Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sermon for Easter Sunday, Year, "With Fear and Great Joy," Matthew 28:1-10

Sermon 4/16/17
Matthew 28:1-10


With Fear and Great Joy


Each one of the four gospels gives a slightly different account of the first Easter morning. Each author wants to draw our attention to something slightly different. Luke talks about remembering and the words of Jesus throughout his final gospel chapter. Mark is, as usual, the most abrupt, telling us the bare minimum he thinks we need to know, and in the fewest number of words he can manage it. John brings us into more intimate encounters, showing Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a one-on-one encounter, and then Jesus in a meaningful encounter with Thomas, then Peter. And in each gospel, these nuances are what draws my attention, because in those unique qualities of each resurrection account, we can find the message the gospel-writer is trying to convey to us. So what shows up in Matthew’s gospel that doesn’t show up in other resurrection accounts?
Let’s look at Matthew’s account. We find Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” heading to the tomb. This other Mary could be Mary the mother of Jesus, or another woman so named, as it was a common name. As they arrive at the tomb, there is a great earthquake, mirroring the earthquake Matthew describes taking place at Jesus’ crucifixion. An angel, a messenger from God, whose appearance is “like lightning” rolls back the stone of the tomb, and sits down. There are guards posted at the tomb, and they are so overwhelmed with fear at the sight of God’s messenger that they shake and become “like dead men” – I’m assuming Matthew means they’ve fainted, since they don’t contribute to the rest of the conversation. To the women, though, the messenger speaks. “Do not be afraid,” he says, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. But he isn’t here. He’s been raised. Come and look, see for yourselves. And then go, quickly, and tell the disciples: Jesus has been raised, and he’s going on ahead of you, and you’ll see him in Galilee.” The women don’t respond – at least not that Matthew tells us – but they do what the messenger instructed. They head to find the disciples, and Matthew tells us that they go “with fear and great joy.” Somewhere along the way – where is not quite clear – Jesus suddenly meets them, saying, “Greetings!” At the sight of him, the women fall at his feet, holding on to them, worshiping him, clearly overwhelmed. And Jesus repeats to them the words of the messenger: “Do not be afraid – go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee and there they will see me.” After our text ends, we find the guards and the chief priests conspiring to undermine any story about Jesus being raised, and Matthew’s account closes with a brief meeting of Jesus with his disciples, and Jesus promising to be with them always, even as he sends them out into the world to call others to become his followers.
So what stands out in Matthew’s gospel? What’s unique about his telling? I’m struck that “fear” is mentioned four times in these short ten verses. In Matthew’s account, the women witness an earthquake, an angel appearing, and the stone being rolled away, all before the messenger even speaks to them. I don’t blame them for being frightened. We can read about these events calmly, but I can only imagine that fear was the natural response. The guards, in fact, are so frightened by what’s happening that they faint away. The first words out of the mouth of both the messenger, and of Jesus himself are this: “Do not be afraid.” The women, well – the text tells us they are still afraid, at least still afraid by before they encounter Jesus himself. But Matthew says that they leave the tomb quickly, “with fear and great joy.” I love that phrase. Maybe they don’t quite reach the “not afraid” that the messenger and Jesus are leading them toward – but they seem to take strength and comfort in the fact that what’s happening is meant to fill them with joy, not fear, and so while they’re still afraid, they lean into and take action on the joy. And the joy keeps them moving, ready to share this amazing news: Jesus is not dead. The tomb was not the final word after all. Death has not won. Death did not end this story. Jesus is alive, and he’s going to meet you again, soon. 
“Do not be afraid.” “So they left … quickly, with fear and great joy.” I’ve been thinking about fear this week, about the things that make us afraid. This week, the United States dropped something literally named “The Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan. This week, as North Korea celebrated with an annual military parade, the country showed off several missiles that appeared to be capable of striking nations far away – like in Europe, or the US. Bombs and missiles, and our human tendency to try to problem solve with weapons – that makes me afraid.
What are you afraid of? Some of you know that I have a real phobia of flying. You can share with me any number of statistics about how it is safer to fly in an airplane than it is to drive in a car, but in my experience, logic and rational thinking isn’t often able to touch on our fears. I used to be able to fly without a problem, but overtime, I found myself getting more and more anxious every time I was on a plane. Now, I’ll drive almost any distance to avoid getting on an airplane. I’ve flown when I had to, but I will admit there are some opportunities I’ve let pass me by so that I didn’t have to get on an airplane.
