Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Sermon for Christmas Eve, "His Name Shall Be Called: Emmanuel," Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 2:1-20

Sermon 12/24/16
Luke 2:1-20

His Name Shall Be Called: Emmanuel

            All throughout the season of Advent, the weeks before this night as we’ve been preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we’ve been studying some of the names for Jesus we draw from the writing of the prophet Isaiah: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Each week we asked ourselves what it means to call Jesus by these names. What does it mean to follow one who bears these titles?
Tonight we’re thinking about another name for Jesus, which also comes from Isaiah’s writings: Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Isaiah writes, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Centuries later, Matthew, writing his account of Jesus’ birth, sees Isaiah’s words fulfilled in the Christ-child. And there, in just this one spot in the gospels, Jesus is called Emmanuel, God-with-us. He’s never referred to by this name again. Jesus is never known by the name Emmanuel; it’s not like a nickname he’s called. And yet, Matthew’s name for Jesus is so powerful and compelling that followers of Jesus have continued to use this title for him ever since. All these weeks, building toward Christmas, we have been singing of Emmanuel: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” “Emmanuel, Emmanuel … God with us, revealed in us – His name is called Emmanuel.”
I get it. I’m with Matthew. God is with us. In Luke, an angel announces the new, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” To us is born the child Jesus. Yes, surely the baby is Mary’s, surely we did not do the hard work of carrying and laboring and delivering Jesus, but the angel says the child is for us all the same. A savior born for us, good news for us: God is with us.
The whole of the scriptures is a love story – the story of God’s amazing love for us, and the story of God’s hope for relationship with us. Over and over, the scriptures tell of ways God tries to connect with us, speak to us, call to us. What would you do to be near someone you loved? What would you do to let them know you loved them? What would you do to be able to spend time with someone you love who is far away? 
What God does is come to us in person. At Christmas, we celebrate what we call the Incarnation. Incarnation means the embodiment of God. It means God comes to us in-the-flesh. God is embodied in the person of Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate the event of God’s incarnation in the Christ-child.
            Even though the word Emmanuel doesn’t show up in the gospel of Luke, Luke’s account of Jesus’s birth gives us the sentiment, the meaning of God-with-us from one end of the text to the other. God is with Mary and Joseph, as first they learned of the child Mary would carry, then as they make their long journey, as Mary gives birth in a precarious setting, as strange people show up and make themselves part of the story, as Mary treasures every moment. God is certainly with the shepherds. They’re unlikely candidates, maybe, to be the first recipients of the news of Jesus’ birth. They’re no one special. We don’t even know their names or how many there were. But God chooses them, surely a sign that God is with and for them, for those on the margins, for those who are usually left out, for those who are poor and lowly. God is with them.
God is even with those who won’t listen, who won’t open the door, who don’t have any room. With Herod, and Quirinius, and Emperor Augustus, and with every person who turned away Mary and Joseph, too busy, too proud, too important, too stressed to notice what was happening. 
We also have to think about the “us” in this phrase “God with us.” Sometimes, we get confused, and we begin to think that Emmanuel means “God with me,” as if we are the only ones in this extraordinary relationship with God, even as we can trust that we are each uniquely precious to God. All sorts of damage and harm and violence in the world is done in the name of believing that God is with me but not with you. Emmanuel is definitely God with us. And the very Christmas story we cherish and celebrate tonight helps us understand who the us is exactly.
The Christmas story is God trying to get our attention. Centuries of God’s people not getting the message lead God to try the clearest message yet: God is with us in the flesh! And so we read about God’s elaborate, majestic, powerful gesture: “Hey, shepherds, look over here – there’s an angel! There’s a whole sky-full of angels! Hey, Mary and Joseph: Look, here’s some shepherds! They came because angels sent them! Hey, you, reading this story, hearing this word proclaimed: Here’s a neon sign! Here’s me in the flesh! I AM WITH YOU!”
We’re getting the message, God! How will we respond? Herod hears “God is with us” and we’ll see him respond in fear and anger. He doesn’t want God to be so close. How close do we want God? The shepherds hear “God is with us” and they want to see for themselves, and they want to tell all about it, and they rejoice at the goodness of God. Is the news good enough for us to tell about it? Mary hears “God is with us” and she treasure and ponders over every detail. She knows that the world is changing, that God in the flesh means nothing can be the same.   What changes for you if you know, if you trust, if you open your life to God with you?
            God is with us. This child we celebrate is for us. The gift from God is for us. This story we tell is for us. As close as we want. Right in our hearts. Moved in. Changing our lives, and changing the world. “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” God with us. Amen.



Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent, "His Name Shall Be Called: Prince of Peace," Isaiah 52:7-10, Micah 4:1-4, Matthew 5:9

