Sunday, December 08, 2019

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, "The Redemption of Scrooge: Remembering Christmas Past," Revelation 21:3-5, Luke 5:1-11

Sermon 12/8/19
Revelation 21:3-5, Luke 5:1-11

Remembering Christmas Past

This Advent we’re journeying with Ebenezer Scrooge as he is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Last week we learned about how cut off Scrooge had become from everyone around him. He’s mean and crotchety, and doesn’t do much of anything that doesn’t serve his own interests. But his former business partner comes to him as a ghost, telling him he’ll get three ghostly visitors who will give Scrooge a chance for redemption. 
The next night, the first ghost arrives: the Ghost of Christmas Past. The Ghost’s appearance is unusual - an inner light gives the ghost an appearance like a candle, lit up from the inside. The Ghost takes Scrooge on several visits to his past. First, Scrooge sees himself as a young, lonely, sickly boy. Something about seeing himself as he used to be starts to stir Scrooge’s heart. He remembers the caroler that had come to his door the day before and Scrooge dismissed in his usual, angry way. We read, “A lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be. Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again. “I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.” “What is the matter?” asked the Spirit. “Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.””
With the Ghost, Scrooge then visits his former workplace, remembering fondly his boss, Mr. Fezziwig, and his fellow apprentice, Dick. There’s a joyous Christmas party, with lots of dancing. Everyone is happy. Dickens tells us, “During the whole of this time, Scrooge had acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation. “A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.” “Small!” echoed Scrooge. “Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” “It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” Again, Scrooge’s visit to his past causes him to think about what he could do differently now. He thinks about how he might be able to say a kind word to his own clerk, Bob Cratchit. 
Next, the Ghost takes Scrooge to see the moment when his financĂ©e, Belle, breaks of their engagement. She tells Scrooge: “Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.” “What Idol has displaced you?” [Scrooge] rejoined. “A golden one … All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?” She tells Scrooge she knows that if he met her for the first time now, he would never choose her, a poor woman without a dowry. “I release you,” she says, “With a full heart, for the love of him you once were.” And finally, the Ghost takes Scrooge to see Belle years later, happily married with children. Scrooge is unable to take the pain of witnessing what he missed out on. He tries to “extinguish” the Ghost of Christmas past, putting a cap over the glowing light of the Ghost, and the Ghost leaves him at last, his mind swirling with all he has seen of his past. 
I wonder, if the Ghost of Christmas Past was to visit us, where would the Ghost take us? What parts of your past have you forgotten? What joys, what simple pleasures have you forgotten, that, if you could remember, would fill your heart with gratitude and thanksgiving? And what in your past still causes you heartbreak? What shapes you now from your past, making it harder for you to love or trust or give or grow, because of the pain or hurt or brokenness you once experienced? 
Our gospel lesson for today seems to me to have some of these wonderings underneath the text, as we find Simon Peter responding to Jesus’ call to discipleship. We’ve read this text from Luke any number of times in worship, and it is always powerful. Jesus sees some fishermen on the shore, washing their nets. Without invitation, he gets into one of the boats, one belonging to a man named Simon Peter, and asks to go out into the water a bit. From that place in the boat, Jesus teaches the crowds on the shore. And when Jesus is done teaching, he asks Simon to take them out into the deep water, and let down the nets to catch some fish. Simon explains to this man who is a rabbi, a teacher, not a fishermen, that they’ve been trying all night to catch fish, but caught nothing. But perhaps because he’d just heard this man teach with authority, he agrees to do what Jesus says. And indeed, this time, Simon and company catch so many fish that the nets begin to break, and the boat and the one that came to help - they both start to sink. 
I find Simon Peter’s response to all this fascinating. I think I’d have a million questions for Jesus about what I just saw take place. But what’s on Simon Peter’s mind is how unworthy he is to witness such a miracle. He’s not fit to be in the presence of this teacher. It’s like he doesn’t think he can be in the presence of such goodness and power as Jesus has. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” We don’t get to know what sins Simon Peter has on his mind. We don’t ever learn much about his past before he started following Jesus. But clearly, something is weighing on his heart. Whatever his life has been like up until now, he doesn’t think it measures up in a way that would please this rabbi who is clearly from God. 
