Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The First Processional

Luke 19:28-40
Palm Sunday 

Today begins the week we call Holy Week.  Today we come to the end of what is, for many of us, a long and somber season: a season of self-reflection; a season of sacrifice and penitence; a season of remembering the steps of Jesus as he made his way toward the Cross, but ultimately the Empty Tomb.  

As we come to the end of this profound season, entering into this yet somehow more profound week, we do so with a parade.  If we didn’t celebrate it the same way every year, it would seem strange, wouldn’t it?  This weighty week—that will hold for Jesus betrayal, torture, and death—begins with a parade!  

Even here, toward the end, Jesus continues to surprise us; although perhaps it shouldn’t.  Jesus has been predicting what was to come for some time now; heck, even his disciples can see the danger ahead; but he goes anyway and marches into Jerusalem by orchestrating a parade.  But it’s not just any parade, is it?  It’s the kind of parade that is recognized by the people gathered in Jerusalem as the entrance of the king.  And not just any king; this is the king that the prophets spoke about.  This is the king that will drive off our enemies.  This is the king who compels us to shout, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  This is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.  

But just who is this king?  As this week goes on we see that this parade doesn’t last long, does it?  He doesn’t drive off our enemies.  Our shouts of peace turn to “Crucify him!”  This one we thought had come in the name of the Lord seems later to be cursed by God, doesn’t he?  In the end, it seems that the Jesus we are looking for doesn’t always turn out to be the Jesus we get.  

One of our church friends told me that he likes to read the upcoming sermon texts and titles and try to predict what the sermons are going to be about.  I told him, “That may not be a very productive use of your time.”  Often, between the time I think I know what a message is going to be about when I write the title and when the sermon actually gets written, God comes up with a different plan.  Often, the title and the message are only vaguely related.  That’s not the case today, but it might not be what you think.  If I were you, I would presume that the processionals I’m referring to are this first one—the parade Jesus makes into Jerusalem—and that other one we remember at the end of the week—the one Jesus makes to the Cross.  But that isn’t actually what I had in mind.  

The two processions I’m talking about both happened around this same time during Holy Week.  In Jerusalem, at the start of Passover week, and at different ends of the city, there were (in fact) two kings riding in at around the same time.  From the east, came the one we know well: Jesus and his colt and the shouts of, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  But there was another parade happening at the west end of town.  That second processional was Pilate’s parade.  Pilate, draped in the gaudy glory of imperial power: horses, chariots, and gleaming armor.  Pilate would always move into Jerusalem, with the Roman army marching behind, at the beginning of the Passover week.  This festival, celebrating the power of God to beat the odds and liberate the people from oppression and captivity, always riled up at least a few.  Pilate showed up to make sure things didn’t get out of hand or insurrection would be in the air.  Two ends of Jerusalem, two kings, and two processionals; but who, by the end of the week, would wind up with the throne?  

If that sounds heavy with politics, it certainly was.  And I’m sorry, and I hate to even bring it up, but I have to confess that I’m already exhausted by the presidential election.  The puffing and preening; the criticizing and complaining; the name-calling and half-truths; didn’t we just do this?  

It can be a little entertaining, though; at least at this point in it.  At this point, it’s fun to watch all of the would-be candidates, who haven’t been president before, try to look presidential.  They say and do whatever focus-groups tell them people look for in a “presidential person”; but no one is really like that, so at first at least, they mostly come off pretty awkwardly.  

What do we look for?  What do we look for in a king, as it were?  Which end of Jerusalem would we be cheering for?  Some days, I’m not sure.  

About a month ago, the kids celebrated Dr. Seuss day.  If you don’t know, it’s now an annual tradition in schools across the country to celebrate on or around his birthday.  One of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories is Yertle the Turtle.  Yertle, of course, is a turtle, but not just any turtle; Yertle is the king turtle of his particular pond.  One day, while reflecting from his rock-throne on how he is the king of all that he sees, Yertle decides that he needs to see more.  So Yertle begins to stack up some of his turtle-subjects, making his throne, what he can see, and therefore his kingdom, that much greater.  Delighted by the sudden growth of his dominion, he orders even more turtles to be stacked up even higher.  And his reign is indeed glorious… that is until the turtle at the very bottom (named Mack) burps and Yertle’s kingdom comes toppling down.  

It’s one of those wonderfully subversive Dr. Seuss stories that has a message that isn’t really for kids.  It speaks about what happens in just about any political structure when the people on the top loose sight of the fact that their kingdom is built on the backs of someone else.  And all it takes for their kingdom to come falling into the mud is for those turtles on the bottom to decide they’ve had enough.  

I only bring up Yertle to point out that this is often the image we have of those who rule over us, isn’t it?  We may not have any experience with kings, but anyone we lift up on our shells will eventually need to be dropped back down to the mud because they inevitably forget why we lifted them there in the first place.  I mean, why do you think we put term limits on our presidents… and our session members?  The idea is that their terms will run out before they start stacking us on top of each other.  

When Jesus heads toward Jerusalem, the people clearly had high hopes.  The crowds that welcome him are ready and willing to be stacked as high as Jesus wants them to go.  Of course, it’s not like Jesus was discouraging this behavior; after all, he is the one who orchestrates this parade in the first place.  According to Luke, he’s the one that arranged for the donkey colt, this kingly symbol.  Those who were gathering in Jerusalem would see this sight and be reminded of the words of the prophet Zechariah and immediately know what the symbol meant: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and bearing salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  

This symbolism may not be obvious to us, but when a king wanted to show that he was ready for a fight—like Pilate—he entered on a horse.  But when a king entered a town on a donkey colt it sent a very different message.  It sent an image of peace.  It sent a message that this king’s reign was a reign of peace: the war was over; the enemies were no more.  Now if you think about it, this message was a bit premature considering that Jerusalem was still an occupied territory of the Roman Empire.  There had been no revolution.  The army was just on the other side of town!  Jesus was making these claims about his kingship, but he still didn’t really have the kingdom!  

