Sermon for Easter 5A

John 14:1-14

Every night I say a prayer in the hope that there’s a heaven
And every day I’m more confused as the saints turn into sinners
All the heroes and legends I knew as a child have fallen to idols of clay
And I feel this empty place inside so afraid that I’ve lost my faith

Show me the way, show me the way
Take me tonight to the river
And wash my illusions away
Show me the way

This song by the rock band Styx talks about how the person singing it is asking for guidance, and how he wants someone to show him the way, to wash away his illusions and his confusion so he can see clearly the way that he is supposed to go.  It’s an age-old longing:  we human beings have ached for a sign, a sure sign that we should turn to the left and not to the right, and then for assurance that we have made the right decision.  We are always confused, groping and stumbling about in what seems like the darkness.  We find out that the people we follow, the ones we thought had it all together, are just as confused as we are.  And so, we say with Thomas in today’s gospel, “How can we know the way?”  Into this confusion and perplexity, where our illusions are stripped away and our fears seem larger than life, Jesus speaks a clear word of promise, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Unfortunately, many people don’t see this as a promise, but rather as a threat.  Coupled with Jesus’ next words, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” these verses have been used to say that unless one believes in Jesus—and believes in Jesus in the exact right way by attending the right church, behaving oneself, and doing good to others—that person will not go to heaven to be with Jesus when he or she dies.  These beautiful words of promise have instead become a stumbling block for many, and cause people to say that if that’s the way things are, they don’t want anything more to do with the church.  These words have been used as an excuse for infighting among Christians as to who has the right way to Jesus, as well as an excuse for well-meaning Christians to convert others forcibly to Christianity.  Those Christians who want to improve interfaith relations have done well until they are confronted by these words, and then they either find ways around them or they ignore them completely.  And finally, these words have caused people to wonder about the fate of their loved ones, alive and dead, who either don’t believe in Jesus or who do, but not in what the person considers the right way.  In short, these words spoken by Jesus in John’s gospel have caused much pain for many people over the centuries.  Can the words be redeemed and given new meaning?  And if so, how?

Like so many verses and passages of the Bible that have been taken out of context, I believe this one has been, too, and so it is helpful to explore that original context.  In this passage, we encounter Jesus with his disciples on the night of the Last Supper.  He has just washed his disciples’ feet.  Judas has gone into the night to make arrangements to betray him.  Jesus has given the disciples the commandment to love one another.  Jesus has predicted that Peter will deny him three times.  And after all of this, Jesus begins speaking about the things he wants to tell the disciples before he goes to the cross to die.  Of course, after all of the charged events of the evening, Jesus starts by telling the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  Because of course the disciples are troubled, and so Jesus wants to comfort them.  He tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them.  Thomas asks Jesus where he is going and how they are supposed to get there, and Jesus replies that he is the way.

In this context, it is hard to see how Jesus would even think that his words would one day be interpreted in a manner that would create fear, mistrust, and alienation.  He was not saying that in order to follow him to his Father’s house, one would have to believe in the right way, behave correctly, and do the right things.  Where was Jesus going and how was he getting there?  He was going the way of the cross, and by being crucified and resurrected, he was himself becoming the Way.  In other words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus reveals God the Father to the world.  And God loves the world, the whole world, as Jesus himself says earlier in the Gospel of John:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

So our troubles then, I think, come with the English word “believe”.  In order to believe, in our culture, we must believe in certain teachings and doctrines.  But the Greek word which Jesus uses here can not only be translated into English as “believe” but also as “trust”.  So, how would that change things around if we were to have Jesus saying, “Trust in God, trust also in me”?  Then we’re not so limited when we look at these verses.  It makes it easier for us to say, “Hey, even though the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, etc., don’t believe in all the same things we do, they still trust in God and trust in Jesus, so I bet I’ll see them in the life to come.”

The last remaining question, then, is what about those of other faiths, of no faith, or who are still searching?  When Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” where does that leave Jewish people, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, and so many others?  In the book Love Wins, by Rob Bell, the author wrestles with the idea of heaven and hell, and towards the end of the book, he tackles today’s passage from John.  Bell states that yes, Jesus says that no one comes to the Father except through him.  However, Bell says, “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.  He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him.  He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”  Or, in simpler words, Bell says, “What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody.”  The letter to the Colossians says essentially the same thing in chapter 1:  “and through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”  Jesus goes the way of the cross and in so doing, becomes the Way himself through which the earth and everyone and everything in it will be saved.

So, right now, we’re going to engage in a prayer exercise.  I would like you to call to mind a person or people whom you have loved and lost to death, especially someone who you may have wondered if they went to heaven or not.  Perhaps at the time of their death, someone shook their head and said sadly that they weren’t in heaven because they didn’t believe in the right way, or they didn’t believe at all, or their behavior here on earth wasn’t the best.  You can also think of those people in your life who are still alive and who do not identify as Christian. Take a few moments to think about these people, and then I will begin the prayer.  *pause*  Lord Jesus, we remember before you our loved ones who have gone ahead of us.  Lord, we trust in you and in your love, that you are indeed the way, the truth, and the life.  We pray forgiveness for those times when we have used your words of comfort and promise as words of separation, division, and exclusion.  We commend our loved ones into the comfort of your arms, and we trust that you are, indeed, in a mysterious way, reconciling the entire world and everyone in it to God.  During those times that we feel the pain of missing our loved ones, and in those times of doubt when we wonder about the fate of those who do not believe or trust in you, we pray that you would comfort us with those words that in your Father’s house are many dwelling places, and that we will one day see all of our loved ones once more.  Into your hands, O Lord, we entrust the care of all whom we love, both living and dead, and we trust in your mercy upon them.  In your holy name we pray, Amen.

“Show me the way,” the singer pleads.  God has indeed shown us that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and Jesus has revealed the love of his Father for the whole world.  May we never take those words as a threat to keep us in line, but instead as the beautiful promise of comfort that Jesus meant them to be.  Amen.

Sermon for Easter 4A (Good Shepherd Sunday)

John 10:1-10

We all love sheep. They’re cute, wooly white animals who make funny noises. We have pictures of Jesus gently carrying a lamb over his shoulders and these cute, woolly white critters frolicking all over, listening to Jesus’ voice and following him with no questions asked, because he’s, well, Jesus. If that’s our picture of sheep and Jesus as the good shepherd, though, it’s a good bet that our only experience with sheep has been at the petting zoo. Has anyone here today been around sheep on a regular basis on a farm or a ranch? Well, I haven’t either, but here’s what I’ve learned from people who have been around sheep. First of all, sheep are not the most intelligent creatures in the world. I had a friend once whose father raised sheep, and she told me that, if you place a fence in front of the lead sheep and get him to jump over it, and then a few more sheep jump over it, and then you take the fence away—the rest of the sheep will jump as if the fence were still there. Secondly, another friend of mine talks about his uncle who raised sheep, and how his uncle disliked coming to worship on Good Shepherd Sunday, because the pastor would say things about sheep that simply weren’t true. This friend writes that, “Sheep will graze a pasture to the ground and will then eat the roots of the grass, making a desert, unless a shepherd moves them along. Sheep will bloat themselves to death on green alfalfa, lacking the sense to stop eating even when their stomachs start to swell. Sheep are rude, they smell bad, and they leave a sticky slick coating on everything they rub up against so that you come away wondering what the attraction of lanolin in hand lotion might be” (Provoking the Gospel of John, p. 269). In other words, Jesus is not paying us a compliment when he calls us sheep.

