Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Is, Was, & Will Be

Revelation 1:4-8
Christ the King Sunday 

Today is Christ the King Sunday.  I’m not going to lie, it’s a celebration I tend to overthink; I do it every year.  Culturally speaking, we don’t really know what to do with royalty.  So every year I ask myself the same questions: how do I understand what it means to have a king in a democratic society?  What does a king actually do?  How is Christ’s rule different from other authorities?  

And again, I asked myself these same questions twelve months ago, but that was twelve months ago!  How am I supposed to remember what I overthought a year ago?  

So on the one hand, it’s enough to make one wonder, “Maybe I should think about this more than once a year.  Maybe I forget the meaning of keeping Jesus as my true ruler because one day a year is not the kind of devotion my king requires of me.  Maybe, to call Christ our one True King, means that he is the king of everything: all that we have, all that we do, all that we say, all that we think; even our very lives.”  

But on the other hand, maybe it doesn’t matter.  Maybe, the kingship of Jesus means that it isn’t about me at all.  Maybe Jesus is going to be the King of Kings whether I remember it or not.  Maybe, Christ the King Sunday is less about my remembering that he is king and more about remembering what kind of king he is and was and always will be.  

I think that one of my biggest problems in understanding Jesus as my King is that I don’t tend to have a healthy respect for authority to start with, especially when it comes to the government.  A long time ago I gave up having any political affiliation.  I did this for some good spiritual reasons but I also did it because I was just fed up with political parties; and they’ve only gotten worse.  Although most politicians use the name of Jesus for their own personal gain, I don’t think any party really embodies the heart of Jesus (and I don’t think any party ever will).  Needless to say, I don’t trust any of them.  When politicians use faith to gain power, they are no longer talking about the same Jesus I am.  

But that’s a bit beside the point.  The point is, I don’t think any of us really understands what it means to be ruled; we don’t know what it means to have a king, especially what it meant in Jesus’ day.  We are about to enter the season of Advent–the season of preparation for the coming of the Messiah–the time of preparation for the child born King of Kings.  We hold him up as the one anointed by God to be the savior of the world.  But do we really understand what that all means?  

“Christ the King” is an interesting and an important title.  Unlike most monarchies of our day, being a king really meant something in Jesus' day.  A king was the most powerful human being on earth.  In Jesus’ day, there was no room my kind of cynicism and distrust.  The king secured a nation’s order and peace.  The king was the embodiment of a nation’s identity.   He was honored, respected, and served; a king was revered, feared, and obeyed; or else.

But who, in our day, commands that kind of devotion?  In our society, the individual is king.  No one is better than us.  No one is ultimately more important than we are as individuals.  No one is worthy of our unquestioning obedience and our undying dedication.  We are our own kings.  

For me, that’s the most important reason to remember Jesus as king: to remember that I am not.  Me being king, even of myself, is a really bad idea.  It’s a bad idea because I don’t love myself nearly as much as Jesus does.  

There were a couple reasons why I was drawn to this Scripture lesson today.  The first being the sheer grandeur of John’s description of the God he serves: “Him who is and who was and who is to come… and Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” That is the humbling reminder that we all need to hear from time to time.  We tend to think that we can be kings of our lives just fine, but John reminds us that Jesus can do it better every time.  

But even more than that, this same king is the one, “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” Amen?  

As I already pointed out: we’re about to enter the Advent Season.  As we anticipate the coming of Jesus, I love that we do it first remembering that the one we wait for is the King of Kings.  This one who is and was and is to come, is also the same one who came into this world in humility.  This King of kings, who is most highly exalted, is the also the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.  That is a remarkable thought.  That is our king, and the kingdom he calls us to is shaped by that same humility and self-sacrifice.  

Notice where and when that kingdom exists.  John draws us to cast our gaze into the future when our Savior will return, but that’s not when and where the kingdom starts.  John reminds us that Jesus has already “made us to be a kingdom.”  Not to wait for a coming kingdom; not to live in some place called a kingdom; but to be that very kingdom.  The fancy, seminary word for it is “incarnation,” which really just means “to embody.”  We are to embody the spirit of our Savior; we are to embody his kingdom in the ways we live our lives.  We embody our king, much like the way he took on our form and embodied our humanity.  And we’re meant to do it here and now.  

Last Sunday I told you a little about the conference I went to.  I told you about the “rule of life” it helped me design: meaning that, rather than being ruled by life, in the many ways it comes at me, I came up with certain practices that help rule my life based on the things I actually value.  This is key, I think, to what it means to embody the kingdom of Jesus.  The kingdom is not just going to build itself.  Sure the Spirit will meet us and help it to grow in us, but you have to seek it too.  We have to develop practices that will help us embody the kingdom.  The good news is, I can help with that.

We did an exercise at the conference that helped us to determine what our core values were.  My top values, by far, all had to do with deepening and fostering relationships; that’s my thing.  And then it occurred to me that, as a church, deepening and fostering relationships is one of our top stated values too.  And then it occurred to me, maybe it’s not an accident that we share that value; maybe the Spirit had something to do with that.  And then it occurred to me that maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that much: deepening and fostering relationships was pretty central to the way Jesus did his ministry.  “Follow me,” he said; and his followers not only heard his words, but they watched what he did and got to know him more and more.  