Of course, we have an insight on all of this that the crowds along the parade route didn’t have, don’t we?  We know how this story ends, right?  Not just with the turning tides of popular opinion, but that persecution, execution, and resurrection were all part of the same plan connected to this parade.  We know that the kingdom Jesus proclaimed was more than just the one called Israel.  We know that his rule conquered even death itself.  We know that the kingdom he invites us into is beyond this life, and for that we do cry out, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”  We get it.  We see his true purpose in this triumphant parade.  

And yet, I can’t help but wonder: is it beyond the realm of possibility to think that maybe, we might be cheering for the wrong king too?  The crowds in Jerusalem had all the right signs.  They had Scripture to tell them what this all meant.  And yet, don’t they seem a bit disillusioned when this king doesn’t turn out to be the king they thought they were cheering for?  

I guess what I’m trying to say is, just like they missed the fact that this king was the king of eternal life, what if he also could be for us, the king of more than just eternal life?  Not that I’m saying eternal life is not something worth cheering for, but it makes his kingdom much farther off, doesn’t it?  His kingdom may last forever, but sometimes we live as though it isn’t also here and now.   

This king—the suffering king we celebrate this week—is the king… of everything.  To paraphrase Dr. Seuss: this king, O marvelous He, is indeed the king of all that he sees… and he sees it all.  He sees us, right here and right now.  He sees all that we are and he sees the potential for all that we can be.  And although it does all belong to him, he does not build this kingdom on the backs of his subjects, for he gave his own back to build it.  He has built this kingdom by the giving of his own life.  He has built it by his body and his blood.  And while he has built this kingdom for you he also invites you to come and build it too.  

Let us welcome and celebrate our king today, this week, and every day.  And let us live faithfully in his kingdom, even in his kingdom here and now.

Time to Rest

John 12:1-8
Fifth Sunday of Lent

I was talking to a non-Christian friend this week about Lent.  Turns out, a season of self-sacrifice and penitence doesn’t exactly make easy sense in our culture.  Turns out, it doesn’t always make sense to those of us who practice it; making it a little tricky to explain.  I told her that it’s about finding an order to life that is outside ourselves.  That seemed satisfying to her, but her follow-up question made it tricky again.  She asked me, “Why is it that your God always seems to call you to sacrifice?  Is sacrifice what your God wants for you?  Does God always want us to go without?”  

I’m glad I have friends in my life that stretch my faith; those were good questions.  I think that, any other week, those questions might have stumped me.  But not this week; this week, I’ve been sitting with this story about Mary.  A story, not of self-sacrifice, but of extravagant giving; there’s a difference.  A story of a woman who, by the power of God in her life, was able to see a bigger picture.  A story about a gift, returned for a gift.  A bit like what we remember here at this Table.  

I told my friend, with some confidence, that no, it is not always about self-sacrifice.  Sometimes, finding an order to life that is outside ourselves, leads us to rest and to share in God’s extravagant giving; sometimes God leads us to celebration.  

Today, as we follow Jesus toward the Cross, he leads us to a home in a suburb of Jerusalem; a place called Bethany.  It’s a home Jesus knew well: the home of his old friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  By the way, this all happens right before he would walk into Jerusalem for the last time.  The parade that we will celebrate next Sunday.  

So what does he do before that, he rests in the home of his three friends.  These three were not exactly his disciples, at least not in any formal sense.  They simply seem to be his friends.  The Gospels tell of his disciples and those others who followed.  They tell us of his allies: people like John the Baptist and Nicodemus.  They certainly tell us about his enemies.  But we rarely hear about friends.  So before he continues down the difficult road before him, he rests with his friends.  

Just days before, Jesus had worked a miracle at their house.  Lazarus was sick so they sent for Jesus across the river.  If you know the story, you know how Jesus came intentionally too late.  Lazarus was dead: so dead he stank, so dead that Jesus stood in front of his tomb and wept.  Then Jesus called Lazarus from the dead Lazarus stumbled out with his death-shroud trailing after. 

So they open their home to Jesus; of course they do; wouldn’t you?  They take him in, they make him a dinner, and they give him space to rest.  Maybe Lazarus was still recovering from his four days in the tomb; that would take some time, I would think.  Maybe Martha was making a stew.  Meanwhile, Mary was up to something.  Martha was of course used to this: Mary disappearing when there’s work to be done.  Maybe, with supper on the table, no one even notice Mary come back with a jar in her hands.  The Gospels don’t record her saying a word; she just knelt at the feet of Jesus and broke open the jar.  I’m told the smell of pure nard is a sharp scent, halfway between mint and ginseng.  Then, as everyone in the room noticed her, she did four remarkable things in a row.

First, she loosened her hair in a room full of men, which an honorable woman never does.  Then she poured perfume on Jesus' feet, which is also not done.  The head, maybe—people do that to kings—but not the feet.  Then she touched him—again, a single woman rubbing a single man's feet—also not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair.  A surprising, extravagant, and scandalous act, end to end. 

Stories like this one can be found in all of the Gospels.  And it’s one of those cases where it’s hard to tell if the writers are remembering it differently, or if sort of thing happened a lot to Jesus.  At any rate, John is the only version (if you will) where she is named. Here, her name is “Mary,” she’s a friend of Jesus—not a stranger, not a notorious sinner—but a friend.  So why this public, scandalous, and excessive display? 

Judas states what probably others were thinking: "Why wasn't this perfume sold for a whole lot of money and given to the poor?"  It’s a good point, but Jesus, who loved and cared for the poor, doesn’t agree.   

