depending on the kind of fear he's addressing. 

Chapters cover subjects like why we fear and why fear is useful, looking at real statistics about crime, terrorism, and illness to help relieve our fears, and how sometimes fear is cultivated in order to hurt and divide. He addresses, chapter by chapter, some of the most common fears. Chapters are devoted to fear of of the other, fear of terrorism, fear of failure, fear of being alone, fear of missing out, fear of a meaningless life, fears related to the future, financial fear, fear of aging, fear of illness, and fear of death. 

Any one of these chapters could be expanded. The book covers a little of everything, which is also one of its challenges. We get as in depth (or not in depth) with fear of the other as we do with fear of missing out, and although the length worked for me on most chapters, I found myself wishing Hamilton dug deeper on what I think are some of the more critical challenges we face as a whole community. Our fear of others can be dangerous, and the ways our fears and privilege intersect needs addressing. What does it mean when people who are in power are also full of fear, and have the power to act on those fears? With mostly equal weight given to all these different themes, it's hard to get into those deep conversations. 

Still, this is easily a resource I could use in my congregation, because I know people are feeling very afraid of so many things they're encountering in our ever-changing world. Hamilton's work is engaging and strikes me as a great conversation starter for communities and groups who want to find a way to talk about something as uncomfortable as what we're afraid of. 

I'll leave you with my favorite sentence: "So many of us live our entire lives paralyzed by fear, just a mile from the Promised Land." (21) Yes. How can you move beyond fear to the places where God is leading? This book provides a solid starting point. 

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, "Israel in the Wilderness," Exodus 16:1-30

