Monday, February 26, 2018

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, "Hagar in the Wilderness," Genesis 16:1-15

Sermon 2/23/18
Genesis 16:1-15

Hagar in the Wilderness

            Today, as we journey through the wilderness in this season of Lent, we’re taking a look at the story of Hagar in the book of Genesis. It’s really important to me to include women’s voices from the Bible when I’m preaching or teaching. There are so many fewer stories of women, even names of women included in the Bible, and I want to make sure we know these stories, and know that women are created in God’s image too, and that women are called by God, used as God’s messengers too. So I wanted to make sure to include the story of a woman in our wilderness series this Lent. But the choices are fairly limited, and Hagar’s wilderness experience is the only real stand-alone kind of narrative of a woman that we have in the Bible. I’ll be honest: I feel like we just talked about Hagar. We looked at Hagar’s story this past summer, during our Women in the Bible series. We heard about Hagar and Sarah, and how God was at work in each of their lives. That was about six months ago, and since I know you all listen to and remember everything I say and every sermon I preach(!), I was hesitant to return to Hagar’s story again so soon.
            But of course, the Bible is the living word of God, a living document, a living story that unfolds for us with new ways of understanding every time we come to it. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find new insights as I came to Hagar’s story again today. I shouldn’t be surprised that I felt like I was reading or at least hearing some of the verses for the very first time. So, I invite you to listen with me, maybe again, or maybe for the first time, as we hear Hagar’s story.
            Our text begins by telling us that Sarai and Abram have no children. This is significant because chapters earlier, God had promised them that through Abram’s descendants, they would become a great nation, with more descendants than stars. And after the promise, a lot of nothing happened in the way of getting started on that family. Sarai is impatient. She takes matters into her own hands. One Bible I looked at online titled this whole section “Beware of Shortcuts.” Sarai gives Abram her slave-girl Hagar and says to Abram, “I’ll get my children from you using her.” Hagar doesn’t get an opinion in this. Abram has sex with her, and Hagar conceives a child. What Sarai does was legal, part of law code of the day, and the clear understanding was that any children born this way would be children of the wife, not the slave. Hagar’s child would really be Sarai’s child, legally. So when Hagar starts to “look with contempt on her mistress” Sarai, as the text tells us, we’re given the impression that Hagar has lost sight of the fact that child she’s carrying isn’t going to change her status as slave at all. In response to her attitude, Sarai started to “deal harshly” with her. We don’t know what this means specifically, but Sarai has all the power in this situation, and apparently things are bad enough that it drives Hagar to drastic action. She runs away, into the wilderness. Her direction is right to be trying to head back to Egypt, but the distance is daunting – a few hundred miles at least. Hagar is everything vulnerable: a woman, a slave, pregnant, and in a region where everyone is of a different race, religion, accent, and cultural tradition than she is. Going to the wilderness is heading into an extremely dangerous place. But suddenly, for Hagar, that’s the better choice than staying where she is.    
            Don Schuessler and I were talking this week about this whole concept of wilderness and what it means to our Lenten journey and how difficult it can be to get our heads around. On Ash Wednesday, I mentioned how “wilderness” in the Bible refers mostly to the desert – a barren, dry, rocky place, while I always grew up with an image of a wild, overgrown forest in my head when I thought of wilderness. Still both kinds of wilderness – desert and forest – can be vulnerable, risky, dangerous places, especially when we find ourselves there alone, maybe lost. Last week we talked about how Jesus is our best model for wilderness time: he goes there intentionally, compelled by the Spirit to confront anything that could distract him from God’s plan to change the world through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. That’s what we are called to as well: to enter the wilderness with open eyes and open hearts, ready to grow in faith as we turn from anything that distances us from God.