What are you afraid of? Sometimes, I’m afraid of conflict, and of people getting mad at me. I’d prefer – who wouldn’t? – if everyone thought I was great, and got along with me, and liked all of my plans. Being afraid of conflict and anger isn’t always a helpful quality when you’re a pastor of a congregation with a lot of wonderfully unique people, and when you want to forge ahead with the vision God has, even when not everyone is on board though. I’ve had to work hard over the years of my ministry to face conflict head on, to stay fixed on my purpose, on God’s purpose. Otherwise, what paths that God is leading me to will I bypass, in my striving to make sure everyone likes me? What are you afraid of? And what are the consequences of your fears?  
Earlier during Lent I was meeting with our worship team to talk about our plans for Holy Week and the Season of Easter. I started with a devotional time, and usually I pick a scripture text that’s related to worship, music, and praise. But I’ve been using a devotional book by Walter Brueggemann called A Way other than Our Own this Lent, and the passage for the day really spoke to me, and so I shared it with our team. Brueggemann reflects on Isaiah 43:1, my mother’s favorite Bible verse, which says, “Thus says the Lord, the one who created you, O Jacob, the one who formed you, O Israel, ‘Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.’” Brueggemann writes,    “Being unafraid is an odd vocation; but it is the vocation of all those who have been baptized. We are different when baptized. The Acts account of the early church says that the Spirit of God came upon Jesus in baptism …. What the Spirit does is visit our lives … with the freedom of God, so that we are unafraid in the world, able to live differently, not needing to control, not needing to dominate, not needing to accumulate, not driven by anxiety.” The disciples, he says, were “known, named, and unafraid people,” who “turned the world upside down.” “Or better to say, they turned the world right side up.” He continues: “The truth is that frightened people will never turn the world, because they use too much energy on protection of self. It is the vocation of the baptized, the known and named and unafraid, to make the world whole:
            The unafraid are open to the neighbor, while the frightened are defending themselves from the neighbor.
            The unafraid, are generous in the community, while the frightened, in their anxiety, must keep and store and accumulate, to make themselves safe.
            The unafraid commit acts of compassion and mercy, while the frightened do not notice those in need.
            The unafraid pray in the morning, care through the day, and rejoice at the night in thanks and praise, while the frightened are endlessly restless and dissatisfied.” (60-61)
            I don’t know about you, but I want to be unafraid. I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want fear to be the guiding force in my life. And I can tell you this: that’s not what God wants for us either. From one end of the scriptures to the other, the Bible is filled with this repeated message: “Do not be afraid.” Well over one hundred times. From the voice of God. From God’s prophets and messengers. From Jesus himself: Do not be afraid. What would your life be like if you weren’t afraid? What would you be doing differently than you are right now? “Do not be afraid!”
            The women, these Marys are still afraid. The scripture is honest with us – even though the messenger tells them not to be, even though Jesus tells them not to be, they are afraid. But it isn’t all they are. They are joyful. Something so wonderful has happened, so wonderful that their fear wasn’t the most important thing anymore. Their fear wasn’t making the decisions. “With fear and great joy.” David Lose writes, “I think it’s striking that the announcement of resurrection doesn’t take away all their fear. Rather, it enables them to keep faith amid their fears, to do their duty and share their good news in spite of their anxiety. This is the very definition of courage. And, I would argue, courage is precisely what Easter is about … There is, indeed, much to fear in our mortal lives. And yet the resurrection of Christ creates the possibility for joy and hope and courage and so much more. Why? Because it changes everything. In the resurrection, you see, we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death, that love is greater than hate, that mercy overcomes judgment, and that all the sufferings and difficulties of this life are transient -- real and palpable and sometimes painful, for sure, but they do not have the last word and do not represent the final reality.” (1)
            Mercy overcomes judgment. Love is greater than hate. Life is stronger than death. These women, and the disciples with whom they’ll share the news don’t snap from fear to no fear in an instant. But they make room for the joy, and they commit to a journey of learning to be unafraid in the world, and day by day, the joy of living the abundant life that Jesus gives them overwhelms the fear that once drove them. And so Easter doesn’t end for us at the empty tomb. After all, we, like the women, are looking for Jesus, and he isn’t in the tomb anymore. He’s not in this place where death has the last word and fear will knock you off your feet. He’s going on ahead. And he’s inviting us to come with him. Let’s go: maybe with some fear. But with great joy that’s transforming fear into courage.
            Amen.  



