Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, Year A, "Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and The Woman at the Well," John 4:5-42

Sermon 3/19/17
John 4:5-42

Encounter with Jesus: The Woman at the Well

            I came upon this video of The Woman at the Well many years ago, and it has remained one of my favorite reflections on this passage of scripture. “For to be known is to be loved, And to be loved is to be known. Otherwise what’s the point in doing either one of them in the first place? I WANT TO BE KNOWN. I want someone to look at my face And not just see two eyes, a nose, a mouth and two ears; But to see all that I am, and could be.”
            The gospel of John is the only gospel where we find this passage, and it marks the single longest conversation Jesus has with any individual in the scriptures. Jesus is travelling from place to place and his destination causes him to travel through a Samaritan city. The Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get along. In fact, that’s putting it mildly. They considered each other enemies, Jews and Samaritans. They had shared religious ancestry, but over the centuries they had divided and come to have deeply different religious beliefs. When John says Jews and Samaritans don’t share things in common, he’s understating. But, Jesus travels through this Samaritan town, and stops at a well.
A Samaritan woman, unnamed like so many women in the Bible, comes to the well, and Jesus asks her to draw him some water to drink. She’s surprised he would address her, an unknown woman, a Samaritan. But Jesus tells her, “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is [that is talking to you], you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman is naturally confused by Jesus’ strange talk. How can he get water without a bucket, she wonders? Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman responds, even if not understanding fully, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus goes on to tell the woman all about herself. He asks her to bring her husband to the well, and she says that she doesn’t have a husband. Jesus responds, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” The woman responds to this saying only, “Sir, I see you are a prophet.” They debate a bit, about their different religious views. Jesus tells her, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth.” The woman says she knows that the Messiah is coming. Jesus says he is the Messiah.
The disciples show up, and Jesus’ one-on-one encounter with the woman comes to an end, but the story doesn’t stop there. The woman leaves her jar at the well, perhaps a sign that she is ready for a more lasting kind of water, and goes to the city, telling everyone, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” Because of her witness, many Samaritans come to be followers of Jesus, and Jesus stays in town longer than planned to be with them.
There are so many parts of this long passage we could focus on, and still just be skimming the surface of this text. It’s hard to process the whole thing. But I found myself this time particularly drawn to the woman’s response to Jesus telling her about her life. Jesus says she has had five husbands, and that the man she is with currently is not her husband. So many interpretations of this text focus on The Woman at the Well as a sexually immoral woman. What kind of woman, especially in the time of Jesus, would have had five spouses? Still, Jesus doesn’t say anything condemning. There doesn’t seem to be any judgment in his words. He’s very direct. He states the truth about her. And yet, somehow, in his words, Jesus says enough for her to feel transformed. When she goes and tells the other in her city about Jesus, she doesn’t tell them about the rest of their long conversation. She just says, “This man told me everything about my life.” Surely, the fact that she was married five times, and living with yet another man would have been common knowledge. Clearly, the woman hears more in Jesus’ words than just the words themselves. Jesus sees her and knows her.
What about us? Does Jesus see us? Know us? For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sorting through all of my photographs – the ones that I actually have printed out, from the pre-digital era. You see, I bought a certificate that will allow me to get 1000 photos scanned by a service that will then put them all on a disc, so I can have them in a digital format, and share them online, and send them to friends, and do all the other things we like to do with our photos these days. As I was sorting and sorting, I was struck by the change in photography over the years. Of course, there’s the improvement in the quality of our cameras. Today’s images are crisp and sharp, and I have so many piles of pictures that would have been great images if they weren’t dark and blurry. But you know what else is different? So many of my old photos include images where someone’s eyes are closed, or where the shot isn’t centered quite in the right way, or someone’s thumb is in the photo a bit, or you’ve caught someone in an awkward pose or making a funny face or otherwise messing up the perfect photo. Today, I can easily take a dozen photos if I’m trying to capture a moment, and I can delete the eleven versions that aren’t quite right, so that the only one I’ll share is the one that looks perfect. No more eyes closed. No more hairs out of place. No more someone looking the wrong way, at least not with a little extra effort. But I wonder about all the real life we’re deleting in those other photos that never see the light of day. Of course, I want to look my best. But I wonder what it says when we only want to show each other these perfect versions of our lives.
Does God see us? Know us? The non-perfect version of us? Do we want God to see us and know us? I think of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Along with some influence from the serpent, Adam and Eve disobey God’s commands, and they eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And once they eat of it, they become aware that they are naked, and they’re ashamed, and they hide from God. They become acutely aware that God can see them – really see them. And they’re ashamed and scared because of it.
Do we want God to see us and know us? At one of my churches, we studied together the classic work by Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline. In the book, Foster examines several spiritual disciplines, like prayer, worship, solitude, and fasting, and invites readers to try engaging in each practice. My class members did fine – until we got to the chapter on confession. In the chapter, Foster talks about the meaningful impact confessing his sins – not just privately to God – but confessing them to a friend in Christ – has had on his faith journey. He writes, “Confession is a difficult Discipline for us because we all too often view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners. We feel that everyone else has advanced so far into holiness that we are isolated and alone in our sin. We cannot bear to reveal our failures and shortcomings to others. We imagine that we are the only ones who have not stepped onto the high road to heaven. Therefore, we hide ourselves from one another and live in veiled lies and hypocrisy. (145) Foster shares about writing his sins out, one by one, on a sheet of paper, and reading them to a trusted friend and guide. When he was done, he went to put the paper with his confessions back into his briefcase, but his friend took the paper from his hands, ripped it into a hundred tiny pieces, and threw the pieces into the trash can. In this fact, Foster felt overwhelmed with a deep sense of forgiveness. He writes, “We do not have to make God willing to forgive. In fact, it is God who is working to make us willing to seek … forgiveness.” (153)
We do not have to make God willing to forgive us. Do you know that? Believe that? Do you know that God is working to make you ready to seek and receive God’s forgiveness? You do not have to make God willing to forgive you. This is the truth: Jesus already knows you. Jesus can already tell you everything about yourself, even what you’d rather keep hidden. God already knows you. In fact, God created you – every part of you. God knows you inside and out, and love you entirely. Listen to the words of Psalm 139: “For it was you [God] who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” God already knows you. Or there are the words from 1 Corinthians – I’ve already told you that they’re some of my favorite: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” God knows us, and knowing us, loves us.
Jesus really saw the woman at the well, and he really knew her. And she wasn’t afraid. She didn’t hide. I think she was relieved, overjoyed that someone finally really knew her. Even thousands of years later, it’s easy for us to tell ourselves we know her story. Married five times! Well, at least we would never do that. Do we stop to ask ourselves why she’d been married so many times? A woman in Jesus’ day could only initiate a divorce in extremely limited circumstances. Or was she widowed? Did she lose more than one spouse to death? Was she considered barren? Did she keep getting offers of water to drink that weren’t the living water of which Jesus spoke? Maybe she was looking for someone who would come to know her fully and still want her, still love her, even after all they knew. Jesus knew this woman, and she was relieved. He didn’t speak with judgment. He told her the truth. He actually took time to speak with her, to spend time with her, to treat her as someone of worth. She was so moved by this, she couldn’t wait to tell others. “He told me everything I have ever done,” she says. And her unspoken words are: “And he still wanted to talk to me.” Jesus saw her, knew her, loved her. She didn’t hide from it, being known. Instead, she let it change her life.
Friends, God already knows you. There is nothing, nothing that you have to hide from God. You don’t have to convince God to forgive you. God is already longing for, working for a deeper relationship with you. What would our lives be like if we let ourselves believe that? What if we remembered, when we are ready to stand in judgment of each other, that God knows that person already too, loves them too. Come and see, friends. Come and see this Jesus, come and see God who knows all about me, and all about you. Amen.  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon for Second Sunday of Lent, Year A, "Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Nicodemus," John 3:1-17