            But rarely do Biblical figures end up in the wilderness in this way. More often they arrive in the wilderness because the dangerous wilderness suddenly seems like the lesser of two evils when compared with some desperate situation the person is encountering in the supposedly civilized world. A couple of examples from popular literature come to mind. In the Lord of the Rings series, books and movies, hobbits Merry and Pippin have heard stories about how dangerous Fangorn Forest is, a dark, overgrown place where the trees themselves seem to wish people harm. But, Merry and Pippin have been captured by Orcs, servants of the evil Saruman who will likely put them to death. Suddenly, the dark forest looks like a refuge, a place of safety, compared to the evil Merry and Pippin have encountered elsewhere. They flee to the forest, where they encounter rescuers who keep them safe and conquer their enemies. We find something similar in the Harry Potter series. At the edge of the Hogwarts campus, the school where the children go to hone their skills with magic, we find the Forbidden Forest. Teachers constantly warn students of the dangers of the Forbidden Forest. But more than once in the series Harry and his friends find that the Forbidden Forest is their best alternative, and they find help in the forest when they’re on the run from danger at Hogwarts.
            Hagar runs to a place that is extremely dangerous for her, but she only goes there when it seems that her alternative is unbearable. She can’t stand it anymore, where she is, how she’s been treated, the role that she seems to have. She can’t do it anymore. And so she runs to a place that would otherwise seem like anything but a place of refuge. Remember, last week we talked about how it is Jesus’s time in the wilderness that is our model for Lent. He goes to the wilderness with intention, with purpose, expecting transformation, boldly confronting Satan, not because he’s on the run and has no other place to go.
I hope, in Lent, we can boldly go into the wilderness too. But I suspect, sometimes we only get to that vulnerable place when we feel like we have nowhere else left to go. We talked about one of our tasks in Lent being confronting anything that is an obstacle in our relationship with God and removing it from our lives. I believe that we usually know what these obstacles are. We know what keeps us from giving our whole selves to God because they’re often things we’ve put there ourselves, things that we’re attached to, ways we spend our times, habits we’ve formed over time, plans we have that are most definitely our plans and not God’s plans, dreams we have of our own greatness that have nothing to do with serving God and neighbor, or ways that we numb ourselves from feeling the challenges of the world around us. We know all too well what we’ll have to reckon with if we end up in the wilderness, and so we avoid it like it’s the scary Forbidden Forest. What would it take for us to realize that we’re better off facing the wilderness than not?         
My favorite musician is folk singer Tracy Chapman. One of her most compelling songs, I think, is called “Change.” In it, she asks a series of questions, wondering what would push us to actually change our lives. She asks: “If you saw the face of God and love would you change? How many losses, how much regret? What chain reaction, what cause and effect makes you turn around, makes you try to explain, makes you forgive and forget, makes you change?” And then, my favorite line, “If everything you think you know makes your life unbearable, would you change?” What will it take for us to go the wilderness where change is inevitable? If, finally, things are unbearable, would that do it? Do we have to wait until our lives are intolerable otherwise to confront what we find in the wilderness?
When Hagar gets to the wilderness, she is found by a messenger from God. Hagar tells the angel she is running away, but God, through the angel, tells her that for now, Hagar needs to go back to Sarai and deal with her. She’s sent back to her life as a slave: hard words to hear. But that’s not all the angel says. The angel says she Hagar, too, is part of God’s promise. The same promise that God gave to Abram, God gives to Hagar. Her offspring will be more than a multitude. The angel tells to name her son Ishmael, which means “God listens.” Ishmael will be no ordinary man, the angel says. Things won’t be easy for him. But in him, Hagar has a future. Freedom seems imminent. Hagar, an Egyptian slave girl, has a place in God’s story. And then finally comes the verse that knocked me off my feet as I read this text again: Hagar names God. We read, “So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”” Wow. Naming is usually the other way around in the Bible. God names us. Or God tells us what name to call God. But Hagar can’t help but name the one who has saved her: El-roi – the God who sees me. Hagar knows that God has really seen her – in the wilderness, and back with Sarai and Abram – God really sees her, even her. Knowing that makes all the difference. Her life is changed.
Hagar’s story isn’t done. Spoilers alert if you can’t remember from summer: She ends up in the wilderness again, this time with her young child. And this time she won’t be going back to life with Sarah and Abraham, but instead living into the very promise God describes to her here, a future beyond what she had hoped for. What will it take, friends, to get us into the wilderness? We serve the God who listens, the God who sees, who sees what we’re facing now, who sees what we have to confront in the wilderness too, and who has a vision of what might be for us once we finally get there. Let’s not wait. We’ve seen enough stories. We know this plot. And so we know that God will be with us in the wilderness, a place that isn’t our ending, but a new beginning, a place of change. Let’s go see this God who sees us so well already. Amen.  

