Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Room

Luke 2:7
Christmas Eve Homily

I think the Innkeeper gets a bad rap.  In every Christmas pageant I have ever seen, he’s always grumpy, right?  

“My wife is about to give birth to the Christ Child.”  

“There’s no room, go away!”  

“Please sir, have you no room at all.”  

“Well, there’s the barn; I guess she could have the kid in there.”  

Am I right?  But the fact is, the only mention of an Inn at all, in all of the Gospels, is right here in Luke 2:7.  In the pageant the Gospels portray, not only does the Innkeeper not have a speaking part, the Innkeeper doesn’t even come on stage.  We don’t know he was grumpy; maybe he was apologetic; maybe he wasn’t even a “he”; we don’t know.  

There are some things we do know: we know that decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  We also know that, because of that decree, everyone had to return to their places of origin; in Joseph’s case, that was Bethlehem, the city of King David, because Joseph was a descendant of David.  We also know that, other than being famous for being that city David came from, Bethlehem was not really famous for anything else.  

Bethlehem was what we call “a Podunk town.”  It was not a major crossroads for anywhere.  It was rural, to say the least; a lot of sheep.  A lot like Bayfield, actually.  

We assume the worst of the Innkeeper, like he lost their reservation or something.  But Bethlehem was lucky to have an inn at all; Bayfield doesn’t have an inn.  If the Messiah was to be born here, his parents better at least have a camper.  

And besides, when we look at the bigger picture, we see that humility has been God’s plan in this birth all along: born to nobody parents under questionable circumstances; born in a nowhere, Podunk town; what do you expect, he’s going to be born in the Messiah Suite at the Bethlehem Four Seasons?  In a weird way, the Innkeeper was doing the Will of God.  The Innkeeper kept God’s humble-theme alive.  This story would not be the same if anyone of any importance paid Jesus any kind of respect.  

Of course, good luck keeping angels quiet.  But who did they go to?  Who did they bring this good news of great joy?  Shepherds.  Even the people who were called on to celebrate this event were humble.  Humility was the plan; of course he was going to be lain in a manger.  It turns out, the Innkeeper was God’s hand in all this; grumpy or not.  Other than that, there is a lot about him we don’t know; maybe we should give him some space.  

There is, of course, in our world today a very practical lesson for us in this: because there is also a lot we don’t know about the people around us every day.  We don’t always really know each other’s stories; maybe we can learn to give one another a little room; and in so doing, maybe carry God’s humility plan out a little farther.  

Who knows, maybe God’s got a plan for that girl who got pregnant before she was married.  Maybe the guy she’s with, who isn’t the father, is just doing what God told him to do.  Maybe their refugee child is going to save you in ways you didn’t know you needed saving.  And maybe the grumpy innkeeper is doing the will of God and he doesn’t even know it.  We don’t know, we can never know.  All we can do, in the name of our Savior, is give one another a little room.

Prepare Him Room, Part 4

Micah 5:2-5a 
Fourth Sunday of Advent 

Our Scripture lesson on this, the final Sunday of Advent, comes from the prophet Micah.  The office of prophet is complicated, both in Scripture, and in the church today.  It raises questions for us: what does a prophet do?  Is it just about predicting the future?  Is there even such a thing as prophets these days?  What would a prophet look like today?  

From what I can tell, understanding the job of a prophet is probably easier than we make it: it’s just to notice.  Notice what God is saying and then tell that story.  Usually that story is simple: God loves you, turn toward that love; God loved you so much that God came into this world, to give his life for us; God loves you still, so much that God is still showing up in surprising ways.  Does that sound familiar?  We prophecy every week when we share God Sightings.  

I’d add that the office of prophet is a little deeper than that.  Biblically, those called to prophetic ministries are called to notice the specific ways that God is speaking.  I don’t think I’m that kind of prophet, but what do I know: most prophets we read about in the Bible don’t know they are or even want to be.  But I do notice things and sometimes those things are oddly specific.  Or maybe it’s the practice of preaching to connect a thing and a truth call it an object lesson.  Maybe it’s just God showing off: It’s sometimes like God is saying, “Hey, did you see that?  Did you see what I just did there.”  Lately I’ve been seeing that a lot.  I was telling a friend of mine the other day, “Sometimes God moves in my life in ways that are so obvious that is can’t be described as faith anymore.”  