Sermon 3/12/17
John 3:1-17

Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Nicodemus

            When I was little, the small country church I went to in Westernville had a big emphasis in Sunday School on memorizing Bible verses. Every week we’d spend some time going over verses, and in the older classes, we’d actually get 5 cents for every verse we could memorize. I was certainly inspired by promise of such riches, and could memorize quite a lot of verses! Today we don’t focus so much on memorizing verses, which has some pros and cons – a single verse taken out of context doesn’t always do you much good, and in fact, can lead you to wrong conclusions when you don’t know the rest of what’s happened in a passage. Remember, just last week we read about Satan quoting scripture verses to Jesus, which didn’t mean a lot to Jesus taken out of context. Well, you may not know many Bible verses by heart, but if you know any, John 3:16 is probably on your list. You might even know it in the way you learned it as a child – in the King James Version. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Yet, even though we know that verse so well, here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about – do you know the context? How do we hear these words? What happens before and after they’re said?
            Today, we’re listening in on an encounter between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, an interpreter and scholar of the Law of Moses. And not just a Pharisee, but Nicodemus was a leader among the Pharisees. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was kind of a Supreme Court, a group of high-ranking judges. So, Nicodemus is a person of some stature in the community. John’s gospel tells us that Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night.” John uses themes of light and dark a lot in his gospel, so the time of day here is significant. Nicodemus perhaps doesn’t want anyone to know what he is doing. Jesus and the Pharisees were often at odds with each other over how to interpret and implement the words of scripture, and increasingly, leaders among the Pharisees view Jesus as a threat. Nicodemus wants to talk to Jesus himself, but he’s not ready to be out in the open about it.
            Nicodemus address Jesus as a teacher, a sign of respecting his authority. “Rabbi,” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus’s admissions are significant. He and his colleagues know who Jesus is, he says. They believe he is from God. They’ve seen evidence in the signs Jesus has done that have convinced them that Jesus is from God. Nicodemus doesn’t ask Jesus any questions, but Jesus responds as if he had nonetheless. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus says. Nicodemus and other leaders might recognize that Jesus is from God, has God’s presence with him, but that’s not the same as experiencing the kingdom of God, God’s reign, God’s vision for the earth coming to fruition, which is the focus of Jesus’ ministry. Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying though. He takes his words too literally “How can someone be born after growing old?” he asks. “Can someone enter their mother’s womb again to be born anew?” He doesn’t get what Jesus is saying. So Jesus elaborates, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” He continues, saying: Don’t be astonished that I said that you have to be born from above. The Spirit is like the wind: you don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, but you hear it, and feel it moving. The Spirit works in the same way. That’s what it means to be born from above, born of water and Spirit. Nicodemus still doesn’t understand. “How can these things be?” he wonders. In turn, Jesus wonders that one who is meant to be a teacher and interpreter of the law can’t understand what he’s saying. Jesus concludes, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
So, what’s this Jesus mentions about Moses lifting up the serpent? His words are strange if you don’t know the context. Jesus is talking about something we can find in the book of Numbers, chapter 21, this story of the bronze serpent. The Israelites were still wandering in the desert, on their forty year journey to the Promised Land. They were complaining again to God and Moses about food and water. This is something that happens repeatedly on their journey from slavery to freedom. These passages are known as the “murmurings,” although I wonder if “mutterings” would be a more apt description. The Israelites are on their way to the land God has promised, and they’re on their way from a terrible life of slavery and oppression. God has been coming through on every promise God has made to them. And yet, whenever things get difficult, they complain, muttering and murmuring about their plight. 
This particular time when they start complaining, poisonous snakes are sent among the people. The snakes would bite the people, and the people would die. The people understood these snakes to be a punishment on them from God. So finally, they come to Moses and confess their sinfulness, and ask Moses for help. Moses prays for the people, and he hears God’s voice, telling him to create a serpent out of bronze that would be fixed to a pole. The passage concludes, “Whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” I find this story kind of bizarre. Making a bronze snake seems like a strange solution, a strange cure for these snake bites. But this strange sequence of events makes them look their fear and sin and mutterings right in the face. The snake has become a symbol of their turning away from God, and they have to look that right in the face in order to experience healing. The Israelites need to believe and trust in their relationship with God and God’s promises to them, and as they look their sin in the face, they experience reconciliation and life.
That brings us back to Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” In the Greek, the word “lifted up” is actually the same as the word “crucified.” Just as the Israelites looked their sin in the face in order to live, so too we look at Jesus, face to face, raised up in offering his life for ours, and so too we look our sin in the face, our turning away from God, that we might live. And that’s what Jesus wants for us: that we might live, that we might have eternal life – that we might live completely in God’s kingdom, that we might experience God’s vision for us in all its fullness, that we might be born anew in the full potential that God wants for us and for our world. Nicodemus knows that Jesus is a teacher, and knows that he’s from God, that God’s presence is in Jesus. But does he “get” the heart of what Jesus is trying to tell him?
I was always a good student throughout school. I wasn’t always a vegan, or even vegetarian, but even still, I didn’t want to take biology and dissect animals, and so in tenth grade, when most of my peers were taking biology, I signed up for physics. Most of the rest of the tenth graders who chose the physics over biology wanted to become engineers and were trying to get a jump start on the classes they’d need so they could get an AP physics class in before we graduated. For me, physics was the most math-centric, something I liked, so I thought I would enjoy it. Indeed, I did get good grades in physics, mostly because of the math. Math always made sense to me. You follow rule one and rule two and you get the right answer. At one point, my teacher even called my parents to suggest to them that I should consider a career in the sciences. But I knew better. Yes, I could get the right answers because I could memorize the formulas and I could apply the formula in the right situation to get the right answer. But physics made me feel in a way that I hadn’t in any other class that I really didn’t understand the why of what we were talking about. I could get the right answer, but I didn’t really understand why thing work like they do. The concepts didn’t really make sense to me. And even if I didn’t understand the concepts, I did know that really being a scientist would mean knowing more than how to get the right answer.
            Sometimes, when it comes to our journey of discipleship, we can get hung up on believing and knowing in ways that miss the mark a bit. We can believe an awful lot of things about Jesus, about God, about the Bible, about faith. We can know a lot of things about Jesus. We could recite some creeds, or share some facts, or affirm, “I believe Jesus is my Savior.” Those things are important and have their place, just like knowing the formula is important in physics. But it won’t get you very far if that’s all you have. We need to shift our focus from “believing in Jesus” to “believing Jesus,” from “knowing about Jesus” to “knowing Jesus.” Nicodemus knew about Jesus. But he hadn’t yet come to know Jesus. He was a scholar, and yet his faith was immature, because his life hadn’t yet been transformed by his relationship with God, by his encounter with Jesus. I think of him, and then I think of the disciples: they weren’t scholars. They didn’t know what Nicodemus did. But they knew Jesus, and they left everything to follow him.
            Nicodemus sort of fades out from this encounter with Jesus. We don’t how Nicodemus responds, at least immediately, to what he hears from Jesus. Clearly Jesus’ words have overwhelmed him, and the scriptures record no response. What we do see in the gospels is Nicodemus appearing later – first when the Pharisees are urging action against Jesus, and Nicodemus reminds them that the law doesn’t condemn people without giving them a trial first. And then, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. So we know that Nicodemus doesn’t immediately drop his nets, so to speak, to follow Jesus. But it seems like something might be sinking in by degrees. I hope eventually Nicodemus let himself know Jesus, and know new, transforming life in the Spirit, in God’s kingdom.
            What about us, friends? What conversations do we bring to Jesus by night? What do we see in Jesus, as he is raised up, and we look at him face to face? And what does Jesus see in us? I pray that we will let Jesus draw is into the light, that we might not just know about him, but know him, and be known by him, as our lives become new creations, transformed by God’s love. Amen.      

