Still Speaking

A sermon for Pentecost Sunday. From Numbers to Acts and beyond, God is still speaking!

Numbers 11:24-30

 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

 

Good morning, church! I’ve come to you today with a simple message. There will be no complicated theological acrobatics here, no bending over backwards to understand this text or the meaning of this holy day we celebrate, which is called Pentecost. No, today I bring to you a simple message, and the message is twofold, and the message is this: 1) God is still speaking! and 2) Our God is able to use anyone or anything to speak. Did you know this? That the God of all the universe, Creator of all that is and was and ever shall be is able to use anyone or anything to bring a word to us? Or do you know it up here (in your head) but not quite in here (in your heart)? Does this knowledge bear itself out in practice when you meet people you find weird, or strange, or those who don’t fit the “type” of one who should bring the Word of God.

 

God is still speaking! Even now, even in this day and age, God is not done speaking! Did you know this? That the Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, exalted through the ages, did not shut up after the last word was penned in the book of Revelation? Have you understood that the prophetic voice is alive and well, in people like Dorothy Day, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and more recently, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, author Glennon Doyle Melton – who will be coming to speak in August – and countless others both well-known and forgotten who on a daily basis provide a mouthpiece for the Spirit of God to cry out to a broken world.

 

And let me tell you the truth of our text today, the story we just heard from Numbers 11 – the Spirit of God can rest on anyone! At any time, and in any place! It cannot be controlled, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying. They tried to control the Spirit of God by gathering all the elders in the tent and limiting their prophetic powers to that one time and place. They tried to control the Spirit of God by shunning and ridiculing the prophets who were less-well-known, who were not already a part of the established elite prophetic class. They tried to control the Spirit of God by crucifying the Lord, Jesus Christ! They tried to control the Spirit of God by restricting access to the Scriptures and setting up Indulgences! They tried to control the Spirit of God by refusing to allow enslaved African Americans to gather for their own worship! They tried to control the Spirit of God by rounding up all the dissenting voices and sending them to the prison cells, the gallows, the firing squads, the gas chambers! Even now, they try to control the Spirit of God through legislation, incarceration, and separation! But Brothers and Sisters, the Spirit of God cannot and will not be controlled! It cannot and will not be silenced! Because it found its way to Eldad and Medad, who were not in the tent, but in the camp, and they brought God’s Word to all the people. Because Amos and the rest of the “unconventional” prophets continued to prophesy and to testify, and that testimony was recorded for all future generations to hear. Because Jesus rose from the grave three days later! Because Martin Luther and John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli and all of the other Reformers stood up and said, “No more!” Because men, women, and children caught in the cruel and unforgiving jaws of American slavery continued to meet and worship in hush harbors anyway! Because they can beat, enslave, lock up, and kill anyone they want, but they cannot silence the Spirit of God! The Spirit of God knows no laws; the Spirit of God knows no prison; the Spirit of God does not understand deportation, because the Spirit of God is everywhere, and you cannot kick it out!

 

God is still speaking! But make no mistake, God does not always say the same old thing. There are timeless truths, to be sure, but there are times when a new truth must come forward, when there must be a correction to the old way of thinking. This, believe it or not, is also biblical! If you read the text closely enough, you will discover that 1) God changes God’s mind; that 2) people’s understanding of God changes through the ages; and 3) that what is once considered unholy, unacceptable, and unclean behavior can be understood as being perfectly holy, acceptable, and clean at a later point in time. I can think of no better example than the story of Peter’s vision, which comes from Acts 10:9-16, and if you have your Bibles on hand you can look it up and read along. It says: “About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.” What God has made clean, you must not call profane! Oh how this word continues to be spoken even into our own time! The voices of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, of our brothers and sisters of color, even now cry out, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane!” Recall that Peter was one of those present on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit descended like tongues of fire onto all of the apostles, and they began to speak in many different languages so that all could understand them. And after they had all been accused of being drunk, Peter is the one who stands up and proclaims to all of the people gathered there the new thing that God has done in Jesus Christ. Peter has received the Spirit and, as a lowly fisherman, is now fully qualified to speak on behalf of God. Peter, who later comes down from the roof and tells everyone, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane!”, is one of many agents through whom God is still speaking!

 

And I will grant you, O people of God, that listening for the voice of the Spirit is difficult work. It is much more difficult than just reading the Bible and doing what it says. It is much more difficult than listening to your pastor get up every Sunday and tell you where to go, what to do, and what to believe. It is difficult to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church, because so often what the Spirit is saying, we do not want to hear. Because we have already processed and accepted what God has already told us, and it is so ingrained in us that to hear the new thing that God is speaking to us now is too much. Much like Peter, we are inclined to cry out, “By no means, Lord! I would never!” Or perhaps we mistake the agent of the Spirit as the agent of a demon. We call them a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We remain content with having missed out on what God was saying to us in that moment, because we were so focused on protecting the old words that had been spoken to us. We forget the truth – that God can use anyone or anything to speak!

 

Did you know this? That God can use even an ass to speak! The story comes to us not a little later on in the book of Numbers, when the Israelites have come to camp in the plains of Moab. The Moabite King, Balak, is frightened, and summons the diviner Balaam to put a curse on the Israelites. Balaam is hesitant because God does not want him to curse the Israelites, but ends up going with King Balak’s messengers after a few days. On his way, an angel comes and stands in the roadway. Balaam cannot see the angel, but his donkey can! Three times his donkey strays from the path or refuses to move forward, and three times Balaam strikes his donkey in anger. And then, it says, “The Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?… Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?”… Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face.”

 

God can use anyone or anything to speak! God can use a donkey. God can use those who are not in the tent, but in the camp. God can use a rag-tag group of fishermen and sinners, ruffians and rabble-rousers, whose only qualifications were that they hung around that Jesus guy for a few years. God can use the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the prisoners, the estranged, the “impure”. God can use the people we like and the people we don’t like – God doesn’t discriminate when it comes to choosing mouthpieces! And so if you think that someone’s position in life, someone’s social standing or lack thereof, makes what they have to say any more or less important, and you allow that to dictate who you listen to, and who you write off as not worth your time, then I promise you that you will miss out on something very important that God wants to tell you.

 

I once knew a man named James Michael Harris back when I was living in St. Louis. James was homeless, black, in his 50s. He was also a veteran; he had congestive heart failure, so it was difficult for him to get around. He didn’t speak very well, and he didn’t always smell that great, either. But in the one year that I knew him, James taught me more about being a Christian than I had learned my entire life before meeting him. James had the kind of faith you only dream about. He slept on the bench at the bus stop, rain or shine – even in the fiercest of storms. He told me how, one time, a particularly frightful storm woke him in the middle of the night, and he stood up and shouted at the sky, “My God is bigger than you!” I once saw him give the only dollar he had in his cup to one of his friends, because he knew that he needed it more, and that generosity multiplies; it does not diminish. He almost always had a smile on his face when I saw him, and on Sunday mornings he was the loudest singing voice in church. And I knew it even at the time, but more and more I am convinced that the Spirit of God had come to rest on his shoulders, and he had something so very important to teach me about faith; about friendship; about kindness, and love, and grace.

 

And so, you see, church, God is still speaking! The Spirit is alive and well; it has not dispersed, and it has not been contained, bound between the mere 2000 pages of a book. God’s voice is much, much bigger than that! As the Gospel-writer tells us, if all of it were written down, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. So take heart, people of God! The story isn’t over; the Spirit marches on; and even now, God continues to raise up new prophets to bring a healing Word to a broken world!

 

Where is God speaking in your life? God’s Spirit, indeed, is all around us. Have you felt it? Have you heard its whisper? That still, small voice resonating in the deep chasms of your mind. What is it telling you? What is it saying? And when, O disciples of Christ, will you share it with the rest of the world? Amen.

The Gardener

How often do we take a look at the evidence for resurrection in Creation all around us? What dead things in our lives do we need to let go of, and where can we look for the hope of resurrection? The body is gone, but death has not won! He is risen! Resurrection is at hand, whether we know it or not. Death will never have the last word over our lives. John 20:1-18:

 

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

“They have taken him out of the tomb! And we do not know where they have laid him.” This is the cry of one who does not know that resurrection is at hand. It is Mary’s first reaction – and why not? It’s logical, isn’t it? If you go to the cemetery one day and Uncle Jerry’s grave has been dug out, his coffin opened, and his body missing, you wouldn’t suddenly be like, “Oh, great, he’s been resurrected! Hallelujah!” No, more likely you’d be thinking, “Man… I knew we shouldn’t have buried him with that Rolex!” Of course, clearly, if the dead body is not where you left it, somebody must have moved it! Dead bodies don’t just get up and move themselves. So Mary goes running back to the disciples, to all of Jesus’ friends, and she tells them that someone has taken Jesus’ body. And, of course, being men, they have to go and see for themselves.

 

So Peter and “the other disciple” set off toward the tomb. Now, much has been made about this race between Peter and “the other disciple”. You know, the other disciple gets there first, but Peter goes inside the tomb first, but the other disciple “believes” – let me tell you, it doesn’t really matter all that much. What matters is what they find in the tomb. And what they find are Jesus’ grave clothes, just lying there. The head linen neatly rolled up and placed off to the side by itself. Imagine if you came to Uncle Jerry’s opened grave and saw all of his clothes neatly folded up inside the coffin – including the coveted Rolex. All of the sudden, we know something else has happened here. What kind of grave robbers take the time to undress a body? Now, knowing what happened to Jesus, you might get a bit suspicious – is Uncle Jerry running around somewhere alive and well? And naked?