How about you? When God comes to you - asking you to respond to God’s call - whatever form that takes - do you think of all the reasons why God shouldn’t pick you? When God offers you the gift of unconditional love, grace, God’s favor, without cost, do you feel like Peter? Like you can’t even be in the presence of something as good as God? When we wrestle with our pasts, I think we often conclude that we’ve messed up too much to be lovable. Or we can’t let go of hurt and pain enough to love others with our whole hearts.  
Of course, Jesus doesn’t say to Peter: “Oh, I didn’t realize you were so sinful! Nevermind, let me find someone else.” It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? It’s so out of character with the Jesus we know to even imagine. And of course, it is out of character with the witness of the whole of the scriptures about how God works in the world. Jesus responds to Peter with comfort and challenge: Don’t be afraid - that’s the comfort. Again and again, God reminds us that when we’re with God, we don’t need to be afraid. And, “from now on you will be catching people.” That’s the challenge. God reassures us as often as we need it: we’re loved. God loves us without condition, without measure. And, God has work for us to do. Just because we think we’re unworthy of God’s love doesn’t let us off the hook from answering God’s call to be Jesus-followers. Rather, it means that God will find a way to use the very things that seem to hold us back and turn them into assets for sharing the good news of God’s grace with a waiting world. 
Although we’re zooming in on the calling of the first disciples today, we could be focusing on any number of other passages in the scriptures where a person with a past that is - colorful, painful, sinful, broken, mistake-ridden - is called by God, is called to discipleship, is called by Jesus to serve. In John’s gospel, when Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael, he makes it clear that he knows about Nathanael’s “before” life, even though they’ve just met. Being known by Jesus causes Nathanael’s confession of faith: “You are the son of God, the ruler of Israel!” In his conversation with the woman at the well, he makes it clear he knows her story - and she still becomes the messenger of the good news to her community. She’s not even upset that he knows her painful history. Rather, she wonders at it, saying to others, “He told me everything I have ever done.” She thinks it is good that Jesus knows her, inside and out. The apostle Paul is called to be a disciple both in spite of and because of his history as a persecutor of Jesus-followers. Follows of Jesus were put to death at Paul’s direction. That’s his past, and it makes him all the more fervent in preaching the good news once Jesus calls him on the road to Damascus. The Bible is full of stories like this - cover to cover. 
Scrooge is still wrestling, still becoming the person God has created him to be. After all, he has two visits from Ghosts yet to take place. But after his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past, there’s some softening happening in Scrooge’s heart. In his past, he begins to see anew both the joy and pain he’s experienced - and here’s the key - he starts to connect those experiences to his present, seeing himself in the people in his life now, which allows him to grow in his ability to have compassion and love for others. He could bring joy to others now, just as others had given joy to him in simple gestures long ago. The hardest losses of his past, what he lost when he let his sins, his greed rule his life - he can’t change the past. But he can change the now, letting that pain help him carve a new path going forward. Scrooge is a sinful man - just like Simon Peter said of himself - but when he lets his heart be opened, his past can be made into a blessing, helping him to love and serve others. 
Simon Peter is a sinful man, even if we don’t know what past was weighing on his heart. But Jesus can and does use every part of who Peter is, so that Peter can love and serve God and others. And friends, hear this: We are sinful too. Sometimes, we don’t want to look very closely at the more painful parts of our past, especially the parts where we could have loved better, behaved better, treated others better. But God knows every part of you, every bit of your story. God knows your past, was with you in your past. And God, who makes all things new, redeems your past. Nothing in your past - nothing - can prevent your present-day discipleship, your present day “yes” to God. Our pasts, even the painful parts: God can take the broken pieces and make of that a gift and a blessing, something that helps us serve God and others today. We are sinners! We’re broken. We carry with us hurts and pain and anger and grief. But God says to us: “Do not be afraid.” And then God takes our pasts, makes all things new, and sets us on a world that needs messengers of good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, "Bah, Humbug!," Galatians 6:24, Luke 16:19-31

Sermon 12/1/19
Galatians 6:24, Luke 16:19-31

Bah, Humbug!