Benediction:
“Do Not Be Afraid”

We should be afraid, of course,
to be so near to God.

We should be startled by the glory of God
and the disruption of angels.

We should be freaked. out. that God even blinks
in our direction, let alone that God dares us
to walk a new path just to see what
God can do with life.

“Do not be afraid; have a child.”
“Do not be afraid; leave your home.”
“Do not be afraid; give up your reputation.”
“Do not be afraid; press on through hardship.”
“Do not be afraid; face a powerful enemy.”

Or,
be afraid.
Be totally overwhelmed.
Be stunned and terrified, in fact,
but here’s the critical part:

be near to God
anyway.



(1) Lose, David, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3174
(2) Rachel Hackenberg, Rachel G Hackenberg. http://rachelhackenberg.com/blog/






Monday, April 03, 2017

Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A, "Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Martha," John 11:1-45

Sermon 4/2/17
John 11:1-45

Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Martha


Today, on our last Sunday in Lent before Holy Week begins, we encounter a strange scripture text. I call it strange not because of the story itself so much – after all, Jesus is always doing incredible things in the gospels – but strange, at least at first glance, because this text shows up for us as a Lenten reading. In two weeks, we’ll celebrate Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday. We’ll celebrate Jesus’s victory over death with irrepressible life. And yet, in our text for today, we seem to get an early start on resurrection, with Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Even some of the musical suggestions for the day in worship planning guides seem confused, with lists of hymns that fit with the text choosing some traditional Easter favorites that we won’t be singing for another two weeks. What’s with this resurrection before The Resurrection?
As with some of our other Lenten texts, there’s a lot to think about in these 45 verses. But it is Jesus’s encounter with Martha that catches my attention in this text. Our text from the gospel of John is another story that appears only in John’s gospel, although the players, the main figures, are somewhat known to us. John starts by telling us that a man named Lazarus, who lives in Bethany, is ill. His sisters are Martha and Mary. Mary had once anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, and wiped them with her hair. We talked about Mary and Martha way back over the summer, when Jesus was having dinner at their home, and Martha was upset because she seemed to be doing all the work of the household, while Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus, a phrase used to describe a disciple.
            Now, their brother Lazarus is ill, and since Jesus seems to be friends with their family, they contact him to let him know. They tell Jesus via message, “Lord, the one you love is ill.” Their words reflect the closeness Jesus shares with this family. When Jesus gets the message, he says, “This illness doesn’t lead to death. In fact, it is going to be a way that God’s glory can be revealed.” So, John tells us, even though Jesus loves the siblings, he stays where he is for two more days. The word gives a sense of “lingering.” There is a decided lack of haste in Jesus’ actions.
            Finally, Jesus sets out to see Lazarus. He tells his disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and they take him literally, but Jesus explains that no, Lazarus has in fact died. Jesus says he’s glad he wasn’t there, so that through Lazarus’ death, the disciples will come to believe. Thomas says, “Let us go too – that we may die with him.” We usually think of Thomas only for his moments of doubt later in John’s gospel, but here, he shows himself a faithful friend.
            By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Martha hears that Jesus has arrived, and immediately comes to greet Jesus, but Mary stays at home. Once again, Martha has a chance to tell Jesus what’s on her mind. But where last time, Martha was filled with hostility toward her sister, this time, in this encounter, even in the midst of her grief, things are different. Martha confronts Jesus right away, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Ouch. She doesn’t pull any punches. But she doesn’t stop there. Instead, she says, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” It’s hard to say exactly what Martha means by this. Although we know what happens next, Martha certainly doesn’t suspect or think she can ask Jesus to raise her brother from the dead. In some ways, then, her statement is all the more remarkable. She’s in the midst of grief, in those first days of loss that are a blur of pain and sadness. She wishes Jesus had come sooner, to heal Lazarus. But even though he didn’t, she trusts him, and knows that God can do anything through Jesus that God wants to do. She may not have seen clearly before, but she’s changed.
            Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha response, “Yes, I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus’ words aren’t particularly comforting to Martha in the moment. It’s all very well that she might see her brother again someday at the end of the world, but that doesn’t dull her grief right now. But that’s not what Jesus means. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And though Martha might not know why Jesus is saying these things now, Martha again shows that her faith is deep, that she’s changed, that she has learned who Jesus is. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” I love that last part – “the one coming into the world.” The way Martha phrases it, it isn’t a one-time event, Jesus arriving in the world. It is ongoing – Jesus is continually breaking into the world, continually arriving among us.