 

But seriously, the clothes are an important clue to what is going on here. Remember a few weeks ago when we heard the story of Lazarus? He came out of the tomb at Jesus’ command – still wrapped in grave clothes. He came out of the tomb still dead, and needed someone to unwrap him in order to come back to life. But Jesus is already unwrapped; the clothes are lying on the floor – this is no mere theft. This is no revival. What has actually happened here?

 

The disciples aren’t sure. They go on home, confident that Mary was telling the truth – the body, indeed, is gone. “The other disciple” is said to have “believed”, but we aren’t entirely sure what that means. He does not necessarily believe that Jesus has been resurrected – “belief” in John has more to do with truly seeing Jesus as the source of everlasting life and as the point of connection with the Father, and less to do with simple statements of faith (Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried – the third day he rose from the grave). At this point, all we can really be sure of is that Jesus has left death behind. His body has disappeared. He is no longer dead.

 

Mary stays. Of course she stays. She stays and she weeps. Her Lord, her friend – is gone. She is devastated. How could he be gone? Just like that – gone. So many of us know that pain. It is so unbearable for Mary that, even when she looks into the tomb and sees the two angels sitting there where Jesus had been, one at his head and the other at his feet, ascending and descending on the Son of Man as Jesus himself had predicted earlier in the Gospel of John as a sign of his glory revealed, her mind is still on one thing. “They have taken him… I don’t know where he is…” She does not recognize the significance of the angels. She doesn’t see the signs. Mary is so pre-occupied, in fact, with finding the old Jesus, with hanging on to the old, the way things used to be, that she doesn’t even recognize the resurrected Christ when she sees him. She supposes him to be the gardener.

 

The gardener. How perfect! How apt a title for the God of resurrection! You know, my wife and I are in our first house, which we bought back in June. We’ve lived in apartments our entire adult lives up until now, and we never really took the time to pay attention to the day-by-day advance of Spring. At least, I never did. I know what happens – I learned about the seasons in Kindergarten. My grandmother had a garden; my parents have a garden. But for some reason, I never watched too closely, until now. We have these bushes – I don’t even know what they’re called; I am not a savvy gardener – out in our front yard that were kind of ugly looking when we first moved in in June. They had passed their bloom, I suppose, and so the flowers looked kind of rotten. Slowly, they died, over the course of the Fall and into the Winter. And I thought they would just kind of disintegrate, I guess – the dead flower stalks. Or else, come Spring, they would take on new life. I thought that’s what would happen. But it didn’t. They just stayed there throughout the Winter and into the Spring, and I had these dead flowers out in my front yard. And I still would, if I hadn’t decided to cut them back. What I didn’t realize was that the dead flowers were dead for good. They weren’t coming back. I could get rid of them, but those particular flowers – the old flowers from last Spring – they were gone. Lost to the ravages of time. Instead, about six weeks ago or so, I saw new shoots springing forth from the base of the bush. New buds appearing, bright green and full of life. And I knew that they, too, would soon become beautiful flowers. New flowers, different from the old ones but just as bright and beautiful. Perhaps, with proper care, even more so.

 

Now, I know what I am describing is an everyday (or rather, every-year) occurrence, and I’m sure it is old news to everybody. We all know that many plants “die” in the winter and “come back to life” in the Spring. As a matter of fact, I’m starting to learn the difference between “annual” and “perennial” plants. But armed with this knowledge, and having accepted it for the way things are for so many years, I wonder how many of us ever take the time to truly marvel at how wondrous and magnificent and beautiful this Creation really is. That resurrection is not just something that happened 2000 years ago to a poor, unorthodox, Palestinian Jew, but rather something that takes place all the time, if only we have the eyes to see it. It is an old life dying, and the corpse being cut back or removed in order to allow the new life to spring forth.

 

So many of us, like Mary, have not yet comprehended this. We are still desperately seeking for the old Jesus, the old relationship, the old career, the old self that we once were when we were happy, before life happened, and we began to die. And as I said two weeks ago, sometimes God calls us back to life – sometimes, what we need is a revival! Sometimes, the bones can live again – but! If there are no bones left to be found; if the body is gone and we do not know where it is; if the dead thing in our lives is completely dead, or it needs to stay dead; if there is no hope of getting it back, of things returning to the way they once were – then it is time to stop looking. It is time to look forward instead of backward, and to discover a new hope – the hope that comes with resurrection.

 

Sometimes, in the midst of our brokenness, in the midst of death and destruction – after all, Good Friday was only two days ago – it can be difficult to see the path of resurrection. There will be a time of transition. There will be a Holy Saturday, where Jesus is still dead, and he is not coming back. There will be a moment at the tomb, when we learn that the body is gone for good, and all we can do is break down crying and ask “where did it go?” And that time is necessary. And it is unavoidable. But – it. is. temporary. Because we will meet the Gardener. And the Gardener will see to it that we find our resurrection story.

 

Once again, Mary is asked why she is crying, and once again she asks where the body is. She still does not recognize Jesus, because remember, she is looking for the old Jesus – the Jesus that died and is no more. She is encountering the resurrected Jesus, and it is only when he calls her by name that she is able to recognize him! Only when she is truly known is she able to see the resurrection and the life available to her.

 

Have you seen the Gardener? Have you seen the evidence of resurrection? Have you experienced it? We are all at different points in our life. Some of us are still in Good Friday, watching our lives fall apart before our eyes. Some of us exist in Holy Saturday, having experienced such death and destruction, such personal disruption, that we are unable to see the way forward. And some of us know the joy of Easter Sunday! Of turning to find the resurrected Jesus; of being called by name and knowing that even though things will never be the same, it will all be ok because death, in the end, has been conquered! But no matter where we are on our personal journeys, today is a reminder. It is a reminder that we are Easter people! And we believe in the power of resurrection not just because we see it in the budding of the bushes and the trees and in everyday life all around us, but specifically because we have been witnesses to the Gardener, the resurrected Jesus, who knows us and calls us by name! We have seen that death does not ever have the last word, whether we are revived like Lazarus or given new life in the resurrected Jesus! And, like Mary, we have been commanded to go forth and tell all the people this incredibly good news. Amen.

Can These Bones Live?

Apologies for getting this up late – I had the humbling opportunity to preach once again this past Sunday at First Community Church, and as luck would have it, the lectionary text was the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (I love preaching stories!). So, with much thanks to my excellent Gospel of John professor, Dr. Gail O’Day, here follows the text (John 11:1-44) and the sermon:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

 

Would you believe me if I told you I actually cut the text down from what was in the lectionary for this week? By one verse… Just be thankful I didn’t read it to you from the King James version *shudders*. Although, I was told in our worship review meeting this past week, that our Senior Minister, Glen Miles, actually likes the King James version, because when Jesus tells the people to open the tomb, Martha protests, in the King James translation, “But, Lord, he stinketh!” Hopefully you don’t say the same thing after I’m done preaching!

 

So Jesus’ ministry is coming to a close, and he knows it. He has been to Jerusalem and was not well-received, and now the disciples are (rightly) worried that if he goes back there, he will most certainly face death. But he’s got this buddy, Lazarus, and Lazarus is really, really sick. Now, back then, you couldn’t just call someone up and let them know that so-and-so is sick. You had to send for them. And you couldn’t just hop on a plane and fly to go see so-and-so in the hospital. You had to walk, and it was a long journey to Bethany. So, first, you know it has to be serious for Mary and Martha to send for Jesus – they know that Lazarus’ days are numbered, and they clearly believe that Jesus is their last hope for saving him. Jesus, however, decides to wait two days before leaving. In fact, he waits until Lazarus dies before setting out for Bethany.

 

Now this is really odd; the Greek actually says, “Jesus loved Mary and Martha, therefore he stayed there two more days.” How does that make sense? He loved them, so he waited to leave until Lazarus had already died. Well it doesn’t make sense to us, but it certainly made sense to Jesus. He knows what we will only learn later in the story – that God’s power for life is greater than the sting of death.

 

So Jesus waits, and he actually waits the exact right amount of time. You see, at that time in Jewish thought it was believed that the soul hangs around the body for 3 days, but after the third day, the soul leaves the body for good. So we are told that Jesus gets there after Lazarus has been dead for 4 days for a reason. Lazarus isn’t just kind of dead; unlike Wesley from “The Princess Bride”, he isn’t mostly dead – he’s all dead! And with all dead there’s only one thing you can do – go through his pockets and look for loose change.

 

Well, Martha is understandably upset. Jesus came too late. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This isn’t just some casual remark – this is a serious complaint. This is an accusation! Martha is kind of ticked at Jesus – she went through all the trouble of sending for him, because she believed he was Lazarus’ only hope, and he didn’t deliver! He waited around, took his sweet time, and he was too late! You know, this isn’t something we do enough of – complain to God. It’s perfectly acceptable and biblical – very much rooted in the Jewish tradition of lament. Instead we tend to see God as being above reproach, beyond criticism, which makes sense, it does, but there are plenty of good, righteous people in the Bible who clearly don’t see God that way. You know, Moses, David, Job, etc. Martha is just being a good person of faith. And notice that her faith does not waiver, even in the midst of her complaint. “Yet even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask”, she says. So, look, Jesus! Look, God! Look at this pain that You have caused me – the pain that You could have prevented. How could You? How dare You? I trusted You, and this is what I get? And yet, You are God. And I know that through You anything is possible.