But, these descriptions of sheep fit us as human beings in many ways. In a crowd, we will follow a leader regardless of how intelligent that leader is. And if he jumps over a fence, we, too, will jump over a fence, even if the fence is no longer there. We human beings also know when we have a good thing, and we will stay where we are comfortable unless someone points out that we have used up all of the resources that are of benefit to us in one place and we need to move on to another place. And that is where I’d like to focus our meditation today: who are we following, where is he leading us, and, as we listen for his voice, what is he asking us to do?

So, here’s the first question: who are we following? Well, if you’re here today, I’m going to assume that your answer is going to be: we are following Jesus. Or, at least we are doing our best to follow Jesus. Sometimes other voices can drown Jesus out in our society. Or sometimes, we hear voices claiming to be Jesus who preach a message that Jesus himself would not recognize. If we are listening to those voices that say that God wants us to be happy and to be wealthy and that all we have to do is follow some simple steps and pray until good things start happening to us, then that is not the voice of Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospels does it say that Jesus was wealthy and that he claimed for himself the glory of God. And nowhere in the Gospels does it say that our lives will be happy and easy if we just pray hard enough. Instead, the Gospels tell us that Jesus went to the cross and suffered an agonizing death for us. And when Jesus says that he came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly, he is not talking about material wealth. Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. When Jesus talks about abundant life, he is talking about having relationships: a relationship with him, and a relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. He is talking about coming together and helping one another through this life, in both our sorrows and our joys. Anyone who says that Jesus is talking about material possessions when he is talking about abundant life is one of those thieves and bandits who come only to steal and kill and destroy.

So, we are following Jesus, who assures us that he came to give us abundant life in the form of relationship with him and relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Where is he leading us? Well, let’s start with some of the language that Jesus uses in this passage. One of the things that you will discover about me is that, since I studied German as my major when I was an undergraduate, and since I have learned some other languages since then, I am fascinated by translation issues and how sometimes, we don’t always get the nuances of the original language and culture when we read something in translation. So, when you hear Jesus say, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out,” you’re probably thinking of Jesus standing in front of the flock, calling them, and the sheep docilely walking behind him. But sheep and other animals don’t always cooperate like that. So, let’s hear Jesus saying this, “He calls his own sheep by name and drives them out.” That would mean Jesus is behind the flock, pushing them and using his staff to knock a few sheep back into place, getting them to go where he wants them to go, because the sheep have eaten up all the grass in the place where they are.

I like this picture because, in the short time that I have been here and I have been learning what’s been going on both at Salem and at St. John, I think that’s what Jesus is doing with us. He is calling us and he is driving us out of our comfort zones and out of our church buildings and into the community. And it’s not just our two congregations, but the church as a whole. Let’s use this metaphor of sheep and shepherd as we think about what’s going on. Could it be that we as the church have gotten too comfortable in one spot and have, in fact, eaten the grass down to the roots? Could it perhaps be that Jesus is starting to drive us out of the spots where we have overgrazed and is calling us to get out of our buildings and to find new pasture in the communities around us?

We are following Jesus, who is driving us out of our buildings and into new pastures in the community. As we listen to his voice, what do you think he is calling us to do as we go out into our communities? Well, I think that our two congregations are off to a good start. We are working more together with one another and with our two neighbors, Trinity two blocks down from us and St. Peter’s in Highspire. We are starting to look around at our neighborhoods and realize that they have changed drastically since our congregations were founded, and we are beginning to get to know our neighbors and to listen to what their needs are. And I believe that, as we listen to the voices of our neighbors, we will also hear the voice of our Good Shepherd, Jesus, calling us to follow where he leads and showing us how he would have us serve as witnesses to his love as we serve our neighbors.

And that is the good news in all of this. Jesus tells us that, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” In other words, after Jesus has been behind us and driven us out of our comfortable places, he does not leave us alone. He goes ahead of us. So, whenever we are facing uncertainty in the times ahead, we know that Jesus has not left us alone. We know that, in whatever new places we find ourselves, Jesus has gone ahead of us and is already there, waiting for us. We do not need to be afraid of this new world that we, the church, find ourselves in, because we know that Jesus is already here, and is with us, both behind us driving us out of our comfortable places and ahead of us, calling us forward and urging us to listen to his voice.

And so, as you and I begin our walk together, and I join with you in ministering in this time and place, Jesus urges us not to be afraid. Yes, we will stumble, and sometimes we will fall into holes. But Jesus will be there with us, pulling us up from our mistakes, dusting us off, and urging us to keep moving. So, yes, it may not be a compliment when Jesus calls us sheep. But we know that Jesus loves us in spite of the bad traits we share in common with sheep, and Jesus is with us. Always. Amen.

Coming Back East

In February, I accepted a new call to St. John Lutheran Church in Steelton, PA, and Salem Lutheran Church in Oberlin, PA. These communities are about a mile or so apart and are part of suburban Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The two congregations have been yoked together for several years as neither one can survive on their own, and they are in need of renewal and revival. I left Wyoming the day after Easter. It was hard to say goodbye to my parish in Wyoming, but I do believe that this is where God has called me. I am already experiencing new challenges in my work with the congregations, and I am experiencing renewal and refreshment myself. Since I am no longer in the West, I have retitled my blog, “Coming Back East,” and I will continue to post sermons and other thoughts on this blog. The URL is the same: Happy Reading!

Sermon for Good Friday

             This week, known as Holy Week, has been rather terrifying as we get report after report of bad news. We’ve heard of the chemical attacks in Syria, and the military response of the United States. Coptic Christians in Egypt were attacked as they worshiped on Palm Sunday. Here at home, there has been another school shooting, and a passenger on a commercial airline was forcibly dragged off the plane when he refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. This has all been terrifying enough, but probably the event that had the most disturbing implications for us as Christians was the White House press secretary saying that Syrian President Assad was worse than Hitler because Hitler never used chemical warfare “on his own people.” The reason that this caused such an uproar was because Hitler did in fact gas scores of Jewish people to death in concentration camps, and those Jewish people were Germans. The fact that he made these comments in the midst of the celebration of Passover made it even more offensive, and made it seem like he was, at best, ignorant of the history of the Holocaust, and, at worst, a denier of the Holocaust. And even though he did apologize for these remarks, I doubt that many people will excuse him or forgive him.

            Why am I speaking about this? Because anti-Semitism has once again reared its ugly head in the United States in different places and in different ways, and because the anti-Semitism that developed over many centuries in the church has stemmed from a misunderstanding of who Jesus was and who was responsible for his death on the day that we call Good Friday. Over the centuries, misinterpretations of Scripture and a lack of understanding by Christians of why the Jewish people would not accept Jesus as the Messiah has resulted in Christians saying, “The Jews killed Jesus,” and have been used as an excuse for hatred of the Jewish people and violence against them. Many Christians have forgotten that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, and that Jesus’ crucifixion was a result of several complicated factors. One of those factors was the relationship of the Jewish authorities to the Roman occupying force. Another factor was the complicated relationship that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had with both Rome and the Jewish people—he was often caught between a rock and a hard place, trying to balance keeping the peace in Judea with making his superiors in Rome happy. There was really no one person or one group of people to blame for Jesus’ crucifixion, and when Christians over the years and even in the present time try to do that, they are simply in the wrong.