Monday, February 19, 2018

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent, Year B, "Jesus in the Wilderness," Mark 1:1-4, 9-15

Sermon 2/18/18
Mark 1:1-4, 9-15

Jesus in the Wilderness

            You’ve heard me say before that the gospel of Mark is my favorite gospel. Part of the reason I love it is because of Mark’s brevity. I don’t love that he’s short on details, exactly. I love that he seems practically breathless in getting the good news of Jesus to us, and that he seems to believe that the news is so good it isn’t even going to take very many words to convince you of his message! His frantic style strikes me as showing both how important and how convincing he believes Jesus’s message to be.
            But, then we arrive at a Sunday like today, and I find myself a little frustrated perhaps, or at least a little challenged by Mark. In the lectionary, the series of the first Sunday in the season of Lent always focuses on the temptation of Jesus – his time in the wilderness, where he confronts Satan, and commits to God’s path rather than the flashy alternative Satan presents. This is the focus for the first Sunday in Lent because it one of the major texts that provides the basis of our Lenten season of 40 days. We, like Jesus, are called to spend 40 days in deep spiritual reflection, because we are preparing to journey with Jesus, following as closely as we can as he draws ever nearer to the cross.
            The problem? Mark gives us literally two sentences about Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” That’s it. To make our whole gospel for today, we include the beginning of Mark’s gospel, Jesus’s baptism, to which Mark devotes a whopping three sentences, and the beginning of Jesus’s teaching and preaching: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” But the actual focus of today? Two sentences. Matthew and Luke tell us lots of details about Jesus’s conversation with Satan. But not Mark. We don’t get details from Mark. He thought he shared with us everything we needed to know about Jesus in the wilderness. And indeed, for the earliest Christians, before what we call the New Testament had taken shape as one cohesive collection, new followers of Jesus likely would only have access to one account of Jesus’s life. Mark is the oldest of the four gospels, the first written. So today, even though we could look at other versions of the temptation, I want us to stick with Mark. He believed he was telling us all we needed to know. So what can we learn from Mark’s breathless account? 
            First, we look before the short account of Jesus in the wilderness. Mark starts his gospel quoting Isaiah, who writes about a messenger who will prepare the way of God. Isaiah describes this messenger as a voice that will cry out from the wilderness, and the gospel writers agree that they see John the Baptist as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s words. John the Baptist appears on the scene to start baptizing people and preparing them for Jesus’ arrival, calling them to repent and receive forgiveness. And where does he appear? “In the wilderness,” of course. Jesus is coming, and the news of his arrival is coming from the wilderness. This makes sense, because for the Jewish people, their most significant identity story comes from the story of the Exodus, the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. And to get to the Promised Land, the Israelites spend forty years in the wilderness. So John’s arrival, God’s voice emerging from the wilderness – this ties in with the story of the Jewish people. They already know that important stuff happens in the wilderness, that God tries to get our attention when we’re in the wilderness.
            Jesus, like many others, comes to be baptized by John. When he’s baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, and God speaks to him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus gets this irrefutable affirmation of his identity right at the start of his ministry. And it is grounded with that affirmation, secure in that knowledge that the very same Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus is gently led. Like Mark’s own tone, the Spirit’s action is urgent and demanding.
            After Jesus’s time in the wilderness, we immediately hear that he begins preaching in Galilee. His message, the good news, is short and clear. Jesus is ready. He is clear about his purpose. He gets right to work. He seems to have the kind of urgency that Mark conveys. The time is here. God’s reign on earth is here already, and at the same time drawing ever closer. Repent, turn your life around, and believe this fantastic message of grace. 
            As I shared with folks on Ash Wednesday, this Lent, we’ll be talking all season about what it means to be in the wilderness. And we’ll hear stories from throughout the scriptures of people who spent time in the wilderness. They ended up there for a variety of reasons: sometimes lost, sometimes desperate, sometimes with a plan, sometimes with no idea what they were doing. But today, as we think about Jesus in the wilderness, we see someone who enters the wilderness with a clear sense of who he is, and someone who leaves the wilderness having confronted temptation, and come out ready to live out his purpose.
Of course, it is Jesus’s wilderness time that is our true model. In the season of Lent, we go into the wilderness on purpose. The same Holy Spirit that just reminded Jesus of his identity as God’s beloved child at his baptism is also the Spirit that leads him to the wilderness. In Lent, heading to the wilderness is an on-purpose, on-God’s-purpose thing. It’s not an accidental thing, one of the times in our lives where we’re in the wilderness because we’re lost, or in the wilderness because things are falling apart. God finds us in those wilderness times too, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. In Lent, we head for the wilderness on purpose, because it is part of the way of Jesus, part of our path of discipleship. In Lent, we set out for the wilderness intentionally, because we choose to confront anything that seeks to separate us from God, anything that ends up being an obstacle between us and God. In Lent, we set out for the wilderness intentionally, because we recognize that being in the wilderness puts us in that vulnerable, risky, open place where it might be easier to hear God’s voice, might be easier to listen to what God is saying, might be easier to answer God’s call. In Lent, we set out for the wilderness, expecting that we can emerge from our time with a clarity of purpose, refocused, ready to lives as disciples, live as Jesus lives, loving God and neighbor with all our hearts.
The Lenten practices in which many people choose to engage in this season are meant to help us with just these tasks in our purposeful wilderness travels. In Lent, we are called to take up the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving. In prayer, we seek to grow closer to God, to listen for God’s voice and God’s direction. We can practice the discipline of prayer through worship, through studying the scriptures, through individual prayer and praying together with others. In fasting, taking an intentional break from something, we are seeking to remove from our lives anything that keeps our minds off of God, anything that would keep us from meeting God in the wilderness. This is where we confront, in the wilderness, whatever prevents us from giving our whole hearts to God. We can practice the discipline of fasting by removing a meal, or a particular food or type of food or drink from our diets for a period of time. Or we can take a break from unnecessary spending. That’s a discipline I’ve engaged in periodically, and have been alarmed to realize how many times a day I think about buying something. Many find it helpful to tune our hearts to God by fasting from electronics, from social media, or from television. In giving, we seek to demonstrate our love for God with our actions, loving others as God does through acts of service. We can engage in a discipline of Giving by giving our time, by giving our money, and by giving our hearts to God and neighbor. I hope you will consider engaging in a spiritual discipline this Lent. These aren’t New Year’s Resolutions. It doesn’t matter if you start late, or have to regroup and refocus. The purpose of Lenten disciplines, these tools for our wilderness journey, is to draw us closer to God, and give us strength and grounding in God that helps us confront anything that conflicts with our purpose.
Remember, one of our priorities as a congregation is Spiritual Growth, Spiritual Formation. We’re working on being clearer about how we help people who are just exploring faith grow in their journey, and how we help new followers of Jesus grow, and how we help seasoned disciples continue to mature in faith. Are you growing spiritually? What specifically are you doing to grow in your faith? You know I’m a fan of being specific! Lent, our time in the wilderness on purpose, is a time where we seek to grow in our spiritual lives. It’s challenging, no doubt, our wilderness expedition. But we’ll find Jesus there, and where he is, we want to go too. Know that you go into the wilderness as Jesus does, named a beloved child of God and accompanied by God’s spirit. Commit with me this Lent to confronting what is keeping you from giving your whole heart to God. Open your heart, let yourself be vulnerable to God meeting you in the wilderness. And be ready for what God can do with your life not only in the wilderness, but on the other side. May we emerge from our time here with the same clarity and urgency that we see in Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, "In the Wilderness," Psalm 63:1-4, Isaiah 35