 

Now that is a real prayer. How could You? Why have You forsaken me? Where were You? And yet, You are God, and You are here now; You found me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. There’s a popular song by American rock band The Fray called “You Found Me” that I think perfectly captures this style of prayer: the chorus goes “Lost and insecure, You found me, You found me/Lying on the floor, surrounded, surrounded/Why’d You have to wait? Where were You, where were You?/Just a little late, You found me, You found me”. So many, I’m sure, don’t see it as a particularly Orthodox song, certainly not a Christian song; some may even see it as blasphemous (it starts out with “I found God…smoking his last cigarette”). But as for me, I see it as no less than authentic prayer. It is sometimes the only prayer we have to pray. “Where were You, God? You were too late…”

 

But of course, as we know, Jesus is not too late. He is right on time. In her pain and in her despair, Martha simply could not see it, yet. It is often only in retrospect that we are able to see God’s timeliness. It’s not that every tragic event in our life can be attributed to some greater “plan” that God has – that’s not what I’m saying. It’s just that often, the power of death is so strong that we are unable to see or understand the power of life that lies ahead.

 

This is the place the nation of Israel finds itself in the other lectionary text that I didn’t read this morning – a passage from Ezekiel, which was written at the time that the Israelites were exiles in Babylon. Everything they once knew – their way of life, their nation, their culture – was dead, seemingly lost forever. And so God takes the prophet Ezekiel out to an old battlefield and gives him this vision of old, dry bones scattered across the field. And God says, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel replies, “Lord, only You know.”

 

Will Israel ever return to the place where it once was? Will it ever be a nation again? Will Lazarus ever rise again from his eternal slumber? Will the Church once again find its place – its relevance – in the world? Will I ever get out of this addiction? Will I ever find another job? Can my marriage spring back to life again? Will I ever overcome this sickness? Can I ever begin to trust, to heal, to believe again? Can these bones live?

 

Lord, only You know.

 

Sometimes the answer is yes. Death is never the final word; sometimes, just as in Ezekiel’s vision, the bones spring back to life, take shape, and muscle and tissue and sinew all begin to form once again. Sometimes, Lazarus walks out of the grave. Because God’s power for life is greater than the sting of death, sometimes, we are revived; and even if we are not revived – even if we are not brought back from death – there is still a way forward. There is still resurrection. But that’s a sermon for Sunday after next.

 

Today, Lazarus walks out of the grave. Today, Jesus steps up to the tomb, and orders the stone rolled away. And Martha cries, “But Lord, he stinketh!” Today, Jesus hears the complaint of Mary and Martha, hears their pain and their grief, the anguish of their souls, and he weeps.

 

How many of us have ever lost a loved one? How many of us know that pain? Life is not all roses and butterflies – we know that. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian; it doesn’t matter if you believe in God or in Jesus. These things will not save you from the pain of life. Life happens. Things happen. And rationalizing that pain by saying it’s all part of God’s plan, or that God needed another angel – well, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors. And as we learn in the book of Job, we aren’t really speaking of God what is right. Death, and pain, and grief, are all very real parts of the human experience; they cannot be glossed over. Jesus understands this. He steps up to the grave and he begins to weep.

 

And he’s not weeping because he is sad that Lazarus died – he knows what he is about to do. Lazarus is not lost to the grip of death forever, because Lazarus is about to be raised. Because God’s power for life reigns supreme in this world, and Jesus knows it. But just as real as that power for life, just as strong, is the grief and pain that Mary and Martha have felt over the loss of their brother. It is the same pain that all of us must experience at one time or another, when someone we love is lost to us, and we cannot get them back. It is for this that Jesus weeps.

 

You see, we don’t have a God who just says, “Get over it!” We don’t have a God who says, “Didn’t you know that I am the resurrection and the life, and that you should be happy, you should rejoice, because your loved one is in a better place! Because your loved one may be physically dead, but he or she is alive, eternally, with me!” No, we have a God who comes to the grave, who witnesses our pain, our grief, and who weeps. We do not have God who stands at the top of the hole we are in and tells us why we shouldn’t be in that hole. We have a God who will climb down in the hole with us, and sit with us, and cry with us, and when we are ready, help us figure out a way to get out!

 

Our God is willing to show us that death does not get the last word. Death will not reign supreme over our lives, because God’s power for life will always be stronger. Jesus calls, and Lazarus, still bound, steps out into the light of day. Have you heard the call? The call to walk from death to life? Do you know who it is that has that power, in the end? Do you know who causes us to live when we are dead?

 

You see, Lazarus is still dead when he walks out of the tomb. He does not speak. He is still bound in cloth. He is still as one who is dead and buried. God’s power for life is stronger than death, but it is worthless if we do not act on it. Dead relationships will never come back to life if we do not put in the work. Dead careers will never start again if we do not put ourselves in the position to start them. Dead and dying churches will continue in death if we do not discern God’s call to life and act on it. The dead nation of Israel would never have been re-built if the Israelites had remained content in exile. Lazarus will remain dead if someone does not take the time to unwrap him.

 

I believe this story has powerful implications for all of us; in the way we approach God in prayer, the ways in which we allow each other to grieve, how to be present in the midst of pain and loss… But, mostly, for those of us who feel like we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death; for those of us who have been overpowered by death’s sting; for those of us languishing in the field of dry bones, asking if they can ever live again – this story offers a word of hope, a testimony to the power of life in the face of death. It is the Word of God calling us to unwrap the grave clothes, and live. Amen.

Where Jesus Stays

Here is the sermon I preached this past Sunday on John 1:35-42. It is about the need for us, as Christians to not only seek out those places in our world where Jesus dwells, but to lead others to those places as well. The text and sermon follows:

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Have you ever had that person that everyone has told you, “Oh, you just gotta meet ‘em!”? Like, stories abound – legends, really – and they keep saying things like, “Oh, you would just love Frank, he’s super down-to-earth and witty; you two would get along so great!” And you smile and nod because you’re not really into meeting new people and it sounds like kind of a lot, but then more than one person comes up to you and says, “Have you met Frank, yet?” and you just kind of say, “No, but I hear great things…” And they keep on piling on and building this person up in your mind until you’re pretty sure that this is some kind of super-human, God-like being, and you’re like, “hey, you know what? I should really meet Frank…”

 

Maybe you haven’t had somebody in your immediate life like that, but certainly we all have people we would love to meet if we could, don’t we? Like, we’ve heard really good things about some celebrity, like Tom Hanks – who wouldn’t love to hang out with Tom Hanks? Or maybe we’ve read about a historical figure, and thought, “man, I would’ve really loved to kick back with Ben Franklin – I mean, what a guy, right?!” At the very least, having heard and read all about this Jesus fellow – probably most of us for our entire lives – who here can honestly say they wouldn’t absolutely relish the opportunity to meet Jesus? I hear he’s, like, really nice in person.

 

So, maybe you can imagine the joy and excitement and anticipation when these two disciples of John – and John, by the way, is the guy who has been talking up Jesus this whole time. He’s the “man, you really need to meet Frank!” guy, except instead of Frank it’s Jesus. In fact, John’s whole purpose in life, so we read, is to point the way to Jesus. He has spent his entire ministry preparing his followers to follow someone else. And so these two people, who have been following John this whole time and hearing about Jesus – and they are ACTUALLY being told that Jesus is the Messiah, by the way, so I’m really not sure how much more of a pedestal you could put someone on – all of the sudden, they’re out and about one day, and John stops and points and says, “Oh, hey, there he is!”

 

I mean, it doesn’t get more exciting than that! If, all of the sudden, someone tapped you on the shoulder and said, “hey, look, it’s Jesus!”, and it really was, how would you react? Would you be freaking out? I’d be freaking out. I wouldn’t know what to say. Apparently, the disciples didn’t either, because they just kind of start walking behind him. Like, they don’t even ask, “hey, mind if we follow you?”. Jesus walks by, and they just start following him. So you can kind of read Jesus’ next question with a bit of annoyance, if you will. He turns around and sees these two guys following him, and in the NIV translation he says “what do you want?”

 

And the disciples clearly don’t know! I wouldn’t know, would you know? Do you have a list of things you want from Jesus? Maybe you do, I don’t know. But if Jesus came back today and started walking around Grandview, I’d probably do the same thing as these two disciples. Just start following him. Because he’s Jesus – I’d want to be around the guy! When he asks them what they want – they don’t know! All they do is simply ask, “where are you staying?”

 

Folks, never in the history of the universe has a better question been asked. Rabbi, where are you staying? Where is it that I can come and experience the fullness of life that you have to offer? Where is it that I can sit next to you and drink deeply of your teachings? Where, when I have lost my way and feel about as far from God as I have ever been, where is it that I can find you?

 

This is the question that we, as Christians, ought to continually be asking, because Jesus never stays in one place for long. And notice that it is not an open-ended, despairing sort of question, like “Where are you, Jesus? In the midst of all my brokenness and loneliness and spiritual dissatisfaction…” It’s not, “Why aren’t you here?”. It’s specific – it has a destination attached to it. It’s “Where do I need to go to get to you?”. It is the question the Magi asked of the star all those years ago, and it is the question the disciples ask even now. “Where are you staying?”