Sermon 3/4/18
Exodus 16:1-30

Israel in the Wilderness

         We’ve talked about how Jesus’ time in the wilderness, where he confronts temptations that would take him away from God’s vision for the redemption of the world, where he goes having just been reminded of his identity as God beloved’s child, Jesus’s time in the wilderness is our model for wilderness time, and a major model for the season of Lent. We seek to go to the wilderness because Jesus does. But the other primary wilderness story in the scriptures is the story of Israel in the wilderness. God’s whole people, the Israelites, spent forty years in the wilderness as they journeyed between Egypt and the Promised Land. Through a strange series of events, the Israelites had become slaves of the Pharaoh in Egypt. They were the workforce in Egypt, and the Pharaoh was cruel to them – demanding more and more work, and eventually instructing that male Israelite babies should be killed at birth, because he was frightened they would take over and rebel against the Egyptians. God called Moses, and his brother Aaron, to lead the Israelites to freedom, to a Promised Land, a place the Israelites could make their home. Moses manages to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, out of a life of slavery and oppression. And you’d think from there it would be: “And they all lived happily ever after.” But no. Again, for a variety of reasons, the Israelites don’t march straight from Egypt to the Promised Land. Instead, they spend 40 years in the wilderness, learning from God, becoming a people, preparing for their new life. This is the other primary story that grounds our Lenten season. In Judaism, the Exodus, Moses leading the people to freedom at God’s direction, is one of the main stories that shapes Jewish identity. This week and next, we’ll spend some time with this story, today looking at a text near the beginning of their journey through the wilderness, and next week hearing more about Moses toward the later part of the journey.
            Some important things happen before we arrive at our text today. Back while they’re still in Egypt, God gives the Israelites instructions on how to leave, and not only that, but while they are still in Egypt, God already gives them instructions for how every year going forward they are to have a Passover celebration to remember how God led them to freedom. Before they even leave, God is helping them to make plans to remember what they’re about to do. That should tell us something: God knows they are going to need to be reminded. They’re going to forget, something that probably seems impossible in the moment when they can almost taste their freedom. They’re going to forget how much they longed to be free. And so before they even leave, God prepares a ritual that will help them remember who they are, where they came from, and how God has been with them.
In fact, they forget almost immediately. The Israelites prepare to cross the Red Sea, escaping Egypt, with the Pharaoh and his armies chasing after them. The threat of being caught is imminent, and the Israelites are in a panic. They’re still mid-escape. They complain bitterly to Moses, saying, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But then God led the way and Moses brought the people through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and Pharaoh and his armies were defeated, and they were free.
            Fast-forward two chapters to our text for today. The Israelites are now in month 2 of what we know will be a 40 year period in the wilderness. That’s .4% of the total time they will be spending in the wilderness. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for a long time – hundreds of years, in fact, according to the scriptures. And after just about 45 days of freedom and this new life, after hundreds of years as slaves, the people are complaining again. The people apparently are ready to go back and be slaves, now remembering their life in Egypt as “not so bad” after all. The Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Fleshpots, by the way, are places of luxury and unrestrained living. This is how they now describe their lives as slaves, 45 days later. It would be laughable if it weren’t so very sad.
            As a reader, I can’t help but think, “You have got to be kidding me! You ungrateful, complaining, miserable people! How can you have forgotten that you were slaves? How can you have forgotten that your children were being slaughtered? How can you have forgotten the relentless work that kept increasing and increasing? And how can you not believe that the God who brought you safely from Egypt will also be faithful to the rest of the promises made to you?” Perhaps you, like me, want to give the readers a bit of a good shake.
            But I wonder. I wonder if we are so different than the Israelites. I think, like them, we often think that the misery we know is better than the unknown future. Our fear and anxiety about what is yet to come, or our knowledge about the hard work that waits ahead of us can even cause us to reflect on our past with distorted vision, forgetting about the painful situations that we were trying to escape, forgetting about the injustice and hurt we suffered, remembering only the good moments. This kind of thinking – fear of the unknown future, and trying to forget what we’re escaping in the past – is part of the thinking that keeps people trapped in abusive relationships, or caught up in cycles of addiction. The road of healing, the road of recovery can seem like an endless wilderness, and maybe things weren’t really so bad before.
But thinking this way, acting this way, like we’d rather face the misery than the unknown isn’t limited to more extreme situations. I think about a friend in ministry who’d been serving a church for several years, and things were deteriorating. She loved her congregation, they loved her. But they had reached a point where she couldn’t lead them to the next step as a congregation. And people were starting to resist her leadership, resist her pushing them. She felt strongly it was time for a change – for her, and for them, so they could both thrive. She asked for a new appointment, and received one, a church that seemed like it would be a great fit, a congregation that was seeking just the leadership gifts she could bring. But the new appointment meant a big move for her, and a lot of changes for her family, and suddenly, she was heartbroken that she would be leaving her congregation. Suddenly, she felt like she was being torn away from the place she loved. And she did love her congregation. But I had to remind her that she had known for some time now that a move was right for them and her. I had to remind her that this was what she wanted, and that God was at work in her life and was bringing her to a new part of her ministry. It was a painful time of transition. And I can tell you, when she left her own church and started her new appointment, it was not immediate by any means that she started to feel like God had brought her to the right place, that she wasn’t looking back over her shoulder at the congregation and community she’d left. It was a lot of hard work, the transition. But eventually, eventually, she put down roots in her new home, and grew in her new ministry setting, and found a place where she could envision her life as a disciple unfolding for a long time to come.
            This week I was texting with Danielle Atria. I’m pretty sure the praise will embarrass her, but I have to tell you that Danielle takes her faith seriously, and she reads the Bible regularly, and often texts with questions about what she’s reading. I love her dedication to learning and growing in faith. After a chat this week, she sent me a little saying from an app she has that has inspiring quotes which said, “You dishonor your future when you build an altar to your past.” We often don’t know where God is leading us when we commit to being disciples of Jesus Christ. But our future with God is always better than an altar that ties us to anything else: painful pasts, or beloved pasts. What past are you trying to hold onto? What is it that you fear about the future toward which God is leading you?  
            God answers even the unwarranted complaints of the Israelites. God rains bread from heaven, a substance the Israelites call “manna,” which means, appropriately, “What is it?” What it is is a gift from God in the wilderness, reminding them that even though they’re not sure what is going to happen next, their journey with God is where they belong, not back as slaves in Egypt. The people immediately try to store it up, still anxious, still planning for a future where they are alone and abandoned, but it won’t keep. It spoils if they try to store it up. It’s just for the day. The must learn to depend on God, and the daily manna is a sign that God plans to be with them today and every day. They can trust in God. And so can we.
            A dozen years ago, retired Bishop Judy Craig was our guest preacher at Annual Conference. It was the year I was ordained – a special year for me. She is a dynamic preacher, a prophet, and I was blessed that she, along with our Bishop Violet Fisher laid hands on me at my ordination. Bishop Craig preached on this text that year. She said “God who led them also fed them.” But, she said, being fed by God is something we need daily. Being fed by God isn’t something that “keeps.” Being fed by God isn’t something you can put into canning jars and store up for later. “What we need today is not for tomorrow,” she said. That’s one of the reasons we’ve focused so much on the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving this Lent. They’re practices for each day, opportunities for God to be our daily bread. In the midst of this unmapped wilderness, this place where God is leading us, where so much is unknown, and where our fear can lead us to long for the past, or to store up whatever we have in front of us, this is known: God is with us in the wilderness. Our future belongs to God. And God will feed our spirit day by day if we keep coming back, ready to receive what God wants to give. The God who leads us also feeds us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, "Hagar in the Wilderness," Genesis 16:1-15