Sermon 2/14/18
Psalm 63:1-4, Isaiah 35

In the Wilderness

            In Jewish and Christian tradition, ashes as a symbol convey two primary meanings. First, they are a sign of repentance. When people realized that they had been turning away from God’s path, that they had been disobeying God, and wanted to recommit to God’s way, God’s path, and ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness, sackcloth – a rough fabric – and ashes were worn as signs of that repentance – turning away from sin and toward God. They’re signs of humility, reminders that God is God and we are not God.
            Second, ashes are a sign of our mortality. Although we claim the gift of eternal life with God, in this life, in this world, we live and we die. We are finite. We are not invincible. God creates us from the dust of the earth, and to dust these bodies one day return. This is a message we need to confront regularly. Sometimes we fail to treat our lives as the sacred but finite gifts that they are. We don’t treat others as though their time with us is precious and limited. We build up possessions and wealth in ways that suggest we believe that we will live forever, have our things forever. We spend our time on things that don’t matter to us, and put off doing what God is calling us to do, what we are dreaming of doing. We have a decided lack of urgency when it comes to nurturing our own faith and sharing faith with others. We give the impression that we believe that we have limitless time to get done whatever is on our heart’s to-do list. Ashes are a sign of our mortality, meant to be a wake-up call. We are dust, and to dust we return.
            And yet, perhaps you feel a bit like I do this Ash Wednesday. Like I don’t need to be reminded of our finiteness just now. We know it all too well. I have my own personal loss and grief on my heart. And I know we are all processing our grief and sadness over Retha’s death. And it isn’t just Retha. We’ve had a hard season as a congregation. A generation of loved ones, people who have shaped us individually, and shaped our church. Together they represent a season in our church and community heritage that we sometimes long for, a season when, with our somewhat rose-colored glasses, feels like a simpler time. And just today, I was reading news of the school shooting that happened in Florida. It isn’t yet certain how many died there today. My attention was caught by the headline photo – a woman, a mother perhaps, in tears outside the school, with ashes on her forehead. Just this morning, some pastor had reminded her of her mortality. We are plenty aware of our mortality, aren’t we? We’re feeling very finite jus now, I think. Very much like we are dust.
            It seems fitting then that our theme for this Lent is “In the Wilderness.” I don’t know what images come to mind when you hear the world wilderness, but I can tell you that until I became a pastor and was preparing sermons, I thought of a wilderness as like a forest-y type place. Indeed, we use the word wilderness in this way. I went to “wilderness” camp at Camp Aldersgate when I was in elementary school, and it meant we were out in the woods in tents instead of in cabins. But in the scripture, when we hear about the wilderness, we’re not talking about the woods. We’re talking about the desert. We’re talking about desolate terrain, rocky, barren places, place with little water or vegetation. We’re talking about terrain that can be dangerous, isolated. It’s a place where you are vulnerable, at risk.
            The Bible is full of stories of people who end up in the wilderness, for one reason or another, from Genesis to Revelation, and this Lent, we’ll be reading some wilderness stories, thinking about these figures of faith who spent time in the wilderness, and seeing what we can learn from their journeys there. Jesus spent time in the wilderness too, as we’ll talk about on Sunday, and it is his 40 day time in the wilderness that particularly gives shape to our Lenten season of 40 days. But tonight, we are thinking about our own experiences in the wilderness. When have you felt like you were in a barren land in your life? When have you felt like you were spiritually parched and dry? When have you felt vulnerable and at risk, exposed? When have you felt like you were off the beaten path, lost? Maybe you are even feeling that way right now.
            This Lent, we are listening for God’s message to people who in the wilderness. We’re listening for God’s message to people who are well aware that they are dust. We’re listening for God’s message to us when we feel faint with thirst. Our reading from Psalm 63 is a Psalm attributed to King David, said to be written when he was in the wilderness of Judah. David was on the run, being pursued by his own son Absalom who wished to succeed David as King. David was literally and figuratively experiencing a wilderness time, and he knew whether Absalom was successful in taking power from him or not, David was closer to the end of his reign and life than the beginning. From this context, we read, “O God you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
            In Lent, we seek to attune our hearts to the reality that we are in wilderness, we’re parched, we’re dust, and we’re longing with a thirst that only drawing close to God can quench. God is the water of life for our souls that have become a desert place, a wilderness place. Thankfully, this very God whom we long for is the one who has the power to bring life to the desert, and bring hope in the wilderness. In our reading from Isaiah 35, we hear these hopeful words: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing … For the waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water … A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.” In the desert, life. In the wilderness, a holy highway for God’s people. God brings crocuses to bloom where it seems no life could survive. Where there is only dust, God brings a spring of water.
            We are dust, and to dust we return. That is the stark reality that we face on Ash Wednesday. But just as real is God’s promise to bring life from the wilderness. Tonight, as we receive ashes, this sign of repentance, a sign that we are turning our hearts back to God, a sign that we are mortals, dust, we’ll hear a song called Beautiful Things sung by Mark Gungor. Listen to some of the word: “All this pain. I wonder if I’ll ever find my way. I wonder if my life could really change at all. All this earth. Could all that is lost ever be found? Could a garden come up from this ground at all? You make beautiful things. You make beautiful things out of the dust. All around, Hope is springing up from this old ground. Out of chaos life is being found in You. You make beautiful things. You make beautiful things out of the dust. You make me new, You are making me new. You make me new, You are making me new.”
            Maybe we are in the wilderness. But have you heard about what God can do in wilderness? Maybe we are dust. But have you seen what God can make from dust? This Ash Wednesday, may we be reminded that we are dust. May we turn to God with all our hearts. And may we remember that God promises that in due season the wilderness will be glad and the desert shall rejoice and blossom. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sermon, "Why: Is Jesus the Only Way?" John 14:1-14