A good example is that dance we just witnessed.  [Our dance team just performed an interpretive dance on Annie Lennox’ version of “Good Christian Men Rejoice.]  On the one hand, it’s a lovely version of a very old song with a wonderful Christmas message, embodied by a creative team of dancers.  On the other hand, what those dancers did is a perfect metaphor for exactly what I’m talking about today.  What I’m talking about is incarnation: the embodiment of the power and will of God.  And then they took a song and literally embodied it.  We didn’t plan that.  I didn’t notice that until a few days ago.  That is just God showing off; that is God putting something on Sonja’s heart that was exactly the same thing God put on my heart.  You don’t have to be the most gifted prophet to notice something cool like that.  

I know a little girl named Micah.  I pretty sure her parents did not read the book of Micah first; at least not all of it.  If they did, that is a bold move, naming your kid after this prophet.  The book sort-of turns out okay, but Micah is not a light book.  For example, our reading picks up at verse two: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”  As it is almost Christmas so we know where this is going, right?  It’s easy to interpret a prophecy when you’ve seen it’s fulfillment.  But listen to verse one: “Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek.”  

The actual context of our reading today is in the crisis of judgment.  Micah warns, as other prophets before him, that God will not tolerate disobedience any more.  Something must be done.  God had enough of their lazy worship, their love of things over people, their rulers who would not do justice, and a whole lot more.  So here they are: under siege; a rod is at their ruler’s cheek.  

I’ve always had this little voice pop into my head when I read from prophets like Micah: because our nation does a lot of those same things too; heck, I do some of these things.  We do nearly all of the things that made God so angry that the country was invaded and sent into exile.  Nearly all of the things that the prophets condemned, we do as a culture.  Now, the United States doesn’t have the same covenant relationship with God that Israel did; which might be why we’re still getting away with it.  I don’t really think God has capture and exile in mind for us, but I do think God notices.  I do think, even beyond anger, God wants our nation to live better for its own sake.  It does make me wonder: how do we bring a prophetic voice—a voice that brings more than just judgement, but life—to a nation that doesn’t even know it’s supposed to listen?  We’ll get back to that.   

Although Micah proclaims a judgment, he also brings in these little glimpses of hope along the way.  There is judgement, because they deserve judgement.  At some point, we all have.  But there is never only judgement with God.  The God who enters our existence as a baby always also brings hope.  And that is where our reading comes in today.  

Micah is, of course, not the only prophet to look to Bethlehem for the coming Messiah.  He’s just the prophet we happen to be reading today.  When Israel is finally restored, they all knew that their rightful king would come from Bethlehem.  They all knew this because a) God said so; but they also knew it because b) that was where King David was from.  Bethlehem was where rightful kings came from.  

So who is this king?  He is the “one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.  Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth.”  Wink, wink.  I’ll see you all tomorrow night, right?  Here he comes!  He’s coming to Bethlehem.  He’s coming that we “shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.” 

This great King comes to us, through Bethlehem, not just to judge, but to bring security and peace.  And perhaps most importantly for us, especially in this season, is that he comes to us.  Somehow Micah was able to see past his current calamity and on to Jesus, the True King; the one to be born in Bethlehem; the one who would feed his flock.  

Here, I believe, is where we find our prophetic voice.  We wonder: how do we speak with the Voice of God to a world that doesn’t even know it’s supposed to listen?  We do what God did: we go to them.  We incarnate, we embody the power and will of God as we enter this world.  We embody the love of God in humility; you know, baby-like.  We embody the surprising love of God and we surprise the world with it just like God surprised us.  

This season, I’ve invited you to join me in a spiritual practice that I think will change the world.  I’ve invited you to deepen a relationship, one a week, with someone else in this church.  At some point (after Christmas), I want to invite those who have taken up this invitation to join me in sharing that experience.  I imagine that those who have engaged in this simple, but life-giving experience will tell me they’ve been surprised to find the Spirit of God in those conversations.  I imagine that they will tell me they have grown closer to their Savior, even as they’ve grown closer to one another.  I make this bold, prophetic prediction because I know that’s what happens; I’ve experienced it myself.  

Now, I still want to have that conversation because that’s only phase one.  The power of God you experienced in your own deepening relationships is what we will then bring into the world.  We’re going to bring that same practice, intentionally and openly, to folks who don’t know they ought to be listening for the Voice of God; and perhaps hear that voice coming from us.  