So I had all these things occur to me all at once and then I thought of a practice.  It’s a practice I started doing a while back, but it occurred to me that I could invite you to do it too.  It’s a practice that will help you to embody the kingdom of Jesus and live into a shared core value.  And best of all, it’s easy and you’re going to love it.  

We’re going to start just during these next four weeks leading up to Christmas.  What you’re going to do is take one person a week from this church and intentionally get to know them better.  So between now and Christmas, you are going to deepen your relationship with four different people.  I guarantee you, there are new things you can learn about every single person in this church.  You can pick a time and place to meet up during the week or you can talk during Fellowship time; just do it on purpose. If you need conversation starters, I have a list of twenty questions that I stole from something else, but remember you are just deepening relationships.  

It may seem overly simple, but this is embodying the kingdom of our Savior; this practice does, in it’s own simple way, live out a value we share with our Risen Savior, and in so doing, we live out his rule in us.  

Heads Up

Mark 13:1-8
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Let me begin by just saying thank you.  Thank you for letting me be gone last week.  I know that you are contractually obligated to allow me to take a certain number of Sundays off for continuing education, but this one was special.  I’ll talk a bit more about it later, but first: thank you.  

I’ve already thanked Cathy for stepping in to proclaim God’s word.  I hear good things—I always do, Cathy is my go-to person when I need to be gone on a Sunday; I do try to line up thoughtful and insightful preachers when I’m away.  

I don’t really know what she talked about; I told her that I was in a series on stewardship and we picked the text together, but she didn’t really tell me what she intended to say about it.  I understand she led you in a little a Capella singing.  Don’t get used to that.  Every pastor has their own unique skillset; that is not mine.  But anyway, I don’t really know what the point of her message was.  What I do know is: the point of this one is probably more important.  To be clear, not everything I have to say is more important than what Cathy has to say; it’s just that what Jesus has to say to us today, when it comes to our stewardship, is maybe the most important thing we need to hear.  Because today Jesus shows us where our giving goes.  Today Jesus reminds us to keep our focus on where our giving goes, because all our giving—whether it’s time or talent, or treasure—goes to the Kingdom of God.  But more than that, today Jesus shows us these things because we are really easily distracted.  

Our Scripture lesson today picks up exactly where it left off last week.  Like I said, I don’t exactly know where Cathy went with the text, but I know the story: while teaching in the Temple, Jesus and the disciples are hanging out in front of where the offering was collected.  They watched as rich people pulled up with wheelbarrows full of cash and then a poor widow clinked in a couple of coins that added up to a penny.  At this sight, Jesus points out that, to God, what the widow put in was worth more than the rest.  I’m starting to wish I was here last week because I would love to hear what Cathy did with that.  What a strange notion, right?  The thing about money is, it has value given to it.  For example, you may like the feel and weight of a quarter more than you do a paper dollar; but the dollar is still worth four times more than a quarter.  

Had I preached that sermon, the point I would come to is not so much about worth as it is about perspective.  Sure, her coins are always going to add up to a penny, but from God’s perspective they vastly more valuable because God cares about the reasons we give.  What Jesus was challenging his disciples to do was what he always challenges his followers to do: to look at things from God’s point of view; he challenges us, again and again, to see our world from the lens of the Kingdom of God.  And then today we hear a story that shows us that we will probably never stop learning this lesson.  

They end their time in the Temple, go outside, and they are immediately blind to God’s perspective.  An unnamed disciple looks around at the architecture of the Temple and says, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  He may as well have said, “Ooh, shiny!”  I can’t say I blame whichever disciple that was: I’m sure it was an impressive sight; especially considering it was probably one of the country-bumpkin Galileans who said it.  But the fact is, this is just the kind of thing they were just talking about inside.  Yes, it is an impressive sight.  Yes, a lot of time, and talent, and money went into this imposing structure.  But what do you think God thinks about all this?  Do you think God is impressed by it?  Do you think God says, “Wow, I wish I’d have thought to make this when I was putting together the entire universe”?  Or maybe God values so-called smaller gifts more.  Maybe those same gifts, used to build shelters for the destitute, would be more impressive to God.  Maybe some of the money used for this grand structure, from God’s perspective, might go farther to help out a widow who only had a penny go give.  

We are so easily distracted away from the perspective of God, aren’t we?  Jesus teaches us not to look at the value of a gift but to the reasons for the giving; then we walk outside and say, “Look how valuable this place must be.”  Maybe the most surprising thing in all of the Gospels is that Jesus never once says, “What were we just talking about?”  Don’t get me wrong, keeping our eyes on the Kingdom is no easy task.  We are easily led astray.  Politicians, celebrities, and preachers proclaim—in one way or another—“I am he!” and we follow right along.  We hear about wars and even rumors of wars and next thing you know, we’re stockpiling canned goods and bottled water.  Somehow we forget our Savior’s words: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes; there will be famines.  This is just the beginning.”  

I have to admit that Jesus gets a little scary in this part of the Gospel.  All of this End Times talk is hard for us to hear, but I don’t think Jesus is trying to scare us.  I think he’s just trying to refocus us.  More than End Times talk, this is big picture talk; Jesus is reminding us that there is a plan in all this that is that is bigger than all of those scary things.  

Here’s a fun-fact: what we read today is the start of the longest speech Jesus that gives in the entire Gospel of Mark.  This apocalyptic talk to his disciples is the most he has to say at one time in the entire book.  But I want you to hear how it ends: Jesus says, “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”  The point of this comparatively epic End Times speech is simply to remind his followers to stay focused on what’s important.  