"Leave her alone," he says.  "She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."  As if to say, “Just this once, let her look after me, because my time is running out.” 

We don’t know what was going through Mary’s mind when she did what she did.  Maybe it’s simple gratitude for the life of her brother.  We do know that Jesus reads prophecy into this act; this was a message from God.  Out in the yard, a freshly vacated tomb that still smelled of burial spices, waiting for a new occupant.  The air was dense with death, and while there may at first have been some doubt about whose death it was, Mary's prophetic act revealed the truth.

When Mary stood before Jesus with that pound of pure nard in her hand, it could have gone either way.  She could have anointed his head and everyone there could have proclaimed him a king.  But she did not do that.  When she moved toward him, she dropped to her knees instead and poured the perfume on his feet, which could only mean one thing.  The only man who got his feet anointed was a dead man, and Jesus knew it.  "Leave her alone," he said to those who would have prevented her.  Let her finish delivering the message. 

So Mary rubbed his feet with perfume so precious that its sale might have fed a poor family for a year, an act so lavish that it suggests another layer to her prophecy.  There will be nothing economical about this man's death, just as there has been nothing economical about his life.  Yet, in him the extravagance of God's love is made flesh.  In him, the excessiveness of God's mercy comes into our world. 

This bottle will not be held back to be kept and admired.  This precious substance will not be saved.  Just like Jesus it will be opened, offered and used, at great price.  It will be raised up and poured out for the life of the world, emptied to the last drop.  Before that happens, Jesus will gather his friends together one last time.  At another banquet, around another supper table, with most of the same people present, Jesus will strip, tie a towel around his waist, and wash his disciples' feet.  Then he will give them a new commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you. 

At least one of the disciples will argue with him, while others will wonder if he has lost his mind.  Perhaps a few will remember Mary’s prophecy from a week before.  

At home in Bethany, the storm clouds gather and Mary gives the forecast: it will be bad, very bad, but that's no reason for Jesus' friends to lock their hearts and head to the cellar.  Whatever they need, there will be enough to go around.  Whatever they spend, there will be plenty left over.  There is no reason to fear running out—not of nard or of life—for where God is concerned, there is always more than we can ask or imagine—gifts from our lavish, extravagant Lord.  Gifts we remember as we gather around this Table.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Road to Nowhere

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Fourth Sunday of Lent

At our Friday morning men’s group, I was telling one of the guys that the sermon was going to be based on the Prodigal Son story.  I don’t know if he was kidding or not, but he asked me, “Do you have a bold, new take on it?”  

I said, “Not in the least.”  

I know this story.  I know that there is only one place this story ever goes.  I mentioned at the beginning of Lent that I’ve noticed the theme of traveling in our Scripture lessons this season.  This one is more obviously so.  We know the journey of this lesson; where it’s going is not a surprise to us.  Like most of the stories in the Bible, there are things that we can learn along the way, but the point of this story—it’s journey’s end, as it were—is always going to wind up in the same place.  As the parables of Jesus go, this one is pretty straightforward.  That’s why, if you’ve heard me preach from this text before, be advised: this one is going to sound a lot like that one.  

We know this story far too well for it to surprise us, and that’s okay.  As we travel through this familiar story again, the only surprise we might find is which character we’re supposed to learn from, and that’s okay.  It’s okay because this well-worn story is simply meant to be a reminder.  Rather than leading us to some new and exotic place, this story simply leads us back home; back home to the truth that we are simply called to love as God loves.  

When was the last time you ate with a “sinner”?  And I don’t mean your run-of-the-mill sinner like we are gathered here this morning; I mean someone scandalous.  When was the last time you broke bread with an honest-to-God heathen?  When was the last time you spent time with someone who would make the rest of us question your judgement?  Maybe it’s been a while.  Maybe it’s been since you were a heathen yourself.  I only bring it up because it seems that Jesus did that sort of thing all the time.  

Luke fifteen begins with a description of the crowd gathered to hear this story; and there are two distinct audiences, aren’t there?  The first crowd is made up of the infamous “tax collectors” and other assorted “sinners.”  And then there are the religious people who become offended that Jesus would spend time with “those people.”  

This story is clearly aimed at both groups, but the point of this story lands only with one.  By the way, you might have noticed that we skip some verses in our reading today.  Before Jesus tells this parable he first tells a couple of other famous parables: there’s one about a lost sheep and another about a lost coin.  Two parables about the joy that is found when something is lost, but then found.  He ends those parables by saying, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  Two stories that almost plead with the stiff-necked religious fogies to see this from God’s point of view; but do they?  

I wonder what the “sinners” thought about all this.  I imagine they’d been called that before by the religious people; I imagine they knew their place.  How would they hear these stories?  How do you hear the story of the so-called Prodigal Son?  If you’ve been called a “sinner” lately, I have good news: God’s been waiting.  God has been watching out for you.  God’s been ready: ready to run to meet you; ready to put clothes on your back; ready to put a ring on your finger; ready to put food in your belly.  God’s been waiting.  

The picture of God this story paints is life-changing.  I think I’ve mentioned before that, calling this story the parable of the Prodigal Son, leads to some misunderstandings.  I know I’ve used the word “prodigal” incorrectly.  I care too much about words and their meanings not to at least acknowledge that.  I’ve been using it like it means something like “wandering” or even “disobedient” because that’s what we think of when we think of the prodigal son; and we all wander and we are all disobedient so we are all like the prodigal from time to time and in our own ways.  But the word “prodigal” actually means something more like: one who wastes resources recklessly or extravagantly.  

And sure, the younger son in this story certainly fits that description, but that being said, there is no one in this story more prodigal than the father.  This story could just as easily be named “The Parable of the Prodigal Father”.  And that is centrally what this story is about.  To those who were grumbling about the company Jesus kept, Jesus reminds them of what God’s love and mercy looks like: it reckless and lavish toward anyone who will receive it; whether they deserve it or not; especially when they don’t.  