I have a silly example.  I spend most Tuesday mornings down the street at the Tuning Fork.  For some reason, I get a lot of work done there.  But because I’m there every Tuesday, I’ve gotten to know the owners and the staff in deeper ways; and more importantly, they’ve gotten to know me too.  They know what I do; they know I’m a professional Christian; but they also know me and sometimes I find opportunities to chip away at their preconceptions of what Christians are like because of that.  Like this past Tuesday.  

Since we’re getting to know each other better as a congregation: you may not know that I am an old-school punk rocker from back in the day.  Don’t worry, I like our worship music too; I’m not announcing anything.  But sometimes, in my private life, I like to get back to my roots.  You can (perhaps only) imagine my joy when I found out that there is such a thing as punk Christmas music and it was an entire genre.  

I was sharing my joy with Tim, the owner, and he said, “Gimme your phone.  Let’s plug it in my sound system.”  And so, if you were having coffee at the Tuning Fork on Tuesday morning you would have heard (at respectable sound-levels) classic, Christian Christmas punk music.  I would add that Tim didn’t have any Christmas music playing when I got there.  I don’t think you can possibly understand the joy that came over me when I heard a band called Bad Religion, singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” over the speakers.  First, there was just something so earnest in the way they were singing, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel!”  But also, that people seemed to be having fun with it and asking Tim what the music was about.  I kept hearing him from the other room telling people, “Yeah, he’s the pastor from down the street.”  

I told you it was a silly example, but I don’t know that Tim would just let anybody play Christian music on his speaker system.  That took relationship.  That took time.  And on Tuesday, I got to make Christians look normal for a minute.  And I praise God for the opportunity.  

As we prepare for the coming of our Savior, born into this world to show love in surprising ways, let us embody that same surprising love as we are born into it as well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Prepare Him Room, Part Three

Philippians 4:1-9
Third Sunday of Advent 

As a kind of creative writing project, I’ve been writing out little short stories of my life story.  It’s mostly for fun, but it’s kind of therapeutic too.  At one point, I decided I wanted to write about the story that lead to my story: the story about how my parents met and fell in love.  They’ve talked a little about it over the years, but I realized I didn’t know much about it.  So a couple of weeks ago I asked them to write that story out for me, separately, so I would have their two perspectives to work with as I wrote out their story.  

Pretty clever idea, right?  I am, individually, the offspring of these two people; so I would help create a story that is based on what these two people contribute.  Only, their stories are nothing alike!  They met at school so there is a touchpoint about them noticing each other at a basketball game; but that’s about it.  Granted, that was fifty-something years ago, but certainly someone has asked them this question before, right?  I would expect, since people have asked Sherry and me how we met multiple times over the past twenty-three years, that we’d be telling the same story by know; but now I’m not so sure.  

I think I know my wife well enough to know that she would be annoyed if I gave her homework like that, but it’s an interesting question.  Do we, even with the people who presumably know us the best, tell the same-shared stories?  Maybe not.  Maybe it’s not just my parents.  Maybe our life together is harder than it looks; more complicated that we even expect.  Maybe it’s a miracle, a literal miracle, that we can live together in the first place.  Maybe it is, by the literal grace of God, that we are held together in relationships, in families, in churches, and communities.  Maybe it also takes a lot of work and a mindset that remembers why we do all that work.  

So traditionally—and I’m not certain where the tradition came from—but traditionally, the candle for the third Sunday of Advent is pink and not purple.  You can see that tradition played out in our banner for today.  And yes, the candle we lit today was, in fact purple and not pink.  And if you were here with us last Sunday, you’ll recall I’m having enough problems with candles; we’re lucky to have candles at all.  

The reason it’s supposed to be pink, from what I’ve been told, is that the Third Sunday is supposed to be “lighter” than the rest.  I’m not saying I understand the reasoning there, I’m just saying that’s what I’ve been told.  

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus into the world: we prepare to celebrate his coming in the first place, a baby born in humility; and we prepare for his promised coming again, this time in glory.  It’s a time of reflection, of renewed spiritual practices, and repentance; but it doesn’t seem—to me at least—to be a terribly heavy season.  Our other season of preparation is Lent; that one is understandably heavier.  Preparing for Jesus to go to the Cross is a lot weightier to me than preparing for him to come into this world, either the first time or the next.  