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent, Year A, "Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Satan," Matthew 4:1-11

Sermon 3/5/17
Matthew 4:1-11

Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Satan

            This Lent, our theme is Encounter with Jesus. Each week, we’ll be looking at some one-on-one conversations that Jesus has with folks – Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Martha of Bethany – and even, today, Satan. And as we listen in on each of these conversations, we’ll have a chance to put ourselves into the conversation. When we encounter Jesus, what does he have to say to us? What do we have to say to him? What is he calling us to do? Or maybe an even more basic question: Do we encounter Jesus? If not, why aren’t we meeting him?
            Today we start by listening in on a conversation between Jesus and Satan. In the lectionary, the three year cycle of scripture texts for the church year, Lent always begins with what is known as “the temptation of Jesus.” The scene from Matthew takes place immediately after the baptism of Jesus. We read about Jesus’ baptism together in January. Remember, Jesus is baptized by John, and as he emerges from the Jordan, the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove, and God’s voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We move directly from Jesus’ baptism to Jesus’ time in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan. The text says that Jesus was in the wilderness fasting for forty days and nights, and that at the end of this period he was unsurprisingly famished. I always pictured the wilderness as a kind of wild forest place, but actually the word means desert. Jesus is alone in a desert place, a desolate place, for forty days. Scholars have sometimes disagreed about whether or not Jesus was literally in the wilderness for forty days, and they’ve debated over whether he was truly and completely fasting from food or water that whole time, something that would surely be impossible for any mere human, but I think those questions are missing the point. The number forty in the scriptures is laden with meaning. The flood lasted forty day and nights. The Israelites were in the wilderness with Moses, seeking the Promised Land for forty years. Jesus is in the desert for forty days and nights. It means he was there a long time. And so our season of Lent is also shaped around forty days. Lent is a way we commit to walking with Jesus, trying to join him in this wilderness place and in his longer journey of heading resolutely to Jerusalem and the cross. We begin Lent with this text so that we can begin our walk with Jesus.
            Matthew tells us that the Spirit – the Spirit that just marked Jesus at his baptism – the Spirit leads him to the wilderness to be tempted. This experience, this encounter with Satan, is as much a part of his preparation for his public ministry as his baptism was. Not until after these forty days apart will Jesus begin preaching and teaching. After the forty days, when I can only imagine he is exhausted, physically drained, and emotionally raw and vulnerable, Satan comes to him. The text doesn’t describe Satan, and the Bible as a whole offers a lot of different interpretations of Satan. Whatever form comes to your mind, Satan’s purpose is to separate us from God. I’m suspicious of any time we try to use a concept of Satan to remove the responsibility for our sins from ourselves to something else, as in “the Devil made me do it.” But I certainly believe that there are many forces that seek to separate us from God, both within us and around us. Again, focusing too much on the form of Satan misses the point. The point is that Jesus experiences in this encounter three temptations, three opportunities to turn away from the path he’s about to travel.
First, Satan encourages a famished Jesus to turn stones into bread to eat. “If you are the Son of God,” Satan says, and you can almost hear the heavy emphasis on the if, the doubt laced into the words. Jesus responds with scripture: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Then Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and tells him to throw himself down “if you are the Son of God,” “for it is written,” he says, “’He will command his angels concerning you.’” Satan quotes scripture right back at Jesus, taking words out of context, using them to cause harm. Jesus is not taken in. “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he responds. Finally, Satan takes him to a high mountain, overlooking the kingdoms of the world, promising them all to Jesus if Jesus will worship him. Jesus rebukes him: “Away with you Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God; serve only God.’” Defeated, Satan leaves Jesus alone at last.
            What is the meaning of these tests that Jesus faces? Satan urges Jesus to believe that he can’t depend on God, that God won’t give him enough, that Jesus needs more, and has to take it when he can get it. He tries to convince Jesus to test God, to believe that he can’t trust God or God’s love. He tempts Jesus with power, to believe that he needs power of a particular kind – earthly power, power over others, power that comes from being in charge of everything. And yet, I don’t know why any of these things would be particularly tempting for Jesus. Jesus seems to so easily knock down what Satan throws his way. Is he really tempted to say otherwise? To take him up on any of these offers? I can read this passage and almost think, “Gosh, I could have avoided those temptations too!” It seems so easy to see through the motivations of the devil. It seems so clear that Jesus must and will refuse these sham offers of fame and glory and fortune. Did this “temptation” really cost Jesus, or stress him, or push him, or bring him great pain? Was he teetering on the brink of giving in? I don’t see it. I’m skeptical. And yet, for the gospel writers, the passage is clearly important. What are we missing?
Satan doesn’t ask Jesus to do anything that it is outside of his power to do already. The devil encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread for food. Well, we witness in the scriptures Jesus turning water into wine and Jesus feeding crowds of thousands. The devil tells Jesus that he will give Jesus glory and authority over the kingdoms of the world if Jesus worships the devil. But Jesus speaks occasionally of knowing that if God had chosen, Jesus could have been an earthly king with kingdoms to rule – he wouldn’t need this power from the devil. And the devil tells Jesus to test God’s love and care for him, but Jesus has just come from hearing God say directly at his baptism that Jesus was God’s beloved son, that God was well-pleased with him.
So these temptations aren’t tempting because Jesus can’t do them without the devil’s help. They are tempting to Jesus in a different, deeper way. Remember, I said that Satan is what or who tries to separate us from God. And remember that repeated phrase that Satan speaks to Jesus: “If you are the Son of God…” Satan wants to separate Jesus from who he belongs to, and he tries to do it by making Jesus have an identity crisis. What the devil offers is what Jesus already has and already can do, but in a short-cut way that corrupts and twists. What the devil asks Jesus to do is to forget who he is, what he is called to do, whose child he is, what his purpose is. Jesus knows what he’s come for – but the devil is trying to convince him that he can get the same things in a supposedly easier way. Satan is trying to convince Jesus that there’s an easier path to power and glory than the path God has him on. After all, the path Jesus is on includes being abandoned, denied and betrayed by his closest friends, being beaten and tried, and being put to death. Shouldn’t Jesus choose his own path, his plan, instead of God’s? And that is tempting. Satan wants to cut Jesus off from his source, from his true identity, from the grounding he has in his parent, in God who has set him on this difficult path. Thankfully, Jesus knows better. He knows who he is, whose he is. He belongs to God. He is beloved. He is God’s child. And he will follow God’s path.
What about us? Are we tempted to forget our identity? Can we be separated from God, forgetting whose we are? Here is a temptation that seems very real, very hard, ever present. There are so many things that seek to separate us from who we belong to. David Lose writes, “I would argue that temptation is not so often temptation toward something … but rather is usually the temptation away from something – namely, our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship ... On one level, we experience specific temptations very concretely, but on another they are all the same, as they seek to shift our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that promises a more secure identity … Consider the media barrage of advertising to which most of us are so regularly subjected. Nine times out of ten the goal of such ads is to create in us a sense of lack and inadequacy, followed by the implicit promise that purchasing the advertised product will relieve our insecurity … People are under assault every single day by tempting messages that seek to draw their allegiance from the God who created and redeemed them toward some meager substitute.” (1)
Lose writes, “You only know who you are when you realize whose you are …Our identity comes from the people with whom we hang out and is always received, rather than created. It comes, that is, always as a gift and a promise. And that’s why it’s so important to [remember] that you only know who you are when you realize whose you are.” (2) Who we are, dear friends, are God’s beloved children. That’s who we are. Don’t be tempted to let anything get in between you and that knowledge.
            I’ve been encouraging folks to make a special effort to attend worship and to attend some of the “extra” experiences of worship and community that Lent brings because remembering who and whose we are is easier when we ground ourselves in our faith, ground ourselves in our relationship with God, ground ourselves in the community of faith that is supporting us, encouraging us, trying to walk with Jesus too, like we are. The best thing we can do to resist the lure of separating ourselves from God, forgetting our own identity, is to make sure we stay firmly rooted in God, so that whenever something tries to separate us from God, we’ll be far too secure in God’s promises to be drawn away. Jesus knew who he was and whose he was. Let’s make sure we know too. Amen.