No, this story is good news for sinners.  For those who identify with a younger brother—the one who clearly made some bad choices—for those like that brother, this is a joyful story about a God who never gives up on us.  But I’m going to venture a guess: I’m guessing most of us are not in that crowd.  Maybe we once were, but I’d also guess that was a while ago.  There are only two possible audiences for this story and if we’re not in the “sinner” crowd, there’s only one other option.  For most of us here this morning, Jesus is telling us this story as if we’re that older brother.  Not that we are, mind you.  I was just telling someone the other day: I like being the pastor of a church that understands that when I’m having coffee with someone down the street, I’m not just goofing off.  No one here ever grumbles about the company I keep.  But we still need to hear this story, because we are religious people; as such we do have certain tendencies.  

And as we hear this story—told as a warning to people like us—notice how it ends.  It ends in a question, doesn’t it?  The older brother, standing outside of the party, is perhaps rightfully upset.  He says, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”  There’s a lot we could unpack there: things like having an attitude toward a life of faith that feels like slavery or calling your long-lost brother “this son of yours.”  But instead, look again at what the father is doing.  Again, the love of God is shown as lavish and reckless.  He comes out and pleads with the older child to join the party.  He says, “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours [did you catch that?] was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”  

Somehow this older brother—who apparently had served his father every day, who never went anywhere, and never so much as partied with his friends—somehow, had never picked up on what was important to his father.  That’s where our warning lies: we who gather to hear His Word; we who go into this world to serve him; do we know His heart?  

I heard a story once that I want to be true; it probably isn’t, but I wish it was.  It supposedly took place in a church in some hippie town like Durango.  

The way the story goes is, one Easter morning, a young hippie-looking kid wandered into church.  He was not in his “Sunday best” clothing, much less in clothes worthy of Easter Sunday.  Apparently, he didn’t even check to see when worship started because he wandered in as the pastor was about to start the sermon. 

Now to his credit, the kid was at least trying not to be distracting as he wandered around, looking for a place to sit.  But like I said, it was Easter Sunday and the place was packed.  So he kept creeping farther and farther down the isle toward the front of the church.  And of course, the closer he got to the front, the more he became the center of attention.  Finally, came to the very front pew… and there was still nowhere to sit.  So, not knowing any better, he just sat down on the floor.

Well, you can guess what kind of reaction this caused.  No one knew what to do: the pastor was doing his best to ignore the situation; the ushers were afraid of making things worse by asking him to leave; everyone was just waiting for someone else to do something about it.  At this point, not even the pastor was paying attention to the sermon

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, one of the oldest, most faithful men of the congregation got up and headed down the aisle toward the young man.  The old man slowly and silently lumbered down toward the hippie and finally bent over as if to talk to the young man.  But instead of talking, his bending turned to kneeling, and the next thing anyone knew he was down on the floor with the hippie.  And there he stayed throughout the rest of the service.

Like I said, I can’t say this story is true.  Frankly, knowing the followers of Jesus, it doesn’t sound like us most of the time.  But I want this story to be true because it should.  We need the warning Jesus levels against us today because we so often forget the heart of the God we serve.  A heart that doesn’t condemn the sinners, but meets them, welcomes them, and shares a meal with them.  The story Jesus tells us today ends before we know what the older brother is going to do.  There’s a reason for that.  We are left with a question: what are we going to do?  Will we join the party that God is throwing for the lost of this world?  Will we remember the heart of God—a heart that rejoices when the lost are found?  Will we follow our Savior’s example and go to lunch with someone scandalous?  

May we remember the love and grace that once welcomed us and may we share that love and grace with those around us every day.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Trail Mix

1 Corinthians 10:1-14
Third Sunday of Lent

I came to the conclusion this year, that I’m not supposed to give up anything up for Lent.  For the past couple of seasons, I had been taking up a fast, but this year I’ve gone in the other direction.  I don’t mean gluttony; I mean I’ve taken up a practice rather than giving something up.  God put a spiritual practice on my heart at the beginning of Lent and, sure enough, it’s been a very meaningful experience.  

Frankly, I was a little relieved in the direction God led me.  There’s no way around the fact that, no matter how meaningful your particular fast is, after forty days, it gets to be a drag.  I’m not going to advertise what my Lenten practice is, but I can tell you it’s a lot more fun than giving something up… most things are.  

Now, having said that, I would certainly not want to discourage anyone from a fast if that’s where God leads you.  There are important lessons in giving things up as a spiritual journey.  The big lesson, of course, is in seeking God’s order of things.  Giving up a thing, even basic thing like food, for a specified time, helps us to remember where those good things come from; it helps us remember that our devotion to God is always more important than the thing.  A fast reminds us that there is a fine balance between the things we want and the things that God wants for us.  Those lists can often have the same items on them, but they are never the same list.  It is good for us to sometimes remember that God’s list is always better.  

Understanding the difference between what God wants for us and what we want is central to our Scripture lesson today.  I admit, that may be a tricky point to find; as perfect as this may be for us this Lenten Season, this is an odd lesson.  It’s odd, first of all, because Paul is making a point based on the Exodus story; a story his readers may not have been very familiar with.  Keep in mind, this was Corinth: what made this church so complicated—so complicated, there’s also a 2 Corinthians—was how diverse a city it was.  This complex mix of cultures, identities, and histories (as you might imagine) were tricky to pull together into one faith community.  So Paul does an interesting thing: he assumes them all into his family.  