Sermon 2/23/18
Genesis 16:1-15

Hagar in the Wilderness

            Today, as we journey through the wilderness in this season of Lent, we’re taking a look at the story of Hagar in the book of Genesis. It’s really important to me to include women’s voices from the Bible when I’m preaching or teaching. There are so many fewer stories of women, even names of women included in the Bible, and I want to make sure we know these stories, and know that women are created in God’s image too, and that women are called by God, used as God’s messengers too. So I wanted to make sure to include the story of a woman in our wilderness series this Lent. But the choices are fairly limited, and Hagar’s wilderness experience is the only real stand-alone kind of narrative of a woman that we have in the Bible. I’ll be honest: I feel like we just talked about Hagar. We looked at Hagar’s story this past summer, during our Women in the Bible series. We heard about Hagar and Sarah, and how God was at work in each of their lives. That was about six months ago, and since I know you all listen to and remember everything I say and every sermon I preach(!), I was hesitant to return to Hagar’s story again so soon.
            But of course, the Bible is the living word of God, a living document, a living story that unfolds for us with new ways of understanding every time we come to it. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find new insights as I came to Hagar’s story again today. I shouldn’t be surprised that I felt like I was reading or at least hearing some of the verses for the very first time. So, I invite you to listen with me, maybe again, or maybe for the first time, as we hear Hagar’s story.
            Our text begins by telling us that Sarai and Abram have no children. This is significant because chapters earlier, God had promised them that through Abram’s descendants, they would become a great nation, with more descendants than stars. And after the promise, a lot of nothing happened in the way of getting started on that family. Sarai is impatient. She takes matters into her own hands. One Bible I looked at online titled this whole section “Beware of Shortcuts.” Sarai gives Abram her slave-girl Hagar and says to Abram, “I’ll get my children from you using her.” Hagar doesn’t get an opinion in this. Abram has sex with her, and Hagar conceives a child. What Sarai does was legal, part of law code of the day, and the clear understanding was that any children born this way would be children of the wife, not the slave. Hagar’s child would really be Sarai’s child, legally. So when Hagar starts to “look with contempt on her mistress” Sarai, as the text tells us, we’re given the impression that Hagar has lost sight of the fact that child she’s carrying isn’t going to change her status as slave at all. In response to her attitude, Sarai started to “deal harshly” with her. We don’t know what this means specifically, but Sarai has all the power in this situation, and apparently things are bad enough that it drives Hagar to drastic action. She runs away, into the wilderness. Her direction is right to be trying to head back to Egypt, but the distance is daunting – a few hundred miles at least. Hagar is everything vulnerable: a woman, a slave, pregnant, and in a region where everyone is of a different race, religion, accent, and cultural tradition than she is. Going to the wilderness is heading into an extremely dangerous place. But suddenly, for Hagar, that’s the better choice than staying where she is.    
            Don Schuessler and I were talking this week about this whole concept of wilderness and what it means to our Lenten journey and how difficult it can be to get our heads around. On Ash Wednesday, I mentioned how “wilderness” in the Bible refers mostly to the desert – a barren, dry, rocky place, while I always grew up with an image of a wild, overgrown forest in my head when I thought of wilderness. Still both kinds of wilderness – desert and forest – can be vulnerable, risky, dangerous places, especially when we find ourselves there alone, maybe lost. Last week we talked about how Jesus is our best model for wilderness time: he goes there intentionally, compelled by the Spirit to confront anything that could distract him from God’s plan to change the world through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. That’s what we are called to as well: to enter the wilderness with open eyes and open hearts, ready to grow in faith as we turn from anything that distances us from God.
            But rarely do Biblical figures end up in the wilderness in this way. More often they arrive in the wilderness because the dangerous wilderness suddenly seems like the lesser of two evils when compared with some desperate situation the person is encountering in the supposedly civilized world. A couple of examples from popular literature come to mind. In the Lord of the Rings series, books and movies, hobbits Merry and Pippin have heard stories about how dangerous Fangorn Forest is, a dark, overgrown place where the trees themselves seem to wish people harm. But, Merry and Pippin have been captured by Orcs, servants of the evil Saruman who will likely put them to death. Suddenly, the dark forest looks like a refuge, a place of safety, compared to the evil Merry and Pippin have encountered elsewhere. They flee to the forest, where they encounter rescuers who keep them safe and conquer their enemies. We find something similar in the Harry Potter series. At the edge of the Hogwarts campus, the school where the children go to hone their skills with magic, we find the Forbidden Forest. Teachers constantly warn students of the dangers of the Forbidden Forest. But more than once in the series Harry and his friends find that the Forbidden Forest is their best alternative, and they find help in the forest when they’re on the run from danger at Hogwarts.