            After this encounter between Jesus and Martha, Martha goes to get her sister Mary. When Mary comes to Jesus, she shares the same words as her sister: “Jesus, if you had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t be dead.” Unlike Martha, though, Mary doesn’t move beyond those words. Jesus sees her crying, and sees all the others who are weeping for Lazarus, and he’s deeply troubled. He too begins to weep. He knows what he intends to do, but he’s not untouched by the suffering he sees. He comes to Lazarus’s tomb, a cave with a stone in front of it. He orders the stone rolled away. Martha warns that Lazarus has been dead for four days – this will not be pleasant. But Jesus says, “I told you – if you believe, you will witness the glory of God.” Jesus offers a prayer to God, and then cries in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus, still bound up in the burial cloths covering his body and face, emerges from the tomb. Jesus orders some bystanders, “Unbind him, and let him go.” After this, many who were present come to believe in Jesus. After our passage concludes, others, like the religious leaders, find Jesus’ raising of Lazarus to be so troubling that they determine Jesus must be put to death. We don’t hear from Mary, or Martha, or Lazarus though. How must they have reacted to this incredible miracle? We can only imagine. How about us? How do we react?
            I think of these three siblings, Mary, Lazarus, Martha, and I wonder if we can learn something in the way each of them responds to the events that unfold in this passage. Mary is so mired in grief, it doesn’t even occur to her to try to see anything else, to wonder about Jesus’ presence, to look for God at work even in her pain. I don’t blame her – her reaction is pretty natural! But I’m surprised too – Mary has sat at the feet of Jesus. She seemed to “get” it. But here, she hits a wall in her faith journey. Has that happened to you? Have you come to God saying, “God, if you had intervened, this bad thing wouldn't have happened to me!” Mary’s anger blinds her from hope for new life, at least at first.
            For once, for a change from the typical pattern of the scriptures, we hear from the two women in this story, but not a word from their brother. We don’t hear from him in his illness, and of course not in his death, but we hear nothing from him after he is raised from death either. What we do get are some pretty vivid mental pictures. Jesus calls out to Lazarus who has been lying dead in a tomb for days, and when he emerges, he doesn’t just spring back to it. No, he’s still bound up in grave clothes, wrapped in the linens that prepared him for the tomb. He’s been resurrected, but he still needs to be unbound. I think I find myself even more likely to end up in Lazarus’ shoes than Mary’s. The promise of new life and resurrection put right into my hands, but I’m getting too caught up in the things I’ve wrapped myself up in to take hold of it. Out of what caves do you need Jesus to call you? What still needs to happen for you to claim the gift of new life Jesus offers? Have you been resurrected, but you’re still bound up in grave clothes, not yet living the new life God has given you?
            Or maybe, maybe, we can be like Martha, who clearly listened to Jesus when he urged her to choose a better way the last time we saw them interact. She, like Mary, is immersed in her grief – but she trusts in God, trusts in Jesus, even if he didn’t do what she had hoped he would do. When Jesus says he is resurrection and life right now, Martha responds, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Jesus is offering new life, and Martha says Yes as emphatically as she can.
            As strange as it is for us to encounter this new life story right in the midst of Lent, it is also exactly right that we do so. Because the amazing news is this: We don’t even have to wait until Easter to experience resurrection and life, because Jesus just is those things – is resurrection and life all the time. And so even as we journey through the darkness and pain of Holy Week, we have the gift of resurrection already. Even as we grieve at the cross, we have the gift of resurrection already. Even as we wait for the light of Easter Day to shine, we are already Easter people, resurrection people, new life people. Jesus was already, is already, will already be at work raising us from death to new life. He’s already transforming us, so that our lives become like nothing we could recognize from before. That is resurrection, isn't it? It’s ours, now, from the one who is coming into the world, always. Jesus is resurrection. He is life. He is continually coming into the world to encounter us. Let our mourning be turned to gladness. Let’s tear away the bindings, discard the grave clothes. Let’s step out of the cave into the light. Jesus is ever-coming into the world, offering life. Amen.



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, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-1-c-identity-theft/

(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,” http://newurbanworld.org/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.