Sermon 12/18/16
Isaiah 52:7-10, Micah 4:1-4, Matthew 5:9

His Name Shall Be Called: Prince of Peace*

“His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” This week I read an article by Michael Kellerman in the New York Times about the horrors of war in Syria, and particularly its impact on children. In particular, he was moved by a short video of a 7 year old Syrian girl, Bana, who said simply: “Please, save us. Thank you.” Kellerman writes about how disinterested, or at least how distracted from the humanitarian crisis we have been. He says, “… [A]ll we do is watch, helplessly, as Syrians refuse to go quietly, determined to get us to know them, their lives, all that has been lost. Some of the public’s indifference can of course be chalked up to compassion fatigue and disillusionment with a war in its sixth year … There were assurances about popular uprisings. Social media today supercharges protest movements, which burn out almost as fast. Such movements used to require a slow … construction. They didn’t rely on Facebook videos and … photos. Truth be told, no sane person wants to see these images anyway. What’s happening in Aleppo is almost unbearable to look at. But that’s the point. Bana looks us straight in the eye and asks us to save her, please. We have done nothing to help. The very least we should do is look back.” (1)
            I have been trying to look back. And as I have been looking, I’ve been thinking about this fourth title for the Christ-child that we’re studying today. We call him Prince of Peace. Of all of the titles we’ve talked about, I think this one slides most easily onto Jesus. It makes sense. We often think of Jesus as Prince of Peace, even outside of the Advent season. And during Advent? There are images of peace everywhere. We love the idea of peace. But do we really love peace? What are we willing to do to make peace a reality in our world?
During his last days before his crucifixion, Jesus heads to Jerusalem, and after he arrives, when Jesus is greeted with a parade and fanfare by the people, he heads out to look over the city. As he surveys everything before him, Jesus beings weeping. He says, “If you, even you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes … because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42, 44b) What do you think? Do we recognize the things that make for peace? What are they? And do we choose them, the things that make for peace? I look at that video of young Bana and think: I’m not sure we know anything about peace at all.
            The story woven through the scriptures tells us that God’s people have long struggled with knowing how to make peace. In Isaiah’s oracle, when he talks about the Prince of Peace, the word he uses is shalom. Shalom means not just the “absence of hostility”, but more broadly the maintaining of the whole social system, with the intent of “the promotion of the general welfare” of all people.” (52). It’s the same idea we get in Psalm 72, which we shared together in worship a few weeks ago. For there to be peace, there must be justice practiced for the poor and needy. Prosperity for all, not just an elite group. (53) As we read in Micah today, “disarmament is a prelude to peace.” Violence and peace are not compatible. (54)
            Yet, disarmament can’t be a “coercive activity enforced by the victor.” Peace that is imposed by the winning side is not true peace, not when there is no other choice for the loser. Walter Brueggemann writes, “Peace makes a better political slogan than a credible political reality.” (56) The prophet Jeremiah lamented in his writings: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (6:13) The peace of God cannot come about through force by the mighty over the weaker.
            Consider this: Jesus, Prince of Peace, was born in a nation occupied by the Roman government during the time in history known as the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace. And yet, we know from the accounts of scripture that God’s people in Israel did not consider it a time of peace, but a time of oppression, a time when they were living under foreign rule, a time when people lived in fear. If we’re settling for this kind of peace, it’s a shallow peace, a false peace, clinging to a notion of peace when there is no peace. When people are living in silence because they are afraid, when there is injustice and oppression and yet we say we are at peace – this is not the vision of peace God has. This is not the peace that the Prince of Peace ushers in.
            Maybe we do not know the things that make for peace. But we do know Jesus, or we are coming to know him, invited to come and know him. And he knows about peace. Jesus carries in his being a peace that “defies all ordinary expectations, [that is] a peace that is wrought in vulnerability, [that] does not impose its own way.” He is a Prince of Peace whose vulnerability confounds us. (61) When Jesus is born, God’s messengers declare that his birth signals that peace is meant for all the earth. When Jesus heals people, he tells them, “Go in peace,” not as a trite farewell, but as a way of saying that person has been restored to God’s vision for their life. (62) When he sends out the disciples to preach the gospel, he tells them to seek out people and homes who “share in peace,” suggesting that peace is a personal and interpersonal relationship, a way of being that we can claim, counter to the culture around us. He practices nonviolence, refusing to defend himself, even to the point of his own death. When he is resurrected, the first words he speaks to his disciples are words of peace.
            Some might think that Jesus is just na├»ve. But I think that we’re the ones who don’t know the things that make for peace. I think sometimes we’ve confused peace with safety and security. But they aren’t synonyms. Peace is not safe! Working for peace, is risky, because God’s vision of peace for the world means that the whole world order gets turned upside down. If God’s vision of peace prevails, then some will lose power and status and wealth and position. If God’s peace means a world where the well-being of all people is top priority, then some will fight tooth and nail to keep the status quo. If we insist on working for God’s vision of wholeness for all, then we have a hope of experiencing the peace that passes understanding but can abide in our hearts and change our lives, but we also take risks when we commit to the way of peace. Jesus, Prince of Peace, invites us to follow him. And his path leads into some dangerous places. He knows this. He goes this way anyway. And he asks us to follow anyway.          
What are the things that make for peace? I think peace comes from the inside out. We don’t know about peace when we think that peace is beyond us, that we aren’t a part of making peace. When my brothers and I would get into arguments growing up, (which we never do anymore, of course) my mom would say, “How can we expect there to be peace in the world if we can’t have peace in our home?” This would induce some eye-rolling in us – at least we agreed on that – but I’ve always remembered it. How can we have peace in our home if we don’t have peace within? Peace within comes from our relationship with God, from God dwelling in our hearts. That’s the work of Advent – preparing room in our hearts for the Prince of Peace.
            We don’t know about peace when we think that peace won’t cost us. Brueggemann says that “Peace requires the capacity to forgive. Peace requires a readiness to share generously. Peace requires the violation of strict class stratification in society. Peace requires attentiveness to the vulnerable and the unproductive. Peace requires humility in the face of exaltation, being last among those who insist on being first and denying self in the interest of the neighbor.” (64)
            We don’t know about the things of peace when we pretend we have achieved peace while others are suffering. Peace is not the absence of something. It is the presence of something. It is not simply the absence of war, the absence of violence, although we seek after such things as a part of peace. Instead, peace is the welcomed presence of God’s reign in our midst, which results in the well-being of all of God’s creation. And if peace is the presence of something, not the absence, then we can only live in peace when we are active, not passive in pursuing it. Peace will not just find us, settle on us, wash over us. We must seek peace, cultivate it, spread it, carry the message of it, claim it in the midst of every opposing message.
            When we do these things, when we seek to learn the things that make for peace, when we make it our life’s work to practice them, maybe then we will be able to look back at little Bana and hold her gaze steadily, really seeing her, ready to work for a world where she experiences wholeness. We’re waiting, longing for the Christ-child. Let us not miss this visitation from God. Let us be God’s peacemakers, God’s children. Come to us, Prince of Peace. Amen.
Song – Dona Nobis Pacem.

(1) Michael Kimmelman, New York Times,

*All references in this sermon come from Walter Brueggemann’s Names for the Messiah, Chapter 4, “Prince of Peace,” unless otherwise noted. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sermon for Third Sunday in Advent, "His Name Shall Be Called: Everlasting Father," Ezekiel 34:1-16