            So, then, how do we speak of the death of Jesus? On an earthly level, we speak of it as the result of weak and sinful human beings—those in authority worried about retaining their power and also about keeping the peace, so the Roman soldiers wouldn’t come in and take things over completely by force. We speak of it as a travesty of justice, for Jesus had done nothing wrong. But theologically, we speak of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, so that we might live forever. We speak of God being present even as we shudder at how human beings devise such cruel methods of execution, and we contemplate our own sinfulness at how we might be complicit in systems that make other human beings suffer. And we know that, even when we believe that God has forsaken us, just as Jesus cried out when he suffered on the cross, God is still present with us in our suffering. And more than that, because of what Jesus, the Son of God, went through on the cross for us, God understands our suffering in an intimate and mysterious way. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).

            We speak of the death of Jesus with sorrow, with awe, and with wonder, as we meditate on its mystery. We do not, however, cast blame on anyone for his death. For we do not know if, had we been present on that day, we would have been one of the women who stayed with Jesus to the end, or if we would have been one of the disciples who fled for fear and left Jesus to suffer alone. Even more than that: we may have been one of the mob shouting “Crucify him!” or we could have been one of the high priests who wanted Jesus to die. Or, we could have been Pontius Pilate, who valued peace in Jerusalem more than he valued justice, and handed Jesus over to be crucified. We simply don’t know, and so we cannot speak of blame for Jesus’ death unless we want to condemn ourselves.

            For in the end, it was our sinfulness that put Jesus on the cross. And when I say “our,” I mean all of us: all human beings who ever lived, past, present, and future. There is no need to single out any one people group, and no reason especially for anti-Semitism. We are all guilty. But the good news is this: in Jesus’ death on the cross, we have forgiveness for our sins. So, let us come and worship Jesus as we see him suffering on the cross for us. Let us come with sorrow and let us also come with profoundly thankful hearts for what he has done for us. Amen.

Sermon for Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

When I lived in southeast Texas, I had a good friendship with the secretary of our congregation and her next-door neighbor, who was also a member of the church. The parishioner, whose name is Sharon, has a phobia of cockroaches, which can be a problem in southeast Texas. That area of the great state of Texas is part of Texas’ Gulf Coast, and so the climate is very warm and very humid; all kinds of insects thrive in that kind of climate. The secretary, whose name is Brenda, has no such phobia of cockroaches and other disgusting bugs. And so, when Sharon encounters a roach in her home, she immediately gets on the phone, calls Brenda, and asks the question, “Brenda, how much do you love me?” And Brenda immediately comes over to Sharon’s home with her fly swatter, asks, “Where is it?” and then proceeds to kill said disgusting bug.

Can love be measured by what someone is willing to do for another person? If love can be measured in this way, where does killing a creepy insect for someone fall on the scale? Or, as in my parents’ case, disposing of mice caught in traps for the spouse who is both afraid of and repulsed by mice? And where does washing feet fall on the scale of measuring how much someone loves another person? I’m curious, and I’d like to take a quick poll of the congregation here tonight. Think of the person that you love the most. Now, how many of you would kill a cockroach or some other really frightening bug for the person you love? OK, and how many of you would dispose of a mouse caught in a trap for this person? And finally, how many of you would wash the other person’s feet? I think it’s interesting, because, of those three options, I would find washing the other person’s feet least offensive. And yet, when I suggested we consider doing the rite of foot washing at this service tonight, I was met with a great amount of hesitation. Why do we have no problem walking around in sandals during the summer and letting other people see our feet, but we do have a problem with the idea of someone washing our feet for us?

As I pondered this, I remembered that a couple of times when I’ve been up at Chico Hot Springs, I have gotten a massage. And the first part of the massage is having your feet washed with a warm citrus scrub. It felt so good to have someone else wash my feet with care that I normally don’t take when I wash my own feet. But perhaps this is the difference: while I did talk with the woman as she was washing my feet, I didn’t know her very well. And washing my feet was simply part of her job that she was getting paid for, so there really wasn’t anything too intimate or embarrassing about it. When congregations hold the rite of foot washing, on the other hand, it often means that we are forced to look one another in the eye, and perhaps even to wash the feet of someone whom we don’t like very much. Or even, to have our own feet washed by that same person. Just a little bit awkward, and somewhat frightening if we haven’t been brought up with doing this in the church.

In Jesus’ day, when you were invited to someone’s home, the good host would offer you a basin of water to wash the dust of the road off of your feet before entering the home, but he would not wash your feet himself. If your host were rich enough to own slaves, he might command one of his slaves to wash your feet. So in that culture, it was understood that a person who washed your feet was a slave. So can you imagine how truly stunned the disciples must have been to see their Lord and their Teacher, Jesus, taking on the role of a slave? I think they were all shocked into silence, and Peter was the only one brash enough to take what they were all thinking and speak it out loud. And when Peter protests that Jesus will never wash his feet—after all, Peter did not want his Lord and master demeaning himself to the status of a slave—Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Craig Koester, New Testament professor at Luther Seminary, paraphrases this, “Unless I love you completely, you will not be in relationship with me” (Word of Life, p. 193). In other words, when Jesus takes on the role of a slave and washes his disciples’ feet, he is loving them completely, and he is foreshadowing his death on the cross, where he will more fully show them what being a slave for one’s beloved looks like.

What’s even more interesting about Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet is that he washes Judas’ feet, too. Judas has not yet gone out from the meal to make arrangements to betray Jesus, but Jesus knows that Judas is going to do this. And yet, Jesus washes Judas’ feet, showing Judas that, even though he knows what’s going to happen, he still loves him. The response of good to the evil in this world is not to retaliate and to give evil back for evil, but instead, to respond with utter love and devotion in an unexpected act of service.

And after this unexpected and disturbing act of service is completed, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” If we 21st century Americans can’t even bear the intimacy of literally washing one another’s feet, how are we to metaphorically carry out such selfless acts of love and devotion towards one another? How are we to make ourselves vulnerable, even in the company of people who might betray us?

As Jesus said, he is the one who sets the example for us, first by washing the disciples’ feet, then by going to the cross to die for us. That is something that is impossible for us human beings to live up to. But as we live in this world, Jesus will give us opportunities to humble ourselves and to show selfless love for one another, even for those who would hate us and betray us. When we respond to evil with love and service rather than with fear and retaliation, then we truly show the world that we are disciples of the one who gave his life for us. When we show selfless love to one another, we build up the community, which again bears witness to the world of how much Jesus loves us. So perhaps in the future, we might begin by physically washing one another’s feet. Amen.

Sermon for Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

I don’t usually preach on Palm Sunday. The reason for that is because I think our readings, from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in the beginning of the worship service, to the lengthy congregational reading of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem and his crucifixion, are enough to speak for themselves. I like to let the images of the story take hold of our imagination, and I hope that we can reflect on them as we enter into Holy Week. But today is different: we have one of the young people in the congregation ready to affirm the faith that she was brought up in. And so, I felt that today I needed to give a short meditation on the texts that we have before us to mark this occasion.