It’s not surprising.  We do it all the time; I feel I’ve been doing it more than ever lately.  I’ve been learning a model for what the church does and is that’s quite a bit different from how we’ve been doing it.  I think it’s a lot more like how Jesus intended, but somehow we’ve gotten away from it.  You see, I’m starting to think that Jesus didn’t come into the world to form a religion; I think he came to build relationships.  The church, then is simply about building and fostering relationships; here in this place and in the world.  It’s a wonderful thing to discover and we’ll be talking more about it as we go.  

But more to the point of our lesson today: Paul is simply taking this complex mix of complicated people and inviting them to be family.  Like I said, we do it all the time: we make a new friend and we find our common ground.  We create a united culture through our unique pasts.  We share our experiences and create values that connect through those experiences.  A smaller example might be: say you liked watching the TV show The Office and then find out I liked watching The Office.  We never watched The Office together, but it’s a thing that we share and whatever values we took from it become our shared experience.  

In a bigger way: Paul tells this story—and tells it as if it’s the story of “our ancestors,” even when it’s not the story of our ancestors—but it’s still our shared experience.  It is a story that has created the relationship and culture we share.  

Which actually highlights another odd thing about this story: because Paul is using this historical-story as an allegory.  It’s a preaching technique.  He’s taking this story from Israel’s biblical-history, he makes it our shared story, then he takes elements from that story and uses them as object lessons.  

If you look closely, you’ll notice there are two contrasting narratives that he points to from the Exodus story: there’s what God has done for the people of God; and then there’s what the people chose for themselves instead.  

Paul takes a few liberties with the first part.  Again, it’s a preaching technique, but he’s not wrong: he’s making the point that what God did for the Israelites in the wilderness, are the same things God continues to do for the church today.  Instead of a pillar of smoke and fire to lead the people and remind them of God’s constant presence, we have the Holy Spirit.  Instead of the baptism through the Red Sea to escape death and captivity by the Egyptians, we have the baptism of eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Instead of manna from heaven, we have the Body of Christ.  Instead of water from a rock, we have his Blood.  In all of the ways that God has provided for the people, God continues to provide these things for and more.  But here’s the thing: if God continues to do what God has always done, what about us?  Maybe we might continue to do the same things too.  

What Paul will call it is “idolatry”; but the profound part of it is, he’s not just talking about bowing down to a golden calf.  Their idolatry took a lot of different shapes—and of course, the point we’re meant to hear is that it still does.  Their idolatry started way before they melted their earrings down into the shape of a cow.  Their idolatry started like it always does: by putting own wants and desires over and above the will of God.  Their idolatry, at first, just looked like immorality.  Their idolatry at first put God to the test.  Their idolatry, at first, led them to complain.  

I miss my friend Steve; I may have told you about him.  He was the guy, when you’d ask him how he was doing, he’d always say the same ridiculous thing.  “How you doing, Steve?”  

“Can’t complain, even if I wanted to!”  And that would be his answer, no matter his circumstance.  You could visit him when he had the flu: “Can’t complain,” hack, puke, “even if I wanted to.”  

I made fun of him for it sometimes.  I told him he wasn’t even trying.  I told him he just wasn’t being creative; I can find things to complain about even when there wasn’t anything to complain about.  He’d just laugh it off as if to say, “Don’t worry about it, kid.  You’ll figure it out someday.”  

Of course, he was right.  Eventually I would figure it out.  Eventually, I would come to understand that, by not complaining, he was making an active choice to avoid his own self-centered idolatry.  He was shaping his mind to see what God was providing for him, instead of only seeing what he lacked.  I don’t know if that’s how he would describe it; I wish he was alive so I could ask him.  Like I said, I miss my friend, Steve.  

The point is today: what are we going to choose along this journey; and I don’t just mean this Lenten journey.  What are we going choose to feed upon, as it were, along this journey?  Will we be nourished by what God provides?  Will we trust, when it seems that God’s choice for us to go hungry?  Or will we make for ourselves, ourselves as an idol?  

This is one of those sermons that ends with more questions than answers.  As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, temptation is complicated because it takes shape differently in each of us; it’s exactly the same with the temptation toward idolatry.  

So I would challenge you—perhaps this morning, perhaps throughout the week—to consider various areas of your life.  Consider what in those areas is God providing for you and what in those areas are you trying to provide for yourself.  Think about it in terms of things like your finances, the things you buy and the things you’re willing to give away.  Your health, both emotional and physical: what does God want for you and how is that different from what you want for you?  In your relationships: how does God want you to care and be cared for?  Think about your hobbies; think about your job; think about what you’re going to make for dinner.  You see where this is going, right?  

We have a choice; we always have a choice.  We can remember and rely on the power and the providence of our loving God or we can make this life all about us.  As Paul reminds us today: history shows us that that making it about us never works out well.  Let us trust in our Risen Savior, let us seek to do his will, and may we be satisfied by the ways he cares for us every day.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Go & Tell

Luke 13:31-35
2nd Sunday of Lent

It occurred to me the other day that I haven’t met a bored person in years.  Do you even remember the last time you were bored?  Maybe when you were a kid: “Oh, I’m sooo bored!  There’s nothing to doooo!”  Not any more: we are always busy.  There is always something to do.  I have even learned to be busy with things to keep me too busy to do the things I ought to be busy with.  My friend Stan wanted me to write a report to the Presbytery and I kept putting it off because it was so tedious; I kept telling myself that I should do it, but really didn’t want to.  So I let every other job I’ve got take priority.  “Sorry Stan, but I have been way too busy.”  

I’ve even heard people use their business as a kind of humble bragging.  Have you noticed that?  You ask a person, “Hey, how have you been?”

“Oh, I’ve just been so busy!”  Then they list off all of the things they are doing, the meetings they’ve had to go to, their workload, and all the family obligations that have them pulled in a million directions.  