Sermon 12/11/16
Ezekiel 34:1-16

His Name Shall Be Called: Everlasting Father*

            And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. This week we turn to what is perhaps the strangest of these four titles for the Christ-Child, the Messiah. Today, we think about what it means to think of Jesus as Everlasting Father. We’re familiar, of course, with thinking about God as a parent. Jesus frequently speaks of God as Father, even Abba, Dad, a familiar, intimate title. But how can we think of Jesus, the Son in the Father-Son relationship, the Son in the Trinity of Father-Son-Holy Spirit, as Everlasting Father?
            When Isaiah was writing this oracle, when he was hoping and longing for a ruler for Judah who would redeem the people. They are headed for war. They are perilously close to being conquered, overthrown, driven from their homes and their way of life and the practice of their faith. But Isaiah has this hope, this vision of what a ruler might be. And when Isaiah calls the ruler Everlasting Father, he’s using language that would have resonated with his audience. In a patriarchal society, the father was the traditional head of the family. The father exercised the most power and the most responsibility. (34) But the role and responsibility of the father is all based on the way God operates in the world. In other words, God is the model, the true Everlasting Father, and earthly parents embody true parenthood in as much as they emulate the character of God, Everlasting Father.
            So what is God like as Everlasting Father? Everlasting means reliable care and protection.  You can depend on something that is everlasting. It isn’t wavering, there sometimes and missing others. It is a constant, enduring force. God, and God’s care for us, love for us, is everlasting. In a world of short attention spans, God’s everlastingness is a precious treasure. As a parent, God can get angry, when we hurt each other, when we don’t listen, when we walk away from God. But, our kinship with God – that is, because we’re God’s family, God’s anger is “not the last word.” (37) And God’s role as our parent is also to protect the most vulnerable. Throughout the scriptures, we find that God has particular care and compassion for what is sometimes called “the quartet of the vulnerable” – the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. God takes action, again and again, through the law, through God’s leaders, through the work and words of the prophets, to highlight protection of the most vulnerable. This is what God, Everlasting Father, does.
            And God expected that the kings, the rulers of God’s people, would have been about this work as well. The task of the king was to emulate as much of God’s character as possible, to be a servant leader. And so a king was meant to be Everlasting Father too, because they “[guarantee] the well-being of the family, clan, or tribe, and eventually the state.” (39-40) A king’s task was to make sure that the society was prospering and flourishing, and that couldn’t truly happen unless the needy and vulnerable were protected too. (40)
But, there’s been a failure. The kings of God’s people have not been doing their fatherly duty. Instead, they’ve been self-indulgent, self-interested. (41-42) And so, God, the true Everlasting Father will step in and do what has been left undone. That’s where we find ourselves in our text from Ezekiel today.
Ezekiel is writing in the time of the Babylonian exile. This comes after the times of Isaiah, but it’s all tied up in the same narrative. Since Isaiah’s time, Judah hasn’t really been in control, in power, and has instead been open to foreign attack and invasion. Now, Babylon had invaded and occupied Israel and the people of Israel were scattered – what Ezekiel calls scattered sheep. Ezekiel spends the proceeding chapters of his prophecy criticizing the history of bad royal leadership Israel has had. When humans have tried to be king, we have done a pretty bad job at it.
Ezekiel shares the word he says he received from God: “Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel.” God says the shepherds of Israel – that is the kings, the rulers – they’ve been feeding themselves, but not feeding the sheep. They’ve been failing in their most basic purpose. “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool,” we read. “You slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” The result of this neglect? They sheep are scattered when there is no shepherd, and they become easy prey for wild animals. Metaphor for exile and conquering. No one is left, writes Ezekiel, to search for those who have been lost.
            But there is hope yet, because God will step in as shepherd where the rulers of earth have failed. “Thus says the Lord God,” says Ezekiel, “I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” I will rescue them from where they’re scattered, says God. I will feed them. I will be the shepherd. “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
            Later, after our text for today, Ezekiel goes on to say that God, Shepherd, will judge between sheep and sheep. This is because some of sheep eat their fill but trample down the rest of the good grass so others can’t have it. Some of them drink clean water, but then stick their feet in the water and make it dirty for others trying to drink. Some of them push the other sheep, and butt at the weaker animals, pushing them away from the rest of the flock. “I will save my flock,” God says. I will judge the sheep, and no longer will they be ravaged. God, Everlasting Father, will become the Shepherd where the rulers have failed to do so.
            And suddenly, it becomes a little clearer how Jesus, the Son, can be Jesus, Everlasting Father. Because we know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” We’ve talked about Jesus being Ruler of the Impossible, about Jesus, Mighty God, creating pathways of new life. And just what Jesus, Good Shepherd, Everlasting Father speaks about: I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.
Jesus embodies the Good Shepherd that the kings of earth could never be, and at the same time calls us to follow his example. Jesus is in the orphan business, just like his parent is. (46) He calls for the children to come to him, and calls us to enter God’s kingdom like they do. (47) He is the “carrier of the family promise,” (48) showing Father and Son in solidarity. In Jesus we hear the words of Ezekiel fulfilled: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” That’s just what Jesus does. Jesus, Good Shepherd, Everlasting Father.
As always, that brings us to the so what. So what does it mean for us? First, I think, if the role of the shepherd is beyond us, then perhaps our first task is to learn to be better sheep, better members of Jesus’ flock. Remember, God says that not only were the shepherds not taking care of the sheep, but also some of the sheep were showing little in the way of concern for their other flock members. They weren’t taking care to make sure that there was good food and clean water for all of the sheep, and they were even hurting each other. What kind of job are we doing as part of God’s flock? Are we only concerned with making sure we get ours? Making sure our needs are covered? Are we keeping an eye out for those who are getting shoved to the side in life? Or are we the ones doing the elbowing? Let’s try to be good sheep, keeping our eyes on the Good Shepherd, listening for the voice of Jesus, and following where he leads.
But we can also strive to win back the responsibility of sharing in shepherding, being God’s servant leaders. Walter Brueggemann writes that one of the reasons we can see Jesus as Everlasting Father is because Jesus so closely identifies with and emulates the Father that they share the functions of parenting, of shepherding. (49) In other words, Jesus is so full of God that Jesus also shares the responsibility of God, the Great Shepherd. That should be our aim as well – not that we can be God – but we can be full of the Spirit of God. We can be imitators of Jesus. We can make sure that we, too, are champions for the quartet of the vulnerable – the poor, the orphan, the widow, the foreigner. We, too, can seek after the lost, those who have strayed. We, too, can work for justice for those who are oppressed.
In this season of Advent, the great surprise is that the tiny babe born among us is also the parent who longs to protect us, and the Good Shepherd who longs to guide us, willing, even, to lay down his life for us. We give thanks to the Everlasting God for this gift of comfort and joy. Amen.

* All references are drawn from Chapter 3, “Everlasting Father,” of Names of the Messiah by Walter Brueggemann.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, "His Name Shall Be Called: Mighty God," Psalm 72:1-14, Mark 4:35-41