All this to say: I don’t really get why we might need to “lighten up,” so to speak.  We were already having fun, right?  I think this has been a particularly fun Advent.  We’ve decorated the place like we usually do.  We’ve had Christmas parties.  I let you sing Christmas songs even before it’s Christmas (believe it or not, there are pastors out there who wait until after Christmas to sing Christmas songs; I have no idea how they keep from being tarred and feathered).  

But probably my favorite part of this Advent so far: I’ve gotten to know many of you better through our practice of intentionally getting to know each other.  God showed us how to do it, so following God’s example of coming into our world and building relationship with us, we build relationships with each other.  And I am loving every minute of it.  This is decidedly not a gloomy season for me; nor do I think it ever should be.  This is a season of joy that celebrates a joy that is never out of season.  

Our Scripture reading, in a way, reflects that joy, doesn’t it?  Rejoice in the Lord, always!  That bears repeating: rejoice!  Paul reminds us today that it’s okay to be happy.  We forget that as Christians sometimes.  When I hear pastors saying things like, “God wants you to be happy,” I get very suspicious; I get suspicious because they’re usually selling something; but it is true.  God does want you to be happy; and not just happy, joy-filled.  

There’s a difference, you know.  Happiness is determined by circumstance.  For example, there does seem to be a reason for the Philippians not to be happy.  It seems, from what Paul says here, that there is a fight going on: Euodia and Syntyche (or however those names are pronounced) are not in agreement.  Why else would Paul urge them to be of the same mind in the Lord unless they weren’t?  These are coworkers with Paul in the Kingdom of God; these are fellow strugglers in the mission to proclaim Christ; these are siblings of faith in the Philippians’ own faith community.  Do you think that might have drained some of the happiness out of the room?  Of course it did; but you can’t kill joy because circumstances are not where joy comes from; joy only always comes from God.  That’s why Paul says that in “everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And guess what: “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  What a wonderful promise!  

I have recently discovered that I don’t have to be sad if I don’t want to be.  I mean recently.  People, I am fifty-one years old; this information would have been super handy decades ago.  Why didn’t anyone tell me this?  Just kidding, I wouldn’t have listened.  

I’ve recently started into a practice—and it’s related to the deepening relationship practice that I’ve invited you into.  I’ve started doing this thing where I list in my mind a group of people who I know love me.  People who will answer my call when I need them to.  People who, when I say pray for me, will pray for me; and not just say it, they will be on their knees.  People who will call on me when their time comes too; and it’s not just an unspoken understanding, it is a covenant we’ve made.  Lately, if I start to feel down about something, I will imagine them gathered around me and their love for me pouring out on me like water.  I think of it as a kind of prayer.  What I’m doing is just remembering the love God has for me and the people God has put in my life to show it.  What I receive from that exercise is not happiness.  Whatever it was that made me sad didn’t just go away.  What I receive is joy; joy in the knowledge that we have the love and peace from God even when things aren’t happy.  
It’s there in the end of how Paul concludes our reading today.  He says, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”  

It almost sounds trite until you think about every that’s going on in Paul’s life as he writes this.  Paul was writing this from prison for the Gospel he proclaimed.  Paul was living in a world that was very different from ours.  Don’t start with me about a war on Christmas; it’s demeaning to the followers of Jesus who face real persecution.  We need to be in prayer for our siblings in Christ in some other parts of the world, but you’re doing fine.  No one is imprisoning you for celebrating the birth of Jesus.  You’re doing fine.  Paul was in prison.  The church in Philippi was being literally persecuted.  Apparently, there were people in their church that were fighting with each other.  There were probably any number of unfortunate events playing out like they always do: I’m sure their church roof needed work too; I’m sure they froze pipes too; I’m sure they had problems with their QuickBooks too.  What Paul calls them to, what Paul reminds us to do, is not to pretend those awful things don’t exist; but to focus on the reality beyond those things.  

Paul calls us to first place our eyes on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable; things that are excellent and worthy of praise.  Think about these things because that is where God shows us joy.  In other words, start with joy; remember the joy that comes from God alone, a joy that cannot be quenched by the problems that surround us; a joy that we can then take with us as we seek to serve our Savior throughout our lives.  

As we seek to grow together in our relationship with our Risen Savior, let us remember that abiding joy—a joy born into this world to save us from ourselves.  A joy that comes from God alone.