Dickens’ short work, A Christmas Carol, begins by announcing, “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Jacob Marley was the business partner of one Ebenezer Scrooge, and he’s been dead for some time. Jacob Marley seems to be as close as Scrooge had to a “friend,” but even still Dickens makes sure to tell us that Scrooge wasn’t particularly broken-hearted over Marley’s death. In fact, Dickens doesn’t mince words in describing Scrooge. He says of Scrooge, “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” Dickens continues, “Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge.” “But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.” Scrooge is alone, and he seems to like it that way. His nephew tries to reach out to him, to close the distance between them, but Scrooge rebuffs his efforts. When Scrooge expresses his typical “Bah, humbug” about Christmas, and his nephew tries to coax him out of his bad attitude, Scrooge responds: “What else can I be  [but cross],” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer … “Nephew!” says Scrooge. “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” When Scrooge is asked to support some charity work by folks, he has equally harsh words for them: “I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [like the prisons] —they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.” The fundraisers respond, “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.” To which Scrooge answers, “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
After all this, the ghost of Jacob Marley appears to Scrooge. He says he’s been wandering restlessly, all this time since he’s died, even keeping an eye on Scrooge. And all this time, seven years, he’s been filled with compassion for all the people he didn’t care about during his lifetime. But his punishment for his apathy during life is this: now that Marley feels compassion, he’s unable to do anything about it. What he can do, though, is this. He has a one-time opportunity to warn Scrooge. ““I am here to-night to warn you,”” Marley says, “”that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”” That’s where we’ll leave Scrooge for now - on the brink of his chance at escaping Marley’s fate. 
Of course, accompanying Scrooge as he eventually meets the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future is only valuable to us if we can see ourselves in him a bit. If Scrooge is just so cantankerous that he’s a caricature only, we’ve got nothing to learn from him. But I wonder if we, too, don’t sometimes find that we’ve put some distance between ourselves and people who are in need around us. Sometimes we walk past people who are suffering, whether we do it by changing the channel on the TV, or clicking away from a news story, or neglecting to give a little more when we’re confronted with someone else who needs help, or averting our eyes when we see someone in distress, putting our heads down, keep on walking. Sometimes we’re actively dismissive of those who are struggling - like Scrooge we imagine that ‘they” have gotten themselves into trouble and so “they” can get themselves right out of it. And other times, I think we’re just exhausted. That has a name, even - being overwhelmed by the needs of others. “Compassion fatigue.” We try to be compassionate, but how much can we do? Can’t we just be left alone for a bit? The chasm, the gulf between Scrooge and everyone around him is huge. Maybe the distance between us and others isn’t so large as that, but it is there. 
That distance, that chasm is star of our gospel lesson today. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus has been teaching, and some Pharisees are ridiculing him, especially when Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Many of the Pharisees were affluent, and many folks believed - believe - that financial wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus, though, seems to teach in repeated parables that financial wealth makes following him, makes putting God first, extremely challenging. In response to their ridicule, Jesus tells another parable, our lesson for today. 
There is a rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen, who feasts sumptuously every day. Biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine says he is “the epitome of one who is self-serving.” He displays his wealth ostentatiously. The word used here for feasting signifies the kind of feasting you’d do at a major festival, and he does this every day. He’s wearing the most expensive kind of clothing. (1) And separated by this rich man by the gates of the man’s property, by what might as well have been a chasm for all the rich man ever crossed it, there is Lazarus, a poor man. Lazarus is the only character in a parable given a name, and his name means, “God helps.” Lazarus is so poor, he wishes he could just get some crumbs from the rich man’s table. He’s so poor that he has unhealed sores on his body, and the only treatment he gets for them is from dogs, who are kinder to him than the rich man is. Is Lazarus good? We don’t know. We know nothing about his moral character at all. We only know he’s poor, and we know that throughout scripture, God gives a preferential place to the poor. God asks people to give special care and attention to those who are poor all through the law and the prophets. But the rich man certainly does not share God’s preference. 