I’ve kind of done that at times, except the family obligations one.  I’m actually pretty lucky in that regard.  I was catching up with an old friend just the other day and said that I feel fortunate that my kids are only musical; they’re not terribly athletic.  No evening practices; no weekend tournaments; no driving to all corners of the state.  Nope, just the occasional concert and those are pretty enjoyable.  

But it seems that we are all, for the most part, always busy with one thing or another.  And don’t get me wrong, taken in moderation business can be as healthy as moderate rest.  My only caution would be to ask: what are we busy with?  Are we busy with distractions, and vices, and work-work-work?  Or are we busy with the things that Jesus would be busy with?  Are we busy with the things that seek our needs alone, or are we busy helping, and caring, and loving those that Jesus was busy with?  

There is a point in the Gospel of Luke, back in chapter nine, where Jesus is described as setting his face toward Jerusalem.  What this seems to mean is, starting from that point on in the Gospel, Jesus slowly and steadily makes his way toward Jerusalem.  From that point on, Jesus intentionally moves toward where his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion will be waiting.  So when we get to our text for today, the reader already knows where Jesus is going and what he intends to do.  It’s kind of like the season of Lent itself: everyone knows where this is going; although there might be some surprises that await us.  

In our reading today, we meet some Pharisees who also seem to know where Jesus is going.  They come to warn Jesus because his life is apparently in danger and he should probably turn around.  Now I know what you’re thinking: since when do Pharisees care about the wellbeing of Jesus?  And that is an excellent question.  Luke doesn’t say anything about their motives; and for all we know, maybe they really are concerned about Jesus; but judging by the way Jesus responds it seems he thinks they’re being less-than-genuine.  

His response is delightful if you enjoy passive-aggressive insults.  He starts by insinuating that they know about Herod’s plans because they’re pals with Herod.  Jesus tells them to deliver a message back to Herod like they have a personal relationship with them; which is an idea that would have enraged them.  Religious orders like the Pharisees existed because of evil and corrupted leaders like Herod.  We mostly know them as the guys who care so much about not working on the Sabbath that they don’t notice that miracles are being performed right before their eyes.  But their beginnings had good intentions: whenever religion goes bad—when it becomes a tool of judgment and starts rejecting those Jesus would love—it starts with good intentions.  The Pharisees began as a way to lead the people back to faithfulness to God; a thing that the political and religious leaders had failed to do.  So insinuating that they had become buddies with those leaders would have been pretty insulting.  

And to top it off, the message he gives them to deliver to Herod, is clearly not for Herod: he says, “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work [hint, hint].  Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”  He cites the miracles he performs as evidence that he is indeed sent by God; that he is (at least) a prophet sent to gather God’s people under his wings to protect them against the foxes of the world.  And like any prophet, if you want to get killed, well you just have to go to Jerusalem for that.  

I can’t even imagine what the disciples must have thought about this altercation.  Would they be terrified that Herod knew about and was after Jesus?  Would they have enjoyed the way that Jesus stood up to these religious bullies, as it were?  Would they look back on this and see the promise of the work he would through dying and rising and say, “Oh, now I get it”?  Or would they notice a more-subtle point here?  Would they notice the contrast between the work Jesus was about and the work the Herods and the Pharisees of the world were about?  The work of Herod: all about gaining and maintaining power and wealth.  The work of people like the Pharisees: all about controlling others through judgment and legalism.  Their work: all about them.  The work of Jesus: all about humankind; especially those who were dominated, used, judged, and vilified.  There is an important lesson there for the followers of Jesus: what is the work we are busy with?  

If I use myself as a sermon illustration, it’s usually not flattering; the not flattering stories are at least more entertaining.  But I’m going to tell you a story that I’m actually kind-of proud of; I think I did a good thing the other day.  

I don’t know if you guys are still following the Pine River Times on the internet.  I don’t very often, but a couple of days ago, I read an article that made sad.  It was about something that happened at the library the other day, following a presentation on Buddhism.  If you don’t know, sometimes the library does seminars like that to help the good people of our community to expand their worlds a little bit; to better understand people and viewpoints that are different from ours.  That’s not the part that made me sad; I like that part.  

The article went like this: “At a March 9 book-signing at The Pine River Library, Rev. Alaric and Andrew Hutchinson, a married couple who own and operate The Zen Cowboy, were threatened by two individuals who said they will be “running them out of town.”

The two referenced Sodom and Gomorrah in regards to the Hutchinsons being gay and said they were perpetuating satanist views.”

Listen, I know that even in this room, we have a wide variety of opinions on what some call “alternative lifestyles”; and I know that those opinions are often shaped by what we read in Scripture.  I get it: it’s a complicated subject for most Christians.  That complexity is why I would never tell you what to believe when it comes to homosexuality; the Spirit is going to lead us to different conclusions and the Spirit has reasons I don’t understand.  

But as your pastor, I will tell you when the answer is simple.  And the simple answer is: Jesus would never say a thing like that to another person.  The work that Jesus was about was about healing and caring; his work was about loving the unloved; his work was about welcoming the unwelcomed.  You know what Jesus would do to the gay couple across the street?  He’d have dinner with them.  

So here’s what I did: I was pulling up in front of the church after learning that story.  I noticed a car out in front of their business and a man moving things from the car into the shop.  I felt that nudge that I’m learning not to ignore.  I walked over to the man and asked, “Are you the Cowboy?”  

I imagine, seeing me walk over to him from the church, he thought, “Now what?”  But he said, “No that’s my husband.”  

I said, “I’m the pastor of this church and I wanted you guys to know that the people who would threaten you and tell you you’re not welcome—especially in the name of Jesus—are not my people; frankly, I’m not sure they’re Jesus’ people either.  You are welcome here, and if there’s anything you need, we’re right across the street.”  He told me that what I said meant a lot to them and we parted ways.  