 

Of course, in true Jesus-like fashion, Jesus doesn’t respond like a normal person. “Oh I’m staying at the Bethany inn on 1st and Main, if you take this road all the way into town, hang a left at the second intersection, it’s three blocks down, you can’t miss it.” Jesus doesn’t give us directions. “Come and see,” is the response. Come and see for yourself. And for the disciples, who don’t have anything better to do – they’ve just spent several years of their lives following this one guy, John, whom they’re no longer following, who told them to follow Jesus – well, it’s easy. Their day’s just been freed up, so they go with Jesus, and see where he is staying. And they stay with him.

 

But perhaps it’s not so easy for us, is it? To just drop everything and go and see where it is that Jesus is staying. Perhaps we would rather be given directions, so we can go later, at our own time, right? “Hey, Jesus, I can’t make it to the prison tonight to worship with the inmates, I just have too much going on. Can we reschedule?… Jesus, I see that homeless person over there, but I’m in a bit of a hurry right now. I’ll give him some money tomorrow, I promise.” But by then he likely won’t be there anymore. And in any case, you can’t be told where Jesus is. You just can’t. You have to go and see for yourself.

 

This was the particular genius of Andrew, one of the disciples who went to see where Jesus was staying. After waiting and waiting and waiting and finally finding Jesus, the first thing he does is run to his brother, Simon, and tell him “We have found the Messiah!” And after telling him this news, it says that he led Simon to Jesus; he brought him to see where Jesus was. And this Simon, who, according to John, was led to Jesus by another disciple, of course became the most well-known disciple to this day, the one from whom the Pope himself traces his apostolic lineage. This is the one whom Jesus calls Peter.

 

There are two very important things we need to get out of this story today. The first is that in order to find Jesus we must first actively seek out the places where he stays. It’s true that Jesus is someone who has come to us in a general sense – that is, Jesus came into the world though not of the world – but Jesus, as the incarnate representation of God, has come to particular times and particular places on this earth, and we have to go there if we want to find him. We have to go into the “bad” neighborhoods, the prisons, the homeless shelters, the recovery houses, the street corners, all those places where you would think Jesus would be least likely to be found, and yet, I guarantee you, there he stays. We are called to come and see with our own eyes the face of Jesus Christ in others and in the random acts of kindness that make those places a little more like the Kindom of God.

 

That is the first lesson. That we must go and seek out the places where Jesus stays. The second is this. To go back to our earlier metaphor, those who have met Frank are the ones who can speak to his impeccable character, his wit, and how great he and I would get along. But until I meet Frank for myself, I may not believe it. I must be introduced. I need to see for myself how great he is, because words will never do him justice. If I am a “non-believer”, I must be led to where Jesus stays, or else we might not ever get a chance to meet. Indeed, though he walks right past me, if I have never seen his face before, I will not know him. Those of us who have encountered and experienced Christ now have a responsibility to be like John. To recognize Jesus when he appears and to boldly and loudly proclaim, “Behold! The Lamb of God!” We have the responsibility to be like Andrew. To go to our brothers and sisters and to tell them we have seen the Messiah, and to grab them by the hand and take them there! If all we ever do is talk, we will have succeeded in nothing more than gaining followers for ourselves. But if we lead, if we show instead of tell, that is when we can introduce people to the incarnate face of God, and we let Jesus take over the relationship. It is out of our hands entirely.

 

Look, I don’t care if people don’t join the church. I mean, yes, I think the church is important, and I think it’s great when people join, otherwise I wouldn’t be serving in it. But what I desire more than membership for folks is that they discover Jesus. I want people to seek out the places where Jesus shines through the darkness in this world, and to go there. I want people to discover honesty, integrity, kindness, mercy, respect, humility, and most of all love. All those wonderful things that sometimes remain hidden within our hearts, until something from the outside breaks through. And I want to be someone who leads people to that something, that Jesus moment that awakens an ever-present love deep within the soul.

 

This is the reason that we call ourselves Christians – literally, “followers of Christ”. It is because we are not content with staying put when the Lamb of God walks by. It is because we do not seek to serve ourselves by building up our own following, but rather point the way to the One who ought to be followed. It is because we believe that the incarnate presence of the God of all that is, was, and ever shall be continues to dwell in the sacred messiness of human life here on earth, and that this incarnate presence is worth seeking out and reverently beholding. We call ourselves Christians because we follow Jesus; everywhere he goes.

 

And so as we once again begin a new week, I pray that we would leave this place emboldened to seek out those places where Jesus dwells, even if they may not be comfortable for us. I pray that we might make time, having found Jesus, to follow him to where he stays, instead of waiting to arrive later to an empty house. And most of all I pray that we would all be those who lead people, truly and without agenda, to the Messiah, so that they, too, might join us in daily asking, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Amen.

Stop.

No intro to this one; just the text and sermon.

Psalm 46

For the leader. By the descendants of Korach. On ‘alamot. A song:

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we are unafraid,
even if the earth gives way,
even if the mountains tumble
into the depths of the sea,
even if its waters rage and foam,
and mountains shake at its turbulence. (Selah)

There is a river whose streams
gladden the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High —
God is in the city.
It will not be moved —
when daybreak comes, God will help it.
Nations were in turmoil,
kingdoms were moved;
his voice thundered forth,
and the earth melted away.

The Lord of hosts is with us,
our fortress, the God of Jacob. (Selah)
Come and see the works of the Lord,
the astounding deeds he has done on the earth.
To the ends of the earth he makes wars cease —
he breaks the bow, snaps the spear,
burns the shields in the fire.
“Desist, and learn that I am God,
supreme over the nations,
supreme over the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us,
our fortress, the God of Jacob. (Selah)

 

I’m tired. Are you tired? I just don’t know what to do or say anymore. I’m tired of giving the mental energy to arguments that, quite frankly, just won’t sway people. I’m tired of all the violence and the hatred; I wish it would just stop. I wish everyone could just love each other and get along, I really do. I’m tired of the injustice I see everywhere, and the fact that people have been fighting for too long for too little. I know they are tired, as well. I’m tired of the immaturity I see on full display all across the United States, from privileged protestors setting things on fire to elected officials failing to accept responsibility for their harmful, sometimes hateful words. I’m tired of ignorance. I’m tired of defensiveness. I’m tired of corruption. Frankly, I’m just tired of people, of human nature. Don’t you feel that way sometimes? It’s that same sentiment that fictional character Professor Farnsworth expresses in one episode of the popular T.V. show Futurama – “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore!” We are exasperated, we are frustrated, we feel that we are not being heard or understood – that the other side doesn’t even want to try to understand. That ignorance and name-calling are somehow now the preferred methods for winning an argument. Do you feel it? It doesn’t matter who you voted for, what “side” you’re on (and at this point I think it’s safe to say we’ve taken sides), I am sure that you can relate to the exasperation I now feel.

 

We are hotheaded, we United Statesians. We are proud. We put great emphasis on self-sufficiency, on winning, and that makes us prideful. We do not easily accept criticism or correction. We are fantastic blame-shifters. It’s almost always someone else’s fault. And through it all, we have driven ourselves into opposite corners of the room. We’ve drawn a line down the middle, planted our feet firmly, and begun a shouting match for the ages, because we believe that if we can just be the loudest, suddenly everyone will come over to our side. Many of us will experience this on a small-scale at Thanksgiving dinner with our families this week.

 

I wish I could tell you that there is an easy solution to the division in our country. That this Psalm, for instance, right here, this is it. But there are no easy answers here. There are deep wounds, and strong convictions. And the words from our text today, comforting as they may be, don’t fix those problems. They don’t automatically heal those wounds. If we get anything from Psalm 46, it’s that we are called to cease and desist from our present course; to take a deep breath and realize that God is still God in every messy human situation we’ve ever found ourselves in. That is very true; God will still be here; God will still be our refuge and our strength in times of trouble. And yet, for those who would take this text and say, God is in control; we just have to trust God and everything will be ok; just relax and don’t worry; I would remind you, that though, yes, God is still God, horrible things still happen! God was still God through slavery; God was still God through two world wars; God was still God through the Holocaust, but that doesn’t change the horrendous nature of these things, and the fact that we should seek to prevent them from ever happening again. And yet, God remains God, and God remains outraged and flabbergasted at our ability to destroy ourselves, at our inability to find true reconciliation. I mean, how else do you interpret these words? After the Psalmist describes all the ways in which God seeks to end war and violence, God speaks, “Desist! Stop i! Cut it out! For the love of all things good and pure, just stop! Remember, know, realize – I am God. I rule over the nations and the earth, so you can all stop squabbling over who has the power; over who gets to be in control of things. And just live peacefully with one another, would you?” Even God, I think, is tired. Even God is overwhelmed. Even God wants it all to just stop.

 

And that’s not to say that the work of justice is unimportant; that we should just drop all our causes and sing kumbaya together without doing the work of justice, the work that God very clearly calls us to do throughout Scripture. As Martin Luther King so eloquently points out, peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice. So no, as much as I and everyone else would like us to just “all get along”, we cannot do that so long as there is racism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, elitism, and all those other things that are really just power-grabs by the folks who espouse them. Just as abolitionists and, more importantly, slaves, could not abide slavery in ante-bellum America, we cannot pretend that everything is alright when it’s not. We are called to do the work of justice.