Prepare Him Room, Part Two

Luke 3:1-11
Second Sunday of Advent 

First of all, heartfelt apologies to Judy for the start of that Scripture lesson.  My advice to any liturgist is: “Just go with it.  They don’t know how to pronounce those names either.”  

Frankly, I came pretty close, for the sake of my friend Judy, to leaving out the first verse entirely.  But then I thought: there’s a reason why Luke put it in there; a reason that matters.  It matters because this is history.  This event is date-stamped by the reigns of Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, and Lysanias (whoever that is).  We need to know that, at the moment in history when Annas and Caiaphas were priests in the Temple, John was out in the wilderness.  

The names themselves are hard to pronounce and don’t mean much to us; what matters is that it makes this is a true story.  There is no “once upon a time” here.  You might make allegory of other parts of the Bible, but not our reading today.  This is no parable.  This is no fable.  This happened.  It happened for a reason.  And it’s a reason we need to remember at this point in our history as well.  

Advent is, of course, about preparation.  There is an irony for me this year: in that I wasn’t exactly prepared for Advent this year.  If you think about it, what is the most iconic symbol of the Advent season?  Even more symbolic than the symbols of Christmas like trees and carols, the central symbol of Advent is candles, right?  The choir even sang a song about Advent candles last Sunday.  Hopefully, as we sang that song, you didn’t notice the sad state of our candles last week.  Because it wasn’t until the day before—last Saturday when we were decorating—that I realized we had no fresh, unused Advent candles.  So while you were decorating, I was calling around frantically to every store in the vicinity that I thought might have them; and got nothing. I got a lot of: “Wow, we’re getting a lot of calls for Advent candles today, but no, we don’t carry those.”  On the one hand, it’s a little comforting to know that I’m not the only one who was unprepared for this season of preparation; I am now prepared for at least next Advent too [show big box of purple candles]; thank you Amazon.  But on the other hand, they do call it a season of preparation, not a season of being prepared; a bit like how they call it fishing and not catching, right?  

That’s really the point: you don’t need to be prepared for the coming of our Savior; you need be preparing for the coming of our Savor; there’s a difference.  Being prepared is a destination and this season—and perhaps our entire life of faith—is more about the journey.  

So we prepare.  The Baptist’s central message is, of course, to prepare; prepare the way of the Lord!  God's choice of John, the locust-eating wilderness-dweller, to proclaim that message is important in itself.  Luke draws us to notice that this profoundly important Word comes neither to the Emperor nor to the governors, and not even to the high priests.  It comes through simple John, son of Zechariah, who Luke introduces in the first chapter.  John the Baptist is to us a great prophet who prepared the way for Jesus, but compared with the political and religious leaders of his day, John was a nobody—and yet, God chose him to be the messenger.  And notice where God sent this message: into the wilderness; not Rome, not Jerusalem; the wilderness.  That often scary and confusing place where God sometimes speaks—perhaps because when we’re scared and confused, that’s when we’ll listen.  God's choice of who and where perhaps indicates what God then expects from us. 

So what, according to the Baptist, does God expect of us?  Well, the short answer is, repentance. The short answer is that we are expected to turn back to God.  It means hearing the brash voice of John and the brasher voice of the Spirit and knowing in our hearts that they are right.  It means we turn from notions of power, prestige, and even place and seek the God who meets and seeks after us where we are.  And yes, it can get uncomfortable; as well as it should be.  It’s hard to get one’s head around the fact that the guy who calls us a “brood of vipers” is trying to help; but John is trying to help.  Repentance is ultimately good for us; it is good because it returns us to the God who loves us beyond measure.  

Our theme this Advent season is relationships.  I’ve invited you to join me in a spiritual practice.  I don’t do that very often.  Maybe after ten and a half years as your pastor I’m getting sassy.  Maybe I think I’ve built up enough credit between us that I can be trusted to try something new.  Maybe I might even know what I’m talking about.  I’ve invited you to build relationships between you and other folks from this church.  I don’t much care how or when, just that you intentionally get to know one person here per week better than you did before.  Full disclosure: I’m having a blast.  This is my happy-place.  Building and deepening relationships is what I’m made for.  This is one of those things that I can’t believe I get paid to do.  If this isn’t exactly your skillset, don’t quit; I promise it will grow on you.  