As I was preparing for this day, I found out from several of my colleagues that it used to be tradition to celebrate confirmation on Palm Sunday. This was because confirmation used to be the time when the people being confirmed would also receive their First Communion, and the church wanted those who were newly confirmed to be able to receive communion with their families the following week, Easter Sunday. But now that our children receive communion whenever their parents think that they are ready, how does confirmation tie in to the liturgy and ritual of Palm Sunday? Very well, I think. Simply put, on Palm Sunday, we hear and we reenact the foundational story of our faith. This is the story into which we are baptized, and when we affirm our baptism in the rite of confirmation, we are affirming that this is the story that we continue to have faith in: the story of the Son of God who became human for our sake, who showed us how we are to live by serving one another, and who died on the cross for us, that we might have forgiveness of sin and be with him forever.

So, let’s start with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and let’s look at what the crowds were shouting when they threw their cloaks on the road. When we hear the word “Hosanna,” being shouted, we think it’s a word of praise, kind of a “hip-hip-hooray, Jesus is coming into Jerusalem and is revealing himself to be the king.” Well, actually, that is incorrect. The word “Hosanna,” is an Aramaic word meaning, “Save us!” So, my next question for us to think about is this: What did the people shouting Hosanna to Jesus on that long-ago day want to be saved from? I honestly don’t think that they were wanting to be saved from their sins. Remember that Jerusalem is under Roman occupation and is being directly ruled by Rome’s governor, Pontius Pilate. Also remember that Jerusalem has a long history of being both God’s home—the Temple was located here—as well as the political capital of Israel, the place where the great kings David and Solomon reigned. And the fact is, the crowds are proclaiming Jesus as the Son of David. They are wanting Jesus to clean house; to run off the Roman occupiers, and to restore the rule of Israel to the Jewish people.

And after Jesus enters Jerusalem, he seems to be off on a good start towards that goal: he gets off of his donkey and goes into the temple, driving out all of the money changers and those who were turning the temple into a marketplace. That seems to be the kind of thing a new political leader who wanted to start a rebellion would do, right? But then, in the next several days, Jesus seems to take an alternate approach. Instead of promoting a rebellion by kicking over more tables and planning raids on storage places for Roman weapons, he starts healing people and teaching them, just as he did when he was in Galilee. Some of his teachings were very pointed against those in power, yes, but still, this is generally not the way someone who is set on overthrowing the authorities would go about it. So, what is Jesus doing here?

In short, I think that Jesus is teaching those who would hear him how they are to live under an Empire that cares very little for their well-being. In the parables that he tells during this time, he is also showing those who would hear him how God’s kingdom is different from the current Empire in power, and he is encouraging those who would hear him to live and work as though God’s kingdom were already here and in full force. Empires do not always fall by military might. Instead, it is those who live differently than the Empire would have them live and who are brave enough to resist injustice when resistance is called for who bring about the changes that are needed in the world. When those in authority heard Jesus’ teachings and knew that these things that he was saying were being said against them, they feared that they would lose their power, and they decided that they needed to get rid of Jesus. And so, in the space of a few days, the crowds went from hailing Jesus as the Son of David who would save them from the Romans to crying out for his death.

This is the faith that we Christians are baptized into. Paul writes in Romans that “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In just a little while, Elsie will be affirming this faith that she was baptized into many years ago—she will be taking this on for herself. If you were here Wednesday night, you saw her talk about how following God is not an easy path, and how you can’t take anything with you but your heart. In the readings today, this is what we see Jesus doing—following God’s call upon his life even unto death. And while my hope for Elsie, and for all of us here, is that God would call us to live for him rather than to die for him, we know from Jesus that God is with us in every situation in life, that God goes before us, and that, even when we die, God is with us.

And so, when we cry “Hosanna!” we are not asking Jesus to save us by overthrowing the earthly empire under which we live. Instead, we are crying out for Jesus to save us by showing us how to live and, when necessary, how we are to die. We are crying out for Jesus to save us by walking with us in every dark place and every light place that we are called to go. And yes, we are crying out for Jesus to save us from our sins, those bad things that we do and the good things that we fail to do. And Jesus meets us to save us, not in the glory of his parade into Jerusalem, but dying upon a cross, giving his life for us that we might live. He pours out his love upon us and gives us the strength and the faith that we need to live our lives in his grace. My prayer for Elsie and for all of us is that, seeing how Jesus pours out his life for us, we would live out our baptismal callings by showing forth the love of Jesus in everything that we do, to everyone that we meet. May God give us the strength and the wisdom to do so. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 5A

John 11:1-45

I went to see the new Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast, recently. Before I tell you about this scene in the movie, I feel like I should call “spoiler alert”. However, if you saw Disney’s cartoon version of this story once upon a time and long ago (25 years ago—just to make us all feel old) then what I’m about to describe isn’t really a spoiler. So, I’m hoping that all of you who are going to see the live-action movie have seen it already, or at least will know what I’m talking about from your memories of the cartoon. Towards the end of the story, the last petal falls from the rose. The beast seems to die, and, in the live-action movie, all of the talking furniture becomes real furniture, instead of turning back into the servants like they would have if the curse had been lifted. And as this moment of the curse becoming permanent seemed to go on for a few beats too many, I sat on the edge of my seat, saying to myself, “Come on, Disney, you’re all about happy endings. Let’s get on with it already.” And, in the end, the curse is lifted, as we expect it to be. But the reason I thought about that moment when all hope seemed to be lost as I was preparing for today’s sermon is this: I wonder if this is the kind of thing that Mary and Martha felt as they watched their brother Lazarus become ill. As his illness worsened and Lazarus grew closer to death, I can see them hopefully, then desperately, watching the door to their house, expecting Jesus to come in at any moment and heal Lazarus. After all, Jesus had healed a lot of other people whom he barely knew. Why shouldn’t he come and heal Lazarus, whom he knew and loved? And then, as the spirit of life slowly leaves Lazarus, and Jesus doesn’t come, the last spark of hope is extinguished. Lazarus is dead, and even though Jesus can do many extraordinary things, the sisters clearly are not expecting Jesus to be able to raise the dead.

To use an image from another movie, Lazarus is dead: most sincerely dead. There is no getting around this. And what’s disturbing about this story is that Jesus deliberately delayed his arrival in Bethany to come after Lazarus’ death, when he might have been able to come earlier and heal him. It’s all good in theory: the Son of God must be glorified through what Jesus is going to do. But in reality, here is what has happened: Mary and Martha and those who knew the family have been put through the wrenching grief of losing Lazarus, and the pain of knowing that Jesus could have come and healed him, but didn’t. The glory of God doesn’t seem to matter very much when you’re weeping over a beloved brother, does it? I think we can all understand why Martha and Mary might be angry with Jesus when he does bother to show up.

But then, Jesus himself gets angry. And our translation doesn’t really show that; it glosses over Jesus’ emotions by saying that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” A more accurate translation of the Greek verb would say something like this: Jesus snorted in anger, bringing to mind the snorting noise that a warhorse makes. The harder question for us to answer is this: why would Jesus be angry? And why would he be so angry that he makes a snorting noise? Well, he could be angry at being scolded by both Martha and Mary; both of them say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Or, perhaps Jesus is angry with himself: Jesus knew that he would raise Lazarus, and he knew that it would be for God’s glory so that those who witnessed it would believe in him, and, as I said before, that’s all good in theory. But when confronted with the pain and the grief that his delay had caused, Jesus experienced the real consequences of his actions. And he was angry at himself for the pain and the suffering that he had caused by delaying. Then, some of the people surrounding Martha and Mary are saying that Jesus could have kept this man from dying, and he snorts in anger again. Here, I think it’s easier to say that he was angry over the people’s inability to trust in him, even in the event of death, or that he’s angry that the people, too, are scolding him. But whatever the reasons, Jesus is angry.