Many of you have asked how things went last week.  I was even asked a couple of times, “Did you have fun?”  “Fun” is not the word for it.  “Psycho-spiritual boot camp” is more like it.  It was challenging in a good way, it was transformational in even better ways, but it was not fun.  

I guess Cathy kind of explained a bit about the conference last week, but here’s my take on it: it was a conference for Presbyterian pastors to develop what they call a “rule of life.”  This means that after some difficult exploration of our individual values and gifts, we looked at our lives through life-lenses like vocation, physical health, finances, and emotional health.  I’ll talk more next week about how my personal rule of life impacts us as a church, but for this week, there is a simple truth I drew from the experience.  I never really thought much about many of the things I did in life.  Rather than living my life under a rule of life, I’ve often been ruled by life.  I’ve been as tossed around, worried, and distracted as anyone else most of the time.  The foundational truth I learned last week is that I can do better.  I can live a life of purpose more intentionally than I have been.  

God’s word to us today reminds us the same: we can do better; we are made and called to do better; the world around us needs us to do better.  Here together we are meant to lift our eyes above the struggles and distractions of this world, and not be brought down by them.  Here we are meant to lift one another’s gaze back to the Kingdom that has no end; we lift one another that we might lift the world’s gaze, one neighbor at a time.  

The stewardship lesson for us this morning is simply this: remember what we’re giving to; remember what we are living our lives for.  Today we remember, that as we give of our time and our talents and our money, we are building the Kingdom of God.  As we build this Eternal Kingdom in the world around us, let us not be distracted by it; but let us seek to see this world and our place in it from God’s perspective.  And let us encourage one another, in all things, to keep focused on the Kingdom we are building together.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Gr-Attitude

Psalm 146
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

If you were with us last Sunday, then you will recall that we are in the midst of a series of sermons on the topic of stewardship.  I won’t quiz you today, I’ll just tell you.  I define stewardship as anything we do in response to the salvation we’ve received.  Sure, we’ll talk about money at some point, but we’ll also talk about the time you spend with those in need in Jesus’ name; we’ll talk about the kindness you show because of the kindness you’ve received; we’ll talk about the life we live as a gift of thanks to the Savior who has given us eternal life.

Last week we saw in the Son of Timaeus, that this response is mostly just following Jesus with joy.  As important as it is to seek to follow Jesus in all things, the attitude that leads us to follow, I believe, is equally important.  So today we look to the Bible’s songbook.  Today we look to Psalm 146 to remember that our life’s beginning and end is praise.  Today we remember that the stewardship of our money, and time, and talents isn’t born out of duty, it’s born of our grateful praise.  

I need sermons like this one sometimes.  Is that weird to say out loud?  I need the reminder to give God my thankful praise.  I’m hoping you need that reminder too, otherwise this message is just for me.  

I need this message because I am so richly blessed: I’m in relatively good health, I have a loving family, I have a great job, and I live in the best place on earth; but that doesn’t always mean I’m happy.  Have you ever noticed that?  In fact, sometimes it works the other way around: you eat the perfect steak and every other steak is then compared to it; your brother-in-law lets you drive his Tesla and then you have to drive your own dumb car back home; you go on a cruise and then you get home and no one is feeding you.  Gratitude does not automatically spring from having every good thing in the world.  It is a choice and it is a choice to set our eyes on where those good gifts come from.  

Psalm 146 identifies that source with the name "Lord."  We use that name so easily here that we forget that it’s actually a pretty complicated notion for us.  Tuesday is an elephant in this and every other room enter between now and then, right?  Today we need to remember not to put our trust in so-called princes, don’t we?  But that’s not the half of it.  Today we need to remember our True Lord; the Lord the psalmist was talking about.  

This Lord is the giver of both life and justice. The same God who "made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them" also gives "justice for the oppressed and food to the hungry.”  A Lord, not to be feared, but a Lord who sets the prisoners free, defends orphans and widows, and passes judgment against those who would abuse them.  I don’t care who you’re voting for on Tuesday, but I can guarantee you that they will fall short of our Lord.  If your politicians are the source of your happiness, you will be sad whether they are elected or not.  

But happy are those who put their trust in the eternal God who made heaven and earth. Our Lord, the maker of all things, intimately cares for us: our Lord opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, and watches over the stranger and the orphan and the widow.  

Psalm 146 begins and ends with a call to praise because praise should be our beginning, our end, and our everything in between.  Our faithful stewardship is born, of course, out of God’s faithfulness; and our faithful stewardship begins and ends with praise.  And sure, we already have moments of praise; we have moments of sincere gratitude.  

I was at the Tuning Fork the other day (it seems I have a lot of Tuning Fork stories, don’t I?).  I was getting some work done, sipping some coffee, and sort-of minding my own business.  I say “sort-of” because it’s hard not to notice people.  I noticed a couple of women come in and sit down—and I promise I wasn’t listening in on their conversation—but I could tell the kind of conversation they were having.  They were having a get-to-know-ya conversation.  And I thought, “That’s what we need as a culture; we need to deepen our relationships with one another; we need to make new friends; we need to make better friends with old friends.”  And then I thought, “This simple coffee shop—because of what they are doing—is holy ground.”  So as I was leaving, I shared those thoughts with Tim, the owner; and he seemed to appreciate that I appreciated him and what he was doing.  