(1) David Lose,

(2) Emphasis added. Lose, David, 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon, "Us and Them: Should Christians Be Involved in Politics?" Jeremiah 29:1-14

Sermon 2/26/17
Jeremiah 29:1-14

Us and Them: Should Christians Be Involved in Politics?

            Today we’re diving in to a somewhat controversial question. Should Christians – should churches – should pastors – should we be involved in politics? When we think about “politics,” many of us jump right to relentless election cycles and negative campaigns and name-calling and corruption, and a gut response is: Let’s get as far away from that as possible! Of course we shouldn’t get mixed up in politics! I think, though, for us to answer our question – should we be involved in politics? – we have to start by understanding what politics is, or at least what it is meant to be. The word “politics” has many connotations today, but its origin is more simple and straightforward. It comes from the Greek root word polis, which means “city.” Politics simply meant “the affairs of the city.” In other words, politics meant, means things that are related to the concerns of the places where people live.
Our scripture passage today comes from a time when the Israelites were living in exile in Babylon. Israel had gone through a long period of being conquered by foreign nations and being occupied by foreign rule, and eventually, even sent out from their homeland to live in other nations. Not all of Jerusalem was sent to live in exile, but the leaders – the royal family, and many of the priests and the prophets, even the artisans – all the people responsible for essentially “running the nation” – they were all exiled to Babylon. Jeremiah, a prophet, wasn’t in Israel either. He was living and writing from Egypt. He too was far from home, and had deep insight into what his people were going through. 
            Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiled leaders in Babylon. He says that God has this message for them, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. [Get married] and have [children]. Watch your children get married and have children. Continue to grow your family, your people. Multiply there, and don’t decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” I can only imagine that the people found Jeremiah’s words shocking: Seek the welfare of Babylon? Seek the welfare of the nation that had essentially captured and imprisoned them far from home? But Jeremiah urges the people to live, really live, really thrive, even in Babylon, and to care for even what happens to Babylon.
            “Seek the welfare of the city.” In the Hebrew text, the word we read as “welfare” is the word “shalom.” If this word is familiar to you, you might know it is often translated as “peace.” But unfortunately, we sometimes use the word “peace” as a throwaway. It loses some of its power. Doug Priest writes, “The meaning of shalom goes farther. It means wholeness and health. Shalom refers to the internal peace we have in our soul, spirit, and body. But shalom is even more than that. It applies to our relationships at work and to our relationship with nature and creation. As one author wrote, ‘To have shalom is to be whole and healthy in yourself and in all that challenges you, be it people, be it the issues of your world, your environment, your society, or be it the problems which are at hand, the problems which await you.’” (1)
            God tells them that after seventy years’ time, Israel will be able to return home. Of course, some of the people Jeremiah is writing to won’t even live to see that day. But their children and grandchildren will. God urges them to think about the future, about the world they want their descendants to have. God says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you … plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” When the people call on God, pray to God, God will hear. When they search for God, they will find God, if they seek with their whole hearts. “I will let you find me.” God says. And I will gather you back together, and restore you, and bring you back home. If they seek the shalom of the city – even in Babylon – they will find God, find that future and hope God promises.
            In the broadest, purest sense, to be political is to be deeply concerned with the affairs of the places where people live. And I find in Jeremiah’s writing, in God’s words, a call to be deeply invested in working for shalom – the wholeness and health and thriving of the places where people live. God calls us to be invested in building up not just our own lives, but the whole community, building for the generations to come. God promises us a future, with hope – when we make sure it is God’s vision for shalom that we’re pursuing. I think pursuing God’s future for the world is political. We’re choosing and advocating for God’s principles to guide and shape our world over many sets of alternative principles!
            I think our role as people of faith is to work on God’s behalf for true shalom. Our United Methodist heritage includes a long history people working for change in their world and their communities, grounded in and driven by their faith.       Today, our United Methodist Book of Discipline – our book of rules that shape our order and structure – includes Social Principles, our statement of belief on almost any social issue you can think of, from military service to the death penalty to climate change to gun control. That doesn’t mean that all United Methodists think the same things. The point is: we have a historic commitment to letting our faith guide our action in the world. In the introduction and preamble to our Social Principles, we read:
“[We believe] God's love for the world is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty. We cannot just be observers. So we care enough about people's lives to risk interpreting God's love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex. The church helps us think and act out a faith perspective … We know ourselves to be responsible to God for social and political life.” (2)
            We don’t just have to think about these questions of faith and politics in the abstract. We happen to have several local politicians who are active in our community of faith. They were willing to let me ask them some questions, and either via email or in person, shared their responses with me. I was able to speak with Ron McDougall, our mayor, Charles Newvine, deputy mayor, and Travis Dann, town justice. Dede Scozzafava, who has a long history in state politics, has been down south, or we would have had her input as well. I’m so thankful to all of them for being willing to answer my questions. Here’s a bit of what I learned.