Sermon 12/4/16
Psalm 72:1-14, Mark 4:35-41

His Name Shall Be Called: Mighty God*

            “And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” On this second Sunday of Advent, we’re thinking together about what it means to call Jesus “Mighty God.” Thinking of Jesus as God incarnate might come pretty naturally to us. Christians worship a Triune God. That is, we believe that God is a Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – three persons of God, but still one God. But in the story of the scriptures, though God’s people were longing for a messiah – which means anointed one, a title given to a king – they weren’t expecting the messiah to be God-in-the-flesh exactly. God’s best servant leader, yes. But God in human form? Maybe not. So, how do we come to see Jesus in the words of the prophet Isaiah, when Isaiah calls the promised child “Mighty God”?
In many cultures over the millennia, nations would view the rulers of their country as attaining their role, their position, because of divine decree. In other words, the ruler was in place because God or god(s) wanted them to be. And so, often, the ruler himself (and it has been predominately “him”) would be viewed as having divine qualities, divine power, if not being actually considered divine. Certainly, for the Israelites, there was no separation of church and state. The nation was God’s people, and the king was a servant of God. People were longing for a ruler, then, who would clearly be God-chosen, God’s servant leader directing God’s people.
The ideal ruler had a lot of responsibilities. The ruler would have “victory in war … success in economics … productivity in agriculture and … justice in social relations.” (20) Also, the king’s job was to “practice economic justice toward the poor and needy.” (21) It was written in to the law that the ruler would be the protector of the most at-risk in society. We read about this in our passage from Psalm 72, where the whole Psalm is a prayer of blessing for a king, containing a description of what a king who is serving God ought to look like: “May he judge your people with righteousness and your poor with justice … In his day may righteousness flourish and peace abound … May all kings fall down before him … For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.” The Psalmist speaks of a Ruler who is a protector of the poor and vulnerable, who cares deeply about their lives, a Ruler who is strong enough to shield them from violence and oppression.
            Still, Isaiah describes something more than a Mighty King. Isaiah says Mighty God, a bold claim. Does Jesus meet the criteria? In his book, Names for the Messiah, Walter Brueggemann writes, “Jesus is a carrier of divine power.” (22) The phrase “Mighty God” “asks about [Jesus’s] power in a world that is organized around many claimants for power, most especially the power of Rome. It is clear that [Jesus] will not compete with the power of Rome on the terms of Rome.” (23) Instead, Jesus insists that his power “is not grounded in the usual authority of empire; it is not an authority that comes … in coercive or violent ways. His kingdom, his claim to authority is indeed “divine” in that it is rooted in and derived from [the will of God], whose intention for the world is quite unlike the intent of Rome.” (24)
            We get a picture of Jesus, Mighty God, in our gospel lesson from Mark. Jesus has been teaching the crowds by the seaside. The crowds become so great that Jesus gets into a boat and teaches from just offshore, just enough to give him a platform, and a little distance from the press of the crowds. When evening comes, he says to his disciples: “Let us go across to the other side.” So they leave the crowds, and they head across the water. A windstorm rises up as they travel. The waves are beating against the boat, and the boat is nearly swamped. And through all this, Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat. The disciples wake him, asking, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re about to die?” Jesus gets up, rebukes the wind, and says to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” He uses the same kind of commands and actions he would to drive out an unclean, harmful spirit from a person. And immediately, the wind ceases and there is total calm. Jesus turns to the disciples and asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Their only response is to turn to each other in awe and wonder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” They’ve heard Jesus teach and they’ve seen him heal. But power over the elements like this – this is something different, something more altogether. There were many healers and teachers. But power like this was reserved for God. To have power over the chaos of a storm – to have the storm obey, like the unclean spirits also obeyed Jesus – this is the power of Mighty God.
            Passages like this one are known as theophanies. A theophany is one of those fancy church words that means a simple thing: A God-appearance, where the glory of God is revealed in a particular act or moment. You know the word epiphany – when something is revealed suddenly, when we have sudden clarity – a light bulb moment. A theophany is when God is suddenly revealed – when the presence of God in our midst is revealed. In Jesus, we encounter the ultimate theophany – the ultimate revealing of God’s presence, God-with-us. Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus does what only God can do, revealing the glory of God.
            It’s that same revealing of God’s glory that is woven through the story of Jesus’ birth. Listen to what Luke tells us: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” A Mighty God comes in the Christ-child, and God’s messengers fill they sky to tell the news.
            Jesus, God-with-us, carries divine power that is different than the power the world knows. Brueggemann says, “Jesus exercises counter-power that refuses the coercive, exploitative power of Rome and instead enacts abundant power that makes life possible.” That’s the aim and focus of Jesus’ power: Jesus, Mighty God, makes abundant life possible. (24) We see this in the gospels when Jesus casts out unclean spirits – he has power over that which makes chaos and disorder, stumbling blocks to life. And we see it when he calms the storm. The spirits, the storm – they obey Jesus because in him is the power of Mighty God. Writes Brueggemann, “Clearly the two adversaries of Jesus, the unclean spirit and the storm, are forces of chaos and death. They are agents of ‘uncreation’ … Jesus contains and subjects these deathly chaotic threats by creating space for new life.” Creating space for new life – that’s the work of Jesus in the world.
Jesus, Mighty God, doesn’t promise a lack of chaos in the world. Instead, our Mighty God-made-flesh in Jesus promises to draw from the chaos abundant life and hope, where the alternative is death and despair. This is the ultimate hope we have as people of faith, as we recite these words from apostle Paul at graveside services: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” We believe that Jesus brings life, where we expected death.
But beyond longing for or trusting in Jesus’ ultimate giving of life eternal instead of the hopelessness of death, what does it mean for us, for our lives now, for Jesus to be Mighty God, Lord of Life? We have to ask ourselves: Where do we need to allow Jesus to create space for new life in us? Where is our life full of chaos, where is death and despair threatening to take hold of us? The more we can offer our whole lives to God, even those parts of our life – especially those parts of our life we’re embarrassed by, the stuff of our life that makes us feel ashamed or weak or overwhelmed or like we just can’t handle it anymore – when we offer that to God, and let go of protecting and hiding the chaos of our lives, God can get to work drawing out new life from the mess. We have to be vulnerable. We have to be ready to offer our obedience, our willingness to follow this Mighty God. But I promise, the Lord of Life can transform your chaos, can transform your hopelessness into joy.    
Not only can Jesus create abundant life out of the chaos we entrust to him, but Jesus also invites us, his disciples, to carry out his work, his mission, by being co-creators, by helping to make paths for creative, new, abundant life to take place. How are we making pathways for new life in world? How can we nurture creative energy for life in our families, in our congregation, in our community? God makes us caretakers of the garden of earth, and we can work to make sure what God is growing is soaked in light and water and planted in good soil. Who do you know who is feeling hopeless who needs some words of encouragement? Who is beginning a journey with God of new life that needs your support? We are called to clear the path for the Lord of Life to be at work in the world.
On the flip side, we have to do some self-examination in this season of Advent. Jesus wants to make new life of our chaos, and wants us to help make new life pathways in the world. Sometimes, when we turn away from God, we find ourselves instead making stumbling blocks, putting barriers in the way of God’s paths. Sometimes, we find ourselves stirring up the chaos, in our lives, and in the lives of other, instead of working with God to create life. In these days that feel so chaotic, when the temptation to add the swirl of hate and anger can be so tempting, we must ask ourselves: Am I adding to the chaos? Are my actions toward others leading them toward hopelessness, or toward abundant life? Jesus speaks in some of his harshest words in the gospels toward those who get between others and their life with God. There are so many ways that God might bring new life out of your chaos, but it will never be through causing chaos for others.
Jesus is about the work of making space for new life in the world, in our lives. Let us be about the work of making space for Jesus. In these Advent days, and all the days that follow, let every heart prepare him room, room for Mighty God, the Lord of Life. Amen.

*References throughout are from Chapter 2 of Names for the Messiah by Walter Brueggemann.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sermon for First Sunday in Advent, "His Name Shall Be Called: Wonderful Counselor," Isaiah 9:2-7