I had a moment of gratitude and it was nice.  It wasn’t my only moment of gratitude, which is also nice.  But the psalmist reminds us that, when it comes to the faithfulness of God, we are called to more than moments.  We are called to lead lives of praise, lives of gratitude.  To live that kind of life—to live a life of day in and day out praise—is a spiritual practice that won’t happen on accident.  It might just require our personal discipline and the support of the people gathered in this place. God brings good things into our lives every day, and we need to develop eyes of faith to see them.

And I know, there are also times when it is hard to praise God.  Some of you may know that I did an internship at the Crystal Cathedral when I was young.  It was a good experience, but I did not drink their Cool Aid, if you know what I mean.  To give you an example: once, when I was in their bookstore, I came across a Schuller book titled “The Be Happy Attitudes.”  I remember being a little embarrassed by the audible “ugh” I let out.  No, I’m not saying that every day is rainbows and unicorns; but we do always have reason for praise; we do always have reason for gratitude; we do always have reason to believe that, even in our lamenting, our Lord is a Lord of redeeming hope.  

Not all of the psalms are psalms of praise; there are psalms of lament as well because lament is a part of life too.  But often, those psalms are also psalms of transformation.  As we gather around this Table, perhaps it brings to mind that Jesus quoted one such psalm on the Cross.  Psalm 22, which begins with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” ends with the praise, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”  

Here at this Table, we remember where the depth of our gratitude comes from.  Here we remember that the God of All Creation, became one of us to show us the depth and breadth of that faithfulness and love.  

There’s an interesting thing happens at the end of the book of psalms: the last five Psalms, beginning with 146, are all a calls to worship.  It seems odd that this book—this collection of Israel’s worship music, as it were—should end with calls to worship; that is until you think about it.  When you think about it—when you think about vast, immeasurable love and faithfulness of God remembered here at this Table—when we leave this place, our grateful praise is just getting started!  

Let us learn together to recognize and remember the faithfulness of our Lord.  Let us seek to have an attitude of gratitude for all we have received, especially the gift of eternal life through our Risen Lord.  And let our lives be a joyful response to that gift in all we do and say.  

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Raising the Bar

Mark 10:46-52
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today we begin a brief sermon-series about stewardship…, which should not really surprise anyone.  It is common practice for many pastors, at some point in the fall to use the word “stewardship” in at least one sermon.  

Now, you can look at this from a cynical point of view: as we come to the end of our church’s fiscal year, your elders want to start planning a budget for the next.  So at some point, we want to ask (what I think) is a reasonable question: what do you suppose is your best guess about how much you’ll be giving to the work of the church in the coming year?  I say that’s the cynical point of view, but it’s really not that cynical.  Like I said, I think it’s a reasonable question and it helps us discern what we can or cannot afford to do.  

But there is another way you can look at sermons like these that is decidedly not cynical.  These sermons give us a chance to remember, at least once a year, what the notion of “stewardship” is all about.  Stewardship, especially when it’s about more than money, is actually a beautiful thing.  

Now, I’ve been your pastor for ten years now.  Which means that I’ve been preaching at least one sermon about stewardship a year for the past ten years.  Each time I do, I try to throw in my own definition of stewardship; because it’s different than what you’ll find in a dictionary.  So out of curiosity, does anyone want to take a stab at how I define stewardship?  Didn’t think there’d be a pop quiz today did you?  Well, don’t worry, I am prepared to define it again; but pay attention, you will be tested on this again.  Stewardship is everything we do in response to the salvation we’ve received.  So yes, our financial giving is stewardship; but so is the kindness we show to those in need; the time we spend helping others; the ways we use the talents we’ve been given in the church and in the world; and so much more.  Today we talk about stewardship; and we learn about it from a guy who knew how to do it right.  

Today, we hear Mark’s account of the healing of Bartimaeus.  And what strikes me about this story all that we know about him.  We know from the story that he was, of course, blind; but also that he was, of course, a beggar; that was really the only job a blind guy could get in those days.  But there’s more to him, isn’t there?  Based on this interaction, it seems that he was also kind of mouthy, right?  He practically extorts this healing out of Jesus: he just shouts until he gets what he wants.  He’s so obnoxious that people try to quiet him down; which only makes him louder.  We may know people like that, right?  So finally, Jesus calls for him and everybody suddenly changes their tune: “Hey, good news, buddy; he’s calling for you.”  

As a beggar, maybe this was his begging style: just yell and make a scene until someone helps you; it may not be a nice, or even effective way to solicit donations, but berating people until they give is a style.  It’s not my style, by the way; I’m usually quite polite about “the ask,” as they say.  But I think, more to the point, he’s not the kind of guy who will be passive about his own salvation.  He is disabled, yes; he is dependent on society’s handouts, but he’s not going to stay that way if given a choice.  And as Jesus walks by, he has his choice.  

It seems strange to me that Jesus calls him over, rather than going to Bartimaeus.  I mean, wouldn’t you go to the blind person, rather than the other way around?  But maybe it has something to do with his take-charge attitude.  Maybe Jesus is trying to see how much Bartimaeus is willing to put into his healing.  Hard to say.  

But more importantly, perhaps the most surprising thing we know about Bartimaeus is that his name is Bartimaeus.  They called him blind.  They called him a beggar.  But we call him Bartimaeus!  There’s sort of a joke in the way Mark tells us his name, by the way: Mark calls him “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus.”  The joke is, in Hebrew, “Bar” literally means “son of;” his name is “Junior.”  Either Mark is, for some reason, translating the Hebrew part of his name for his readers, or there’s something else going on.  My money is on the “something else.”  I think Mark mentions Junior by name because the early church knew Bartimaeus by name.  They knew him because he was important in the early church; they knew him because knew how to respond to his salvation.  That’s a pretty good thing to be famous for.  