            Hagar runs to a place that is extremely dangerous for her, but she only goes there when it seems that her alternative is unbearable. She can’t stand it anymore, where she is, how she’s been treated, the role that she seems to have. She can’t do it anymore. And so she runs to a place that would otherwise seem like anything but a place of refuge. Remember, last week we talked about how it is Jesus’s time in the wilderness that is our model for Lent. He goes to the wilderness with intention, with purpose, expecting transformation, boldly confronting Satan, not because he’s on the run and has no other place to go.
I hope, in Lent, we can boldly go into the wilderness too. But I suspect, sometimes we only get to that vulnerable place when we feel like we have nowhere else left to go. We talked about one of our tasks in Lent being confronting anything that is an obstacle in our relationship with God and removing it from our lives. I believe that we usually know what these obstacles are. We know what keeps us from giving our whole selves to God because they’re often things we’ve put there ourselves, things that we’re attached to, ways we spend our times, habits we’ve formed over time, plans we have that are most definitely our plans and not God’s plans, dreams we have of our own greatness that have nothing to do with serving God and neighbor, or ways that we numb ourselves from feeling the challenges of the world around us. We know all too well what we’ll have to reckon with if we end up in the wilderness, and so we avoid it like it’s the scary Forbidden Forest. What would it take for us to realize that we’re better off facing the wilderness than not?         
My favorite musician is folk singer Tracy Chapman. One of her most compelling songs, I think, is called “Change.” In it, she asks a series of questions, wondering what would push us to actually change our lives. She asks: “If you saw the face of God and love would you change? How many losses, how much regret? What chain reaction, what cause and effect makes you turn around, makes you try to explain, makes you forgive and forget, makes you change?” And then, my favorite line, “If everything you think you know makes your life unbearable, would you change?” What will it take for us to go the wilderness where change is inevitable? If, finally, things are unbearable, would that do it? Do we have to wait until our lives are intolerable otherwise to confront what we find in the wilderness?
When Hagar gets to the wilderness, she is found by a messenger from God. Hagar tells the angel she is running away, but God, through the angel, tells her that for now, Hagar needs to go back to Sarai and deal with her. She’s sent back to her life as a slave: hard words to hear. But that’s not all the angel says. The angel says she Hagar, too, is part of God’s promise. The same promise that God gave to Abram, God gives to Hagar. Her offspring will be more than a multitude. The angel tells to name her son Ishmael, which means “God listens.” Ishmael will be no ordinary man, the angel says. Things won’t be easy for him. But in him, Hagar has a future. Freedom seems imminent. Hagar, an Egyptian slave girl, has a place in God’s story. And then finally comes the verse that knocked me off my feet as I read this text again: Hagar names God. We read, “So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”” Wow. Naming is usually the other way around in the Bible. God names us. Or God tells us what name to call God. But Hagar can’t help but name the one who has saved her: El-roi – the God who sees me. Hagar knows that God has really seen her – in the wilderness, and back with Sarai and Abram – God really sees her, even her. Knowing that makes all the difference. Her life is changed.
Hagar’s story isn’t done. Spoilers alert if you can’t remember from summer: She ends up in the wilderness again, this time with her young child. And this time she won’t be going back to life with Sarah and Abraham, but instead living into the very promise God describes to her here, a future beyond what she had hoped for. What will it take, friends, to get us into the wilderness? We serve the God who listens, the God who sees, who sees what we’re facing now, who sees what we have to confront in the wilderness too, and who has a vision of what might be for us once we finally get there. Let’s not wait. We’ve seen enough stories. We know this plot. And so we know that God will be with us in the wilderness, a place that isn’t our ending, but a new beginning, a place of change. Let’s go see this God who sees us so well already. Amen.  