Sermon 2/11/18
John 14:1-14

Why: Is Jesus the Only Way?

            Today we’re coming to the end of our series on Why: Asking Tough Questions of Faith. We wrap up with a question that isn’t really a “why” question, but it is one that I’ve heard often enough in ministry that I thought it deserved a place in our series nonetheless. Maybe you’ve heard it too. “Is Jesus the Only Way?” The fuller version of this question, including the unexpressed parts of it is something more like, “Is believing in Jesus the only way to get into heaven? Is being a Christian the only way to be right with God?” And related to it are the questions that naturally follow: “What about people who are part of other religious traditions? Are they ok? Can they get to heaven? Are they just wrong? Are there consequences for choosing a path other than believing in Jesus and being part of the church?”
            For contemporary Christians, this question – is Jesus the Only Way – has only become more important, more pressing to us. Many earlier generations of American Christians might have spent most of their lives with their only meaningful exposure to people of other faith traditions being interaction between Protestants and Catholics, or Episcopalians and Baptists; we have different traditions and ways of doing things, but all part of the Body of Christ. But our world has changed. Not only is the United States increasingly a place of diverse cultures, faiths, and practices, but we also have much more exposure to people outside of the United States. Chances are, through work, through school, through social media, through your interests and tastes, through your hobbies, you have connections with people from outside of the US too. Probably, you have friendships with or at least are acquaintances with people who are not Christian, but instead are Jewish, or Hindu, or Sikh, or Muslim. And in light of these relationships, our question for today becomes all the more urgent. We want to know: what about our friends who practice a different faith, who don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who aren’t Christian? What happens to them? Where do they fit in our understanding of our faith?
            Not only has our level of knowledge and interaction with people of other faiths changed, but our culture has also changed when it comes to talking about right and wrong, fact and fiction, truth and falsehood. We’ve become wary of people who speak in absolutes, who claim that their way is the right way and no variation is acceptable. We put a great deal of weight on personal experience, which is subjective. In a time where we hear a constant refrain of “Fake News,” truth seems fluid. People from other faith traditions seem as passionately sure of their faith as we are of ours. Who are we to tell them they are wrong and we are right?
            We have other questions, too, when it comes to wondering about Jesus and whether or not his way is the only way. There are people who have literally never heard the gospel. It’s hard to imagine, but there are still cultures that are untouched by the outside world. How can folks who have never heard of Jesus be held accountable to believing in an “only way” of which they’ve never heard? Or how do we handle the fact that sometimes messengers of the gospel do a bad job in sharing the good news? If the gospel is shared in ways that are harmful and hurtful, how can we blame people for not accepting Jesus, when it is hard to separate message from messenger? And what about folks who aren’t Christian, but they seem to be walking in the path of Jesus more deeply than those of us who claim the title “Christian”? Our question is “Is Jesus the Only Way?” But it is really a question containing many questions. Who is in and who is out? How are we “saved”? What about my friends who aren’t Christian? What does it take for us to claim Jesus’ offered gift of life eternal? I’m not sure we can “answer” all of those questions, but today we’ll try to begin to answer.
            When people talk about Jesus being “the only way,” they are drawing on words from scripture, and in particular looking at the passage that we shared today from the gospel of John. Today’s text comes from the setting of what we call the Last Supper, even though we don’t see that in the passage we read. Just before the section we read today, Jesus has shared a meal with the disciples, washed their feet, sent Judas off to do the work of betrayal, and shared with the disciples a new commandment, that they would love one another just as Jesus has loved them. But laced through Jesus’ words are references to the fact that Jesus will be leaving the disciples soon. Near the end of chapter thirteen he says, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterword.” Jesus’ ambiguous, symbolic languages confuses the disciples. Peter asks “Lord, where are you going? Why can I not follow you now?” This is what leads us into our text for today.
            If today’s passage sounds familiar to you, it is likely because we often share in this text at funerals. These are words of comfort we speak to each other in the painful times of grief and loss, when we’re looking for reassurance of our place in God’s heart. Jesus says to the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He tells them that in God’s house there are “many dwelling places,” lots of room, and that Jesus is preparing a place for them there. Jesus promises that he will take them to God’s house, so that where Jesus is, we might be too. And, Jesus insists, “you know the way to the place where I am going.”
            At this, Thomas speaks up. He and the others are hearing Jesus in a very literal way, and all they can conclude is that they don’t know where Jesus is going or the way to get there. They don’t have a map. They don’t have directions. They’re feeling lost, afraid, and confused about all this talk of Jesus leaving them. “How can we know the way?” Thomas asks. Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. You get to God by way of me! If you know me, you know God! If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen him.” Jesus is trying to tell the disciples that they don’t have to worry that they won’t be able to find a way to God – Jesus is the way to God, and they already know Jesus. He’s speaking to comfort their anxiety, to quell their fears.