 

But remember, even in that work, God is still God. God is our refuge and our stronghold, a help in trouble, very near. Why, when God is our help, when God is supposedly on our side, when God is supposed to be the impetus for the very justice work we are called to carry out, would we be using tactics unfamiliar to and despised by God to bring about the Kindom? Why would we resort to calling people names? To shouting them down? To putting on arrogance and self-righteousness in our arguments? Why not instead lead with persistent love and empathy? That does not mean being weak or equivocating on strong convictions, it does not mean not calling out racism and other things when we witness them, but rather attempting to understand where another person is coming from and treating them with all the dignity of a person reflecting the image of God. Even if they do not treat you the same way.

 

Honestly? We need to figure out a way to talk to each other without getting angry and defensive. We are in the political climate we’re in because we’ve refused to talk about politics with anyone but those with whom we agree. It is absolutely not true that politics is off the table for polite conversation. We can’t afford to do this anymore. Clearly, politics matters. It affects people’s lives. It needs to be discussed, and it needs to be discussed respectfully and empathetically with people who have different views from us. And let me qualify that real quick – if you have the privilege to do so. I am not calling for patience from those who have been far too patient already, and still are disrespected and have their human personhood degraded on a daily basis. That is not my place, nor is it anyone else’s. However, for those of us who are privileged enough to not be the target of racism, sexism, homophobia, or other denigrations of human personhood, I believe we are called to treat all with respect, civility, and empathy, because that is the only way I know of that gets people to listen, and can even change hearts and minds; I believe it works, and I have seen it work in my own life. And I believe changing hearts and minds and getting enough people to recognize injustice is the best way to bring about lasting justice.

 

I’d like us all to do a little thought experiment. I did this earlier this week, and I found it really helpful. Let’s all close our eyes. Now, forget your world view for a second. All those things that you know to be true and right, vs. those that are wrong and sickening. Imagine that you voted enthusiastically for Donald Trump. Imagine that you are excited and hopeful about all that he will accomplish. Imagine that you are tired of being told you’re insensitive, that you shouldn’t say what you’re thinking, even though it’s true, and you feel you are now able to speak freely. That this will be a time for prosperity in America. Imagine that you feel like a political outsider in a big, largely liberal city. That you feel like everyone hates you because of the way you voted; they think you’re a racist and a bigot, and that hurts. This is how you feel. Ok, now let’s do the other side. Again, forget your world view, everything you think is right and wrong and truly horrifying. Imagine you voted enthusiastically for Hillary Clinton. You believed she was going to be the first woman president, and you felt proud of that. You truly admired all of her public service. Imagine that you are now upset, perhaps even afraid. That the things Donald Trump said hurt you, and that you have seen or even experienced hate crimes citing his campaign as motivation. Imagine that you are truly afraid that the Trump administration might take away your human rights, your healthcare, perhaps even deport members of your family, who have done nothing wrong other than fail to obtain citizenship after they moved here. This is how you feel.

 

Open your eyes. Was that helpful? Fruitless? Did it make you feel dirty to imagine yourself as someone on the opposite end of the spectrum? Just because someone holds what you consider to be hateful views, it does not make them less of a person. Hateful opinions and actions must be challenged; the people who espouse them must be loved. Empathy is crucial if we are going to come together, even if we disagree. Yes, there are hard lines we must take. As Twitter user @SonofBaldwin points out, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” But for those of us who have the privilege of not being the one whose humanity is denied – because, again, I would never tell someone who is oppressed not to be angry at their oppressor – for those of us with privilege, we have the responsibility to call out racism, misogyny, classism, elitism, etc. with empathy. Without allowing the hatred that we perhaps rightly feel over this behavior to affect how we treat the person exhibiting it. Hatred will never change any hearts; it can only harden them.

 

So what might this look like? As we go into Thanksgiving this week, and many of us prepare to encounter heated political discussions with our family members, I think perhaps a guide for civil discussion might help. First, be prepared to listen without counterarguing everything you hear in your head right away. Second, don’t get defensive; try to understand that people are usually not out to personally hurt or insult you; what they say has more to do with them than with you. Take criticism where criticism is due, and apologize for real mistakes you have made. Finally – and this is the most important – find things you agree on with the other person. Seek out places where he or she is right, where you both have common ground, and commit to working on it. And for those things on which you disagree, agree to disagree respectfully, unless that disagreement is rooted in the oppression and/or denial of the humanity of another. Understand that this is a hard line in the sand that must be drawn. Now, if you’re wondering what this might actually look like, Rev. Shaner and I have prepared a little sample dialogue for you this morning.

 

T: “Look, can you understand where I’m coming from? The Affordable Care Act drove our health insurance rates way up. I understand that it helped people get medical coverage that didn’t have it before, and that’s a good thing, but it also made health insurance unaffordable for me and my family. I got laid off last year, and now I make barely enough to feed my family, let alone experience the American Dream that I’ve been told I should get to experience if I work hard – and I have worked hard. President-elect Trump gives me hope; I’m excited for what he’s going to do for our economy, and I will be especially grateful if he can make health insurance affordable for me again.”

 

C: “I hear you, and you’re right. The Affordable Care Act did drive up premiums for many people. We can talk a lot about why that is, but I know just the fact that they went up is what’s important to you. It’s also not ok that you barely have enough to feed your family, and for what it’s worth, I also want the economy to recover and for everyone to have an income that they can live on. I understand why President-elect Trump gives you hope for your economic future, because he promised a period of economic prosperity. I do not believe his policies will accomplish what he promised, but we can agree to disagree on that. What I’m more concerned about, and what I hope you’ll give consideration to, is the fact that his campaign has inspired a lot of hate crimes against people of color, Muslims, and persons in the LGBTQIA+ community. I hope we can all come together and denounce these acts of violence and hatred that are being committed in Trump’s name. Even if there are only a few, they are still a few too many.”

 

T: “Thank you for hearing my concerns and being respectful of them. I agree that hatred and violence against people in minority groups is wrong, and I recognize that a lot of hate groups saw themselves represented in Trump’s campaign. I will absolutely join you in doing my part to combat this hatred and violence, and I am hopeful that President-elect Trump will do so as well. I do not believe that is what he stands for. However, I am also concerned about the reports of Clinton supporters committing violence at protests across the country, as well as Trump supporters who have been attacked for their views. I think this violence should be denounced as well. I also don’t like being called a racist or a bigot for voting for Trump. I’m not racist or bigoted, I voted for him for economic reasons.”

 

C: “Thank you for joining me in combatting hatred. I am sorry that people have called you a racist and a bigot; liberals and progressives have indeed been very elitist over the years, and we are not without our faults when it comes to name-calling. However, sometimes people say something racist or bigoted without knowing it. It’s not that they are bad people or intended to be racist or bigoted; it’s just that nobody ever explained to them how what they said was racist or bigoted. The sad truth is that racism is still very prevalent in this country, and we need to find ways to help people understand and combat their racism without calling them names. As for those who are protesting and committing violence, I will absolutely join you in denouncing that violence. However, perhaps we could have a longer conversation in the future about power structures and the use of violent vs. non-violent resistance?”

 

T: “I’m extremely skeptical, but I appreciate the respect and civility in this conversation, and so I would be willing to have that conversation with you. Would you, in turn, be willing to have a deeper conversation about the impact of globalization and immigration on local economies?”

 

C: “Absolutely. Thank you for your time.”

 

T: “You as well. I hope you have a pleasant day!”

 

I know people are hurting right now. And expressing that hurt is important; having an outlet for that – that’s necessary. But in all the arguments I’ve ever been in or ever seen, anger or frustration only made things worse. If the ultimate goal is to let off steam, come here, yell, be angry. God won’t mind. But if the ultimate goal is healing, then we need to be respectful of each other. We need to be understanding of the circumstances in which people grew up that led them to have the views they do. We need to stop being so defensive. We need to stop lashing out. We need to stop the name-calling. We need to stop what we’ve been doing, because it’s not working. We need to stop. Take a deep breath. Remember who God is. And then we need to start talking to each other differently. Amen.

The Struggle

It’s been a while! But I am finally back in a position where I am preaching again, after having moved from Winston-Salem to Columbus, OH. Here is the sermon I preached today on Jacob wrestling with God, Genesis 32:22-31. The text and sermon follows:

 

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with beings human and divine and have prevailed.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.

 

So, I used to wrestle back in high school. Now, for those of you who don’t know, that doesn’t mean the WWE kind of wrestling you frequently see on T.V., with people body slamming each other and hitting each other over the head with chairs and whatnot. No, wrestling is actually a very complicated sport involving many rules, one of which is you are not allowed to hit your opponent over the head with a metal chair. It’s a dance, of sorts, with you and your opponent always trying to get the upper hand. And while the ultimate goal is to “pin” your opponent – force them to the ground on their back for an extended period of time – it is also possible to win by points. Wrestling is a timed sport, with three 2 minute periods, and points are awarded for things like take downs, escapes, reversals, etc. And if nobody is pinned by the end of the 3rd period, the person with the most points wins the match, and they earn points for their team (although not as many as if they had pinned their opponent). That’s right, wrestling is a team sport! The team with the most points at the end of all of the matches in every weight class wins. Needless to say is a grueling sport, one that requires constant quick movement and finesse, and it is not hard to sustain some sort of injury while on the mat.