The stewardship lesson we learn today from Bartimaeus is that salvation ought to inspire something in us.  A pastor friend of mine asked me recently what I was grateful for.  The time it took me to think of an answer made me realize that I should be asked that question more often.  Last week the question was, “Which kingdom are you living in?”  The fact that we can answer, “I am living in the Kingdom of God,” ought to bring us such joy!  Bartimaeus gets it right.  The God who called all things into being–the God who became one of us so that we might have life forever–intends for us to live in that abundant kingdom now.  We have much to be grateful for.  

But there is one other lesson we learn from Bartimaeus that’s worth noting.  It comes right at the end of verse 52: Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well;” and what does Bartimaeus do?  After receiving his sight, Mark tells us that he, “Followed [Jesus] on the way.”  Now to be honest, it’s not really clear as to what Mark means by “followed Jesus on the way:” it could be that he literally started walking behind Jesus along the road that Jesus was on that led to Jerusalem.  I think it’s more likely a way Mark is saying that, on that day, after receiving his salvation, Bartimaeus became a follower of Jesus; on that day, he became a disciple.  

There are other notable blind beggars in the Gospels.  I like to think that at least a couple of them are Bartimaeus, but perhaps unnamed. Like the guy in John who gives the religious leaders such a hard time.  More likely we meet him again in the Gospel of Luke: in Luke 18, we read a story that seems to me to be this same story.  But Luke goes on to also mention the way Bartimaeus begins to follow Jesus: it reads, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed [Jesus], glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.”   

He follows Jesus the way any disciple should: giving glory to God.  Now lest we forget, it doesn’t seem that he was exactly wallowing in the mire before Jesus gave him his new life.  But after his sight is restored, he uses his renewed life to let the world know his joy.  The way he followed Jesus matters; he follows with grateful joy; I wonder if he skipped.  

Have you ever noticed men aren’t really allowed to skip?  Everyone else can skip if they want to: children skip and you hardly even notice it; a grown woman skips and it’s cute and whimsical; if you see a man skipping toward you down the street, you cross the street.  Men cannot skip.  

Which is really a shame, if you think about it: I mean, why would a person skip?  No one needs to skip; walking is a perfectly efficient way to get you from one place to another; and running would certainly get you there faster.  No, skipping does more than just to get you where you’re going.  In a way, skipping tells a story about someone.  Skipping tells the world how you feel (and if you’re man, that maybe that you’re a weirdo).  And how does a skipping person feel?  Well let me put it this way: have you ever seen anyone crying while they’re skipping?  You can’t be sad when you’re skipping; you can’t be angry when you’re skipping.  In fact, skipping might be at least a temporary antidote to unresolved anger.  Give it a try: next time you are mad go for a nice skip around the house; my guess is that you won’t stay angry for long.  

Skipping is about joy; a joy that just can’t be hidden away; a joy whose expression can’t be bothered with self-consciousness just because it looks silly.  Which is why it’s tragic that men can’t skip: because everyone who truly understands the gift of salvation that they have received, has a reason to skip.  The good news is: skipping is not the only way we express the gratitude we feel.  In fact, as our Scripture lesson remind us today, our entire lives can be an expression of the joy we have in our salvation.  

Whatever our circumstances might be today, we have been given a wonderful gift.  The salvation we have received calls us to respond: it calls us to rise and follow Jesus and it calls us do so with joy.  Let us learn from the example of Son of Timaeus: let us seek to live as faithful stewards of the lives we’ve been given; giving thanks as we follow Jesus along the way.

Monday, October 22, 2018

King Dumb

Mark 10:32-45
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Part of my contribution to society is not always saying the things that pop into my head.  One way I’m trying to make the world a better place (I have a feeling some of you share in this ministry with me).  So yes, a public service I provide is to keep my mouth shut.  For example, I once heard someone say they were a “news junkie.”  What I didn’t say was, “Well you are clearly on something.”  I can’t think of many things that are more damaging to the human spirit than a close attention to the news; especially during an election year.  

I have certain tendencies to start with.  I don’t need to be intentionally reminded of the troubles of the world.  I can see the cloud in every silver lining.  I don’t need the help of the news media to remind me of the negativity of the world.  

It gets to us as human beings; it gets to as a culture; and it gets to us as a church.  It erodes our hope and trains our brains to only see only the bad.  I’m not saying we should just ignore the troubles around us; we’re not going to make the change in this world our Savior calls us to if we pretend that nothing is wrong.  What I am saying is: let’s keep in mind that the world we see around us is not the world we really live in.  We live in the world our Savior proclaimed.  Let us remember that Kingdom; a kingdom that lives in us; a Kingdom we help to build; a Kingdom that will live on long after this one is gone.  

You may know that I am a supporter of the “Me Too” movement.  I know some have mixed feelings about it, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for men, particularly men of power, to be held accountable for the ways they treat (and even have-treated) other children of God.  And of course, I can be so staunchly supportive of the movement because I know my own personal history.  I know I have never done anything that would jeopardize my position as a pastor.  I have a relatively skeleton-free closet.  I could run for public office and the most questionable thing you’d find about me is the decision to run for public office.  