            I asked each of them how they got involved in politics. Travis wrote, “I grew up in a family of service.  My earliest memories are of my Dad as a volunteer fireman and fire chief … I never realized how ingrained in me that service had become until long after I had become a Trooper.  Service to others was simply what everyone around me did.” Charles, too, has roots in his family that led him to public service. He said, “I became involved in politics 8 years ago. I started going to Village board meetings … just to listen and learn what was going on in my community ... Working with the public at Newvine's Auto Parts allows me to have "my thumb on the pulse" of my constituents. Which … allows me to hear both sides of the story and it also allows me the opportunity to see opposite ends of the public. People that are very well off and have lavish things as well as others who can't afford necessary parts to keep their vehicle safe and severely struggle to get by … I wanted to represent all people. People from all walks of life. I wanted to get involved because I care about the future of my children and the future of everyone's children in Gouverneur.” As I sat and talked with Ron, I learned that he’s been involved in politics for most of his adult life. In the 70s, he was a union leader. A decade later, he was the President of the Labor Council in Northern New York. He was a delegate for the DNC. Once he was retired, certain folks, including his wife, encouraged him to get involved in local politics. He became a village trustee, then deputy mayor, then mayor. His early experience as a union leader really shaped and prepared him for the positions he would later hold.
            I asked: Should Christians be involved in politics? Ron thought about the time of Jesus – how even the story of Jesus’ birth has political overtones. In Luke’s gospel, we read that Jesus ends up born in Bethlehem because of the registration and tax program of the Roman Empire. Jesus was a champion of those on the fringes of society, and Ron sees a parallel in the way politics can work to seek fairness for all people. Travis asks, “If Christians are NOT involved in politics, who will fill those roles?” He writes, “Christians have been made out to be outside of popular, mainstream culture while our love of Jesus is labelled as outdated … We must stand up and be proud to be Christians, not be pushed into oblivion!” Charles writes, “All people should be involved in politics. To me that is the essence of what makes the world great. The opportunity to make life better for everyone ... I want all people to get involved … I wish people would see that the reason to be involved in politics is make the community a better place.”
            I asked each of them how their faith shapes their work and supports what they do, even as we acknowledge our understanding of the separation of church and state. Ron spoke about how his prayer life undergirds his work in the community, and he spoke about the active roles in their faith communities that many of our local politicians have. He talked about our origins of faith as a nation, and how people came to this land seeking the freedom to practice their faith as they desired. We often forget that, he said. Travis shared, “I returned to my faith well after I had accepted my life of service.  As I have grown in my faith, it has helped me grow in my service and they feed each other.” He cited James’ words about faith being shown in our good works as “particularly poignant” for him. “They really do go together!” he said. “I have been a better Trooper and Legislator as my faith grew and my faith grew as I became better at my jobs.” Charles admitted that this is a “hard question. The foundations of my faith came from my parents. I strive to be like them … I am most recently questioning my faith and how I can faithfully, undoubtedly make Jesus Christ a part of everything I do. It is a hard concept for me to grasp … I struggle with my faith even more than I struggle with politics and believe me, politics are a struggle … Am I washing [peoples’] feet? Is my heart as true to theirs as theirs is to mine? Am I asking for their hand? Am I showing compassion as Jesus did while not expecting anything in return? My work in politics is a way to reach people on a different level in hopes to fulfill my quest in faith. It fills my heart to see people come to me for advice. It makes me proud to think that people trust me enough to allow me the opportunity to speak on their behalf.” Charles gets bonus points for quoting my sermons, but I also appreciate his reflections on the struggle that we all have to daily live out the principles of our faith.
            I asked Ron, Travis and Charles about the current divisions in our nation, and asked them to share examples of working across “dividing lines” in local politics. Fortunately, they affirmed my impression that in our local community, long-lasting personal relationships are more important than political affiliations. Ron talked about recommending a Republican to fill a certain vacant position, even though he is a Democrat. Some of his colleagues were surprised, and said, “Are you sure?” But Ron said: I know him. I know that he’ll do the job to the best of his ability. I know that he’s the most qualified.” Charles wrote, “The common ground we find in our small community is for the greater good. It is amazing to see. The new community center, Riverview Park, Gouverneur Hospital, infrastructure upgrades and the Chamber of Commerce are all great examples of people working together across party lines to make this community even better than it already is.” Travis shared, “In local politics, everyone knows everyone personally.  It is far easier to "bash" someone you don't know in a personal way than to do the same to someone you sit across the aisle [from] at church.” 
            I asked them about the challenges they see our area facing, and their hope and vision for our future. All three shared similar challenges with which most of us could identify. Travis said, “[In] order for our kids to be "successful" we, most often, must encourage them to go away.  We don't have the number of productive CAREERS here that we used to have … This feeds into the national political divide and adds to a feeling of hopelessness.  Feelings of hopelessness lead into the drug issues that plague our community.” Ron talked about the standard of living and the need for more affordable housing options. Charles identified poverty, unemployment, and stagnant business growth. But all three also laid out a vision for a future with hope. Charles wrote that he sets his eyes on a Gouverneur as a place for his children and the children of the community to have a strong and vibrant future. “After all,” he said, “I am just borrowing time” from them. Ron says that he has to have faith when he imagines a future for Gouverneur. You have to see the glass as half-full, have to see the potential and possibility, he says. If you can’t see what might be, the potential, he said, politics is the wrong business for you, and you aren’t practicing your faith! Travis wrote, “Our men's group often agreed that we were on the edge of a spiritual revival here.  I still believe that is happening!”
            God calls us to seek after the welfare, the shalom, the wholeness of the place where we live – whether where we are is just where we want to be, or whether where we are is far from what we’d call home. Either way, God’s people are meant to seek and to cultivate shalom, a deep peace that comes from reconciliation and right relationship with God and one another. Maybe that’s not what we think of when we think of “politics” today. But I can’t think of anything that more embodies being concerned with the “affairs of the city” than working together for true shalom. Should Christians be political? I’ll echo Travis’s words. If not Christians, then who is it that we want to fill these roles? So let us seek after the welfare, the shalom, of our world, our nation, and our community right here. For God has plans for us, plans for a future with hope. And when we seek God with all our hearts, I believe we will find the shalom we seek. Amen.