We say that Jesus is both human and divine, and sometimes, in our minds, the divine takes over the human part. Oh, since Jesus is divine, since Jesus is God’s Son, he can’t get angry. After all, we think, anger is not good and it is sinful, and since Jesus is without sin, he can’t get angry. That’s why, I think, the translators of our Bibles gloss over Jesus’ anger by saying, “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” That’s just vague enough to get Jesus off the hook; to say that yes, he experienced human emotions, but he didn’t experience the really bad ones. But let’s think about that for a moment: as human beings, we all get angry from time to time. It is a natural human emotion, and there is nothing sinful about anger in and of itself. Rather, it is what we do with that anger that is sinful. So for me, and perhaps for some of you here today, too, Jesus becoming angry at this whole situation that he’s in makes him more human. He really did experience everything that I do; he understands what it’s like to lose a loved one. Not only did Jesus weep as he saw the others around him weeping, he became angry at himself—and became angry at God, too.

What Jesus does with his anger, though, is the important part of this story. He follows through with what he knew he was going to do all along: he confronts death head on. We tend to laugh when Martha objects to Jesus’ command to roll away the stone from the grave by saying, “Lord, already there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.” It is a realistic and pragmatic touch to this powerful story that makes us love Martha. But, there is something more going on here. I’d like to explain it by telling this story.

Back in January, I lost one of my cats to something called FIP, a virus against which there is no vaccine and no cure. I watched my cat die in front of me, and I brought him back to the vet to have him confirm that my cat was dead. I mourned for my cat, but after a couple of days, my life was starting to return to an equilibrium, and a new normal with just one dog and one cat in the house. Things started to settle into a routine again. Then, a couple of weeks later, I got the call from the vet that the ashes of my cat who had died were ready to be picked up. I went to pick up the box, and the moment of my cat’s death replayed itself in my mind, and the wound became raw once more.

I think that’s what is going on here when Martha tells Jesus that there will be a stench if they open the tomb. The stench will be a reminder to her and to Mary that Lazarus is truly dead, and the pain of the wound will come once more to the surface. They will relive the moment when they saw Lazarus take his last breath. They will have to confront death. I think that Martha and Mary and those who were with Jesus were expecting Jesus to mourn at the tomb at this point in the story; they were still not expecting Jesus to bring Lazarus back to life, and that’s why Martha is surprised at Jesus commanding the stone to be removed. And so, Jesus urges them once more to believe, so that they may see the glory of God. And he does the impossible: he brings Lazarus back to life.

It’s comforting to me to see that, even as far back as this ancient story of Jesus raising Lazarus, no one likes to confront death. It shows me that human nature hasn’t changed all that much over the years. But one of the points that John is making by telling us this story is this: we can’t appreciate resurrection and new life until we have first acknowledged the reality of death. And we don’t like to do that in our society today. More and more when I look through the obituaries in the paper I see that there is no funeral or memorial service planned for a person who has died. Or, if there is one planned, it is named as a “celebration of life” because we don’t want people to be sad. We are uncomfortable with grief. But denying death in this way, and in other ways, is not natural, and denying grief is simply not healthy. Gathering together to console one another in our grief, as the friends of Martha and Mary did for them when Lazarus died, is a vitally important and healthy thing to do.

But something that is even more disturbing to me is that this avoidance of death in general society has infected the church, too. In the years that I have been with you here at Hope, I have seen only small numbers of people come to the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. I know that this was the pattern even before I got here, and I have struggled with this. Part of me understands that it may be hard to commit to going to two worship services two days in a row. But I think there’s something deeper than that in play here: we don’t want to confront death. We want the joy of Easter without having to go to the cross and stare death in the face. But here is the truth: without death, there can be no resurrection. We cannot truly understand and experience the joy of Easter without first understanding and experiencing the crucifixion on Good Friday.

I think deep down, Jesus understood that. In John’s Gospel, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is the final straw with the authorities: after this, they go off and seriously plot to kill Jesus. Jesus knew that. And so, when they opened the tomb of Lazarus and the stench of death came out, Jesus was confronting his own upcoming death. Jesus knew that, not long from this moment, he would be experiencing this same thing. And yet, whatever fear he might have felt in this moment, he also had hope that death would not be the end, either for him or for Lazarus. And he gave the people the sign that there is hope for resurrection by raising Lazarus, and through that sign, he himself knew that he and all of the people around him would experience that resurrection as well.

As Christians, we are resurrection people. But as Christians, we know that we cannot experience resurrection without first experiencing death. Jesus teaches us the way to confront death and to not be afraid. We should be able to look death in the face and say, “Yes, death, you are pretty scary. And you are disgusting. But, we have hope. We know one who has died for us, and yet has conquered death. And he claims us as his brothers and sisters. And because of that, we know that one day, we, too, through Jesus, will conquer death, and we will live forever with Jesus. So go ahead, death. Do your worst. We will acknowledge you, but we trust that God through Jesus will bring us through you. You will not take away our hope in Christ.” Amen.

Sermon for Lent 3A

John 4:5-42

I love a good love story. My current favorite is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, a series of several novels detailing a story about a woman who travels through time from 1946 to 1743 and ends up meeting the love of her life, marrying him, and staying in the 1700s. Well, sort of. There are lots of twists and turns to this story, including the heroine traveling back to the 20th century and living there for about 20 years before returning back to the 1700s. And Gabaldon has not finished the story of this couple yet—she is working even now on the next novel in the series. But whenever she ends the series, I expect that, no matter what else happens, the couple will live happily ever after. And when you write a novel in the romance genre, people who are reading it, no matter what the novel is, expect certain things to happen: First of all, the man and the woman meet. The way they meet doesn’t always have to be the same, but it needs to be some kind of memorable meeting, something to get the reader invested in the story. Then, there is the initial attraction to one another and a declaration of love. But then, problems arise that separate the couple: often, one person finds out that the other person is not quite who she thought he was. After the couple surmounts whatever obstacle or obstacles get thrown into their path, however, they again realize how much they love one another. They come together, they work out their differences, misunderstandings are cleared up, and they live happily ever after. This is generally the way love stories in our culture work.

In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, we have the Jewish version of a love story. Any Jewish person hearing the opening of the story: “Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well,” knows that the next thing that’s going to happen is that a woman is going to come to the well. Think back to the story in Genesis of how Abraham’s servant finds a bride for Isaac: he comes to the well, and Rebekah comes just then and not only offers him water, but also offers to draw water for all of his camels as well. Abraham’s servant knows immediately that Rebekah is going to be Isaac’s wife. Also in Genesis, there is the story of Jacob, fleeing from the murderous rage of his brother Esau. He finally arrives in the land of his mother’s family and comes to a well just as the flocks are arriving to be watered. Upon seeing Rachel coming with her flocks of sheep, Jacob is so taken with her that he single-handedly removes the stone from the mouth of the well and draws water for her flocks. Finally, in the book of Exodus, we see Moses fleeing for his life from Egypt and, arriving at a well in the land of Midian, driving off some shepherds who were preventing Zipporah and her sisters from giving water to their flocks of sheep. And Moses eventually marries Zipporah. So a Jewish audience familiar with these stories is going to expect that Jesus sitting at a well is going to be the beginning of a love story for Jesus.