Monday, February 19, 2018

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent, Year B, "Jesus in the Wilderness," Mark 1:1-4, 9-15

Sermon 2/18/18
Mark 1:1-4, 9-15

Jesus in the Wilderness

            You’ve heard me say before that the gospel of Mark is my favorite gospel. Part of the reason I love it is because of Mark’s brevity. I don’t love that he’s short on details, exactly. I love that he seems practically breathless in getting the good news of Jesus to us, and that he seems to believe that the news is so good it isn’t even going to take very many words to convince you of his message! His frantic style strikes me as showing both how important and how convincing he believes Jesus’s message to be.
            But, then we arrive at a Sunday like today, and I find myself a little frustrated perhaps, or at least a little challenged by Mark. In the lectionary, the series of the first Sunday in the season of Lent always focuses on the temptation of Jesus – his time in the wilderness, where he confronts Satan, and commits to God’s path rather than the flashy alternative Satan presents. This is the focus for the first Sunday in Lent because it one of the major texts that provides the basis of our Lenten season of 40 days. We, like Jesus, are called to spend 40 days in deep spiritual reflection, because we are preparing to journey with Jesus, following as closely as we can as he draws ever nearer to the cross.
            The problem? Mark gives us literally two sentences about Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” That’s it. To make our whole gospel for today, we include the beginning of Mark’s gospel, Jesus’s baptism, to which Mark devotes a whopping three sentences, and the beginning of Jesus’s teaching and preaching: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” But the actual focus of today? Two sentences. Matthew and Luke tell us lots of details about Jesus’s conversation with Satan. But not Mark. We don’t get details from Mark. He thought he shared with us everything we needed to know about Jesus in the wilderness. And indeed, for the earliest Christians, before what we call the New Testament had taken shape as one cohesive collection, new followers of Jesus likely would only have access to one account of Jesus’s life. Mark is the oldest of the four gospels, the first written. So today, even though we could look at other versions of the temptation, I want us to stick with Mark. He believed he was telling us all we needed to know. So what can we learn from Mark’s breathless account? 
            First, we look before the short account of Jesus in the wilderness. Mark starts his gospel quoting Isaiah, who writes about a messenger who will prepare the way of God. Isaiah describes this messenger as a voice that will cry out from the wilderness, and the gospel writers agree that they see John the Baptist as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s words. John the Baptist appears on the scene to start baptizing people and preparing them for Jesus’ arrival, calling them to repent and receive forgiveness. And where does he appear? “In the wilderness,” of course. Jesus is coming, and the news of his arrival is coming from the wilderness. This makes sense, because for the Jewish people, their most significant identity story comes from the story of the Exodus, the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. And to get to the Promised Land, the Israelites spend forty years in the wilderness. So John’s arrival, God’s voice emerging from the wilderness – this ties in with the story of the Jewish people. They already know that important stuff happens in the wilderness, that God tries to get our attention when we’re in the wilderness.
            Jesus, like many others, comes to be baptized by John. When he’s baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, and God speaks to him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus gets this irrefutable affirmation of his identity right at the start of his ministry. And it is grounded with that affirmation, secure in that knowledge that the very same Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus is gently led. Like Mark’s own tone, the Spirit’s action is urgent and demanding.
            After Jesus’s time in the wilderness, we immediately hear that he begins preaching in Galilee. His message, the good news, is short and clear. Jesus is ready. He is clear about his purpose. He gets right to work. He seems to have the kind of urgency that Mark conveys. The time is here. God’s reign on earth is here already, and at the same time drawing ever closer. Repent, turn your life around, and believe this fantastic message of grace. 
            As I shared with folks on Ash Wednesday, this Lent, we’ll be talking all season about what it means to be in the wilderness. And we’ll hear stories from throughout the scriptures of people who spent time in the wilderness. They ended up there for a variety of reasons: sometimes lost, sometimes desperate, sometimes with a plan, sometimes with no idea what they were doing. But today, as we think about Jesus in the wilderness, we see someone who enters the wilderness with a clear sense of who he is, and someone who leaves the wilderness having confronted temptation, and come out ready to live out his purpose.
Of course, it is Jesus’s wilderness time that is our true model. In the season of Lent, we go into the wilderness on purpose. The same Holy Spirit that just reminded Jesus of his identity as God’s beloved child at his baptism is also the Spirit that leads him to the wilderness. In Lent, heading to the wilderness is an on-purpose, on-God’s-purpose thing. It’s not an accidental thing, one of the times in our lives where we’re in the wilderness because we’re lost, or in the wilderness because things are falling apart. God finds us in those wilderness times too, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. In Lent, we head for the wilderness on purpose, because it is part of the way of Jesus, part of our path of discipleship. In Lent, we set out for the wilderness intentionally, because we choose to confront anything that seeks to separate us from God, anything that ends up being an obstacle between us and God. In Lent, we set out for the wilderness intentionally, because we recognize that being in the wilderness puts us in that vulnerable, risky, open place where it might be easier to hear God’s voice, might be easier to listen to what God is saying, might be easier to answer God’s call. In Lent, we set out for the wilderness, expecting that we can emerge from our time with a clarity of purpose, refocused, ready to lives as disciples, live as Jesus lives, loving God and neighbor with all our hearts.
The Lenten practices in which many people choose to engage in this season are meant to help us with just these tasks in our purposeful wilderness travels. In Lent, we are called to take up the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving. In prayer, we seek to grow closer to God, to listen for God’s voice and God’s direction. We can practice the discipline of prayer through worship, through studying the scriptures, through individual prayer and praying together with others. In fasting, taking an intentional break from something, we are seeking to remove from our lives anything that keeps our minds off of God, anything that would keep us from meeting God in the wilderness. This is where we confront, in the wilderness, whatever prevents us from giving our whole hearts to God. We can practice the discipline of fasting by removing a meal, or a particular food or type of food or drink from our diets for a period of time. Or we can take a break from unnecessary spending. That’s a discipline I’ve engaged in periodically, and have been alarmed to realize how many times a day I think about buying something. Many find it helpful to tune our hearts to God by fasting from electronics, from social media, or from television. In giving, we seek to demonstrate our love for God with our actions, loving others as God does through acts of service. We can engage in a discipline of Giving by giving our time, by giving our money, and by giving our hearts to God and neighbor. I hope you will consider engaging in a spiritual discipline this Lent. These aren’t New Year’s Resolutions. It doesn’t matter if you start late, or have to regroup and refocus. The purpose of Lenten disciplines, these tools for our wilderness journey, is to draw us closer to God, and give us strength and grounding in God that helps us confront anything that conflicts with our purpose.
Remember, one of our priorities as a congregation is Spiritual Growth, Spiritual Formation. We’re working on being clearer about how we help people who are just exploring faith grow in their journey, and how we help new followers of Jesus grow, and how we help seasoned disciples continue to mature in faith. Are you growing spiritually? What specifically are you doing to grow in your faith? You know I’m a fan of being specific! Lent, our time in the wilderness on purpose, is a time where we seek to grow in our spiritual lives. It’s challenging, no doubt, our wilderness expedition. But we’ll find Jesus there, and where he is, we want to go too. Know that you go into the wilderness as Jesus does, named a beloved child of God and accompanied by God’s spirit. Commit with me this Lent to confronting what is keeping you from giving your whole heart to God. Open your heart, let yourself be vulnerable to God meeting you in the wilderness. And be ready for what God can do with your life not only in the wilderness, but on the other side. May we emerge from our time here with the same clarity and urgency that we see in Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, "In the Wilderness," Psalm 63:1-4, Isaiah 35