            Jesus continues saying that he is in God the father, the parent, and God is in Jesus. You can’t have one without the other. And so if you know Jesus, you know God. If you know the way of Jesus, you know the way to God. And what is the way of Jesus, the path of Jesus? People who are following the way of Jesus are those who do the works that Jesus does. Just after the passage for today ends, Jesus says that loving him means keeping his commandments. Understanding Jesus as the way means living as Jesus calls us to live. As I said, Jesus speaks these words to comfort the disciples and to remind them that they do in fact know where he’s going because they know him. They already know God because they know him. And they know how to claim this way of Jesus because he’s been teaching them just what that means all along.
            What does it mean to live in the way of Jesus? Does it mean to claim a certain set of beliefs? Does it mean to live our lives a certain way? I’m reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicle of Narnia. In the last book in the series, The Last Battle some corrupt leaders have been teaching that Aslan, the great Lion, the Christ-figure in the books is the same as Tash, an angry, frightening god worshiped by the people of Calormen, a neighboring nation. People are confused and afraid. The culmination of the conflict takes place outside an animal stable. The villains claim that anyone who enters the stable will be able to meet “Tashlan,” the name they’ve given to this so-called combined Tash and Aslan god-figure. But instead, they’ve placed soldiers inside, ready to kill whoever comes through the door. Unexpectedly, a young man named Emeth volunteers to go in, to the dismay of the scheming villains who like Emeth, and are trying to catch others in their trap, not him. But Emeth has been a devoted follower of Tash his whole life, and he insists on going in to see Tash for himself.
It is a long time in the story before we learn what happens to him. The stable door turns out to be an entry way into heaven, and eventually some other characters find Emeth sitting under a tree, who tells them that he met Aslan, the lion, face-to-face. He recounts, “I fell at [Aslan’s] feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him … But the [Aslan] bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me … Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, though knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”[1]
            I’ve always found this metaphor compelling. I believe that God knows our hearts, and knows when we are seeking to draw close to God. I believe that in Jesus we have been shown the way, the truth, and the life. And I believe that sometimes people are following the way of Jesus even when they don’t claim the title of Christian, and that sometimes people who claim the title Christian aren’t walking in Jesus’ way. Thankfully, I also believe that it isn’t my job to sort out who is on the path, the way, and who isn’t. God never asks us to take on that role. Instead, Jesus just reminds us that we know what the way is and invites us to follow it, speaking to us words of peace and love all the while.
            So what, then, do we take from our wrestling with this difficult question? First, if we believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, if we believe that in Jesus was can draw closer to God than we’ve ever imagined, if we believe that in Jesus we can experience the joy of God’s reign on earth, and if we believe that there is something unique about the way folks can get to know God through a relationship with Jesus, then we have a responsibility to share the message of Jesus with others. I don’t mean that you have to go door to door, and I don’t mean that you should beat people over the head with a Bible, pressure them, twist their arm, or belittle them for choosing a different path than yours. Remember, the news of Jesus, grace, and God’s reign is good news! But, if we believe life with Jesus is life-changing, life-saving, then we have to share the message. We share it through building relationships, through loving one another deeply, and through demonstrating with our own lives how transformative a relationship with Jesus can be. Our own changed lives are the most compelling message we can share.
            That’s our second task, in fact. If we believe that Jesus is the way, the path, then we need to seek, day by day, to live on that path, to live in the way of Jesus. I sometimes worry that we lost the power of the question “What would Jesus do?” when the phrase turned into a marketing phenomenon. But it is a good question. We are called to be imitators of Jesus, to shape our hearts and minds and lives to resemble Jesus as much as possible. Jesus looked with love and compassion on people. He sought to include the excluded. He sought to challenge those who wielded power over others in hurtful ways. He longed to help people draw closer to God, and he was willing to give endlessly of himself for that purpose. We have a responsibility to live in the way of Jesus if we call him the way.
            I think part of the way of Jesus includes nurturing our relationships with all kinds of people, including people from all kinds of faith traditions. Jesus was a boundary-crosser. He didn’t let any differences keep him from forming relationships with others. God our creator made each of us in God’s very image. Each and every one. Each and every one of us has sacred worth. I think, in fact, that we can be better followers of the way of Jesus when we take time to learn from others about how they draw close to God, even as we share how transformative Jesus is to us.
            Today, we’re celebrating the sacrament of baptism. Bryn may be young, but she’s already ready to choose the path of faith she wants to walk. She’s choosing the way, truth, and life of Jesus. As she chooses this path, as her parents promise to nurture her along the way, we, too, are called to support Bryn, by walking with her in the way of Jesus. Together, let’s go in Jesus’ way, and claim the abundant life he offers. Amen.  