Sermon 11/27/16 Isaiah 9:2-7

His Name Shall Be Called: Wonderful Counselor

            Today we begin the holy season of Advent. Advent is a four week time of preparation for Christmas. It’s a time when we prepare our hearts, our spirits, our homes, our place of worship, our lives, for the coming Christ-child. It’s a time when we practice the holy discipline of waiting. Jesus is coming. Jesus will be born among us – but not yet. It’s a tension we live in as a people of faith, even as we are always Easter-people, people who know the mystery of faith that Christ has come, and died, and risen, and will come again. We live as a people who know the story already, and yet still spend this time waiting and longing for Christ to be born among us again.
            Advent is a counter-cultural season. Christmas, the season in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus, begins on Christmas day and lasts twelve days – the twelve days of Christmas –from December 25th- January 5th, the day before Epiphany. We’ll talk a lot more about that later, at Christmastime. All around us, the world is saying that Christmas is now, already here. But our focus will be on preparing. When a child is to be born, it’s best to prepare and learn as much as you can to make sure you are ready for the baby. When a guest is coming, you clean your house and get things in order. And when the Christ-child is coming, we prepare our hearts, and make room in our lives for God to dwell among us in the flesh. During Advent, a season of longing, we pray that the longing that fills our hearts is a longing for Jesus to come among us.
           This year, our Advent theme is “His Name Shall Be Called.” Each week, we’ll think about one of the names for the Christ-Child, and we’ll particularly be focusing on the names that we heard lifted up in our scripture text today from the prophet Isaiah, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” What does it mean when we say we expect the Christ-child to be these things? How is Jesus a Wonderful Counselor? How is he Mighty God? How is God’s son the Everlasting Father? How is the child in a manger the Prince of Peace? Each week, we’ll try to answer those questions in depth.
            Our text comes from the prophet Isaiah. The book of Isaiah is written over a long span of time, in the days leading up to, and during, and after the time the kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Assyrians, and when the people were exiled to Babylon. The book is a mixture of warning, despair, and hope. In the section we read today, written before the fall of Judah to Assyria, Isaiah is hopeful. King Ahaz’s son Hezekiah has been born, and there’s a great deal of hope pinned on Hezekiah that he can save Judah, restore Judah, return Judah to days of peace and prosperity. Hezekiah does seem to be a good king. But, he’s only human. He proves no match for the powerful nations seeking control of Judah. Isaiah eventually turns his hope not to a specific ruler, but a vision of a future time of peace and hope. When we read the words we’ve shared in worship today, we’re hearing from a prophet writing in the midst of an incredibly chaotic time as a nation, a time when people were full of fear and doubt, wondering how they could possibly live through the terrible scenario unfolding before them.
            In this context, we hear Isaiah’s words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Isaiah imagines a ruler who conquers oppression, and he envisions the tools of war being stamped out completely. This will happen, Isaiah writes, because “a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” This child will rule with authority that grows continually. He will usher in an endless peace, a kingdom marked by enduring justice and righteousness.
            The passage gives me goosebumps, it is so inspiring and hopeful! Of course, followers of Jesus read this text and think: I know who this is about! Of course, it is Jesus! But on the other hand, as we talked about last Sunday, Jesus was never an earthly ruler in the way of a king of a nation. A ruler, yes, but of a completely different kind. The Judeans were looking for someone who would save them from being wiped out by invaders, not a child born to a carpenter and a young woman. So how is it that we read this text and see in it a description of the very Jesus for whom we are longing this Advent? That’s the focus of our worship and study in these weeks. 
Today, we’re thinking specifically about Jesus being a Wonderful Counselor. The word counselor in particular is used in different ways today than they were when Isaiah chose them centuries upon centuries ago. In his book Names for the Messiah, Walter Brueggemann writes that “counselor” in this sense refers to “the exercise of governance, the capacity to administer, to plan, and to execute policy.” (3) When Isaiah talks about a wonderful counselor, he’s saying that the new ruler he longs for will show “extraordinary wisdom and foresight about planning” or have “royal plans and policies [that] will be of exceptional quality … that goes beyond all the usual conventions of political power and practice.” (3-4) Indeed, God’s people continued to picture and long for an earthly ruler who would be an exceptional king, wise and just, a strong leader, someone who would defeat the power of Rome and Rome’s Caesar, the emperor.
And so, when Luke writes his gospel, and he writes about the birth of Jesus, the story with the shepherds and angels that we know so well, he makes sure to start by setting us in the context of the Roman Empire – “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” The Christ-child will be born where there is already a king, a governor, an emperor – and Jesus will be something very different from that.
 How is Jesus a Wonderful Counselor? We know from the gospels that his uncommon wisdom was something of much discussion. Repeatedly, the religious leaders and the crowds wonder about Jesus. They want to know where he came from, and how he got his authority. They marvel at his clear authority and power, which stands out as different from the authority of both the scribes and Pharisees and the political leaders of Rome.
            In Genesis, when God promises that Abraham and Sarah will have a child, even in their old age, and Sarah laughs at the impossibility, God says: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (18:14) Somehow, though, we forget that, or we stop believing it – that there is nothing too wonderful for God, nothing outside of God’s power and ability, nothing that is impossible with God. When people are oppressed, when they’re hungry, when they’re marginalized, when we are divided as a nation, when we spend so much time tearing each other down, it’s hard to remember the wonder of a God who makes the impossible possible. Jesus is a living reminder for us. Writes Brueggemann, “The teaching of Jesus attests to the possibility of God that the world has long since taken to be impossible. That is what is wonderful about his teaching. His teaching evidenced a kind of wisdom that was unusual. He is wise beyond explanation! … He is wonderful in his teaching because he opens up new possibilities that were thought to be impossible. The foolish rulers of the age did not want such impossibilities to become possible, for such possibilities would override and displace all present power arrangements … [but] the old limits of the possible have been exposed as fraudulent inventions designed to keep the powerless in their places. Jesus violates such invented limitations and opens the world to the impossible.” (10-11) Jesus, wonderful counselor, is “ruler of the impossible.” (15)
             As his followers, our job is to be like him. Brueggemann says, “The ‘increase of his government’ will not be by supernatural imposition or by royal fit. Instead, it will come about through the daily intentional engagement of his subjects, who are so astonished by his wonder that they no longer subscribe to the old order of power and truth that turns out to be, in the long run, only debilitating fraudulence. It requires an uncommon wisdom to interrupt the foolish practice of business as usual.” (17) In other words, we’re called first to remember that nothing is too wonderful for our God. And then, we’re called to start living like we’ve remembered, like we believe, and like we need to make sure everyone else knows too! We, Jesus’s followers, are called to turn the world upside down like Jesus did, to shun business-as-usual that prioritizes wealth and power and status, and choose instead that which exalts the humbled, and puts the last one in first place.
            As we wait, in this season of Advent, we can reflect on the unique wisdom of Jesus. Reflect on the wonderful works of God. And then we start dreaming with God for how we can be part of making the impossible a reality. United Methodist pastor and author Mike Slaughter talks about having a “B-HAG” – that’s a “Big Hairy Audacious God-Purpose.” I’ve got to tell you, I hate that acronym. But it is certainly memorable! He says we need to think about what it is that God is calling us to do, something which “will honor God, bless others, and bring us joy.” He encourages us to get rid of all the lame excuses we come up with for not dreaming alongside God, and get to living out our dreams, using all the tools with which God has equipped us for just the purpose to which we’re called. (Dare to Dream, 16) And he urges us to make sure our dreams with God are big enough, hairy enough, and audacious enough to be our God-purpose. After all, is anything too wonderful for God?
In Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, we have our answer to that question. If we have God-with-us, God-in-the-flesh in Jesus, then nothing is impossible with God. As we wait, we don’t sit back idly. We wait, and we dream, and we plan, and we get ready to respond to the wonderful work of God. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sermon for Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday, Year C, "Jesus, Remember Me," Luke 23:33-43