Eventually both Lazarus and the rich man die. The rich man is tormented in Hades, what we’d imagine hell to be like. In Jesus’ vivid parable, he can see up into heaven, a “far away” place, where he can see Abraham, the father of the whole people of Israel, and Lazarus at his side. The rich man doesn’t express any word of repentance, of regret for his previous actions. And he still doesn’t speak to Lazarus, just about him. He obviously knows who Lazarus is - he calls him by name, even though he never went outside his gate to help him in life. Now, the rich man wants Lazarus to serve him, even now. “Father Abraham - send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” Abraham reminds the rich man that in life, the rich man had good things, and Lazarus only evil things, but now their roles are reversed. And Lazarus can’t cross: a great chasm separates them, and no one can go back and forth between this distance. So the rich man begs that Lazarus can go at least warn the rich man’s five brothers. Still, he doesn’t speak to Lazarus directly. He wants to save his brothers, not the poor. Abraham responds that they have the law and the prophets - they contain many warnings about caring for the poor, after all. But no, the rich man argues, his brothers won’t listen to them - but if they got a visit from the dead, then they would repent and change their ways. Abraham is unimpressed. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And so ends the parable. 
So - there’s a big chasm, a separation, a big seemingly insurmountable distance between Scrooge and everyone around him, and between this rich man and Lazarus, both in life and in death. And in both cases, the wealth, the affluence of one over the other seems to be a major cause of the distance. Are we off the hook, then, if we’re just not too wealthy? If we’re somewhere in the middle, can we relax? Let me ask this: How often have we walked by - literally or figuratively - someone who needs help? If our answer to that question is the only determinant of our eternal fate, what hope is there? I know that like Scrooge, like the rich man, sometimes we don’t see each other. Sometimes I don’t want to see the need around me. Sometimes I forget to practice the compassion of Jesus. Forget is too generous though - sometimes I actively choose not to practice compassion. Remember, Jesus is so often described at looking at those around him with eyes of compassion, the twist-up-your-guts-with-concern kind of compassion that was his standard way of seeing those around him. But though we have our moments of compassion, I think often we feel cut off from each other instead. We have “compassion fatigue.” We feel like we’ve given all we can give, and we can’t worry about anyone but ourselves anymore, not right now. We’re spent. And when we start to feel that fatigue more and more, when we feel less and less moved by the plight of people around us, when it gets easier and easier to walk by the suffering of others - we’re in trouble. A chasm is widening, and it isn’t just between us and others. It’s a chasm between us and God. We know we don’t want to be on the other side of the chasm from God. But what can we do? When it gets so big, that chasm - between us and God, us and our neighbors - we’re helpless to close it. It’s too much. How can we feel compassion instead of apathy, and traverse the chasm? 
If we look at the parable, things seem kind of hopeless. The rich man doesn’t learn, and he can’t warn his brothers the way he wants, and even his death and torture in Hades doesn’t seem to move his heart to compassion. If we screw up too much, are we doomed to his fate? If we ignore one person too many who we could help if we tried, is that it for us? I think of Jesus telling the disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, and the disciples, who were hardly rich themselves, still lamenting at Jesus’ words: How can anyone be saved? The chasm is too great. We’re bound to screw up. Our hearts are too often hard. But remember, too, Jesus’ response: For mortals it is impossible. But for God - for God all things are possible. 
How does God make it possible? How does God help us close the chasm we’ve created with our apathy and inaction? I think even the parable hints at it in the last line. Abraham says that the rich man and his brothers won’t be convinced to repent by someone rising from the dead. But what about a resurrection not of just a “someone,” but of God’s very child, of God-in-the-flesh? I think Jesus wouldn’t bother telling this parable if there was no hope for the Pharisee or for us. The parable serves as a wake-up call. But while we can’t close the chasms we’ve created, God can. And God does. One of my favorite preachers, David Lose, writes: “The unrepentant but chastened rich man is not truly the subject of this parable at all. We are. We are those who, along with the community for whom Luke originally wrote, know the resurrected Lord. We are the ones who … have seen God’s compassion embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus. We are the ones who gather each week to celebrate his victory over the grave, forgiveness of sin, and the possibility of living in light of God’s grace, mercy, and abundance. We are those who follow the crucified and Risen Lord … Does our faith in and experience of the Risen Lord help us see those we would prefer not to see and regard those around us as worthy of compassion, respect, and honor…or not? Does the testimony of the One who has conquered death and called us to follow him make a difference?” (2) 
In his book The Redemption of Scrooge, Matt Rawle says that there is “no soul too gruff, too cold, or too cantankerous for God’s redeeming power.” (3) In the coming weeks, we’ll see how God’s redeeming power melts Scrooge’s seemingly frozen heart, and closes the gap between him and all the people around him. It’s not because of Scrooge’s ability to figure it out on his own that he’s redeemed. It’s because of God’s grace and love, and Scrooge finally accepting that grace and love that he’s able to repent and start again. As we journey with Scrooge during this Advent season, hopefully we’ll see God at work in us too, as we answer to God’s relentless grace. In Advent, we anticipate the work of God in Jesus: in Jesus, God closes the chasms we’ve created by simply becoming one of us. If God is one of us, if God is with us in Jesus, then God-in-the-flesh has made sure there is no distance too great for God to cover.