(1) Priest, Doug. “Seek the Shalom of the City,” Priest’s quote is unattributed.

(2) Excerpts from the Book of Discipline 2016 of The United Methodist Church, introduction/preamble to the Social Principles, and the introduction to the section on The Political Community. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sermon, "Us and Them: Agreeing and Disagreeing," 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Sermon 2/19/17
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Us and Them: Agreeing and Disagreeing

            I was visiting with a parishioner yesterday, and she was telling me how she mostly watches sport on TV because she doesn’t think there’s anything else on worth watching. She said, “I thought it would be better once the election is over, but…” and she let her sentence trail off. I’m sure we can easily fill in the rest for her. We thought tensions would ebb – but there is so much fear, so much anger, so much pain, so much hurt, so much division. I have strong political views, and I’m sure many of you do as well, but I’ve found myself wanting to disengage lately, even where I’m passionate about issues, because the level of meanness is exhausting. I’ve noticed that a handful of my friends have quit facebook altogether lately. Somehow we think that our words and actions online don’t count, and people seem free to be hurtful online in a way they remember not to in “real life.” I’m not giving up on facebook, but I will admit that I’ve used the “hide” feature more than once, allowing me to not see posts from people who have nothing nice to say. I’m weary. We talked last Sunday about our call to live out our baptismal vows, to seek justice and extend welcome in God’s name. But it is hard to act, to stay faithful and strong when it feels like everyone is getting clobbered out there in the world. I’m not na├»ve, and I don’t expect or even want us to all be of one mind and one voice. But I’m saddened and fearful when I see that disagreement turn into fights turn into wars.
And so today, we turn back to 1 Corinthians, the book we were looking at this fall when we talked about our theme “Church Can Happen Anywhere.” The Corinthians are the perfect community to think about when we need to look at conflict and God’s call to us in the midst of turmoil and division. Our passage for today comes from near the very beginning of 1 Corinthians. Paul doesn’t waste any time getting to the point of his letter to this new faith community. After nine verses of greeting and blessing, he jumps right in: “I appeal to you, in the name of Jesus: be in agreement with each other. Don’t have divisions among you. Be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” He goes on to describe that he’s heard reports from some of Chloe’s people. We don’t know anything much about Chloe – this is the only place her name is mentioned. But the verse suggests that she was a person of some significance or leadership in the church at Corinth. At any rate, Chloe’s people want Paul to know what’s been going on in Corinth.
In the early faith communities, one particular leader would be the founder – the first person who came to the place to share the message of Jesus and the good news about God’s grace. But that person would move on to other communities, and other teachers and preachers would eventually come and visit with the fledgling church. Apparently, at least three people have had an impact on the community at Corinth – Paul, Apollos, and Cephas – who we know better by his Hebrew name Simon Peter. All of them have been through Corinth and taught the people there about Jesus and how to be followers of Jesus. But something troubling has happened. People in Corinth have started identifying more with the messenger of the good news than with the message, and so instead of being followers of Jesus, people are claiming that they are followers of Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas. Each of these teachers would have had a unique way of sharing the message – just like no pastor you’ve had here is the same – but people are starting to divide and align themselves with whichever teacher they liked best.
Paul very quickly lets them know that this is not the way to go about things. “Has Christ been divided,” he asks, or “was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” The unspoken resounding answer to all of these questions is, of course, NO. Paul says he was sent to proclaim the good news, but that his preaching wasn’t full of eloquent wisdom. This is a good thing though, he concludes, because then people know that the power of the message he shares is from Jesus and the cross, not from Paul himself. The message of Jesus and the cross might seem like foolishness to those who haven’t received it, who don’t understand the strength of Jesus offering his life for us – but when we get it, when we believe and understand – the message of Jesus is the saving power of God. Grounded in the message of Jesus, Paul spends the whole rest of the letter urging the Corinthians to work for reconciliation, and healing of conflict and division.
            Last week I shared with you John Wesley’s words from his sermon Catholic Spirit. He asked if we could be of one heart, even if we were not of one opinion. I want to tell you a bit more about the sermon those words come from. Wesley was preaching on a passage from 2 Kings. In the passage, we meet a man named Jehu who has been anointed by the prophet Elisha as the next king of Israel. Jehu is on a mission to stop the worship of the god Baal, and to destroy a temple to Baal, so that Israel will be faithful to God once again. On his way to confront the priests of Baal, he meets a man named Jehonadab on the road. Jehonadab is a Kenite, not an Israelite. He has some different ways of worshiping God, and he has a different lifestyle from Jehu and the Israelites. But he’s somewhat of a sage, a wise counselor among his people. Jehu sees him and says to him: “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” And Jehonadab answers, “It is.” And so Jehu says, “If it is, give me your hand.” Jehonadab does, and together, they go to return Israel to a faithful worship of God.
            It is this exchange of words that Wesley uses as the centerpiece of his sermon. Wesley writes, "’If it be, give me thy hand.’ I do not mean, ‘Be of my opinion.’ You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, ‘I will be of your opinion.’ I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavor to come over to me, or bring me over to you … Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only ‘give me thine hand.’”
            Wesley sees a lot of room for being in relationship with one another even where opinions are very different. This was an important topic for him to think about, because he was long-engaged in a struggle with his own church, the Church of England, about theology and worship practices, and engaged in a struggle with his own Methodist movement about whether or not the Americas should break away from England to be their own people and own faith movement. Still, Wesley didn’t believe that relationships could flourish without solid common ground. That’s the “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours” part. Here’s how Wesley interpreted these words. He asks: Is your heart right with God? Do you believe in God and God’s perfection? Do you believe in Jesus? Is Jesus revealed in your soul? Does he dwell in your heart? Is your faith filled with the energy of love? Do you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind? Are you busy doing God’s will and work in the world? Do you serve God faithfully and reverently? Is your heart right toward you neighbor? Do you love all people without exception, even your enemies? Do you show your love with good works? In order to say that your hearts were true to each other, Wesley expected you to be able to answer yes to all these questions! That’s a lot of common ground. Interestingly, Wesley doesn’t say anything about specific theological tenets, even though he would argue fervently for his points of view, and he doesn’t say anything specific about worship practices, although he had strong feelings about them, and he doesn’t even claim any particular religious tradition as correct, even acknowledging in his sermon that everyone thinks they’re right about everything, but no one really can know that they’ve got all the answers. (1) If, Wesley says, your heart is true to mine as mine is to yours, then we might join hands and journey together. We do this, he says, not by coming to hold the same opinions and practices, but instead by loving one another, praying for one another, and encouraging each other to love and good works.
            I find Wesley’s words to be powerful. He was an extremely opinionated person. He wrote about everything from politics to theology to nutrition to advice on how long people should sleep to writing a medical book with suggest treatments for a variety of illnesses. He considered himself kind of an expert in everything. I can only imagine that he was sometimes fairly difficult to be around. But even still, as right as he thought was about everything, he was more interested in finding some common ground for serving God than in making sure everyone else was just like him.
            The apostle Paul was like him – another strongly opinionated person who didn’t hold back from sharing how he thought things should be done. Yet, again and again Paul writes that in Christ Jesus, we are made new creations, and some of the old dividing lines fade in light of our identity in Christ. No longer Greek or Jew, male or female, slave or free – not because we’re all the same, and not because our diversity isn’t valuable, but because our common ground and common purpose is even more important. Paul Bellan-Boyer writes, “Clothing [ourselves with Christ does not erase our differences, but it does cover them, set them aside, put them in a new context … Paul does not ask that the Corinthians be identical – only that they cease to work at cross purposes, and instead work for cross purposes.” (2)
            I think, then, that’s a question we need to ask: Do we have some common ground that is more important to us than being right? Do we have some common ground on which we can build up our relationships? Do we have a common purpose that drives us? For many years, I served on the Board of Directors of the General Board of Church and Society or GBCS. That’s our denominations public policy and advocacy agency, located in Washington, DC. The agency, among other things, represents our United Methodist beliefs right on Capitol Hill. I’ll talk a bit more about their work next week, but today, I want to share this: GBCS would partner with a variety of different faith groups in order to amplify our voice on the Hill. Sometimes, we’d partner with faith groups where we had a lot of disagreement on a variety of issues. For example, United Methodists and Southern Baptists have different beliefs about a lot of theological and social issues. But we’d still work together when we could find common ground in our Christian identity on issues that mattered to both of us, even knowing that we would never share the same perspective on other important matters.
            “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours? … If it is, give me your hand.” In the midst of disagreeing, passionately, about issues that are near and dear to us, I think we can find some common ground in simple things, ways we can agree to treat each other. We can speak to each other face to face when we’re disagreeing, speak to each other directly, rather than to others about each other. We can avoid making generalizations and stereotypes about groups of people. We can talk about what we believe and why we believe it using “I statements” – “I think this, I believe this” – owning our words. We can remember that our online words are still ours – who we are online is who we are – period. We can remember to be critical of ideas, but hesitant to be critical of people. We can listen – really listen – to people with whom we disagree. We can be kind and compassionate. Simple things. Basic things. But these basic things can give us common ground worth standing on with the rest of humankind!
            And then, we can push ourselves to go deeper, friends. Remember the questions that Wesley asked: Is our heart right with God? Is Jesus revealed in our souls? Do we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind? Are we busy doing God’s will and work in the world? Do we love all people without exception, even our enemies? Do we show our love with good works? Friends – if together we can say yes to all of those questions, if we will, if we strive to be able to say “yes” with confidence to all of this – what differences could possibly hold us back from accomplishing God’s vision for the world? “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours? … If it is, give me your hand.” Amen.

(1) Wesley, John, Catholic Spirit,, and my own paraphrase of his words.  