Sermon 11/20/16
Luke 23:33-43

Jesus, Remember Me

Singing: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (488)
Today is the last Sunday of the Christian Year, which is also known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. How many of you know what Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday is? It’s not one of our major holy days. In fact, often, Christ the King Sunday gets a bit neglected, because most years, it falls on Thanksgiving Sunday, which isn’t technically even part of the liturgical calendar, but usually takes precedence for Christians in the United States. If we have to choose between Thanksgiving as a focus in worship and focusing on “Christ the King,” we usually choose Thanksgiving! Thanksgiving is important, and indeed, that’s the direction I had planned to go today. But as I was preparing for worship this week, I just felt drawn to the themes that come with this Reign of Christ Sunday. I was thinking about what my Uncle Bill said at the end of his sermon last week, when he was reflecting on the election. He said that whatever happens, our call as the church of Christ is unchanged. Our allegiance is to God, and Jesus asks for our obedience. With those themes in mind, we come to this Christ the King Sunday.
It’s a relatively new addition to the Christian calendar actually. In 1925, Pope Pius XI announced a new feast day, the Feast of Christ the King. He said that he felt that the rise of atheistic communism and secularism were a direct result of people turning away from Jesus’ sovereignty, and of people denying the authority of Jesus and the Church. So, this Reign of Christ Sunday is about reclaiming Jesus’ place of authority in our lives. But what does that mean for us?
I think it is a particularly interesting and challenging question in our American context. After all, as a nation, we rebelled against having a king. No longer wanting to be under the absolute authority of a monarchy but desiring instead to participate in a democracy was a primary component of our founding. We fought wars over it, this right not to be ruled by a king. Sure, maybe lately, with the stylish, young, and admirable William and Catherine marrying, and the birth of their children, people are suddenly a little more intrigued by the idea of royalty. But mostly, we seem, as a society, to be more into Disney princesses and their costumes than in submitting to the authority of a king.
Still, we all have to submit to forms of authority, right? Even if we don’t have a king, governments still exert authority over us. We pay taxes, right? We follow laws, or are punished or fined for our failure to follow. And we have authority figures in many other places too. We have bosses – or bishops! We have teachers and principals. We have parents and grandparents. All these people might be in positions of power over us, at least in some matters, able to tell us what to do. They have power. They have authority. We can push the boundaries of that authority – can and do. We can reject it, but usually not without major consequences. And we have presidents, don’t we? And other elected officials. Clearly, given the build up to and the aftermath from our election earlier this month, we pin a lot of hopes on the leaders of our nation. So when we talk about Jesus as a King, when we celebrate this day – what does that mean to us? How do we, independent people, private, prizing our individualism and autonomy, let someone be our king? What does that mean, exactly?
Let’s take a look at our text: Although next week we suddenly find ourselves thinking about the coming Christ child, a tiny baby at the center of everything, today we are inserted abruptly into the midst of the crucifixion scene. Our reading today takes us to Golgotha, which means “the place of the skull.” Here, in Luke's account, the actual process of crucifying Jesus merits just a passing phrase: "they crucified Jesus there with the criminals." But the details come from those who watch Jesus dying: the religious leaders, the soldiers, and the two criminals with whom he is crucified. From most, there’s a repeated refrain: Why doesn’t Jesus save himself? “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, the chosen one!” from the leaders. “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” from the soldiers. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” from one of the criminals. Only from the other criminal do we hear anything different. He declares that the two criminals are only justly paying the price for their crimes but that Jesus "has done nothing wrong." He then asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, and Jesus responds that truly that day the man will be with him in Paradise.
We have here a Jesus who seems most un-kingly. He's mocked, beaten, suffering, harassed, murdered. How is Jesus a King? The inscription that was placed above him – his sentence, the crime for which he was being crucified read, “This is the King of the Jews.” But it was meant as a mockery. A man being crucified with criminals was hardly a king. The sentence poked fun at Jesus, at his disciples and followers. But yet, we believe Jesus reigns. Why? How? How is Jesus king? I think it is about putting the emphasis in the right place. This Sunday is perhaps not about the fact that Jesus is King, but about the fact that Jesus is King. (1) This Sunday is not about the fact that one characteristic of Jesus is his Kingship, his divine royal status, one characteristic among many others. Instead, this Sunday celebrates the fact that it is Christ, Christ above all others, who is the highest authority in our lives. Not King Herod. Not Pilate. Not Caesar. And not President Obama or President-Elect Trump, nor Congress, nor the Supreme Court. Not the stock market. Not the dollar. Jesus is king.
So if we claim Jesus as our Ruler, what exactly does that mean? It means that we’re choosing a leader who rejects most everything one might traditionally associate with good leadership! David Lose writes, “Jesus, to put it [pointedly], would not have won last week’s election. But let me be clear: this is not a political statement as much as it is an existential one. We seek out those things and people who grant us a measure of security and who affirm our values. And, it turns out, when we are frightened or feeling particularly at risk or left behind, we may even accept someone who we profess decidedly does not reflect our values but who we believe will offer us security against our enemies abroad and prosperity at home. We vote for someone, that is, who promises a better tomorrow, and the candidates of both parties tried to offer themselves as the one who best fit that bill. Jesus doesn’t do that.”
We have a repeated phrase in our scripture passage today – Jesus, why don’t you save yourself? The religious leaders, the soldiers, the criminal – they all say it. Instead, Jesus saves us. We long to be safe and protected. Instead, Jesus demonstrates a risk-taking, vulnerable, literally life-giving way of being that saves us, all while refusing to save himself or promise us safety in exchange for our discipleship. Lose continues, “He refuses to come in power but instead appears in abject vulnerability … He does not come down off his cross to prove his kingly status but instead remains on that instrument of torture and humiliation, the representative of all who suffer unjustly. And he does not promise a better tomorrow but instead offers to redeem us today.” (2)
Claiming Jesus as our Ruler means aligning our values with his values, our priorities with his, our ways with his ways. Karoline Lewis writes, “First of all, in Jesus, we have a king who is crucified. Second, we have a king who forgives the very people who have secured his death. Third, we have a king who, while hanging on his cross, grants salvation to the criminal on the cross next to him … and fourth, we have a king who brings the condemned into Paradise with him rather than bring upon them further condemnation.” (3) Lose writes, “… While Jesus was not running for president, he does call leaders of all kinds – and, indeed, any who would call him “Lord” – to join God’s insistent, consistent, and persistent solidarity with the weak, the oppressed, and the forgotten of this world. In short, the church of Jesus Christ reveals itself as faithful to its Lord only in so far as it stands with those who are most vulnerable … God calls us not only to identify with the weak and dispossessed, but to lift our voices on their behalf, calling leaders to care for them as parents care for their children.” Is Jesus our Ruler? How are we working to make his ways our ways? How are we prioritizing the most vulnerable in the work of our church, the work of our community, the work of our lives?
Activist for the poor Shane Claiborne started a campaign during the 2008 election season, calling for “Jesus for President” as a way to call attention to God’s values, God’s call, God’s hope for our world. He wrote, “We may vote on [election day]. But we will also vote today, and tomorrow, and the next day. We are convinced that change is not confined to one day every four years. Change happens every day. We vote with our lives. And we are convinced that voting for a new President may be little more than damage control. For Presidents and Caesars do not save the world. But there is a God who can. Enough donkeys and elephants. Long live the Lamb.” (4)
Typically, the subjects of a king don’t get to decide whether or not they want to follow that person, have that person as their ruler. But God wants us to choose. God gives us the freedom to decide whether we will be disciples or not. But if we’re choosing Jesus, if it is Jesus who rules in our hearts and our lives, we should know who we’re voting for. Our leader is one who offers vulnerability and humility, not might makes right. Our leader is one who keeps company with the least and lost and last, rejecting offers of power and position and status. Our leader is one who will not save himself, but will instead offer his life for others, and ask us to do the same. Jesus is a Ruler like no other. Thanks be to God! Amen. 