But having said that, I am a man of a certain age who grew up in a different era.  This movement causes men like me to take stock of that personal history.  I may not have ever done anything that would get me fired, but there may be some things I’m not proud of; there may be some things I regret; I might even owe an apology or two.  

I hope someday, when people look back on my life, I will be remembered for the good and not the dumb things I’ve done.  In short, I’m glad I’m not one of the twelve disciples.  I’m glad I don’t have gospel-writers, telling the Good News of Jesus, while also telling about all of the dumb things the disciples did.  They couldn’t have been that dumb all the time, right?  But those are the stories that got written down.  

To say that what we read today was not their brightest hour is a huge understatement.  They are on their way to Jerusalem.  Jesus has just explained why he’s going to Jerusalem.  He has just told them what is going to happen there.  He just indicated what his kingdom looks like: he has just told them that he will give his life over to brutality and death and that he will rise again in three days.  And without missing a beat, the Sons of Zebedee jump up and try to claim seats of power.  Now, the other disciples are understandably angry, but keep in mind, they’re dumb too.  They’re not angry because James and John have done something wrong; they’re angry because they didn’t think of it first!  

As bad as all of that is—as clueless as that is to what Jesus has just been saying—it’s actually worse than that.  It’s worse because this is not the first time this has happened.  Back in chapter eight, Jesus says something similar: he tells the disciples that he must (quote) “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  Then we hear that Peter took him aside and rebuked him.  We’re not sure what Peter said to his teacher, but he was clearly trying to talk Jesus out of going to the Cross.  To that, Peter gets called Satan.  You’d think being called Satan by your teacher would stick with you and teach you a lesson.  Nope. 

One chapter later, Jesus took a trip with the disciples for the express purpose of teaching them.  He tells them again that he will be betrayed, killed, and will rise again.  When they get where they were going, Jesus asks them, “Hey guys, what were you arguing about on the way?”  And of course, that’s when they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.  

So the story we read this morning isn’t just an example of how the disciples don’t understand Jesus and what he’s doing, it is one in a series of examples of how the disciples don’t understand Jesus and what he’s doing.  Are they not listening?  Are they amazingly forgetful? Are they dumb?  What’s wrong with these people?  

Once upon a time, there was a couple off on a road trip.  They stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch.  When they were done with their meal, the woman unfortunately left her glasses on the table.  It wasn’t until they were on the road again that she realized what she’d done.  As it turned out, they had to travel quite a distance before they could find a place to turn around.  Of course the man fussed and complained the entire way back to the restaurant.  When they finally got back, as the woman was getting out of the car, the man sighed and said, "While you're in there, you may as well get my hat, too."

We wonder at the cluelessness of the disciples, we may even find them funny, but the truth is: we are just like them.  We may not manifest our cluelessness in the same way, but we are certainly clueless.  We so quickly forget the Jesus we claim to follow and we so quickly forget what went to Jerusalem to do.  We live in fear and confusion.  We become divided and isolated.  We speak more than we listen.  We take more than we give.  We insist on being served more than we seek to serve.  We so quickly give up hope and we lose sight of joy.  

Do you know who else does that?  Everyone.  These are traits, not of the followers of Jesus, but of the world we live in.  These are the traits that are killing us as a culture, and unfortunately they are killing us as a church.  The Sons of Zebedee were not any more ambitious than anyone else; the problem was that they were exactly as ambitious as everyone else.  The thing they failed to see was that, in the Kingdom of Jesus, ambition is worthless.  As are fear, division, isolation, greed, and self-service.  If you look around this world and it all seems overwhelming and disheartening, that’s because it is.  But I would suggest that you may be looking at the wrong world.  

Like Jesus to the twelve, he keeps pointing us—by his work, his words, and his Spirit—to a different world, his Kingdom; but we keep looking at this one.  We live in this world, but we are meant to seek and serve his.  We are meant to live in the Kingdom of God, not as if it’s a someday place, but as if it is a place that is here and now, built in and through us.  

I know that’s hard to do; the disciples show us today that we’ve never been good at it.  But that’s why we’ve got one another.  Let’s learn to ask one another, “Where are you living today?”  And let us learn to answer, “I am living in Kingdom of God.”  And then let us remind one another what that Kingdom looks like.  Because it looks strikingly different than this one.  It is a Kingdom shaped by Jesus himself: a kingdom of self-sacrifice, unconditional love, unity, eternal hope, and eternal life.  This is Good News!  I want to be a news junkie for that kind of news!  How about you?  

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Grownups Are Talking

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I haven’t preached this sermon in a long time… out of fear.  Last time I preached from this text, some heard me say something I didn’t say and wouldn’t ever say.  So before we go any further, we need to draw up a contract, you and I.  We need to be clear about what this sermon is not about.  Please repeat after me: this sermon… is not… about divorce.  

The truth is, I would never judge you for your marital status or history.  If you have gone through a divorce, rather than my judgment, you have my compassion and sympathy.  The fact that I am still married to my first wife is not only by God’s grace, it’s by a lot of hard work.  Even though we’ve been married for twenty-two years, I know well that the next twenty-two are not guaranteed.  I do not and will not judge anyone who has been through a divorce.  And frankly, neither does Jesus.  