Sermon 2/14/18
Psalm 63:1-4, Isaiah 35

In the Wilderness

            In Jewish and Christian tradition, ashes as a symbol convey two primary meanings. First, they are a sign of repentance. When people realized that they had been turning away from God’s path, that they had been disobeying God, and wanted to recommit to God’s way, God’s path, and ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness, sackcloth – a rough fabric – and ashes were worn as signs of that repentance – turning away from sin and toward God. They’re signs of humility, reminders that God is God and we are not God.
            Second, ashes are a sign of our mortality. Although we claim the gift of eternal life with God, in this life, in this world, we live and we die. We are finite. We are not invincible. God creates us from the dust of the earth, and to dust these bodies one day return. This is a message we need to confront regularly. Sometimes we fail to treat our lives as the sacred but finite gifts that they are. We don’t treat others as though their time with us is precious and limited. We build up possessions and wealth in ways that suggest we believe that we will live forever, have our things forever. We spend our time on things that don’t matter to us, and put off doing what God is calling us to do, what we are dreaming of doing. We have a decided lack of urgency when it comes to nurturing our own faith and sharing faith with others. We give the impression that we believe that we have limitless time to get done whatever is on our heart’s to-do list. Ashes are a sign of our mortality, meant to be a wake-up call. We are dust, and to dust we return.
            And yet, perhaps you feel a bit like I do this Ash Wednesday. Like I don’t need to be reminded of our finiteness just now. We know it all too well. I have my own personal loss and grief on my heart. And I know we are all processing our grief and sadness over Retha’s death. And it isn’t just Retha. We’ve had a hard season as a congregation. A generation of loved ones, people who have shaped us individually, and shaped our church. Together they represent a season in our church and community heritage that we sometimes long for, a season when, with our somewhat rose-colored glasses, feels like a simpler time. And just today, I was reading news of the school shooting that happened in Florida. It isn’t yet certain how many died there today. My attention was caught by the headline photo – a woman, a mother perhaps, in tears outside the school, with ashes on her forehead. Just this morning, some pastor had reminded her of her mortality. We are plenty aware of our mortality, aren’t we? We’re feeling very finite jus now, I think. Very much like we are dust.
            It seems fitting then that our theme for this Lent is “In the Wilderness.” I don’t know what images come to mind when you hear the world wilderness, but I can tell you that until I became a pastor and was preparing sermons, I thought of a wilderness as like a forest-y type place. Indeed, we use the word wilderness in this way. I went to “wilderness” camp at Camp Aldersgate when I was in elementary school, and it meant we were out in the woods in tents instead of in cabins. But in the scripture, when we hear about the wilderness, we’re not talking about the woods. We’re talking about the desert. We’re talking about desolate terrain, rocky, barren places, place with little water or vegetation. We’re talking about terrain that can be dangerous, isolated. It’s a place where you are vulnerable, at risk.
            The Bible is full of stories of people who end up in the wilderness, for one reason or another, from Genesis to Revelation, and this Lent, we’ll be reading some wilderness stories, thinking about these figures of faith who spent time in the wilderness, and seeing what we can learn from their journeys there. Jesus spent time in the wilderness too, as we’ll talk about on Sunday, and it is his 40 day time in the wilderness that particularly gives shape to our Lenten season of 40 days. But tonight, we are thinking about our own experiences in the wilderness. When have you felt like you were in a barren land in your life? When have you felt like you were spiritually parched and dry? When have you felt vulnerable and at risk, exposed? When have you felt like you were off the beaten path, lost? Maybe you are even feeling that way right now.
            This Lent, we are listening for God’s message to people who in the wilderness. We’re listening for God’s message to people who are well aware that they are dust. We’re listening for God’s message to us when we feel faint with thirst. Our reading from Psalm 63 is a Psalm attributed to King David, said to be written when he was in the wilderness of Judah. David was on the run, being pursued by his own son Absalom who wished to succeed David as King. David was literally and figuratively experiencing a wilderness time, and he knew whether Absalom was successful in taking power from him or not, David was closer to the end of his reign and life than the beginning. From this context, we read, “O God you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
            In Lent, we seek to attune our hearts to the reality that we are in wilderness, we’re parched, we’re dust, and we’re longing with a thirst that only drawing close to God can quench. God is the water of life for our souls that have become a desert place, a wilderness place. Thankfully, this very God whom we long for is the one who has the power to bring life to the desert, and bring hope in the wilderness. In our reading from Isaiah 35, we hear these hopeful words: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing … For the waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water … A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.” In the desert, life. In the wilderness, a holy highway for God’s people. God brings crocuses to bloom where it seems no life could survive. Where there is only dust, God brings a spring of water.
            We are dust, and to dust we return. That is the stark reality that we face on Ash Wednesday. But just as real is God’s promise to bring life from the wilderness. Tonight, as we receive ashes, this sign of repentance, a sign that we are turning our hearts back to God, a sign that we are mortals, dust, we’ll hear a song called Beautiful Things sung by Mark Gungor. Listen to some of the word: “All this pain. I wonder if I’ll ever find my way. I wonder if my life could really change at all. All this earth. Could all that is lost ever be found? Could a garden come up from this ground at all? You make beautiful things. You make beautiful things out of the dust. All around, Hope is springing up from this old ground. Out of chaos life is being found in You. You make beautiful things. You make beautiful things out of the dust. You make me new, You are making me new. You make me new, You are making me new.”
            Maybe we are in the wilderness. But have you heard about what God can do in wilderness? Maybe we are dust. But have you seen what God can make from dust? This Ash Wednesday, may we be reminded that we are dust. May we turn to God with all our hearts. And may we remember that God promises that in due season the wilderness will be glad and the desert shall rejoice and blossom. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sermon, "Why: Is Jesus the Only Way?" John 14:1-14

Sermon 2/11/18
John 14:1-14

Why: Is Jesus the Only Way?