(2) Bellan-Boyer, Paul.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon, "Us and Them: The Dividing Wall," Ephesians 2:11-22

Sermon 2/12/17
Ephesians 2:11-22

Us and Them: The Dividing Wall

One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” written in 1914. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” it begins. The poem describes two farmers – the narrator and another farmer who are neighbors. After winter, they find both set out to repair the wall between their properties, which has cracks and gaps after the weather of the season. As they’re walking the line together, the narrator asks his neighbor why they even need a wall, since the narrator has apple trees and the neighbor has pine trees, and it is clear which part belongs to each. The neighbor responds, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But the narrator persists: “‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.’” But in the end, his neighbor only repeats the proverb: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
I wonder: is that the only way we can relate to each other? Across fences? Is that the best we can hope for when it comes to being neighbors? Somehow, when Jesus calls to us throughout the gospels to love God and love neighbor as we love ourselves, I feel like he had something deeper in mind. And yet, we’re experiencing a time of extreme division, polarization as a nation, as a global community, and I’m sure you would agree that the impact of this division is spilling over into our local communities, into our everyday lives. Here, in our own congregations, we have some folks who voted for Donald Trump, and some who voted for Hillary Clinton, and maybe some who voted for someone else, and some who chose not to vote. Can we still be in relationship with each other? Could we actually talk about what we believe and why without resorting to arguments and heated words and strained friendships? And where does our faith come into play in the midst of this?
            Today we’re starting a new sermon series: “Us and Them.” We’ll be thinking about how we respond, as people of faith, to a nation, a world divided. We’ll be asking ourselves what God calls us to do and say, how God calls us to act, in light of all that is happening around us. And we’ll ask questions about what it means for Christians to be involved in politics. Should we do that? How do we do that? We’ll see what we can discover together over these next few weeks.  
            Our reading today is from the letter to the Ephesians, the community of Jesus-followers in Ephesus. We kind of drop right into the middle of the letter, where the author has been talking about God’s grace and how the Christians in Ephesians have been blessed and redeemed not by good works, as if salvation is something we can earn, but simply by the abundant gift of God’s grace. The Christians in Ephesus are Gentiles; that is, they were not Jewish or converts to Judaism. Instead, they simply became followers of Jesus once they heard the gospel, the good news preached to them. In the early church, there were a lot of different feelings about Gentile followers of Jesus. Some folks thought Gentile Christians should convert to Judaism as a part of their discipleship. After all, Jesus was Jewish and never abandoned following Jewish customs even as he taught people a new way of understanding their relationship with God. But others thought it made more sense simply to follow the teachings of Jesus. Circumcision was a physical difference that marked these groups of Christians. Jewish Christians were circumcised, and Gentile Christians were not. In many of our New Testament readings, like in the writings of Paul, we discover that there are ongoing tensions between the two groups of Christians, and how they related to each other and the church as a whole.
            Our author, though, doesn’t see any reason for tension and division. In fact, just the opposite. He argues that in Jesus Christ, those who were “far off” – that is those who were Gentiles and not part of the covenant God made with the Israelites that we read of in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament – those who were far off are brought near to God, near to God’s promises. “For [Christ] is our peace,” he says, and in his very flesh “he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Jesus creates “one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” All of us are reconciled to God through the same Jesus, he argues, so any hostility we have is put to death in the process. Jesus isn’t sent just to one group of people, but to all. Jesus proclaims peace “to you who were far off and peace to those who were near,” he writes, and all of us have access to one God, one Spirit, through Christ.
            That’s not all, though. God doesn’t just knock down the dividing walls between us. Instead, God calls us to build something up, together. We read, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
            In other words: our citizenship, our allegiance is important. But before we get to any national identities, and certainly before we claim allegiance to any political parties, our primary citizenship is as members of the household of God, and our primary allegiance is to Jesus. Our lives without God were no lives at all. But Jesus gives everything, even his life, to reconcile us to God and one another. And so God calls us together, to work together to serve God in love. Jesus is the cornerstone. The apostle and prophets, the teachers of faith are the foundation. And together we create whatever dreams God is calling us to make a reality in this world.
            Our citizenship is in the household of God, and our allegiance is to Jesus, who we’ve promised to follow as our Savior. What would that change about how we relate to each other if we reminded ourselves of that, our primary identity? John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, shared these words in his sermon called On a Catholic Spirit: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.” What do you think, friends? Can we love alike, and be of one heart, even if we aren’t of one opinion?
            Next week we’ll be talking more specifically about what we do when we disagree – vehemently even – with each other about important issues. But today, as we think about the dividing walls, the barriers we’re putting up between heart and heart, here are some things I’ve been thinking about:
We might not understand someone, might not understand why they think the way they do. What should be our response when we don’t understand why someone believes what they believe? We might not understand why someone is afraid. You might not understand why someone is afraid of terrorists or losing our national identity. How might you help ease their fears? You might not understand why someone fears they will lose their rights, lose their protections under the law. How might you help ease their fears? We might not even be able to consider someone a friend, because we’re so baffled, disgusted, even by what they think and feel. We might even count them as an enemy. Even so, how does Jesus call us to treat our enemies? Jesus challenges us to love them! But if your enemy interprets your words and actions to be hateful or hurtful instead of loving, it’s likely your approach to loving your enemy needs some significant work!
            It wasn’t long ago – just last month, in fact, that we talked about Jesus’ baptism and renewed our baptismal covenant as a congregation. Still, I think it is worth looking at again, particularly looking at the questions and responses we’re asked when we’re baptized, when we stand for someone being baptized, or when we are confirmed or become members by professing our faith. Here’s what we’re asked:
On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? The response: I do. One mark of our citizenship as God’s children is a commitment to turning away from evil. We commit to repenting of our own sin. This isn’t a call for us to point out the sins of others, but to examine our own lives, and to turn back toward God if we’ve been going in a different direction, away from God. That’s what repentance means – turning our minds, hearts, and lives back to God’s direction.
We’re asked: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? The response: I do. We accept both the freedom and the power, the responsibility, to resist evil, injustice, and oppression, however they show up in the world. Resisting evil isn’t exclusive to the realm of politics. Fighting injustice and oppression isn’t something we support because of our political affiliation. It’s part of our baptismal identity. When we see people hurting in God’s world, we’re called to respond because of our identity in Christ Jesus. We’re called to combat racism, and fight discrimination, and champion the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the most vulnerable that God lifts up all throughout the scriptures. It’s a part of our very baptismal covenant to do so, because our citizenship is in the household of God, and we have to stand up for all of God’s children.
We’re asked: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races? The response: I do. In our baptismal vows, we confess that it is Jesus Christ, and not the President, or Congress, or the Supreme Court, or anyone else who saves us. We promise that it is Jesus who is our Lord, Jesus who we serve, and not our own agendas, and not the promise of success and power and fortune. And we remember that God has extended the same invitation to all people, and all kinds of people.
And finally, we’re asked: According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ's holy Church and serve as Christ's representatives in the world? Our response: I will. We represent Jesus in the world. We take it pretty seriously that our elected officials represent us in our nation’s politics. We expect them to listen to our concerns. We expect to be able to hold them accountable or we can choose not to elect them anymore, not to have them represent us anymore. We give it a lot of weight, don’t we? How much weight do we give to our vows to represent Christ to the world? Are we doing a good job of representing Christ’s interests in the world? Do we listen to his concerns? Are we a good representation of Jesus to those around us? How do we demonstrate our allegiance to Jesus?
Do good fences make good neighbors? Maybe. But I think we can do better. Jesus is our peace, and he is constantly working in our lives to break down the hostilities that we make between ourselves and others. He brings together those who are far off and those who are near, so that we might be one body in Christ, serving one God, members of the one household of God. So friends, as we begin, though we may not always think alike, let us love alike. Though we may not always be of one opinion, let us be of one heart, in word and deed and spirit. There’s far too much at stake in our world for us to let it be otherwise.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Sermon, "How Will You Measure Your Life? By Who and How You Serve," Mark 10:35-45