As we continue this Lenten journey let us remain focused on the Savior who walked it first.  Let us remember his journey that loved humanity so much that he would give his life for us.  Let us remember his journey, and by his Spirit, let us be about his work.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Road Trip

First Sunday of Lent

I remember the first Lenten thing I ever did.  I was in college and my mom wanted to participate in a 48 hour fast and didn’t want to do it all by herself.  So, we both went hungry for 48 hours and then went to a soup supper at our church after.  By the way, that was about as spiritual as it was for me: “Okay, I was hungry for a couple of days for my mom’s sake and now I’m not.”  

Fast forward to this past Wednesday: as I was officiating our Ash Wednesday service, I blurted out, “I’m getting really good at drawing ash crosses on people’s foreheads.”   I mean, if I had a resume, “forehead ash-crosses” would certainly be on it.  They looked good.  And of course they’re made of locally sourced, artisanal, Palm Sunday palms.  

Somewhere along my life’s journey, I became a person who observes Lent.  I can’t tell you exactly when that happened, and maybe there’s a lesson just in that: if nothing else, Lent is a journey.  Beyond the fasts and practices, Lent is a pathway that leads us somewhere.  Where it leads is different for each of us, but it goes somewhere if we follow it.  

Today we witness the journey Jesus took—a forty-day journey that I would, frankly, not recommend—but maybe there’s something there for us too.  Maybe there’s something in his journey that might help lead us down our journeys as well.  

Once upon a time, on a First-Sunday-of-Lent much like this one, a Sunday school teacher was telling the children the story of the temptation of Jesus.  Things got very serious when the conversation turned to the fact that everyone gets tempted from time to time; that we all need to be ready and know how to respond when the devil shows up to tempt us.  

The teacher put forth a scenario: “Say you’re at the grocery store and you are in the candy isle, but your parents are in a different isle.  So no one is watching; no one can see what you’re doing.  And you hear the devil say, ‘You should take some candy.’”  The teacher paused a moment so that everyone could fully imagine themselves in this scene and then she asked, “What would you say to the devil?”  

Mary’s hand shot right up; she was always the most thoughtful obedient child; clearly she knew the answer.  So the teacher called on Mary and Mary said, “If the devil offered me candy, I’d say, ‘Thank you;’ because you’re supposed to say ‘Thank you’ when someone offers you something.”  

Temptation is fascinating to me.  What fascinates me most is that it is both universal and strangely specific it is.  We all face temptation, but the devil knows what we like.  What is tempting to you may not be tempting to me… and vice versa.  

And yet, as Jesus shows us in our lesson today, the answer to temptation is always the same: as Jesus shows us through the Scriptures, the answer to being tempted with the things we want is to remember what God wants.  The answer to life’s temptations is to realign our lives, again and again, to the priorities of God and not simply of ourselves.  

The nice thing—for me at least—with our lesson today is that we’ve heard this story before.  This Lenten season begins the same way every year: with the story of Jesus going out into the wilderness for forty days, to be tempted.  So the nice thing for me is that I can skip some of the story’s details; what I don’t get to today, we’ll get to some other time.  

In fact, if we intentionally ignore some of the smaller details and just look at the temptation of Jesus in a more general way, we see that there are some similarities between our temptations and the temptations of Jesus.  When Jesus was tempted—with satisfying his own hunger, with gaining power for himself, with avoiding the pain that his faithfulness would cause—we see a common theme: just like our temptations, the temptation of Jesus was all about Jesus.  Frankly, at its heart, I think that’s all that temptation is: to make our lives just about us; to fulfill our hungers and passions; to get our way at any cost; to ignore God’s call to love our neighbor and instead of our desire to love only ourselves.  So even though the specific temptations of Jesus were different from ours, they were rooted in the same self-serving place ours come from: to make our lives only about us.  

And so, Jesus’ answer to temptation can be our answer as well: Jesus uses Scripture to point away from the things he might be desiring and back to the promises and priorities of God.  So in a sense, the answer to temptations is simple: do what you know God wants you to do; obey God’s will as it’s been revealed in Scripture.  Love God and love what God loves: which is humanity itself.  Simple!  If only it were that simple.  

I noticed a kind of theme in the Scripture lessons leading us through Lent this year: they seem to have a traveling theme.  Granted, in the Gospels, Jesus and the disciples are always on their way somewhere.  But there may be a deeper lesson here for the season leading us to Easter.  Maybe the goal of becoming the people God calls us to be isn’t so much about the destination; maybe it’s more about the journey.  Maybe the disciplines and practices that we take up are valuable, not because they make us perfect, but because they move us in a direction toward making our lives less about us and more about God.  

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day.  He was telling me about how he got cut off while driving, but he couldn’t yell or honk or anything because his nine year-old daughter was in the car.  I joked, “What if that’s all spiritual growth is?  What if it’s just remembering that you’re not in the proverbial car alone?  Can you still take pride in the fact that you didn’t scream and honk?  Yeah, I think you can.  It’s called growth!”  

As we enter this Lenten season, let us follow in the example of our Savior.  Let us recognize the nature of temptation to make our lives only about us.  Let us recognize the nature of Scripture, which returns our thoughts and minds back to God.  And most of all, let us remember the God that goes with us when we succeed and when we fail.  

God only knows what this Lenten journey will bring for each of us; God only knows the temptations we’ll face; but God will not leave us, especially when things get tough.  As we walk through this wilderness, as we face the temptation of making this life all about us, let us remember that we are not alone. Let us take comfort in knowing that our Savior walks with us every step.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Unveiled

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Transfiguration of the Lord

Are you attractive?  Don’t overthink it; there isn’t a wrong answer.  Do you think you’re attractive?  I know it’s an awkward question, that’s why I ask it.  Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like most people, even if they are attractive, would be reluctant to admit to it.  The list of people who find me attractive grows smaller every day, but even I know I’m not hideous.  But having said that, I would probably qualify my answer: “I’m attractive… for a man of my age.  I’m attractive, as pastors go.”  It’s hard for us sometimes to see ourselves in a positive light; even when there are positives to see.  