[1] Lewis, C.S., The Last Battle, 164-165.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Sermon, "Why: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?" Romans 3:19-21, Romans 6:1-11

Sermon 2/4/18
Romans 3:19-21, 6:1-11

Why: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

Presbyterian pastor and professor of theology Cynthia Rigby wrote that she started asking the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” when she was just a child. She writes, “The idea that the Son had to die so the Father would be able to forgive us has never made much sense to me. If God loves us no matter what, why can’t God just go ahead and forgive us?
“I remember asking this question even as a child, pointing out to my parents that they seemed to forgive my brother and me for things all the time, and rarely felt the need to punish [us]. If they did give us some kind of penalty, it was not because they needed it in order to be able to forgive us. It was so we would learn, better, how properly to behave. So why couldn’t God just forgive [us], if my parents could? How could Jesus’ dying really help anything, anyway? And how could something as terrible as the cross be something God wanted or needed?
“My mom and dad and Sunday school teachers in our little Presbyterian church … tried very hard to answer my questions. But the answers they delivered were spoken so concisely, and with so much certainty, I figured you had to be a grown-up to understand. “Jesus died to pay the penalty for your sins,” they told me. And so I tried to imagine what I — a really well-behaved, zealously Christian 8-year-old — could possibly have done so wrong that it necessitated the God who created the universe come down here and die. “A price had to be paid,” another grown-up explained — we sinned, and the penalty for sin is death. So God gave his only Son to die in our place. Jesus died for us because he loves us.” Is there any truth to these statements said to us over and over again?” Rigby wonders.[1]
Rigby’s question is ours for the day: Why did Jesus have to die? If God loves us so much, did God really need for Jesus to die in order to be able to love and forgive us? Does God require punishment? How can we find meaning in Jesus’ crucifixion and death? What exactly is accomplished in the act of Jesus dying? Like Rigby, most of us who have been part of the Christian tradition for any length of time have been taught that “Jesus died for our sins.” What do we mean when we say that?
These are questions about atonement. Last week our fancy church word was theodicy, and today it is atonement. Atonement, though, is probably already a familiar concept to you. When we do something wrong, when we hurt someone else, we might say that we need to atone for our wrongdoing. We need to do something to make amends, to repair the damage to our relationship. The act of bringing a broken relationship back to rights is atonement. We expect criminals to atone for their crimes – sometimes through a prison sentence, or through community service, or through paying fines. We might have expectations about atonement in our relationships. If someone hurts you, how do you expect them to make it up to you? An apology? Flowers? Perhaps children get grounded, or have to do some extra chores. All of these actions of rebuilding brokenness are ways that we seek to atone for our wrongs.
In matters of faith, then, atonement is about how we restore our broken relationship with God when we have done wrong, when we’ve sinned. We read a lot about the practices of atonement in the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament of the Bible. When someone sinned, against God or others, the law outlined what a person must do to atone for their sin. Atoning actions might include confessing, making restitution or repayment, receiving a legal punishment, or making a sacrifice, usually an animal sacrifice that would be offered as a gift to God. That last part seems pretty strange to us, but it was a tangible way people could demonstrate their desire to heal their relationship with God, offering some of the best of what they had to God. The most sacred day in Judaism remains Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day when the whole people gathers to repent and set right their relationship with God.
In Christianity, theologies of atonement work to explain how it is that Jesus reconciles us to God. Last week I mentioned that there are many different theodicies, theories about God and suffering. So too there are many understandings of atonement, many ways people think about how we humans, caught up in sin, can be permanently reconciled with God. The view that Cynthia Rigby says she learned as a child is called “penal substitution,” the idea that Jesus gets punished on our behalf, for our sins. Another view is called the “ransom view,” where death must be satisfied with some life given, and Christ exchanges his life for ours. A view called “moral influence” teaches that Jesus’ death was meant to bring about true moral change in humanity that would reconcile us to God. The “Christus Victor” view of atonement teaches that Christ’s death and resurrection defeats the power of death, and death’s dominion over humanity. You don’t need to learn all these views, and I don’t mean to overwhelm you with them. But I do want to give you a sense, an understanding that within Christian tradition, while there is a great deal of agreement that in Jesus, we are reconciled with God, there are many understandings of how exactly that works. That’s ok with me, because I think anything as meaningful as what brings us into right relationship with God is something worth mulling over and searching and studying, and thinking about deeply.    
Of course, we have our own sources to check out when it comes to atonement: we look to the scriptures for understanding. We’ve talked before about a concept related to atonement: justification. As you can tell, it’s related to the word justice, and we’ve talked about how justice is God’s vision of right relationships: our right relationship with God, and our right relationships with one another. Justification, then, is the process of our getting into right relationship with God. In our Wesleyan tradition, we talk about justifying grace. Grace is God’s gift of unconditional love, freely offered to us, and we believe that it is only by relying on the gift of God’s grace that we are justified with God. In other words, it is because of God’s work that we can get into right relationship with God, not because of our work. Our work is to accept God’s gift of grace and let it transform us.