Singing: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (488)

(1) Jenee Woodard, The Text This Week Weblog, http://textweek.blogs.com/textweek/
(3) Karoline Lewis, “Who and What Is Your King,” Dear Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4754

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, "Thankful People: Idols," Exodus 20:1-5a, 22-24, Matthew 6:24-25

Sermon 11/6/16
Exodus 20:1-5a, 22-24, Matthew 6:24-25

Thankful People: Idols

            I’ve mentioned to you before that one of the things Jesus talks about most in the gospels is money: our stuff, our things, what we treasure, what we do with what we’ve been given. Perhaps up to 40% of the teachings of Jesus relate in some way to our wealth and what we do with it. But throughout the scriptures as a whole there’s a broader, recurring topic that takes us from one end of the scriptures to the other, and that’s idolatry, the practice of making and worshiping false gods.
            Today when we hear the word idol, we don’t usually think of worshipping false gods. Without a little context, that concept is kind of hard for us to get our heads around. What pops to our mind is American Idol, celebrities, sports figures, people we put on a pedestal, people we want to be like, people we admire. But I don’t think we’d say we want to worship those people, right? I think when we think about idolatry, we maybe think about the golden calf that Aaron and the Israelites made and worshiped, and we can’t picture ourselves ever doing anything like that, and so we’re pretty sure idolatry isn’t something we have to worry much about.
            In the scriptures, most of the story we get of God and God’s people finds God’s people living in an extremely multicultural society. The Israelites were a tiny people, relative to the size of other nations, and they often found themselves living and moving among peoples of other nations and cultures, surrounded by people who practiced different faith traditions, worshiped other gods. And so, when God gives the law for God’s people to Moses, the very first of all of them is the one we read in Exodus in our text for today: “I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Instead, God says, at the altar, make offerings to me from your life, your livelihood. And I will bless you. Time and again in the scriptures, God and God’s servants demonstrate that God, creator of the universe, is not a god who can be contained, boxed in, controlled. And making idols is something that makes a deity small enough to be controlled by the one doing the idolizing, even though it seems like an act of adoration.
            Our gospel lesson is two short verses from Matthew, and Jesus’ words demonstrate that idols are more than images of other gods. Idols are whenever we’ve let something else be master of our lives besides God. “No one can serve two masters” Jesus says, “for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
When Jesus talks about worry, the word means literally to “be preoccupied with or be absorbed by.” When Jesus speaks of worry, he’s not speaking of the mild anxiety we might have about our upcoming to do list. He’s speaking of something that preoccupies us, absorbs our attention, takes our effort and energy and heart’s direction. In fact, in this way, Jesus is describing something that’s very close to idolatry. Idolatry is when we take anything that is other than God, and give it the place of God in our lives. All through the scriptures, idolatry is one of the things that God most deplores about our human behavior. Again and again, we’re putting something else in a more important place than we put God. Are you absorbed by something other than God? Letting your life revolve around that which is not God? You can never serve two masters, Jesus says, and doing so is putting your very soul at risk. If we don’t want to end up serving a master other than God, we must stop letting our lives be absorbed by things that aren’t God. Idolatry, then, is the thing God and the writers of the scriptures warn most against from one end of the Bible to the other.  
            Today I talked with the children about putting God first. It isn’t that God doesn’t want us to have the other good things that we enjoy in our lives. But we’re meant to put the things in our life in the right place, the right order, giving priority and weight to what matters most. God first, and God most and best, and then everything else. How often, and how easily, though, do we find that we’re trying to put everything else in and squeeze God and God’s hopes for our life in with the little bit of leftover room at the end!
            When I was first in ministry, and making my giving commitment, I have to admit I did something like this. I’d make my budget and budget in what I wanted to give as my tithe – but I wouldn’t give it right away. I’d wait, because I considered it sort of a cushion of money if something went wrong during the month. Inevitably, things would come up and I’d spend a little more here and a little more there than I meant to, and the portion I was giving to God got smaller and smaller, and sometimes it disappeared altogether. After some time, I decided I needed to make a change, and I started having my tithe withheld from my paycheck. I’d never even see the money, so I couldn’t forget to give it first, and I couldn’t play around with the amount, and I couldn’t use it for other things. It was a hard change, but I learned to make do, and more than that, I felt like I was putting my life in the right order. God first, everything else next. And our financial resources are just a part of it. Who gets our time first? Who gets our energy first? Who gets our heart first? Getting your life in order, with God in the right place, the first place, isn’t a magic plan that will make you rich or make things trouble-free, or make things easy. But reordering our lives with God first will bring us deep peace, unfailing hope, lasting joy. God promises. Next Sunday we’ll celebrate Consecration Sunday, as we make a financial commitment to God for the year ahead. It’s one way in which we are called to tangibly reorder our lives with God first.
            Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday. It’s not a day that we’re celebrating idols that we’ve put up on pedestals, as much as we loved the people who we’ll name today. That’s not what All Saints is about. In the scriptures, the word we read as “saints” literally means “holy ones.” Saints are people who are being made holy. Remember, last Sunday we talked about how God makes us holy, when we ask God to consecrate our lives – to take our ordinary selves and make them holy. When we have opened our lives to God’s work in us in that way, when we’ve committed to a life of allowing God to work in us more fully and completely all the time, when we’ve committed to reordering our lives so that God is first, and center, that’s what God does in us – make our ordinary lives holy, makes us holy ones, makes us part of the communion of saints.
We can be disciples of only one teacher. We can serve only one master. Only one thing can have first place in our lives. What are you putting first?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sermon, "Thankful People: Gifted and Talented," Matthew 25:14-30