We are not beyond God’s redeeming. With God, everything is possible - the redemption of that grumpy sinner Scrooge, and the redemption of you and me. God wants to show us all that is waiting, show us all of God’s children who are waiting on the other side of the doors we’ve closed, and the gates we’ve locked, and the chasms we’ve created. The gap that’s between us and God, between us and our neighbor - God closes by putting God’s very self, Jesus-with-us, in the gap to bridge the distance. A gift we anticipate every Advent, a gift we give thanks for every Christmas. And when we receive the gift of grace that Jesus offers? He invites us to stand by his side, another link in the chain of compassion, another redeemed life closing the chasm, drawing others closer to one another, nearer to God. Amen.     

  1. Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus, 272-273. 
  2. Lose, David, “Pentecost 19 C: Eternal Life Now,” In the Meantime,
  3. Rawle, Matt, The Redemption of Scrooge, 25. 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday, "Subjects, Fans, Followers," Luke 23:33-43, John 6:24-35

Sermon 11/1/19
Luke 23:33-43, John 6:24-35

Subjects, Fans, Followers
Today is the last Sunday of the church year. The church calendar - as in the church universal - begins a new year on the First Sunday of Advent, which is next week. Today, on the last Sunday of the church year, two special days are asking for our attention. First, it is Thanksgiving Sunday. Now, technically, that’s not a liturgical day - it’s not a specially marked day on the Church calendar. After all, it is only Thanksgiving in the United States this week, not around the world. But, of course, giving thanks is something we should excel at as people of faith, and certainly we know where to direct our thanks as worshipers. We give thanks to God, source of all our blessings. 
Today is also Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday. It’s not a well-known day on the church calendar, and sometimes with Thanksgiving and the start of Advent, it is easy to let it get squashed out altogether. But it deserves our attention, because I think reign of Christ Sunday asks us to wrestle with some challenging questions. On this day we ask, “What does it mean that we call Jesus a King? What does it mean that we talk about Jesus as a ruler? How is Jesus like earthly kings, and how does he break the mold? What does it mean that in scripture and in Christian tradition you can find images of Jesus on a throne, in the judgment seat, with a crown? How is Jesus the ruler of of our lives? Is he the ruler or a ruler in our lives?” These are questions we wrestle with on this day in the church year, and maybe they don’t strike you at first as questions that are on  your mind all the time, but I think in actuality the way we view Jesus, the role we put him in, the authority we give to him impacts our lives as Christians a great deal.  
Originally I was going to title this sermon, “Who do you say that I am?” You might recognize that as a question that Jesus asks his disciples in the gospels, though not in our readings for today. In the gospels, Jesus had been hearing rumors that some of those who knew of the works of Jeus were saying he was the prophet Elijah, come again, as many believed Elijah would return some day, and others thought he was John the Baptist, and Jesus asks his disciples to give a report on what they’ve heard. And then Jesus asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds boldly and clearly: Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one of God. It’s a title that had, till then, indicated a king. Kings were anointed. Of course, Jesus hasn’t done much that lines him up with the kings that have preceded him, so it is all the more meaningful that Peter gives him this title.   
I wonder what kind of ruler we’re looking for Jesus to be in our lives, if in fact we are looking for a ruler. Do we want mighty warrior Jesus, who comes in to crush our enemies? Or are we ready to think about what kind of king, what kind of ruler, leader, savior, ends up executed, hanging on a cross alongside criminals, daring to suggest that we follow him? 