In other words, it’s an apt metaphor. I’m sure you have heard the word “wrestle” used to describe dealing with a tough situation that is not necessarily physical. Wrestling with addiction, for instance, or with one’s emotions. Wrestling with a decision that has to be made. And when we find ourselves wrestling with these tough situations – especially the really tough ones – we don’t often come out unscathed. Even if we prevail, victory can easily involve some kind of loss. Thus do we find Jacob, the protagonist of our story this morning, after his struggle with the Divine.

We remember Jacob, don’t we? He and his older twin brother, Esau, the sons of Isaac – they don’t exactly get along. And really, it’s not Esau’s fault. Jacob is kind of a jerk. I mean, let’s be honest. He tricks his brother into giving away his birthright, then, with the help of his mother, he takes his father’s blessing – the blessing that rightfully belongs to Esau. I mean, you really have to feel bad for Esau. Jacob hasn’t treated him so great.

But, being angry, Esau threatens Jacob’s life, so Jacob runs away to Paddan-Aram, where his mother grew up, and starts working for his uncle, Laban. He works there for twenty years, marries his cousins Leah and Rachel, amasses a great amount of wealth in the form of livestock, and one day, at the request of God, finally decides to return to Canaan, to his homeland. And as he gets close to home, he realizes he still has to do something about Esau. So he sends messengers to feel him out, and Esau responds, saying he is coming to meet him. And Jacob freaks out! I mean, he thinks his brother is coming to kill him! So he puts together a whole bunch of his animals – 550 in total, goats, sheep, cows, camels, and donkeys – and sends them to Esau as gifts, to try and butter him up before they meet, and, hopefully, avoid a conflict.

And that’s where our text for this morning picks up. Jacob is on the brink of returning to his homeland – the Jabbok marks the border of Canaan – and he sends all of his family and all that he owns across, leaving him alone to face his brother. And there, the text says, a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

We don’t really know if this man was God. The text is ambiguous – perhaps purposefully so. It could be God; it could be some other divine being. But I like to assume that this is, in fact, God whom Jacob is wrestling. The same God who told Jacob to return – the same God who has pushed these two estranged brothers back into each other’s presence. Because Jacob still clearly does not want to go through with it. Even though he listened to God and decided to return home, he is still wrestling with God’s desire that he face his brother. Jacob spent his whole life in exile, running away from home because of his broken relationship with Esau, and now, on the eve of their meeting for the first time in twenty years, he is afraid. The struggle, as they say, is real. So real, in fact, that Jacob isn’t just arguing with God over whether or not to face his brother – he finds himself actually, physically wrestling with God.

And isn’t this a familiar situation to us? When we find ourselves on the brink of reconciliation, of confrontation, when we are alone, when we are afraid, and we are pushing ourselves (or perhaps we feel God pushing us) into doing something that we know needs to be done but dear God are we scared to do it! It would be so much easier to run away! It would be so much easier to remain in exile, to stay as far away from that wrecked relationship as possible, because we at least then know that we can’t get hurt. (And please hear this caveat: I am not talking about abusive relationships; I am not talking about situations from which God has freed us – God never tells the Israelites to run back to Egypt to try and make things right.) No, I am talking about real relationships that were broken. Things were said. People were hurt. Somebody left. Or somebody is about to leave. The struggle is too real. And so we choose to escape instead.

But, as we see in Jacob’s story, that is not God’s desire for our relationships. Not with others. Not with ourselves. Not with God. God wants us to come home. God wants us to be reconciled to one another. And reconciliation is not easy. At times it is a real struggle. But in order to return home, we must be prepared to endure the wrestling match. That’s what Jacob does. “You have striven with beings divine and human and have endured” – that’s another translation for the word “prevailed” here. “You have striven… and have endured,” the divine being tells him. It’s not necessarily that Jacob physically beat God, but he did win his wrestling match. He is prepared to face his brother in the morning.

I want to be very clear. This sermon is not about telling people who are struggling in their marriage to “just stick it out”. It’s not about forcing people together who don’t want to be together. And it is absolutely not about trying to fix an abusive relationship. This is about reconciliation, and God’s will for our relationships. After all, life is all about relationships; they are so important, in fact, that God decided to actually come to Earth and become a human being so that God could have a better relationship with us. They are so important that God’s very being actually exists in relationship, as the Trinity. And when we have broken relationships, relationships that we know could be fixed – especially those relationships that were broken because of our mistake or just for really ridiculous reasons – God’s desire is that we confront that broken relationship and do the hard work to fix it. True, we may get hurt in the process – old wounds we had buried deep will likely resurface; Jacob walks away with a limp – but just like using a needle to extract a splinter, sometimes a little pain is necessary to promote true healing.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had relationships go wrong because of something I’ve said. I’ve had friends decide they were never going to talk to me again. And vice versa. It would have been easy to just let these people be and never talk to them again – we aren’t living anywhere close to each other. But God doesn’t ask us to do the easy thing.

Maybe you don’t have anybody specific in mind. Maybe you feel you are reconciled with God, with yourself, and with all those with whom you are in relationship. That’s awesome, and I don’t say that sarcastically. But even if we are truly reconciled with everyone we know on an individual scale, there is always the need to move toward reconciliation on the national – and eventually, the global – scale.

I know I’m young. I haven’t been around for very long. But as long as I’ve been around, I’ve never seen this country so divided, so polarized. It’s been like this before, I’m sure; maybe I’m just more aware now than I was as a kid. But in any case, it’s at the point where people don’t even listen to each other, where we denigrate each other and call each other names without a shred of respect. This is true on both sides. We automatically judge someone, and their level of intelligence, based on their political persuasions. Folks, this country is in need of reconciliation, of healing broken relationships, especially during this election cycle. And I believe today’s lesson applies just as easily to this situation. If we continue to practice escapism – that is, continue to surround ourselves with folks who believe the same things as us and think the same things as us; if we continue to laugh off any counterpoint or alternative opinion instead of taking the time to wrestle with each other, we will stay broken.

And bear in mind that reconciliation is not easy. It is not a simple “live and let live”, “let’s all be nice to each other in spite of our disagreements” kind of deal. As my friend and colleague Andrew Gardner put it in a recent op-ed, “Reconciliation is certainly something that should be a much sought after goal in the wake of this election, but we cannot prioritize reconciliation without first committing to the difficult work of addressing the flaws that have been unearthed in this election cycle. The issues of racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, Islamophobia and a slew of other problems are not issues on which we can agree to disagree. These are issues that must be addressed in our society as well as our churches. They cannot be neglected for the convenience of a cheap reconciliation.”* And I would add to that list the issues of liberal elitism and the destruction of rural economies, and ask us to recognize that there are a lot of legitimate grievances on both sides. Perhaps this is the first step toward true reconciliation – recognizing that we all have our faults; we are not the good guys and “they” are not the bad guys. We all just grew up in different contexts, under different circumstances. And once we recognize this, the next step is to confront each other and work out our issues. As Rev. Shaner talked about last week, we are called to have those difficult and yet deeply meaningful conversations. We are called to enter into the struggle, no matter how real it gets. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. But one thing’s for sure: we will never experience healing in this country if we don’t talk to each other. We will never experience healing if we aren’t prepared to truly listen. As offensive, and stubborn, and ignorant as you might think someone is, they cannot be laughed off. We cannot just run away from them. Because then we won’t have a home to come back to.

Jacob limps across the Jabbok into Canaan. Home. After twenty long years. And his brother comes running to meet him. It says, “he embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” And Jacob says to his brother, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” The God who wrestles with us. The God who calls us into the struggle. The God who makes us whole and brings us home. Amen.

 

*A link to Andrew’s excellent piece – https://baptistnews.com/article/will-reconciliation-after-a-divisive-election-abandon-key-moral-issues/#.WAPj8uArKhd

Survival of the Altruist

My last sermon for First Christian Church, preached this morning, June 5th, 2016 at our combined 10 am service. I sure am going to miss these folks! The text for the sermon was the story of Elijah visiting the widow in Zarephath and providing for her and her son – 1 Kings 17:8-24. In our “survival of the fittest” culture, how many times have we refused God’s call to meet a need because we were afraid it might hurt our chances for success? Here follows the text and the sermon:

 

And the word of the Lord came to him: “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon, and stay there; I have designated a widow there to feed you.” So he went at once to Zarephath. When he came to the entrance of the town, a widow was there gathering wood. He called out to her, “Please bring me a little water in your pitcher, and let me drink.” As she went to fetch it, he called out to her, “Please bring along a piece of bread for me.” “As the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I have nothing baked, nothing but a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am just gathering a couple of sticks, so that I can go home and prepare it for me and my son; we shall eat it and then we shall die.” “Don’t be afraid,” said Elijah to her. “Go and do as you have said; but first make me a small cake from what you have there, and bring it out to me; then make some for yourself and your son. For thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: The jar of flour shall not give out and the jug of oil shall not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the ground.” She went and did as Elijah had spoken, and she and he and her household had food for a long time. The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the jug of oil fail, just as the Lord had spoken through Elijah.