But this love story, while following the convention of the couple meeting at a well, is going to have some unexpected twists. Like the men in the Old Testament stories, Jesus comes as an outsider, a stranger, to the well. But the woman who comes to meet him is not the expected beautiful young maiden. Instead, she is a Samaritan, a member of a group of people that the Jewish people had a deep-rooted hatred for. And so, when Jesus asks her for a drink, instead of immediately showing hospitality and offering water for him and for his disciples, too, when they get back from town, she stands there, looks him up and down, and says, “Hold on there, buster. You’re Jewish and I’m Samaritan. And you want me to give you a drink of water?” The convention of the Jewish love story has been thwarted immediately, and we can almost see the original group who heard this story leaning in to see what will happen next.

What follows is a simply amazing conversation. This Samaritan woman knows her history and knows her faith pretty well, and she is able to hold her own in a conversation with the one who will reveal himself to be the long-expected Messiah. Now, we need to stop here a moment and look in some more detail at this unnamed Samaritan woman, because while we may not know a lot about her, what we do know helps us understand this new version of the Jewish love story. In the years before Christ, there were two Jewish kingdoms, the northern one known as Israel and the southern one known as Judah. In the year 722 BC(E), the Assyrian Empire swept in and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. This Empire carted off many of the people who were living there and repopulated the area with other nationalities. Mixed marriages happened, and so the Samaritans, while tracing their ancestry from Jacob, were not regarded as “pure” Israelites by those who called themselves Jews. Looking at the Samaritan woman, there is also the matter of her five husbands and the one she is living with not being her husband. Interpreters over the years have suggested that means that she is immoral, but that is not the case. Remember that women did not have much of a choice over who they were married to, and men died. Or, men divorced their wives for no good cause. And the man she was living with—well, it was up to him to marry her. She may have had shelter and protection from him, but for whatever reason, he wouldn’t marry her. I imagine this Samaritan woman as one who has lived a difficult life, and who does not respect a man simply because he is a man—he has to earn that respect from her.

But, back to this conversation that this tough woman has with Jesus. The Samaritan woman probably thinks Jesus is a little overcome from the noon heat when he starts talking about living water, but then, when he reveals that he knows about her marital history, her tone changes. She realizes he’s a prophet, so she challenges him on the question of where it is proper to worship. She thinks she’s going to trap Jesus and then be able to dismiss him: if he says it is proper to worship only in Jerusalem, she can say, “But our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, and we share some of those ancestors—were they wrong?” But if Jesus answers that it’s okay to worship God on the mountain, then she can say, “What kind of a Jewish prophet are you, anyway?” But then Jesus gives an answer that gets him out of the trap and keeps the woman interested in talking to him: true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. The place doesn’t matter.

This is enough to throw the woman for a loop, and she defers to the coming of the future Messiah, who will explain everything. And then comes the big reveal: Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah. The one that both the Samaritans and the Jews have been expecting and hoping for. The one who will set all things right. And so, she runs and brings back the rest of her people in the village to hear Jesus, so that they can discover that the Messiah has come. We don’t know all of the things that Jesus said that convinced the people of this Samaritan village. But here is one thing: the Messiah was expected to reunite all of the tribes of Israel, including the ten tribes who were “lost” when Assyria came in and conquered the northern kingdom. And here he is doing it: coming to the Samaritans, whom the Jewish people did not get along with. And so, perhaps this is a love story after all: Jesus coming and uniting himself, not only with his people, but also with those who were not expected to be part of the story. Jesus has come to the well as the bridegroom, and has claimed the Samaritans as a part of his bride.

Jesus loves us, too, as a bridegroom loves his bride. We are Gentiles—in other words, we are not Jewish. And yet, Jesus has come to love us, to make us his bride, to bring us into his family. We are the ones who no one expected to be included in to the Messiah’s family. And, like the Samaritan woman at the well, we often resist at first. We question Jesus and say, “Wait a minute. Why do you want anything to do with us?” And yet, Jesus keeps talking with us, wooing us, getting us to come a little bit closer to him. He reveals that he knows everything we have ever done. And then, we get nervous and start arguing with him: “But, Jesus, this church over here says that you said this, and this church over here says the complete opposite. What do you say?” And Jesus deflects our question with an answer that defies our either/or mindset, and he keeps us talking to him. Finally, he tells us that he is the Messiah, the one who we have been waiting for, the one who will love and protect us when the world does not, and he invites us to come and be joined with him forever.

Jesus invites us to be in relationship with him. But he doesn’t stop there. When the disciples come back from their errand in town, he says to them, “. . . look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” Jesus sends us out into the world to find those who are lost, those who society deems unlovable, those who we would never expect, and asks us to invite those people into relationship with him as well. As we look around at Powell and its surroundings, it may seem to us that everyone we know is Christian, belongs to a church, and has a relationship with Jesus already. But Jesus asks us to look into the places that we would not normally go—and there are those places even in this small town—and he asks us to speak to the people we do not know, and to invite them to come and know him. For Jesus comes to us not just as individuals, but as a community—just as the Samaritan woman told her community about Jesus, and they came to see and hear him and have a relationship with him as well.

Jesus loves us, and he crosses boundaries to find us and to bring us to be in relationship with him. He crossed the boundary between Judea and Samaria to find the Samaritan woman at the well, and through her, her entire village. And even before this, as John tells us in the first chapter of his gospel, Jesus crossed the boundary between heaven and earth to find us and to pitch his tent among us, so that we might come to know a little bit of how great his love for us truly is. This love story between Jesus and the world began not just at the well, but before time began, before the creation ever came to be. He invites us to come and see, and to taste of the living water that only he can provide. Let us drink deep of that living water, and invite others to come and drink with us. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 2A

Genesis 12:1-4a & John 3:1-17

I told this story in my December newsletter article, so the following will be a test to see how many of you actually read that article and remember it! My mother has, in recent years, taken up genealogy as a hobby, and several months ago, decided to do the DNA test available on to see what ethnicities her DNA would reveal in her. My father also took the DNA test. When their results came back, my father’s turned out pretty much like what we were expecting based on his family’s records: mainly Western and Eastern European, as well as British, with some small traces of other ethnicities. But my mother’s came back as a complete surprise. As far as we can trace her family records back, the only indication that we have is that she is German, with nothing else mixed in. But when her DNA results came back, she discovered that, along with Western European, her ethnicity is actually largely Scandinavian. She was in such disbelief that she thought they must have gotten her sample mixed up with someone else’s, and so she redid the test. Again, it came back Scandinavian. Then I did my DNA test, and, while I’m a good mix of both my father and mother’s DNA, the greatest percentage of my DNA, at 27%, is also Scandinavian. The only thing we can think of is that the Vikings, further back than any written records go, were simply everywhere in Europe and mixing in with the local populations. And it’s fascinating to think that I can claim some of that Viking heritage.