But eventually I realized that the question nagging at me is not exactly who we say Jesus is, but instead it is who we want to be and who we are to be to Jesus because of who he is. I think one way or another, we might agree to call Jesus a king, a ruler, a prince of peace, the messiah - whatever label resonates. But what does that mean for us and our lives as those who call on his name? I think we’d call ourselves disciples. We want to be disciples, followers of Jesus. But are we? If Jesus is the authority in our lives, do our lives show evidence of that? Who do our lives say that Jesus is, beyond what our lips say?  
As I read our gospel texts for today, I came up with a few possible answers: subjects, fans, and followers. Sometimes, I think we just want to be fans of Jesus. Think about who or what you’re a fan of. I’m a big fan of Tracy Chapman (She’s a folk singer, and even if you don’t know her, you probably know a few of her songs without knowing she wrote them.) - she’s my favorite musician. And my favorite movie star is Viggo Mortensen (he was in the Lord of the Rings movies)  - I think he’s an excellent actor. I can tell you a bit about each of them. I have most of Tracy Chapman’s albums. I’ve seen most of Viggo Mortensen’s movies. I’ve read articles about them. I can tell you about awards Tracy Chapman has won. I can tell you about Viggo’s visits to his hometown Watertown, NY. But as much as I enjoy their work, beyond impacting what I watch, what I listen to - I can’t really say that my life has changed significantly because of being a fan. Their talents brings me joy, but I don’t have to adopt anything about the way they live to be even an avid, devoted fan. Because even if I’m their best fan, they have no authority over me. They don’t rule my life. They’re not my leader. I don’t put their hopes and vision above my own or any other vision that I find compelling.  
Sometimes, we call Jesus Messiah or King or Ruler, but we’re really just his fans. Our text from John today is actually the text assigned for Thanksgiving. Just before our reading begins is the story we know as the feeding of the 5000. John tells us that the crowds are following Jesus because of the healing Jesus had been doing. When the crowds arrive, Jesus insists on feeding them all. Starting with a little fish and bread, Jesus manages to feed everyone of the 5000+ gathered and still have leftovers. After they eat, people think about the signs Jesus has done, and they call him a prophet, and what’s more, John tells us that Jesus realizes they want to take him and make him king by force. A man who can feed crowds from practically nothing? They want this man to be in charge. This, of course, is not Jesus’ path, and he and the disciples head out on the boat to cross the sea. But, as today’s text tells us, the crowds simply follow Jesus across the water and find him again. Jesus tells them that he knows they’ve come after him because he fed them all, not for any deeper reason. They ask for signs that Jesus is someone they should believe in. When Jesus talks about bread from heaven, they want some. Jesus tells them he is the bread of heaven. Their conversation goes on long after today’s text ends, and once it is over, many of the crowd stop following Jesus, unhappy with what he has to say. I think they were fans, not followers. It’s like the crowd was coming for a good performance. The Jesus show was in town, and he dazzled, even providing an excellent meal. But when Jesus started talking about his will and God’s will and sharing in his very flesh, sharing in his body, they were out. Jesus seemed to expect something of them, more than they wanted to give. Fans, not followers. 
Sometimes, I think we want to be subjects, like in an earthly kingdom, where a clear authority tells us what to do. We’re not responsible - the king is responsible, and in charge. The ruler has to fix things, and sure, we can complain when they do a bad job, but we still don’t want to be the ones in charge. We’re helpless, and maybe resent feeling helpless, but we’re happy to blame the ruler for what goes wrong. 
Our second gospel lesson, this one from Luke, brings us to the scene of the crucifixion. Notice the inscription over Jesus’ head, the reason for his death sentence: “This is the King of the Jews.” The words are meant to be mocking, because everyone knew that no king would be hanging on a cross. Crucifixion was for criminals, for the lowly, for the weak. And listen to the words folks are saying in this passage: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah, the anointed one of God.” “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself, and save us!” Everyone there seems to have a clear understanding of what a king should be, and Jesus is not living up to expectations. A king could save himself. A king would have power, enough power to get himself out of such a mess. A king could save himself and those with him too while he was at it. A king would put himself first, for sure. And when Jesus fails to be this kind of ruler, but won’t just go away quietly, it seems the only remaining option is to silence him through death. Sometimes we just want to be subjects, following a Jesus who is powerful enough to not call on us to do anything. If Jesus is King, can’t he figure it all out? Fix everything for us? Put everyone else in their places and save us from our troubles while he’s at it? But a ruler who wants us to be part of the work? To serve alongside? What kind of ruler is that? 