After a while, the son of the mistress of the house fell sick, and his illness grew worse, until he had no breath left in him. She said to Elijah, “What harm have I done you, O man of God, that you should come here to recall my sin and cause the death of my son?” “Give me the boy,” he said to her; and taking him from her arms, he carried him to the upper chamber where he was staying, and laid him down on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord and said, “O Lord my God, will You bring calamity upon this widow whose guest I am, and let her son die?” Then he stretched out over the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, saying, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life return to his body!” The Lord heard Elijah’s plea; the child’s life returned to his body, and he revived. Elijah picked up the child and brought him down from the upper room into the main room, and gave him to his mother. “See,” said Elijah, “your son is alive.” And the woman answered Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord is truly in your mouth.”

 

So, how many of you watch sports? It can be any kind of sport. I’m showing my true colors here a bit; I’m not a huge sports fan, but I can get into them time to time. Particularly, football, which, around these parts, is called soccer, because we have American football, but the rest of the world calls it football, so there it is. But, getting back on topic, if you’ve ever watched any kind of sport, I suspect you know the basic premise. There is generally some sort of physically-based competition, and there is a winner and a loser. In a lot of sports there is actually a ranking system – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. But the object of any sport is to beat out the competition and to win the whole thing, right? It can be a great source of entertainment, obviously – people all over the world enjoy the spectacle – and we’re always rooting for someone, right? Like that question everybody always asks you before the Super Bowl – who are you going to root for? Who do you want to win? We want our team, our player, to be the best! We want them to strive for physical perfection; we enjoy seeing their display of athleticism pitted against the other team’s or player’s. And for those die-hard fans among us, our hearts will beat in anxious desperation as we silently will them to 1st place.

 

Still, with all of the excitement that watching sports entails, I would contend that seeing our favorite player or team win it all is not the best thing we could ever witness while watching sports. It is not the thing that gives us the best feeling. Neither, I think, is seeing some superb display of athleticism – the amazing drive, the unfathomable catch, the superior trick shot to win the whole thing. These are awesome to watch, and certainly they may give us a rush of awe and excitement, but the feeling, ultimately, is not, I contend, the best that we could get while watching sports.

 

A few years ago, I recall a video going around the internet of a young high school girl competing in the state championship track meet – some of you may remember seeing this. And the reason that this video got so much attention is that, during one of the races, a runner stumbles and falls just before the finish line – her legs, exhausted from the day of running, had given out, and she couldn’t go any farther. And then, this particular young lady comes running up from behind her, lifts her up and puts her arm around her shoulder, and runs with her to the finish line. She could have passed her and gotten ahead, gotten a better placement. But, instead, defying the inherent competitive logic in sports, she chose to help her fellow competitor cross the finish line in last place. The news anchor that was reporting on this video said, “you know, usually in track you’re paying attention to the person in first place; but, with this video, it’s the runners in last place you want to watch. I could sit here and watch this all day.”

 

The news anchor is right. Aren’t those the moments in sports that make us feel the best we could ever feel? Those moments when someone commits a selfless act of what we might call “extreme sportsmanship”, forsaking their own opportunity at being the best physical specimen they can be in order to help an opponent? It’s different – it’s not a feeling of awe and wonder at the physical prowess of an athlete; nor is it the feeling of excitement and elation over a team’s hard-fought victory – but it is still arguably the best, because it is such an unexpected display of kindness. It is the warmth of seeing and knowing the capacity of one human being’s love for another. It’s what brings tears to our eyes when Piglet gives his house to Owl after Owl’s is destroyed in a storm – can you tell I have a young toddler at home? It is a feeling, lodged deep within our souls, that tells us that those people who are willing to break from the principle of “survival of the fittest” are not, in fact, weak, but rather the strongest of us all. You might even say there is something of God in them.

 

Which brings us to our text this morning. There has been a great drought in the land of Israel. You see, Ahab, the king, has committed the land to worshipping the Canaanite storm god Baal, who was thought to bring rain and new life onto the earth. This is a smack in the face to YHWH, the God who led the Israelites out of Egypt and has provided for them again and again, and so, perhaps to demonstrate once again who truly has power over the rain, Elijah announces that there will be a drought, and so there is. Now, I wish I could tell you that there was some other reason for the drought – according to the story, there is not. God brings drought to the land of Israel because of King Ahab’s idolatry. Whether or not we think that is justified, such is the situation when Elijah encounters the widow in our story today. The land is suffering. The people are starving. Our widow has but a handful of flour and a little oil. Just take a minute and imagine her situation – a handful of flour and a little oil! Listen to what she says – “I am just gathering a couple of sticks, so that I can go home and prepare it for me and my son; we shall eat it and then we shall die.” This woman is at the end of her rope; this is all she has left, and then she and her son will die. And remember, she is merely the face we get to see of the crisis that has wrecked Israel. There are millions of others like her throughout the land! So why did Elijah go to her?

 

Before he left, Elijah was staying near the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan River. Elijah is here, being fed by the ravens. When the Wadi dries up, God commands Elijah to go to this widow, but it’s not like she’s in the town next door. She’s in Zarephath, which is waaayyyy up here, by the Mediterranean Sea, near modern-day Syria.

In fact, if this was really about Elijah’s survival, it would actually be quicker for him to go to Jerusalem in the land of Judah, where there was no famine. Even if he couldn’t go to Judah for political reasons, he could have easily gone someplace where they had more food than just a handful of flour and a little oil. So why go to this widow?

 

Simply, because God told him to. And wherever God tells you to go, you go. Perhaps God told others to go to the other starving families throughout Israel. Perhaps, wherever there is a need, God is always telling someone to go and meet it. In our story today, Elijah goes to this woman, and he sees her need. He is compelled to help, knowing that God is on his side, and so he tells her to make him a cake, and then make some for her and her son, and she will not run out. She, having very little, does according to what Elijah says; perhaps out of faith, perhaps out of desperation. But she does it. And then, guess what? Not only does she have her needs met – she is also able to meet the needs of the one who helped her.

 

Imagine if this was how the world always worked! Imagine if everyone was not only able to meet each other’s needs, but also willing! Isn’t it one of life’s little miracles every time a need gets met? I remember sitting in Passion, this huge college Christian conference in Atlanta, Georgia, with roughly 20,000 other students when they announced that not one, but two border facilities would be built between India and Nepal to check vehicles for human trafficking, because we gave enough. I remember sitting next to my friend, James, on the curb when he gave a dollar out of his cup to a friend who needed money for the bus. I remember helping to build a retaining wall for a clinic in Nicaragua so it wouldn’t flood every Spring, and people could get the healthcare they needed. I remember when I got in my car accident, and how many folks offered to let me borrow their car while mine was being fixed. It’s incredible, the lengths that some people will go to in order to help someone in need.

 

And yet there are still so many in need. There are so many, like this widow, who are dying of starvation. There are so many, like her son, who are dying of preventable disease. And, certainly, we want to help, but are unable to. We do a lot to help our community, we could maybe do more, but we, First Christian Church, obviously cannot meet the needs of the entire world on our own – but! I’ll tell you who can. Look at the story again. Elijah is sent to one woman, and God works through Elijah to meet the needs of her and her son. How many others did God send? How many others refused to go? How many of the worlds needs would be met if everyone whom God sent actually went? See, our problem is not necessarily that we are not helping, but rather that we have failed to convince everyone else to help. Our problem is not necessarily that we are operating according to the principle of survival of the fittest, but rather that we have allowed that very principle to penetrate and to infect our society. We live and breathe it here. If we aren’t competing for physical prowess, we’re competing for social standing. If it’s not for social standing, it’s for economic prosperity. Sometimes, we’re even competing just to keep food on our tables and a roof over our heads. It’s what we’ve been taught. It’s how we were raised. We were told to be the best we could be, to fight to succeed. Maybe not told directly, but, growing up in the U.S., this is what we were made to understand: that having a job and making a lot of money is more important than being a good person. In fact, if you don’t have a job and you don’t have enough money to provide for your family, you are a bad person. But as long as you have money and are successful, you will generally be considered a good person until you prove otherwise. Do you see what I’m getting at here? I apologize if I’m being redundant, but I want to make this point entirely clear – our culture is all about success. We literally value people based on how much money they make and how much they have. We publish lists about it! We teach our children to do anything to get ahead. So, maybe you can understand why someone in our culture might be less inclined to answer God’s call to meet the needs of the widow.

 

Y’all, those people out there yelling in the streets are right – this country needs Jesus! But not in the way they think it does. We’ve already tried spreading the Gospel by guilting people into believing – that didn’t work. We’ve tried spreading it by telling people that God would bless them with money and success if they were good believers – that didn’t really work either. What if we tried a different method of evangelism? What if, instead of telling people they need to come to church, to come to us, we went out to them? What if we decided to go and meet their needs, to answer God’s call and to be the hands and feet of Christ? What if we convinced the whole, worldwide Church to do this? The Church is huge; it’s powerful; it could change the culture. It could change the way we think about success in this country.

 

There’s a famous psychologist named Jacob Maslow. He said that people have certain needs that they will satisfy in a particular order, and he came up with a little pyramid to show this. At the base are physical needs, like food and water; the next are safety related, like shelter and security; then come relationships and belonging; then self-esteem; and, finally, self-actualization, which we might interpret as the spiritual needs – finding your purpose in life, discovering who you really are, etc. So, what this means is that if you don’t have food or water, you’re going to focus on getting those before you start worrying about finding a safe place to live. If you don’t have a safe place to live, you might not be as concerned with finding meaningful relationships with people. And so on and so forth. Now, I don’t know how much stock to put into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but I do know that if I am dying of starvation or otherwise in distress, I’m less likely to listen to a sermon on the street.