Sermon 10/30/16
Matthew 25:14-30

Thankful People: Gifted and Talented

            Two weeks from today, we’ll celebrate Consecration Sunday, and have a Celebration Dinner afterwards, as we gave thanks for all that God has given us, as we offer a commitment of giving for the year ahead out of the abundance which God has given us. You’ve heard Lauren last Sunday, and today Vicky and Steve talk about giving, and thinking about how we give, not because of what the church needs, but because of what our generous God inspires in us. We give as an act of faith, an act of thanksgiving, as a spiritual discipline. For the next few weeks, we’ll be thinking together not so much about budgets and spending plans, as we’ll be thinking together about our generous God, about what God is up to here in Gouverneur and how we can be part of that, and about how we can grow spiritually as we cultivate thankful hearts and lives.
Our gospel lesson today is a parable, one of the stories Jesus uses to talk to us about what the kingdom of God is like, what it’s like when we experience God’s way, God’s reign, on earth. This one we know as the Parable of the Talents. It appears late in Matthew’s gospel, in the midst of several other parables, some of the last of Jesus’ teachings before his arrest and trial and crucifixion. A man going on a journey calls his slaves to him and divides among them care of his property. One slave receives one talent, one two, and one five, each according to their ability. Talents were the largest unit of money, and each one was worth a significant amount. It’s hard to calculate in terms of our money today, but even conservative estimates suggest that an individual talent was worth at least a few thousand dollars. (1) Even the slave who receives the one talent is being entrusted with a significant amount of responsibility.
The slaves who receive two and five talents immediately take them, trade with them, and double their money to present to their master when he returns home. But the slave who receives just one talent digs a hole and hides the money. When the master returns, he praises the faithful slaves for their stewardship of his talents, and says, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave. You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” But the third slave returns the single talent to his master, explaining that he thinks his Master is harsh, taking what is not rightfully his. So the master rebukes the slave, calling him wicked and lazy. He tells him that at the least he ought to have put the talent in the bank so it could earn some interest. He banishes the slave, and takes the one talent from him and gives it to the slave who already now had ten talents. And so, Jesus concludes with a strange sentiment: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.”
There’s a couple of troubling things in this parable. We typically hear these parables and think of the master figure as God. But the one slave describes him as harsh, taking what doesn’t belong to him. Does this sound like God? And then there’s that concluding sentence that’s so hard to process at first. “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.” I can understand God wanting us to use what we’ve been given – but taking away from those who have nothing? Giving to those who already have so much? Even if we’re talking about more than just money here, isn’t that just a spiritual version of the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer? Will God take anything from those who already have nothing? So what sense can we make of this parable, and what does it tell us about being generous, thankful people? I think the parable helps us think about how we see God, how we see ourselves and what we have, and how we respond because of what we see.
Is the master in the parable meant to be God? We know what the third slave says about the master: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid.” But we have to ask: Why does the slave think this? The other two slaves don’t express any such feelings. Their master praises them and invites them to be part of his “joy,” calling them good and faithful. If the master in the parable tells us something about God, either Jesus is telling us that God is harsh and selfish, which seems unlikely, or the slave has a very skewed picture of the master.
How do you see God? Is God generous? Giving? Does God pour out blessings? Is God loving and kind? In the parable, the master makes the slaves stewards of the things that belong to the master. A steward is someone who cares for something on someone else’s behalf. In biblical times, most homes would be run by the steward of the household, who would manage all the affairs of the house for the owners. God has made us stewards of the earth and all that is in it! So, on the one hand, we remember: everything that we have really belongs to God! We’re caretakers of what God has given us, and that requires our responsibility and attention. But on the other hand, we have to remember: God has let us take care of everything that belongs to God! To put someone else in charge of your household, to give someone else authority for all that is yours – it requires a deep trust. Think of all that God has entrusted to us!   
Author and advocate for the poor Shane Claiborne once shared this story: “I will never forget learning one of my best lessons … from a homeless kid in India. Every week we would throw a party for the street kids … 8-10 years old who were homeless, begging … to survive … One week, one of the kids I had grown close to told me it was his birthday. So I got him an ice cream. He was so excited he stared at it mesmerized. I have no idea how long it had been since he had eaten ice cream. But what he did next was brilliant. He yelled at all the other kids and told them to come over. He lined them up and gave them all a lick. His instinct was: this is so good I can’t keep it for myself.” Claiborne concludes, “That’s what this whole idea of generosity is all about … It’s about realizing the good things in life – like ice cream – are too good to keep for ourselves.” I see God that way – so much goodness that God just had to share it with us!
But the third slave didn’t see things that way. “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Author Luther Snow focuses on this particular troubling verse, writing, “How can you take away something from nothing? It’s impossible. So maybe ‘those who have nothing’ do have something after all. Maybe the point is not how much we have, but how much we think we have. The [slave] with the one talent had more than nothing, but he acted as though he had nothing. He did nothing with the talent . . . He may have looked at the other two [slaves] and thought, ‘Compared to them, I’ve got nothing’ . . . It is as if the master is saying, ‘You had my valuable gifts in your hand, and you didn’t think they were valuable.’” (2) So maybe we can better understand what Jesus is saying when we think of it in this way: From those who think they’ve been given nothing, what they really do have will be taken away. And from those who feel like they’ve been richly blessed, they’ll be blessed even more. The slave with one talent didn’t have nothing. He had something precious – he just wouldn’t see it.
How much do you have? Something? Nothing? An abundance? I sometimes like to joke that I’ve never met a rich person – because no one will ever admit to being rich. Rich people are always people who have more than you have. I’ve read that most people say they would be happy if they had about 20% more than they have right now. The only problem is that we always say we’d be happy with just 20% more, so that whatever we have now is never enough. Jesus tells us that he comes so that we might have life and have abundant, full life. Do you feel like you’ve received that gift? How rich are you? What do you see when you look at what God has given you? Are your hands full? Or empty? Are they open to others to give? Or tightly grasping?
Ultimately, the Parable of the Talents inspires a response in us. In two of the slaves, their response to what the master had given them was to work hard, to use their talents well, to make sure they could give back to their master even more than what they’d started with. The slaves could have lost everything they’d been given by the master – but I suspect the master would have been ok with that – as long as they had been using the talents, investing with the talents, trying to make something of what they had responsibility for. One slave’s response to what he received was to do nothing. To bury the talent. To hide and respond in fear. To expect what he’d been given to be taken from him. How about you? How do you respond to what God has given you?  
Adam Hamilton shares this story: “[Years ago], our family took a camping trip to the Grand Tetons. We arrived on my birthday and set up our little pop-up camper. After we were settled, we told each of our daughters that they could have $20 spending money for the three days we would be in and around Jackson Hole. We then went to the gift shop before heading out on a walk around a small lake. We had no sooner walked into the gift shop than Rebecca started looking at ball caps. She found one, tried it on, and said, “Dad, what do you think of this hat?” I said, “Becca, it’s really cool. But all you have is $20, and that hat will take all of your money. Why don’t you wait and make your money last for the next few days.” But she said, “Dad, you told me it was my money and I could get whatever I want. And I really want this hat!” As hard as I tried to talk her out of it, and to convince her that she would have other opportunities to buy a cap in town, she would have no part of waiting. Finally, exasperated, I said, “Okay, Becca – but this is it. You’re not getting any more money the next three days.” I gave her her $20, and she bought the hat.
            “We went for a walk around the lake, and then came back to watch the sun set from a park bench. That’s when Becca handed me the hat and said, “Daddy, I bought this for you. I love you. Happy birthday.” I sat on the bench, took her in my arms, and started to cry. That hat is among my most treasured possessions, my most often worn hat to this day because every time I wear it, I think of Becca’s sacrifice for me. All these years later it still touches me to think about how my little girl gave up all her spending money because she wanted to tell her daddy that she loved him.
            “That’s how God looks at our acts of generosity.” When we share with God, our gifts are a way of saying, “God, I’m returning to you a portion of what I have … to say thank you and I love you.” (3) When we give, we don’t give because God needs what we have. We give out of love, and God who loves us, loves our gifts because of what they tell God about how we feel, because of what they say about our desire to be in relationship with God, because of what they say about how we want to care for others.
             We’re preparing for Consecration Sunday. Here’s what that means: The word consecrated means “to make something ordinary into something sacred or holy” – Con means with and sacre means sacred. Make the ordinary into something holy. That’s what we ask God to do with all manner of ordinary things in our lives. And indeed, God makes our ordinary stuff holy – from the bread and grape juice when we celebrate communion, to pieces of colored paper and shiny metal circles that we put into offering plates, even to our very lives. On Consecration Sunday, we’ll ask God to take our commitment of giving and make it holy. We’ll ask God to make our financial contributions into something sacred, so that God can help us bless others through our gifts. And we ask God to take our very lives, and make them holy too. Take our lives God, and make them holy, as we offer them as a gift, as we act as your stewards in the world of all that you have put into our hands.
Please, don’t bury your blessings, your gifts, your talents, all that God has given to you. Don’t live like our generous God has been stingy with you. Instead, offer it to God. Offer it to your neighbors. Offer it to the waiting world around you. And God will consecrate your life, and your cup will run over, and your blessings will be too sweet not to share. Amen.

(1) https://www.facebook.com/ShaneClaiborne, post on 8/7/14
(2) Snow, Luther, The Power of Asset Mapping
(3) Hamilton, Adam, Enough.