It was suggested to me recently that, if I can think of myself as attractive, I will present myself in the world in a more-attractive way.  That makes sense, I guess; but it’s the “convincing myself that I’m attractive” part that seems to be the big hurdle.  

Now, I’m not just fishing for compliments here.  There are other ways that we may not always see ourselves in our “proper light” (if you will); ways in which we downplay or even hide the glory we’ve been given.  On this day that celebrates the Transfiguration of the Lord, we also gather around his Table; we gather here and remember that, by his work and by his spirit, we are now created to be the very Body of Christ.  That is, if we let it be, a pretty attractive light.  Are we ready, are we willing, to let that glory shine in this world?  

To experience God is to be changed.  All you need to do is open your Bibles to figure that out; it’s repeated over and over again.  Certainly, we’ve seen examples of this in Scripture this past season.  We watched on Epiphany, as the magical visitors experienced the presence of the Savior, and went home praising God.  We met another magician named Simon who tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit, only to be transformed by that same Spirit and find something better: repentance.  There were those who tasted the water that had become “good wine” at a wedding in Cana; receiving the “good stuff” from Jesus may not be the biggest change, but we’ll take it.  We heard about the Israelites returning to the Word of God with Ezra and Nehemiah; and finding that God is more about joyful celebration than shame and sorrow.  We learned about the experience of God that transforms us into love itself.  We saw the crowds press in on Jesus to hear him teach and to find belief.  His followers heard him and found hope as he declared, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”  We watched them as they wrestled when he taught them to love their enemies and to “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Everyone gets changed: some are merely amazed, others become angry, multitudes find hope, and a handful left everything and followed him.  Everyone gets changed.  How could they not be?  How could we not be changed when we experience the Living Incarnate God?  

This shouldn’t surprise us: our relationships, with God or with one another always change us.  One can’t just un-know the things we’ve seen and experienced; whether we like it or not.  In our experiences, we gain knowledge, and knowledge unfortunately refuses to let us remain the same.


We are changed by our everyday interactions with others—how could we not be; especially what that interaction is with God Almighty? Who can see God and not be forever changed?

In our Scripture reading today, Paul alludes to a somewhat-obscure Old Testament story involving the prophet Moses.  Like a lot of Bible stories, the longer version has its highs and lows: this one is about the people of Israel journeying through the desert.  It turns out that, just like the rest of us, the people of Israel tended to be their own worst enemy—setting up unnecessary obstacles for themselves and allowing themselves to be distracted by their own idols.

In the part that Paul refers to, the people had been led out of bondage, but they still needed direction.  Not just directions of how to get to the Promised Land, but also direction about how to live as God’s people.

These directions were given to Moses on the top of Mount Sinai.  Moses went up to receive instruction and to see God, and the people camped at the bottom.  But when he came down from the Mountain, he didn’t realize that his interaction with God had changed him.  He came down the mountain, not only with tablets containing the Ten Commandments, but with a certain glow (if you will)—a result of being present with God.  It seems like it was one of those “spinach in your teeth moments.”  You know that moment, right?  You walk into a room and you can’t figure out why everyone is looking at you funny.  Then some kind soul says, “Hey, you got a little something here.”  

Moses came into contact with God and, of course, he was changed. How could he not be?  So as to not upset the people, Moses began to wear a veil over his face when he talked to them.  Note that subtle distinction: that Moses was not only changed in a personal way by his encounter with God, but it was such a life-altering event that it also changed the ways that he interacted and communicated with others.  So, this life-changing experience was not an isolated, personal, religious experience, but a very public thing that changed the life of Moses.

Over a thousand years later, the Apostle Paul, writing to the Church in Corinth, compared the transformation of Moses to the conversion of one’s mind when one comes to faith in God in Jesus.  He writes, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Paul, whose life had been drastically changed by his own encounter with God, could speak from firsthand experience.  To see God is to be changed.  

But here’s the thing: there’s a purpose in that change.  God’s changes in us allow God to make changes through us.  To see God is to be changed, even when God is seen in us.  Through our relationship with our Risen Savior, we are not the same; and we are called to bear that same glory in our relationships with others.  

I’m sure I’ve told you this before, but I used to be Chuck E. Cheese.  You know what that is, right?  It’s a kid-centered pizza restaurant, but the pizza is by far not their best thing.  Their main thing is video games, and ball pits, and singing animatronic animals, and things like that.  Anyway, I didn’t just work at Chuck E. Cheese’s, I was Chuck E. Cheese.  I got paid to put on a giant rat costume, give hugs to children, play the occasional game of ski-ball, and to play peek-a-boo with toddlers.  

It was an unusual job, but most people, when they hear about it, can see it.  People who know me well can easily imagine me dressing up in an animal costume and being silly.  

But the thing is: that wasn’t who I was as a teen-ager.  When I was young I was painfully shy and very insecure.  But something happened when I put on the rat-suit (as we called it): I was able to embody something different.  As you might imagine, behind the rat-mask, I could find a boldness that I didn’t have before.  It allowed me to embody something else in me, and as it turned out, it made me into a pretty good Chuck E. Cheese.  But more importantly, I think, it gave me a confidence to be a better me as well.  

Paul’s words to us this morning encourage us, not to pretend to be someone we’re not, but to live boldly as people who have experienced the Risen Jesus.  Paul reminds us, this Transfiguration Sunday, that we are meant to shine.  We are meant to shine out God’s glory in all that we are.  We are meant to be transformed, so that God might transform the world through us as well.