But of course, Jesus reigns not from a throne, but from the cross. Jesus is born not in a palace, but among animals. Jesus spends his time not in the halls of power, but on the margins, with the people. Jesus reigns. His authority repeatedly dazzles even those who wish they couldn’t see it in him. We see it too, or we wouldn’t be here. But the question is the one we asked at the start. What will we do about it? If Jesus reigns in our lives, how do we show it? We live not as subjects, not as fans, but as disciples, followers. Followers change their lives to go where their leader goes, to live like their leader lives. One of my ministry colleagues at a meeting yesterday said that we’re apprentices to a Master Teacher, the Expert, and our task as students, as learners, is to so carefully work as the Teacher has taught us that our work becomes indistinguishable from the Teacher’s. Jesus reigns, and does it by sharing power, inviting us to do everything he does. Nothing would please him more than if we were just like him. 
Jesus isn’t really very excited about fans. They fall away when things get challenging. And he loves us too much to make us helpless subjects. But followers? Disciples? Jesus has a lot to teach some willing students. Come, let’s follow. Amen.   

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, Psalm 24, Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Sermon 11/1/19
Psalm 24, Psalm 31:1-10, 22

All Saints Sunday
Years ago, one of my pastors while I was in my college years sent one of those email forwards that used to be so popular. I’ve tried to find the source of the original, but it seems to be anonymous. The email was called “The Quiz” and it went like this: "Take a few moments to think about your answers to the following questions. Question 1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world. 2. Name the last five winners of the Miss America contest. 3. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize. 4. Name the last half dozen Academy Award winners for Best Actor and Actress. 5. Name the last decade's worth of World Series Winners. How did you do? If you are like most people, you can only fill in a few names here and there, but usually can't remember who did what and who won what. The point is most of us don't remember the headliners of yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers. They're the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.
“Now, here's another quiz. See how you do on this one: 1. List a few teachers who aided your journey through school. 2. Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time. 3. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile. 4. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special. 5. Think of five people you enjoy spending time with. 6. Name a half dozen non-celebrity heroes whose stories have inspired you. Easier? Of course. We have no problem remembering the people who have helped to shape us. We remember those who have inspired us and encouraged us. These are the people we tell our friends about. These are the people that hold a place in our heart. These are the people we truly value."
I had that email on my mind as I was thinking about today. Today we’re remembering not the Nobel winners and Oscar winners - not unless they had some personal connection to us. No, we’re remembering the ones who have helped us in difficult times, who made us feel special, whose stories have inspired us, who have taught us, the ones who hold a place in our hearts. Today, we’re celebrating All Saints Sunday. Most of us know that means that we’re remembering and giving thanks for those who have died during the last year in particular in the life of our congregation and families and community. But underneath that, we might be asking, “What is a saint exactly?” because we tend to use the word to mean some kind of “perfect, holy person” in our everyday vocabulary, and although we loved the folks we are remembering today, we do know that they weren’t always perfect
So what is a saint, anyway? The word in the Bible literally just means “holy ones.” It’s used to describe people mostly in the writings of the apostle Paul, and he uses it to refer almost entirely to living people, and certainly not perfect people. He refers to the apostles, the original followers of Jesus, as saints, and although we admire them, we know that Peter and the rest were not perfect, and since Paul and Peter were fighting constantly, we know Paul didn’t think Peter was perfect either! Paul also refers to broader groups of Jesus-followers as saints, both those who he is writing about, and those to whom he is writing. And in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, Paul begins his letter by calling his audience those who are “called to be saints,” called to be “holy ones.” 