If you were following along with the Scripture reading in your pew Bibles, you may have noticed that the section heading for verses 1-12 is titled, “Teaching about Divorce.”  And the well-trained eye may also notice that Jesus, in fact, does not really teach about divorce here, at least not in front of the Pharisees.  Although he is asked about divorce, his answer is about marriage.  He does what I believe those in the political world call a “pivot.”  It’s where you are asked a question and you then answer a different question.  And this isn’t the only pivoting that’s being done in our reading this morning.  

No, they ask Jesus a tricky question about divorce, but the answer Jesus gives is about wholeness; the answer he gives is about what God knows is good for us.  And that’s a truth that extends way beyond marriage: that’s a truth that applies in our friendships, with our siblings, with our neighbors, and especially in our churches.  I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that this Scripture lesson ends with children.  As I consider this story as a whole, I can’t help but think about the children: children, who have the least to do with our relationships falling apart, but who often bear the same scars.  As he does elsewhere, here again Jesus raises up a child as an object lesson; and as before, it isn’t a lesson for the children.  As it is whenever Jesus puts a child before us, it’s a lesson for the grownups.  

An interesting thing happens in this part of the Gospel of Mark.  In the chapter leading up to our text today, there is this reoccurring theme of children.  But again, the point Jesus is building to isn’t for or about the kids.  

This part of Mark’s Gospel begins with an argument among the disciples of which of them were the greatest.  To show them what greatness means in his kingdom, he put a little child in front of them and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”   And then later, Jesus alludes to the child again to make a similar point: speaking of those who are not like us doing the work of Christ, Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  

I hope that it’s not the same kid.  That would be awkward, right?  Every time someone misses the point of what life in the Kingdom of God is all about, Jesus brings out the same kid.  “Come here, Charlie, they need to hear it again.”  Jesus uses, again and again, the image of a child to each us something; and as is often the case when we need to hear the same lesson again and again, we aren’t getting it.  

But before that, the Pharisees come to Jesus with a question designed to make him look bad.  There is no good way to answer their question.  It’s a “yes” or “no” answer that, either way, will alienate someone.  But in fine Jesus-form, he pivots.  He answers their question with a question.  And by the way, here’s something I’ve learned in 22 years of marriage: when someone answers your question with a question, never answer that question.  It is almost always a diversionary tactic.  “Did you eat the rest of my sandwich?”  “Where did you see it last?”  

They ask Jesus about the lawfulness of divorce and Jesus asks them, “What did Moses command you?”  And his use of the word “command” is interesting because they don’t really answer his question either: he asks them about commandments and they answer with what is “allowed.”  Another beautiful example of a pivot.  Jesus asks them about what the law commands and they cite the loophole.  

Isn’t that just like us?  We spent the better part of September talking about practicing good religion; about knowing the difference between a religion that’s about living out our faith to the glory of God and a religion that’s about something else.  Well, it seems we’re not done talking about it yet.  Bad religion is always looking for the loophole.  Rather than trying to grow in our understanding of what God wants for us, bad religion looks for what we can get away with.  

Again, this is not so much a question about divorce.  Jesus asks a better question: what does God want for you?  Understanding that not every relationship does or even should continue; still, what is God’s will for you?  As Jesus points out, God has made us so that we might belong together.  Taking away the legalism we might otherwise be tempted to impose on what Jesus says, he points to a simple truth: God made us to live together and commit to one another.  

And then the child walks back in; actually it seems there were a bunch of them, clamoring for a blessing.  The disciples do the sensible thing: they try to send them away.  These kids are in the way; these kids aren’t useful to the cause; they have no influence or money or importance.  The disciples don’t see any need to have these children around and so they try to send them away.  

But Jesus shows us that we do need them.  We need them like they need us.  Or rather, we need them because they need us.  Who better to illustrate the fact that people belong together – in a family or in a church family – than a child?  Notice how Jesus states the parable this time: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  I think what Jesus is getting at in this parable is that we depend on one another.  What he’s really pointing to here is how children remind us that we need each other.  Rather than looking for loopholes for how we might separate ourselves from one another, we are to look to the child and remember that we were, from our birth, made to care for one another and depend on one another.  

Today, as we gather around the Table of the Lord, we remember that today is World Communion Sunday; a day in which, many churches around the world, remember this meal that we have in common.  And there’s a huge amount of irony in that.  Yes, we have one faith in one Lord that is celebrated through Christ’s one table.  But we’re also talking about a lot of different churches; churches that have, among many other things, divorced themselves from one another because of various understandings of the meaning of Communion!  Did they have valid reasons for these separations? Sure.  Did they hurt?  You bet!  Will we continue to have legitimate reasons to separate ourselves as individuals and churches from other followers of Christ?  The odds are good.  

But for us, instead of looking for those loopholes, we would do better to remember that we have been made to live together; to depend on one another and to take care of one another.  We would do well to remember that God has made us to live together; and what God has joined together, let no one separate.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Wise Guys

James 3:13-18
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I think we can all agree, there is a difference between being “smart” and being “wise.”  I think we can also agree that one will get you a lot farther in life than the other.  For example, I have peculiar kinds of intelligence.  I’m not terribly book-smart, nor do I have great strengths in science or mathematics; but I can read a person.  I’m empathetic, so can usually tell what a person is feeling, even when they don’t want me to.  Also, I’m insightful: I usually have pretty good thoughts about what a person ought to do with those feelings.  I possess peculiar kinds of intelligence.  My wisdom comes in knowing that I should probably keep all that to myself until asked.  Needless to say, wisdom has gotten me a lot farther in life than my intelligence would ever have.  