Sermon 1/29 & 2/5/17
Mark 10:35-45

How Will You Measure Your Life? By Who and How You Serve

            We’ve been spending the last couple of weeks thinking about how we measure our lives: How the world asks us to measure ourselves, how we think of ourselves, how God measures us. One of the ways we measure “success” is by how much power we have. We think about how much power we have over others and how much power others have over us. We use phrases like power suit and power walking and power lunches and power foods. Many of us might have an initial impulse to say that we don’t have any power. But we all have power. Power is the ability to do things, the ability to control things or people, the ability to direct or influence things. We all have some spheres in our lives where we exercise power. And we also have a deep desire to not being under the power of others. It’s a part of our national identity, in fact. We want to be self-determined people, in control.
            Pastor Adam Hamilton suggests that the more power we have, the harder it is when others try to control it. He recounts two situations where a person’s power was demonstrated in their insisting on their own way and refusing any restrictions on that power. He went to lunch with a man who insisted to the host that they would sit in a section of the restaurant that was closed off for the evening already. He put up a fuss until the host gave in, and Hamilton found himself embarrassed and worried about what the restaurant staff would do to their food! Another time, Hamilton was standing in line at a store behind a person who was trying to return an item but they didn’t have the receipt. They wanted to get cash back, but the store policy was to give store credit when there was no receipt. The person berated the cashier until the cashier finally gave in. Hamilton asks, “What price does your character have, just so you can get your way?” The world teaches us to seek after power, but it isn’t a very good measure of our life. We don’t want to measure our life by how often we’ve gotten our own way, and how often we got to be in charge, and by how many people we get to boss around. (1)
            So how will we measure our lives? Today we’re thinking about what it means to measure our lives by who and how we serve. Just like we do, even Jesus’ closest followers, the twelve disciples, struggled with their desire for power. In fact, the scriptures tell us that they were regularly arguing with each other about which of them was the greatest! In chapter 9 of Mark’s gospel, just a chapter before today’s text, the disciples are fighting over who is the greatest. Jesus, overhearing, says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then he takes a small child and puts the child at the center the group of disciples, telling them that to welcome a child is to welcome Jesus, to welcome God into their lives.
Just before our text for today begins, a man approaches Jesus asking what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus talks to him about the commandments, which the man says he keeps, and then Jesus tells him he should sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. And the man goes away grieving, since he was very wealthy. Jesus then talks about how difficult it is to enter God’s kingdom, and the disciples wonder how anyone could enter the kingdom. Jesus tells them that with God, nothing is impossible, but that the last will be first and the first will be last.
            And somehow, just after these scenes, apparently not absorbing anything from the previous conversations, we encounter James and John saying to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Wow – the boldness of the request! But we shouldn’t blame James and John alone – clearly all of the disciples were interested in these seats of power. Jesus presses them, asking if they could really handle all that is implied – if they could face what Jesus will face in order to claim those honored seats – and they insist that they can. Naturally, their claim to seats of honor causes a fight among the twelve, who are mad at James and John. But Jesus says to them, ““You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Throughout the gospels, Jesus talks about these role reversals, about flipping things upside down in the expected order of the world. The exalted are humbled, and the humbled exalted. Last first and first last. And here, Jesus, the teacher, the master, comes not to be served, but to serve, to give his life. Whoever wants to be great must be a servant, he says.
            Jesus calls us to something different than a quest for power and control over others, which is amazing, because Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, the son of the Creator of the Universe! Jesus has the ultimate power! But again and again he astonishes his contemporaries and astonishes us by showing that true power, true strength is found in serving, not being served. Some of my clergy colleagues and I were talking about how hard it is to do the right thing as pastors when people come to the church seeking financial assistance. Often people seek help from the local church – if you can’t go to the church, where can you go? – and it is hard to know what to do, what to give, who and how to help, how to help in ways that will really transform people, rather than leave them in the position of needing to ask, to beg really, again and again. We talked about how it was hard to serve others well in these situations. And I began to wonder why Jesus never seemed to run into struggles like this. We never see him trying to decide whether or not to help someone. And then I realized why: Jesus never had to make these kinds of decisions, and didn’t have folks asking him for the same kinds of material help, because Jesus had already completely poured himself out as an offering to others. He’d opted out of having the power of giving or withholding charity. He’d decided already that he would be the one relying on the welcome of others, rather than being the one with the power to invite or not into his home. No one asked him for things because Jesus kept no things, nothing, for himself. Jesus tells us that to be great, the way God sees it, we must be servants, not those who seek to be served, seek to be masters, seek to have power. We must be servants. Jesus does this to the extreme – he gives his life as a ransom for many. He even gives away his very life. We’re called, too, to give our very selves away as we serve others. The less we hold onto, the less we’ll struggle with how we’re best supposed to serve, because what we’ll have to give will simply be ourselves, and that’s the very best we have to offer.
            As much as we like to think we’re completely independent, completely self-sufficient, we’re all living our lives in service to something. Sometimes we’re serving the notion of power, or the quest for status or things or money. But we spend our lives serving whatever we’ve made most important. (2) The questions we have to ask ourselves is who and how will we serve?
            Several of us have been participating in a book study these last several weeks focusing on Michael Slaughter’s book Dare to Dream. The aim of the book is to help participants create a “God-sized mission statement for [our lives].” In the most recent chapter we ready together, Slaughter says that we go through three phases in our life. In the first, our prayer is “God bless me.” When we realize we can’t do it on our own, that our own power isn’t enough, we pray, “God save me!” But our aim, Slaughter says, is for our prayer to be “God use me,” where our lives are focused on doing God’s will, serving God and serving others. Slaughter writes, “I don’t want to play at being the church; I want the real thing. I would rather die at age sixty-two knowing I have been about the work and purpose for which God sent me, than to live to age ninety asking what it was all about. …No matter where we are on the ladder to God’s dream … we can’t take anything with us except what we have done for God. What you have done toward your unique God-purpose is the only thing that will live beyond your earthly existence.” (63) He continues, “Your life mission will always be connected to God’s redemptive purpose, not your own self-interest.” (62)
The most common prayer of our faith is the Lord’s Prayer. We pray it in worship on Sunday, and many of us probably pray this prayer in other places and settings throughout the week as well. It was certainly part of my prayer routine from childhood. How many times have you prayed that prayer? Every time we pray it, we say these words: “You kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray, over and over, for God’s will to be done. Do we mean what we say? Of course, I hope and pray that sometimes, many times, our will and God’s will are one in the same. That, I think, is the goal we aim for in our Christian life. But sometimes, our will, what we want, is different from what God wants for us. Sometimes this isn’t just because we want something that’s wrong or bad or evil, but because God has something in mind for us we haven’t even imagined yet. When we claim the title of disciple, when we say that we’re servants, when we pray for God’s will to be done, I want us to be fully aware that what we’re saying is that God’s will is more important to us than our own, that we’d rather see God’s plans carried out than ours! It is in fact the very prayer that Jesus prayed in the garden before he was arrested – if it be your will God. But not as I will, but your will be done. God’s will be done. We pray it over and over. I hope, I seek for myself and for you that we learn to live it, to embody it more fully. We are servants not because God is a tyrant over us, but because we follow this Jesus who shows us that strength and power come from humble service, and deep relationship with God is born of learning to let God’s ways be our ways.  
The difference is choice. God never forces us to be obedient, to choose to place our will below God’s will for us. But God does ask us to do so. God asks us to choose to let God’s will be the guide of our life. God asks for our servanthood. And God doesn’t ask something that Jesus doesn’t model himself. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus lives as a servant, placing our lives before his own life, obedient to God even to the point of death on a cross. Jesus chooses. He chooses servanthood. He chooses God. He chooses us. 

            Now it is our turn to choose. Who and how will we serve? Our answer and our commitment to our answer are measures of our lives. Let me close with the prayer Adam Hamilton uses to begin each day: “Lord, I am your servant – what do you want me to do today? Send me! My life belongs to you – do what you want with me today! Where do you need me today? I’m yours!” Amen. 

(1) Hamilton, Adam,
(2) Lose, David, "Pentecost 21B Who Will You Serve?"