Next we might ask: “Well, what does it mean to be holy?” Because again, when we use the word holy we have certain pictures in our head about what that means, and it usually isn’t a word we use to describe ourselves. What does holy mean? Perfect? Super close to God? Very pious? Last Sunday we celebrated Consecration Sunday. And we use that word a lot in the church - consecration. It’s also what we call it when we bless the bread and cup for communion and ask God to make them into the Body of Christ for us - that part of the prayer is called the “prayer of consecration.” Consecration basically means to add sacredness, holiness, to something ordinary. We ask God to take our ordinary stuff - our money, or the bread and grape juice - and make it into something holy - something that’s set apart for God’s purposes. We ask God to help us make ordinary things vessels for God’s work. Consecrated. 
So, saints - holy ones - are when regular people offer their ordinary lives to God and ask God to make them holy. Saints are people who let God work in and through them so that they in turn can do the work of God in the world. That’s it. And that’s quite enough! We don’t need to be perfect, although we strive, day by day, to be a bit more like Jesus, to follow him more closely, to love like he taught us, like he loved us. We don’t just ask God to make our lives holy and stop there, doing nothing to be open to how God might accomplish that in us, how God might have to change us, mold us, challenge us as we’re made holy. And so perhaps that’s what we see in others when we call them saints: we notice when people are particularly receptive to giving their lives to God to make them holy, and then are particularly open to letting God move right into their hearts and lives in order to accomplish just that. 
I was sharing with our Bible study this week that I was thinking about Mr. Rogers this week when we were talking about saints, because I’d seen a short video, about 4 minutes, with interviews from some of folks working on the upcoming film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, where Tom Hanks stars as Fred Rogers. If we had more time today I’d just play the video, and I hope we maybe take a church outing to see the movie when it comes out later this month. In this video, Tom Junod, the interviewer whose interactions with Mr. Rogers are portrayed in the film, says, “[Fred Rogers] had that amazing gift, of looking at a person and seeing what that person needed, that he was going to minister to that person … When I think of Fred, I often think of him in terms of what he did every morning, which was pray and think of the people he needed to pray for and write to those people.” Actor Matthew Rhys, who plays Junod, says, “His ability for empathy was enormous. What he could do immediately to any person with any kind of problem, any human condition, was relate to it.” Frank Warininsky, a lighting guy on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, said, “If you hit Fred on the right day, or Fredhit you on the right day, he could change your life.” Powerful words. And then, in a clip from the upcoming film, Mr. Rogers’ wife is asked, “How does it feel to be married to a living saint?” And she answers, “If you think of him as a saint, then his way of being is unattainable. You know he works at it all the time. It’s a practice. He’s not a perfect person. He has a temper. He chooses how he responds to that anger.”
I was really struck by her response. I think it’s so important that we understand what we mean when we celebrate All Saints day, because if we think saints are perfect people, when we give ourselves an “out” from trying to be saints ourselves. We give ourselves an “out” from responding to the apostle Paul when he says we’re called to be saints. But saints are saints not because they’ve done something we can’t, something we can never attain. They’re saints because they allowed God to do something in and through them, because they let God make their ordinary holy. So I think Mr. Rogers is a saint. But we can be too. We can’t get away with saying things like, “I’m no Mother Teresa.” We talked just a couple of weeks ago about the struggles she had, how she wrestled with faith too. The only reason we can’t be Mother Teresa is because there’s only one of each of us. You can be you, which is the best thing for you to be. And you can be a saint of God, a holy one, called to just that path, called to give your ordinary self, so that God can do holy stuff with your life - whatever shape that might take: A person who listens and loves well. A person who builds others up. A person who loves relentlessly. A person who sees those others skip over. A person who forgives. A person who serves. That saint can be you
At the end of our service today, we’ll sing a hymn called “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” Each verse talks about all the places we can find God’s saints: those who loved God, who follow Jesus, who we find at home, at the store, in our neighborhoods. And each verse concludes with the hope: “I meant to be [a saint] too.” Ironically, Lesbia Scott, who wrote the hymn for her children, was surprised, even dismayed that a little song for kids became so popular. But maybe she forgot the point of her own words. (1)  Today, we celebrate all the saints, in all the places in our lives we have found them. And let us mean, God helping, to be saints too, whose ordinary lives are made holy by God. Amen.