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,
(3) Karoline Lewis, “Who and What Is Your King,” Dear Working Preacher,

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?