But in a way, that’s a bit beside the point for today, isn’t it?  There is a relationship we are called to build and deepen today, but it isn’t exactly with a person near you.  This relationship, at least at first, is with the fierce and terrifying God of Israel.  Luke quotes the Prophet Isaiah today.  John is the voice crying out in the wilderness.  Get ready, people!  Here comes God!  There is infrastructure work to be done when God is on the way, right?  Fill up every valley, lower every mountain and hill; straighten where it’s crooked, smooth where it’s rough; God is coming!  

Note the imagery here: God is coming, but our response is not fear of judgment.  We want and welcome the coming of our God; our roadwork is to make it easier for God to get here.  Repentance is a good thing; repentance is to welcome and receive our God with joy.  

I’ve been crying a lot lately.  The work that God has done on my spirit lately has rubbed me raw.  If we meet together to deepen our relationship, I will probably cry; don’t be afraid.  As far as I know, it’s not contagious.  And even if it is, it is wonderful.  My tears are all about the transformational and redemptive work of God in my life.  My tears are about joy.  

There is joy in our repentance.  The opening of the chapter from Isaiah that Luke quotes goes like this: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”  God longs for us.  God is merciful to us.  God’s discipline is not final.  The last word is relationship.  

Do you get it yet?  What God wants for you is renewed relationship.  It’s what Jesus came into this world to finish.  John calls us to prepare.  And sure, his words are brash.  But sometimes the words of passionate love are not carefully chosen; so get with it brood of vipers; God loves you; let’s find out what God wants of us.  

It’s a good question.  Even with the knowledge that the end is love, it’s still good question: the people ask of John, “What should we do?”  If the axe is at our root, if family ties don’t mean a thing, what should we do?  The answer, at this point, shouldn’t surprise us: love.  Love like God loves.  Care for those God cares for.  If you have, say, an extra coat, give that coat to someone who doesn’t even have one.  If you’ve got, say, more food you need, give that extra food to someone who doesn’t have enough.  Love.  Love those God loves.  Love as God loves.  As you deepen your relationship with your Savior, don’t be surprised to find yourself deepening relationships with those he loves.  Care for those that God cares for.  Simple.  

As we continue to prepare for the coming of our Lord, let us seek to know him more.  In our repentance, let us joyfully turn our hearts and lives to our coming King; and as we do, may we learn to love as he loves.  

Prepare Him Room, Part One

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
First Sunday of Advent

The upside of having a job that partly involves storytelling is that, if something bad happens in your life, at least it can be put to good use as an illustration.  For any who haven’t heard the story: I got into a car accident on Thursday in which no one was hurt (which is why it can already be used as an illustration).  I was at an intersection in Durango behind a rather large pickup, which I couldn’t really see past.  We were starting through the intersection when the pickup abruptly stopped; and my van did not.  I was barely moving, but the pickup’s trailer hitch was just high enough to completely miss my bumper and smash into my radiator.  

I suppose the most urgent lesson from that story is one of those “drive as I say, not as I do” kinds of lessons for my oldest son.  And just so you know, he picked up on that lesson right away.  But that wasn’t the only lesson I picked up on; there was another illustration that came about after the accident.  An illustration that relates rather well to our Scripture text today.  A lesson I really enjoyed hearing again.  

I live in a small town and in a weird way, that makes me kind of a celebrity; if you’re a pastor in a small town, people know you.  If you’re not okay with strangers knowing your business, don’t be a pastor in a small town.  It started while I was waiting for the tow truck by the side of the road.  I got a text from one of my kid’s friends asking if I was okay; she saw me by the side of the road on her way home.  That was just the start.  For the next few days I got texts, phone calls, Facebook messages, emails, and people just walking up to me around town.  Friends, family, church members, and neighbors all checking in to see if I was okay.  My therapist even checked in when she heard about it; which was sweet, but in any other town would be way outside her job description.  

It was kind of an expensive way to go about it, but it was a sweet reminder that I am loved.  People care about me.  I’m not going to, but I did have the thought: “I should get into car accidents more often.”  

It is obviously good to remember that you are loved; that you matter to the people around you; that they care about your wellbeing.  But as Paul reminds us today, it is good to love as well.  