Maybe that’s the reason the Bible seems to put such value on wisdom.  As I’ll mention later, wisdom is mentioned throughout Scripture as something we ought to seek to possess.  But as James reminds us today, there is more than one kind of wisdom.  And we would be wise to know the difference.  

To begin our lesson today, James asks a surprisingly good question: “Who is wise and understanding among you?”  The question almost slips right past us, but it warrants an answer.  Who is wise and understanding among us?  I mean, please raise your hands; we need to know who you are!  This church has some decisions to make; who are the wise among us?  

I guess another good question might be: who is supposed to be wise and understanding among us?  Don’t tell me it’s me!  I try, but I must confess that some days are better than others.  Perhaps it’s our Ruling Elders; perhaps that’s why we elect them to make decisions for us.  They do seem pretty wise to me; maybe they are the wise and understanding among us.  But then again, we do believe in a “priesthood of all believers” around here too.  My guess is, James has us all in mind.  So maybe (and not just “maybe”) we all are supposed to be wise and understanding for each other.  But as I said, that might be trickier than it sounds.  

We continue today in our study of James.  A book that I believe reminds us of what it means to practice the good kind of religion.  Like it or not, if you put in the time and effort to get yourselves to a church on a Sunday, you are a religious person.  The tricky part, of course, is remaining the good kind.  Today James shows us that, key to remaining a good kind of religious person, is wisdom.  But of course, it isn’t just any-old wisdom, is it?  

Wisdom is a remarkable concept in Scripture.  I don’t think we spend nearly enough time exploring this it.  In the Bible, Wisdom is more than just knowledge or insight, or even experience.  Wisdom is described almost as a conscious being with a will of its own… and even a gender.  As we study what the Old Testament says about Wisdom, we see that it looks a lot like what the New Testament says about the Holy Spirit.  Wisdom knows the heart of God; Wisdom seeks God’s good above personal good; Wisdom seeks a deeper sense of spiritual maturity.  

But today we find that there is more than one kind of wisdom, isn’t there?  According to James, there is the Wisdom that comes from heaven, and then there is a wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, and even devilish.”  I think bad religion is made when we confuse those two kinds of wisdom.  

I was talking with one of our friends this week about today’s sermon title.  He pointed out that “wise guys” was a phrase common to the Three Stooges.   This is not a reference I was trying to make, but now that he mentions it, I wish I’d thought of it.  One of the ways that bad religion manifests itself is through the same kind of self-serving, Stooge-like behavior that James describes.  His insight mage me start to imagine the practitioners of bad religion slapping each other around like Larry, Moe, and Curley.  

“Eh, a wise guy, eh?”  Boink!  “Neaahh”  “Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.”  

If anything sums up the kind of wisdom (if you can call it that) displayed on the Three Stooges, it’s the kind James describes as “envy and selfish ambition.  And as silly as that might initially appear, it is also the same kind of wisdom that permeates our culture depends on.  As one commentator I read put it: “North American culture depends on active envy and ambition as heavily as it depends on fossil fuels.”  It is the culture we live in.  It permeates our media, our economy, our schools, and even our homes.  It’s no wonder this kind of wisdom finds its way into our churches, it’s all around us! 

And by the way, it may seem here like this is turning into one of those “us and them” kinds of sermons, but I don’t like those sermons.  You know the ones I mean?  The ones where the preacher rails against the evils of this world; and how we shouldn’t be like “those people.”  First of all, I like those people; the main difference I see between “us” and “them” is that we know to seek godly wisdom.  In fact, I see a lot of them working with us in the Kingdom of God, even if they don’t know it yet.  

Besides, sermons aren’t meant to focus us on them, they’re meant to focus us on us.  What James talks about today isn’t about us versus them, it’s about good wisdom versus the bad kind.  And we are called to find the good kind.  

The first thing we ought to notice about this good kind of wisdom is where it comes from: notice that it comes from above.  Not literally.  You know what he means, it comes from God.  We don’t find this wisdom out in the world not because the world is evil, but because that’s not where this wisdom comes from.  It comes from God alone.  So to seek the wisdom of God, is to first seek God.  

The second thing we notice is that God’s wisdom turns your wisdom on its head.  James says God’s wisdom is, “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”  In short, God’s wisdom is a wimp, right?

My original sermon title was written back when I thought every woman would be gone today at the women’s retreat.  I was going to point out how God’s wisdom flips just about every masculine trait our culture admires.  Selfish ambition is a quality that is not only accepted and praised in our society, but it’s a rewarded, masculine trait.  

It sounds to me that, if God’s wisdom were in grade school, he’d probably get his lunch money taken away a lot.  This can’t really be what God wants from us, can it?  Does God really want us to act so vastly differently from what our society expects?  Well, of course.  We proclaim the Good News, in part, by living lives that are noticeably different from the world around us.  Of course God wants us to live out a wisdom that might even go against what we might even think is wise.  

But there is one final thing we notice about the wisdom that comes from God: what it produces.  James says, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”  As we seek wisdom in discerning our future, does our wisdom produce peace, or does it foster envy and selfish ambition?  I know we are dwelling in the wisdom of God when we produce peace.  I know we are all the wise and understanding when we growing peace, both among ourselves and out in this world.  

Let us all seek the wisdom that comes from God alone; and may his peace be born within us, through us, and out throughout our world.