            Today we’re coming to the end of our series on Why: Asking Tough Questions of Faith. We wrap up with a question that isn’t really a “why” question, but it is one that I’ve heard often enough in ministry that I thought it deserved a place in our series nonetheless. Maybe you’ve heard it too. “Is Jesus the Only Way?” The fuller version of this question, including the unexpressed parts of it is something more like, “Is believing in Jesus the only way to get into heaven? Is being a Christian the only way to be right with God?” And related to it are the questions that naturally follow: “What about people who are part of other religious traditions? Are they ok? Can they get to heaven? Are they just wrong? Are there consequences for choosing a path other than believing in Jesus and being part of the church?”
            For contemporary Christians, this question – is Jesus the Only Way – has only become more important, more pressing to us. Many earlier generations of American Christians might have spent most of their lives with their only meaningful exposure to people of other faith traditions being interaction between Protestants and Catholics, or Episcopalians and Baptists; we have different traditions and ways of doing things, but all part of the Body of Christ. But our world has changed. Not only is the United States increasingly a place of diverse cultures, faiths, and practices, but we also have much more exposure to people outside of the United States. Chances are, through work, through school, through social media, through your interests and tastes, through your hobbies, you have connections with people from outside of the US too. Probably, you have friendships with or at least are acquaintances with people who are not Christian, but instead are Jewish, or Hindu, or Sikh, or Muslim. And in light of these relationships, our question for today becomes all the more urgent. We want to know: what about our friends who practice a different faith, who don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who aren’t Christian? What happens to them? Where do they fit in our understanding of our faith?
            Not only has our level of knowledge and interaction with people of other faiths changed, but our culture has also changed when it comes to talking about right and wrong, fact and fiction, truth and falsehood. We’ve become wary of people who speak in absolutes, who claim that their way is the right way and no variation is acceptable. We put a great deal of weight on personal experience, which is subjective. In a time where we hear a constant refrain of “Fake News,” truth seems fluid. People from other faith traditions seem as passionately sure of their faith as we are of ours. Who are we to tell them they are wrong and we are right?
            We have other questions, too, when it comes to wondering about Jesus and whether or not his way is the only way. There are people who have literally never heard the gospel. It’s hard to imagine, but there are still cultures that are untouched by the outside world. How can folks who have never heard of Jesus be held accountable to believing in an “only way” of which they’ve never heard? Or how do we handle the fact that sometimes messengers of the gospel do a bad job in sharing the good news? If the gospel is shared in ways that are harmful and hurtful, how can we blame people for not accepting Jesus, when it is hard to separate message from messenger? And what about folks who aren’t Christian, but they seem to be walking in the path of Jesus more deeply than those of us who claim the title “Christian”? Our question is “Is Jesus the Only Way?” But it is really a question containing many questions. Who is in and who is out? How are we “saved”? What about my friends who aren’t Christian? What does it take for us to claim Jesus’ offered gift of life eternal? I’m not sure we can “answer” all of those questions, but today we’ll try to begin to answer.
            When people talk about Jesus being “the only way,” they are drawing on words from scripture, and in particular looking at the passage that we shared today from the gospel of John. Today’s text comes from the setting of what we call the Last Supper, even though we don’t see that in the passage we read. Just before the section we read today, Jesus has shared a meal with the disciples, washed their feet, sent Judas off to do the work of betrayal, and shared with the disciples a new commandment, that they would love one another just as Jesus has loved them. But laced through Jesus’ words are references to the fact that Jesus will be leaving the disciples soon. Near the end of chapter thirteen he says, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterword.” Jesus’ ambiguous, symbolic languages confuses the disciples. Peter asks “Lord, where are you going? Why can I not follow you now?” This is what leads us into our text for today.
            If today’s passage sounds familiar to you, it is likely because we often share in this text at funerals. These are words of comfort we speak to each other in the painful times of grief and loss, when we’re looking for reassurance of our place in God’s heart. Jesus says to the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He tells them that in God’s house there are “many dwelling places,” lots of room, and that Jesus is preparing a place for them there. Jesus promises that he will take them to God’s house, so that where Jesus is, we might be too. And, Jesus insists, “you know the way to the place where I am going.”
            At this, Thomas speaks up. He and the others are hearing Jesus in a very literal way, and all they can conclude is that they don’t know where Jesus is going or the way to get there. They don’t have a map. They don’t have directions. They’re feeling lost, afraid, and confused about all this talk of Jesus leaving them. “How can we know the way?” Thomas asks. Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. You get to God by way of me! If you know me, you know God! If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen him.” Jesus is trying to tell the disciples that they don’t have to worry that they won’t be able to find a way to God – Jesus is the way to God, and they already know Jesus. He’s speaking to comfort their anxiety, to quell their fears.