As some of you might know, Sherry and Zane are in Grand Junction this morning; they are soon to be on their way home.  Zane is working to be a foreign exchange student next year and this was an important weekend-long meeting to make that happen.  I’m super proud of him taking the initiative and showing a lot of maturity in all this; but that’s beside the point.  The point is: my wife and son have been gone all weekend.  I miss them.  It’s not terrible, but I miss them in the way you might miss people you care about.  I miss their jokes.  I miss their help around the house.  There are experiences that we’ve had that they aren’t around to share; I miss them.  

I miss them, but it doesn’t seem I miss them anywhere nearly as badly as Paul misses the church in Thessalonica.  He thanks God for them; he prays earnestly, night and day, for them and that he might see their lovely faces and soon.  He prays that their love for one another will abound like his love abounds for them.  Now I kind of feel bad.  Sure, Sherry and Zane are just gone a couple of days, but I wish I felt for them what Paul feels for the Thessalonians.  I wish they felt that way for me too!

To be fair, Paul had more reason to miss them like he does.  In acts we read how Paul’s first visit did not go well.  Paul and his companions began to proclaim the Gospel and—although some were receptive—there were others who were decidedly not so open.  A riot, in fact, broke out and Paul had to leave town quickly.  By the time this letter was written, Paul had still not been able to make it back to check on the young church.  The best he was able to do was send his protégé, Timothy to check on them.  The good news was, they were doing great!  In spite of their persecutions, in spite of Paul’s absence, their faith was growing and they were strong.  

This letter is, in part, Paul’s joyful response to Timothy’s good report.  But I think it’s also a glimpse into how I think things ought to be.  We are entirely more reserved about our devotion to each other than we ought to be.  Can you imagine getting even an email from someone in the church saying, “May our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct my way to you.  You know, maybe we could get coffee.”  Seriously, how would you react?  Would you put out a restraining order or would you embrace the love that ought to exist between us.  Paul is not a maniac, he’s demonstrating a life of faith like it ought to exist.  

Last Sunday I invited you into a spiritual practice.  If you missed it, you’re still invited.  The invitation was this: in the weeks leading to Christmas, I invite you to intentionally get to know one different person a week from this church in a deeper way.  Just by show of hands, who took up the invitation this week?  [Maybe spend some time sharing stories.]  I took up the invitation during our potluck last Sunday.  There were a lot of desserts last Sunday.  That’s what happens when you let me organize a potluck.  It will be willy-nilly and unorganized.  If that sort of thing bothers you, feel free to not let me organize a potluck.  From where I was sitting, no one seemed really bothered by it.  In fact, I got to know some people so deeply that I had to stop and pray with them at one point because I recognized the holiness of the moment.  

I am beginning to realize that moments like that are what the church is meant to be.  Relationships are the very center of God’s plan for us.  We will be talking about this throughout Advent; we’ll be talking about it because Jesus coming into this world is all about God wanting to be in an eternal relationship with you.  

It was suggested to me last Sunday that, in addition to getting to know another person a week, we get to know Jesus too.  And on the one hand, that is a brilliant suggestion.  Do that.  Read a Gospel.  Seek His Spirit through your spiritual disciplines.  Come to my Sunday morning class; we’ll make room for you.  Yes, develop a relationship with the Risen Jesus and don’t stop.  

But on the other hand, that is a different practice.  They can go together—you can get to know someone else as you both strive to get to know Jesus; it happens all the time; it’ll happen in Sunday school—but it’s a different practice.  Frankly, I think we much more readily seek to know Jesus than we do each other; and Jesus wants us to know each other.  It is a practice we need to learn; it’s how the church is meant to work; it’s how the Gospel is spread.  The profound Truth that we remember here at this Table is centrally about the relationships we have with one another and with Jesus.  He didn’t share this with them during a worship service; this happened in the context of a meal; suppertime, gathered with his friends.  I was reminded just last night, as I gathered with some of you at Joyce’s, there is a holiness in a meal together.  

The center of Jesus’ ministry, as he gave his body for our salvation, was the relationships he built on his way to the Cross.  He built these relationships first with those closest to him.  I invite you once more to build and deepen the relationships with those closest to you.  Get to know someone from this church a little bit more.  It can be during our fellowship time or you can pick a time during the week; but make it intentional.  I guarantee you, it will never be a waste of your time.  

Let us strive together to have the same kind of devotion and care that we hear from Paul today; because that love will change the world.

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


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?