As I looked at today’s Scripture lessons, I realized that we Christians have a DNA, too, that goes back all the way to Abraham. And that DNA is one of faith. Paul writes in Romans that those who share the faith of Abraham are also descendants of Abraham, along with those who can trace their physical DNA back to Abraham. And, if we are descendants of Abraham, then we, too, are called to be a blessing to others, just as Abraham was blessed by God and called to be a blessing to others. And there is something interesting about this blessing: God tells Abram (as he is still called at this point in the story) that “all families of the earth shall be blessed” through him. There is no mention yet of children, much less the child that Abraham will father through Sarah or the child that Abraham will father through Hagar. God says “all families.” And when God says “all,” God means “all.”

And this ties in to our Gospel lesson today, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We all know this verse. Signs with “John 3:16” written on them get flashed up at sporting events of all types. But I would like to suggest that we human beings focus too much on the latter half of that statement rather than the former. We use John 3:16, and other verses of John, as a battering ram to get people to believe in Jesus by saying that they will not go to heaven unless they believe in Jesus. Or, as some Christians say, people will not go to heaven unless they believe in Jesus in the right way, which is their way, and they draw lines where Jesus has never drawn any. And I don’t think that this is what Jesus’ meaning was when he said this to Nicodemus.

What would happen if we took seriously the first part of this verse, “For God so loved the world”? The Greek word that gets translated as “world” here is kosmos. Kosmos means not just “world”, but it implies that the world that God created is beautiful and orderly. It encompasses the natural world and it encompasses every single human being, all interwoven together and intricately bound so that what affects one part of the creation affects another part of the creation. In other words, “all means all.” God loves every human being, every wolf, every blade of grass, every dog, every cat, every snake, every piece of creation—even mosquitoes and cockroaches. God loves it all. And what’s even more miraculous is that God loves each person and each part of creation with exactly the same unfathomable, deep love. We can’t begin to understand how wildly in love with the creation God really is. And the love that God has for the kosmos is so great that God sent the only Son, Jesus, to die a horrible death on the cross for us, so that we might have eternal life. We can’t even begin to understand that kind of love that sacrifices itself so that the beloved might live.

So, why do we draw lines? Why do we continue to try to define who has God’s love and who doesn’t? Well, I think that has to do with the words about believing in Jesus. I’ve read the following story before from Amy-Jill Levine’s book, The Misunderstood Jew, but I would like to read it again for you, because I think her words are more powerful than my summary of her words could be.

Levine writes, “After a long and happy life, I find myself at the pearly gates ( a sight of great joy; the word for “pearl” in Greek is, by the way, margarita). Standing there is St. Peter. This truly is heaven, for finally my academic questions will receive answers. I immediately begin the questions that have been plaguing me for half a century: ‘Can you speak Greek? Where did you go when you wandered off in the middle of Acts? How was the incident between you and Paul in Antioch resolved? What happened to your wife?’ Peter looks at me with some bemusement and states, ‘Look, lady, I’ve got a whole line of saved people to process. Pick up your harp and slippers here, and get the wings and halo at the next table. We’ll talk after dinner.’ As I float off, I hear, behind me, a man trying to gain Peter’s attention. He has located a ‘red letter Bible,’ which is a text in which the words of Jesus are printed in red letters. This is heaven, and all sorts of sacred art and Scriptures, from the Bhagavad Gita to the Qur’an, are easily available (missing, however, was the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version). The fellow has his Bible open to John 14, and he is frenetically pointing at v. 6: ‘Jesus says here, in red letters, that he is the way. I’ve seen this woman on television . . . She’s not Christian; she’s not baptized–she shouldn’t be here!’ ‘Oy,’ says Peter, ‘another one–wait here.’ He returns a few moments later with a man about five foot three with dark hair and eyes. I notice immediately that he has holes in his wrists, for when the empire executes an individual, the circumstances of that death cannot be forgotten. ‘What is it, my son?’ he asks. The man, obviously nonplussed, sputters, ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but didn’t you say that no one comes to the Father except through you?’ ‘Well,’ responds Jesus, ‘John does have me saying this.’ . . . ‘But if you flip back to the Gospel of Matthew, which does come first in the canon, you’ll notice in chapter 25, at the judgment of the sheep and the goats, that I am not interested in those who say, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but in those who do their best to live a righteous life: feeding the hungry, visiting people in prison. . .’ Becoming almost apoplectic, the man interrupts, ‘But, but, that’s works righteousness. You’re saying she’s earned her way into heaven?’ ‘No,’ replies Jesus, ‘I am not saying that at all. I am saying that I am the way, not you, not your church, not your reading of John’s Gospel, and not the claim of any individual Christian or any particular congregation. I am making the determination, and it is by my grace that anyone gets in, including you. Do you want to argue?’ The last thing I recall seeing, before picking up my heavenly accessories, is Jesus handing the poor man a Kleenex to help get the log out of his eye.” (Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, 92-93).

The conclusion that I draw from her story is that we don’t get to decide who is in and who is out. As followers of someone who gave his life so that we, and the rest of the world, might have eternal life, we are called to follow Jesus’ example and to love the world so much that we, too, give ourselves away for this wonderful, beautiful kosmos.

So, how do we do that? Well, we might begin by looking at our ancestor in faith, Abraham. God promised that he would bless Abraham so that he would be a blessing, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him. As an aside, the next part of the verse, that we don’t have in today’s reading, says that Abraham was 75 years old when God called him. I think we have several people in our congregation who are around that age. Never think, when God calls you, that you are too old! But, just like Abraham, God calls us, and God blesses us, so that we may be a blessing to everyone in this world. And all means all. We are not called to determine who is in and who is out. We are called to love everyone, regardless of ethnicity, religion, age, gender, or any other dividing line that we sinful human beings can think to use to put a wall up between “us” and “them”.

Now, here’s the thing about love. The word “love” in English has the connotation of a feeling, a warm fuzzy feeling that we have in our heart. That’s not the connotation that the word “love” has in the Greek. Love is not a feeling; it is an active verb. It’s putting our money where our mouth is, like Jesus did by dying on the cross. We may not be called to die on a cross for someone else, but we may be called to clean up and repair a Jewish cemetery that has been vandalized by neo-Nazis. We may not be called to physically die for someone else, but we may be called to rethink a strongly held belief in the face of someone else’s story, so that they may be able to better live their life as God has called them to live. It is in ways like these, and other countless ways that God can work through us so that we can be a blessing to those around us.

We are descendants of Abraham, whom God first called to be a blessing to the world. We are also followers of Jesus, whom God sent to die for us because he loved the world so much, that he wanted us all to have eternal life. I would like to conclude this sermon by showing a video of people discovering their DNA results, and how what they discovered about themselves began to change both their view of themselves and of the people around them. Yes, the main goal of this video is to advertise for their product. But there’s also a message about who we are as human beings, so I think it’s appropriate to take a look at it today.


So, you see, there is no us vs. them. There is only us. Despite our differences, we are one people, all children of God. For God so loved the kosmos. And all means all. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 1A

Matthew 4:1-11

The process for someone to be ordained as a pastor in the ELCA is a lengthy and involved one. There is acceptance into candidacy by the candidacy committee of the synod, which involves an essay and an interview. Then there is seminary training. Then, before the person can go on internship, there is another essay which must be written and another interview with members of the candidacy committee, which results in endorsement. Then, after the internship, another lengthy essay must be written for the final approval interview with the candidacy committee. All of these essays and interviews go on simultaneously with the master’s degree level classwork that the person works on at seminary. Needless to say, it can be very stressful.