            Jesus continues saying that he is in God the father, the parent, and God is in Jesus. You can’t have one without the other. And so if you know Jesus, you know God. If you know the way of Jesus, you know the way to God. And what is the way of Jesus, the path of Jesus? People who are following the way of Jesus are those who do the works that Jesus does. Just after the passage for today ends, Jesus says that loving him means keeping his commandments. Understanding Jesus as the way means living as Jesus calls us to live. As I said, Jesus speaks these words to comfort the disciples and to remind them that they do in fact know where he’s going because they know him. They already know God because they know him. And they know how to claim this way of Jesus because he’s been teaching them just what that means all along.
            What does it mean to live in the way of Jesus? Does it mean to claim a certain set of beliefs? Does it mean to live our lives a certain way? I’m reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicle of Narnia. In the last book in the series, The Last Battle some corrupt leaders have been teaching that Aslan, the great Lion, the Christ-figure in the books is the same as Tash, an angry, frightening god worshiped by the people of Calormen, a neighboring nation. People are confused and afraid. The culmination of the conflict takes place outside an animal stable. The villains claim that anyone who enters the stable will be able to meet “Tashlan,” the name they’ve given to this so-called combined Tash and Aslan god-figure. But instead, they’ve placed soldiers inside, ready to kill whoever comes through the door. Unexpectedly, a young man named Emeth volunteers to go in, to the dismay of the scheming villains who like Emeth, and are trying to catch others in their trap, not him. But Emeth has been a devoted follower of Tash his whole life, and he insists on going in to see Tash for himself.
It is a long time in the story before we learn what happens to him. The stable door turns out to be an entry way into heaven, and eventually some other characters find Emeth sitting under a tree, who tells them that he met Aslan, the lion, face-to-face. He recounts, “I fell at [Aslan’s] feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him … But the [Aslan] bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me … Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, though knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”[1]
            I’ve always found this metaphor compelling. I believe that God knows our hearts, and knows when we are seeking to draw close to God. I believe that in Jesus we have been shown the way, the truth, and the life. And I believe that sometimes people are following the way of Jesus even when they don’t claim the title of Christian, and that sometimes people who claim the title Christian aren’t walking in Jesus’ way. Thankfully, I also believe that it isn’t my job to sort out who is on the path, the way, and who isn’t. God never asks us to take on that role. Instead, Jesus just reminds us that we know what the way is and invites us to follow it, speaking to us words of peace and love all the while.
            So what, then, do we take from our wrestling with this difficult question? First, if we believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, if we believe that in Jesus was can draw closer to God than we’ve ever imagined, if we believe that in Jesus we can experience the joy of God’s reign on earth, and if we believe that there is something unique about the way folks can get to know God through a relationship with Jesus, then we have a responsibility to share the message of Jesus with others. I don’t mean that you have to go door to door, and I don’t mean that you should beat people over the head with a Bible, pressure them, twist their arm, or belittle them for choosing a different path than yours. Remember, the news of Jesus, grace, and God’s reign is good news! But, if we believe life with Jesus is life-changing, life-saving, then we have to share the message. We share it through building relationships, through loving one another deeply, and through demonstrating with our own lives how transformative a relationship with Jesus can be. Our own changed lives are the most compelling message we can share.
            That’s our second task, in fact. If we believe that Jesus is the way, the path, then we need to seek, day by day, to live on that path, to live in the way of Jesus. I sometimes worry that we lost the power of the question “What would Jesus do?” when the phrase turned into a marketing phenomenon. But it is a good question. We are called to be imitators of Jesus, to shape our hearts and minds and lives to resemble Jesus as much as possible. Jesus looked with love and compassion on people. He sought to include the excluded. He sought to challenge those who wielded power over others in hurtful ways. He longed to help people draw closer to God, and he was willing to give endlessly of himself for that purpose. We have a responsibility to live in the way of Jesus if we call him the way.
            I think part of the way of Jesus includes nurturing our relationships with all kinds of people, including people from all kinds of faith traditions. Jesus was a boundary-crosser. He didn’t let any differences keep him from forming relationships with others. God our creator made each of us in God’s very image. Each and every one. Each and every one of us has sacred worth. I think, in fact, that we can be better followers of the way of Jesus when we take time to learn from others about how they draw close to God, even as we share how transformative Jesus is to us.
            Today, we’re celebrating the sacrament of baptism. Bryn may be young, but she’s already ready to choose the path of faith she wants to walk. She’s choosing the way, truth, and life of Jesus. As she chooses this path, as her parents promise to nurture her along the way, we, too, are called to support Bryn, by walking with her in the way of Jesus. Together, let’s go in Jesus’ way, and claim the abundant life he offers. Amen.  

[1] Lewis, C.S., The Last Battle, 164-165.