The apostle Paul writes a lot about justification in his letter to the Romans. In today’s texts, Paul starts by talking about “the law,” and when he’s talking about the law he means the Law of Moses, the laws of Judaism that held together the people of faith and shaped their way of life and being in the world. In much of his writing, Paul argues not to belittle the law, so important to Jewish identity, but to show instead how in Jesus, Jew and Gentile (that is, non-Jewish people) Jew and Gentile alike find freedom in Christ and no longer have to be perfect upholders of the law in order to have a relationship with God. People understood that adherence to the law was what justified them, set them right with God, but Paul argues that because of Jesus, now we are set right not through adherence to the law, a task at which we’re likely to fail miserably, but instead justified through Jesus’ sacrificial gift of life to us, once and for all. Paul says that “for all who believe” in Jesus, we can be justified, reconciled to God, Jews, Gentiles, everybody. After all, Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” so we all, likewise, have equal access – and need of – restoring our relationship with God. Paul writes, “[we] are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”
Paul concludes that since we all sin and fall short of God’s glory, and since we all are brought into right relationship with God not by our own deeds, but by the redeeming action of Jesus, the gift of grace, then none of us can boast. None of us has the right to say that we are “better,” showing off with how good we are at following the laws of God. That doesn’t mean we ignore God’s law! But it is God’s grace through the gift of Jesus, not our ability to be more perfect than our neighbors, that sets us right with God. God’s actions, not ours.
In our second reading from Romans, Paul confirms that Jesus’s death not just about God demanding punishment. Rather, in fact, Jesus’ death is a necessity of new life. You can’t have new life without experiencing death. And we are invited, called, to join in the death of Jesus so that we can also join in the resurrected lives Jesus promises. Paul doesn’t mean that we all literally must experience a death like Jesus’, although Paul and many other early Christians were certainly willing to and did put their lives on the line because of their faith. Rather, Paul says, we put to death “our old self.” We put to death our enslavement to sin. And when our old self dies, our new life in Christ beings. In his death and resurrection, Jesus demonstrates that death has no power over him – it is God who has power over death. Likewise, Paul says, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Emphasis mine.) Paul wraps up, “So, you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Reflecting on Paul’s words, I don’t believe that Jesus had to die if what we mean by that is that Jesus had to die to satisfy an angry God who must have punishment to be satisfied. So what do we mean? Why did Jesus die on the cross? First, I think it is important to remind ourselves that Jesus chooses. There is no action that Jesus takes in his life and in his dying that he’s forced into, even as he wishes, prays, longs for a different path. Just as God doesn’t take our free will from us, neither did God take away Jesus’ human ability on earth to walk away. Jesus reminds us more than once in the gospels that he has the power and ability to call on God if needed. Jesus chooses his death, in as much as anyone chooses to face the consequences of a corrupt and unjust system of oppression. Jesus died because he chose his path. He believed it to be the path that would demonstrate everything he had been telling the disciples and crowds about God and our life with God. He believed that his death and resurrection would be the fulfillment of the good news he’d been teaching and preaching for years. And so Jesus followed the path he meant to follow, choosing to be faithful to his purpose, knowing what he would endure.
But the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion doesn’t come from thinking that his suffering was unique or the worst suffering ever endured, or the most violent death. Unfortunately, humans have shown an incredible capacity for cruelty over the millennia. Jesus’ crucifixion was a government-sponsored execution, and it was the same style of execution that many suffered. It isn’t the uniqueness of Jesus’ death that is important. In fact it is that Jesus suffers with us, like us, by our side, facing the same things others face that is so powerful. In his suffering and death, Jesus puts himself on the side of all who suffer, all who have been at the mercy of powerful systems of oppression. In his death, in God acting through Jesus’ death, we see that real power does not come through violence or force or domination. Might does not equal right, no matter how many times people or leaders or governments try to prove otherwise. True strength, true power is demonstrated in being vulnerable, in giving sacrificially, in placing others before self, giving away everything, even life, to be faithful to the message of God. Jesus repeats these words again and again in his ministry: “If you want to save your life, you have to lose it.” It’s what Paul means when he says that if we want to live with Christ, we have to die to self first.    
            God comes to the world in Jesus. Jesus is born, lives, dies, and is resurrected. And from one end to the other, from his coming into the world, through his death, to the wonder of resurrection, we see in all of it that God longs not to punish us, but to be reconciled with us. Everything about Jesus is a testament to God’s desire to draw us closer to God. Jesus’ death means many things: It means we’re called to be very careful about how obsessed we get with accumulating power, because power over others is not God’s way. It means we are called to give and live sacrificially, like Jesus, giving ourselves for others. It means we are called to speak the truth and hold on to and speak up for what is right no matter the cost. It means that we can stop working to earn God’s favor. We have God’s favor. God loves us already, immeasurably. Instead, we can focus on putting to death with Jesus our old selves, everything that keeps us from drawing closer to God. We must die with Christ to live with Christ, if we don’t want death to have a hold on us anymore. Let us choose the path of Jesus, so “we too might walk in newness of life.” Amen.

[1] Rigby, Cynthia, “Prodigal Cross,” Presbyterian Outlook. April 9 2014. Accessed on February 2 2018. 

Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

Sermon 2/20/24 Mark 8:31-37 In Denial My sermon title is both a reflection of our gospel text for today, and a reflection of how I felt abou...