I’d like to tell the story of my final approval interview. It happened in December, a couple of weeks before Christmas, and it involved an approximately 4-hour trip from Gettysburg, PA, to Richmond, VA, on Interstate 95. If anyone here has ever driven I-95 in that area of the country before, then you know this is not something that anyone ever wants to do. Try five lanes of traffic, and, if there are no jams, then cars are speeding past you even while you’re already driving 10 miles over the speed limit. So add the stress of driving on I-95 to the stress of preparing for the approval interview, and I was pretty tense when I arrived at the place in Richmond where the interviews were to be held. And even the presence of a pastor who was designated as a chaplain couldn’t calm the butterflies in my stomach.

The time arrived and I was called in, where I went through a rigorous questioning of my time on internship, what I had learned, how God was calling me, and some other things. Now let me say that none of the questions the committee asked were unreasonable, and they were not being hostile towards me. When candidacy committees interview candidates for pastoral ministry, they generally ask these good and probing questions because they want to make sure we are prepared for ministry and that the ELCA is getting qualified candidates who have truly been called to ordained ministry. But after this rigorous interview and a tense waiting period, I was called back in to hear the announcement that they had approved me. I don’t remember much after that except literally trembling with relief and somehow making my way over to the local Olive Garden, where I was meeting my parents for dinner. They had made the 2-hour drive down from the Charlottesville area to meet me and to hear the news. I walked in to where they were sitting, collapsed in the chair, and announced, “I need a drink.”

Why am I telling this story? Because today’s Gospel lesson about Jesus in the wilderness has often been called “the temptation of Jesus” when the Greek word is actually closer to “testing”. And there’s a difference between temptation and testing. This story is not like us being tempted to eat chocolate when we’ve given up chocolate for Lent. This story is more like us when we undergo testing, such as pastors who go through a process leading up to approval for ordination, or lawyers who have to take bar exams before they can be licensed to practice, or doctors going through medical boards. This story of Jesus in the wilderness is a story of testing to see if he will truly act as the Son of God should act.

So, let’s back up for a moment. Since our lectionary skips around quite a bit, we might be a bit confused as to what has led up to this moment in Jesus’ life. Matthew has started us out with Jesus’ genealogy, the story of Jesus’ birth, the visit of the wise men, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, Herod’s massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem, the return of Jesus and his family to Nazareth, and then, skipping straight over Jesus’ growing-up years, Matthew goes to the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. At his baptism, Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove, and heard a voice from heaven proclaiming that he was God’s beloved Son, with whom God was well pleased. It is immediately after that that Jesus was led by the Spirit to go into the wilderness. I’m thinking that, after an announcement from God at his baptism that Jesus was God’s Son, Jesus needed some time by himself to discern what it actually meant to be the Son of God. And at the end of those forty days and forty nights, this is where the devil found Jesus. The devil knew that Jesus was physically weak from not eating, and most likely to fail the test on what exactly it means to be the Son of God.

So, let’s look at the three test questions that Jesus has to answer. The first question is this: “If (or since) you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” In other words, “Hey, Jesus, as the Son of God you have all of these fantastic powers. Why are you denying yourself? Snap your fingers, turn these stones into loaves of bread, and stuff your face.” Jesus was hungry enough that this was a really hard question to answer. But perhaps he thought back to today’s Old Testament story, where Eve desires to be like God and reaches out for the fruit of the tree. There is nothing inherently wrong with knowing the difference between good and evil; rather, her test was one of whether or not she would have control over her appetites and her desires. She failed her test. Jesus, on the other hand, reached deep down into the training in the Word of God that he had received, and found there the knowledge that even though he had the power to satisfy his appetite with the snap of a finger, God desired him to have control over his appetite. And so, even though he was famished, he remembered his Scripture and said, “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” First test: passed.

From the test of changing stones into bread, the devil says, “Okay, good, so Jesus knows his Scriptures. I’ll quote some Scripture to him out of context and see what he does.” So the devil says, “All right, Jesus, next test. You trust in God and his Word so much? Throw yourself down off of this high spot. Surely, if (or since) you’re God’s Son, God will send angels to rescue you. It even says God will do this in the Psalms.” Picture this test as people today who don’t take their child to a doctor for a broken bone because they trust in God alone to heal the child. The broken bone may heal, but it’s a good bet that it won’t heal straight and that child will limp for the rest of her life. But with Jesus, it’s a little bit more than that, because we assume that, even if no angels came to rescue him, Jesus would be able to rescue himself. The question that Jesus must answer is, will he be subject to the laws of nature, as the rest of humanity is? What would it mean if the laws of nature had no meaning for him? Would he then not be subject to moral laws, either? And what would it mean for those who choose to follow him? Thankfully, Jesus again reaches into his training in Scripture and says, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” He chooses obedience to God instead of unlimited power over the laws of nature. Second test: passed.

But the devil has one more test to give Jesus, the test that will be the hardest of all to pass. He tells Jesus that he will give him all of the kingdoms in the world, and all their splendor, if Jesus will bow down and worship the devil. Matthew doesn’t tell us if Jesus stopped to think about this one. But what if he did? Imagine, Jesus: all the kingdoms of the world. Unlimited power. You could feed everyone. No one would ever be slaughtered again, as your family was in Bethlehem after you and your parents fled. Everyone would come to you and love you, and you wouldn’t have to go to the cross and die. Wouldn’t ordering the world the way it should be run be worth the price of bowing down and worshiping the devil? But Jesus says no. Perhaps he realizes that a benevolent dictatorship is still a dictatorship. And again, he falls back on his training and remembers that Scripture that says, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” And God’s way does not mean grasping power and claiming to be on the same level as God. It means humbling oneself and serving one another. Jesus has passed the third and final test, and he is deemed worthy of the title, Son of God.

We have many tests in our lives, too, to see if we are worthy of carrying the titles given to us in our human vocations. But does God send us tests to see if we are worthy of the name, “children of God”? That’s a difficult question to answer, I think, because although Scripture is full of stories of people who face tests from God, like Job, or like Abraham when he was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, we also have at least one Scripture text which says, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’.” And so, I am not going to speak to any individual situation that you may encounter. But I would suggest that there are times in life when God may be testing us. Are we going to choose self-fulfillment, power, and a desire to make ourselves gods? Or are we going to choose love for others, humble service, and the way of the cross?

It’s a little frightening to think about God testing us. Like any test, we would worry about whether or not we would pass it. But here is the good news: Jesus has already passed the tests for us. He has gone to the cross for us, and because of this, every time that we have failed the test has been forgiven. And we can know that Jesus walks with us in every situation, and that he is always urging us to follow the way of the cross as he did. And the way of the cross is not the way of self-fulfillment, ultimate power, and a desire to be God. Rather, it is the way of emptying oneself, serving one another, and walking in the way that God would have us walk. We are not going to pass every test sent us in life. But when we fail, we know that Jesus is with us to forgive us, to pick us up, and to urge us to keep on going. As we continue our walk through Lent, let us never forget that Jesus is always by our side. Amen.