 

The same with the widow in our story. She could care less about God – all she wants is to be able to take care of her family. And Elijah – Elijah doesn’t see her as a project person. He’s not trying to turn her into a good YHWH worshipper. He’s just following God’s commandment to go and live with her. He provides for her and she provides for him. They get to know each other. And when her son becomes seriously ill, Elijah steps in without a second thought and heals him. It is then and only then that the woman says, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord is truly in your mouth.”

 

If you want to grow the church, and bring more people in, that’s how you do it. People aren’t going to see God in you if you’re shouting at them. They aren’t going to see God in you if you amass a great amount of wealth and leave them by the wayside. And they certainly aren’t going to see God in you if you make it clear you just want more butts in the pews. They aren’t going to see God in a church that is just trying to succeed; just trying to survive. Meet their needs. Love them in their time of crisis. Heal them, without agenda. Only then will they say, “Now I see that you are an agent of God and that the word of the Lord is truly in your mouth.” Amen.

Part of the Fold

Here is my sermon from last Sunday on what it really means to be a sheep. There are two texts for this sermon: Psalm 23 and John 10:22-29. I don’t think we’ve given much thought to the sheep/shepherd metaphor, because it definitely does not mean that we, as Christians, follow our religious leaders blindly! Here follows the texts and sermon:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
      He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
      he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.

 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.

 You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter,  and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.  So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;  but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.  My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.  What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.

 

So, as some of you may have noticed, we are in the midst of an election year. And during an election year – at least more so than usual it seems – we are most privileged to listen to politicians. And politicians, if you’ve noticed, like to answer questions that are asked of them in the most infuriating way possible – by not actually answering them. The word, which I learned in 8th grade, is called circumlocution, and it literally means to “talk around”, as though the answer is a piece of bait, and the politician’s speech is a shark that continuously circles the bait without ever actually going for it. And, I don’t know about you, but more often than not after watching one of these debates I just want to scream at the television – “You didn’t even answer the question!” I suspect that many of us probably share the same frustration – that our political leaders oftentimes refuse to speak plainly.

 

So maybe we can understand, at least a little bit, the Jews’ similar frustration with Jesus in our passage this morning. When it comes to the question of whether or not he is the Messiah, Jesus has refused to give a direct answer. Nowhere does he ever say “I am the Messiah”, plain as day. And the Jews – which, whenever we are in John, we should take to mean “the Jewish religious leaders”, and not all Jews as a whole – want him to stop beating around the bush and just come right out and say it! Perhaps they are simply looking for him to incriminate himself, or perhaps they really want to know, but in either case they are irritated with his half-answers and unclear figures of speech – and the translation “how long will you keep us in suspense?” is really actually an incorrect translation of a Greek idiom; the actual Greek says “how long will you continue to take our life away?”, and a better translation of that idiom would actually be “how long are you going to keep annoying us?” So at this point, why doesn’t Jesus just go ahead and answer them directly? What is the point of refusing to give a straight answer here?

 

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m on Jesus’ side here. And it may be because the story is written so that we take Jesus’ side; or it may be simply because he’s Jesus, so taking his side seems like a no-brainer. But then that means that I get frustrated with our politicians for doing the same thing that Jesus does quite frequently throughout his ministry. How do we reconcile wanting a straight answer from our leaders while also applauding the fact that Jesus often refuses to give a straight answer? Sure, there are definitely differences between talking around an answer and telling a story that clearly highlights the answer, but I think actually the main reason that we feel differently about politicians and Jesus is that there are two different types of questions – those that require a straight answer, and those that don’t – and that Jesus often answers the right questions appropriately, while our politicians do not.

 

What do I mean by this? Well, if somebody asks you what 2+2 is, or what the capitol of Greece is, they probably expect a straight answer. But if someone were to ask you what God looks like, or what it is like to be married, or to have a child, or even the simple question – do you believe in Jesus? – how might you answer that? Sure, you could give a straight answer – like, God is an old man with a beard; it’s tough being married; yes, I believe in Jesus – but these questions require more than that. They require an experience that is oftentimes too complex to put into words. That’s why Jesus doesn’t answer the question “are you the Messiah?” with a simple “yes” or “no”. Instead, he points to his works – the experience of traveling with Jesus and witnessing all that he says and all that he does – that is the answer to the question. You have to experience Jesus’ Messiahship in order to understand it – you can’t just be told one way or the other.

 

This, by the way, is the crux of John’s Gospel. If you read it very closely, you’ll notice that it is always the experience of Jesus that brings people to faith, and not just being told to believe in him. In fact, the event that takes place just before Jesus’ speech here is Jesus healing a man who was born blind. Jesus doesn’t say who he is – the man doesn’t even get to see him – but because of his experience of healing at the hands of Jesus, he believes. He goes from being completely blind – blind from birth! – to seeing clearer than the most well-regarded religious leaders of the day, including the Pharisees who question him about Jesus’ identity. And because of this, the Pharisees scoff at Jesus’ remarks that they are truly the blind ones. Jesus responds with this speech on the good shepherd, the hireling, the thief, the wolf, and the sheep.

 

What does it mean to be a sheep? Indeed, how does one become a good sheep? The word has taken on a less-than-admirable connotation; at least a couple of my atheist friends sneer in disdain at folks they like to call “sheeple”. According to their understanding, many Christians applaud the idea that we should do as we’re told and blindly follow the instructions of our religious leaders. They believe the metaphor of sheep and shepherd is a recipe for cult-like behavior and the abandonment of all good judgment. And to be honest, I agree with them – to an extent. I mean, there is a sense in American Christianity that it is wrong to question authority – particularly religious authority. There is a deference given to those in power. There is a resolution that we must be 100% sure of what we believe, else we not be faithful enough, even if what we believe clashes with our experience and understanding of the world. Indeed, there is something quite comforting about being able to follow blindly on the walk of faith, trusting that we are being looked after by those who have our best spiritual interest at heart. But folks, that’s not being a sheep. That’s being a lemming (by the way, I looked this up, and it is a popular misconception that lemmings follow each other off cliffs; but the metaphor is so popular and so widely recognized that I feel it is the best fit for my rhetorical needs here).

 

As we already know from the story about the blind man, sheep do not follow blindly. No, in truth, they can see more clearly than anyone else! Sheep are never content with following the first voice they happen to hear, but are instead always listening for and discerning the voice of the shepherd. Many sheep are leaders themselves, bringing others to faith by sharing their experiences of the shepherd. Sheep do not follow other sheep, but rather always rely on the voice of the shepherd to lead them home. Sheep do not let somebody else tell them what the shepherd has to say, because they are perfectly capable of hearing the shepherd themselves. And finally, sheep are extremely suspicious of straight answers when it comes to faith, because they know that the true shepherd never gives them.

 

And that is why the Jewish leaders in this text do not believe. Because they are not sheep. Because they want the answers to be black and white. They want everything to be straight and simple and plain and easy. They can’t handle a messy faith, a nuanced faith, a faith where God can be both 100% human and 100% God all at once! They can’t deal with the answers that only beget more questions, because they want everything to be all figured out. Well, Jesus has news for them – and for all of us:

 

Faith is not easy! It’s not simple! It’s not a yes or no question. It doesn’t provide plain answers – and this book – the Bible – by the way, does not contain all the answers you will ever need in the life of faith! And I am appalled at the number of churches that tell you it does. I mean, you don’t just take a serious, complicated, nuanced life situation and go pick out a Bible verse to solve it; yea, it can be helpful, but it won’t give you a straight answer. That’s not what faith is. Have you ever seen Indiana Jones – the third one, Last Crusade, with Sean Connery? At the end, Indy is going through this booby-trapped temple (as he usually does) to get to the Holy Grail, and he comes to the final test, which is the “leap of faith”. He has to cross a gaping chasm by walking across what looks like thin air. He holds his breath and takes a step. And if you’ve seen it, you know that he has no idea how he’s getting across that chasm; he’s not 100% sure he won’t fall to his death. But he takes the step anyway. That’s faith! That’s what it means to be a sheep. Unlike a lemming, which simply runs off the cliff without thinking twice about it, a sheep makes a conscious choice to trust the shepherd, even when it’s not 100% sure everything is going to be ok.

 

We – and when I say we, I mean Christians, as a whole – we need to stop being lemmings. And we need to stop encouraging others – especially our children – to be lemmings, blindly following authority, being satisfied with plain answers where there are none, and being led on by strangers who only seek to satisfy their own egos. We must learn how to be sheep. Careful, inquisitive, clever, faithful sheep. And we must continue to listen for and discern the voice of our good shepherd, whom we personally know and trust through divine experience.

 

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me on right paths, for His name’s sake. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Here is the sermon I preached yesterday on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, about how we too often tend to label folks based on the things they have done and not their identity as children of God. The text is Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, and follows here along with the sermon:

 

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

 

So, my son Owen’s new favorite thing in the world is to climb up on the couch and crawl across it until he gets to the end table, where Mommy and Daddy’s most prized possession – the remote control – awaits him. But in order to get to the remote, he has to stand up on the couch, which, as he knows, is a huge no-no. But, of course, being a toddler, he usually decides to do it anyway. And no matter how many times we tell him no, that he needs to sit on the couch, or how many times we put him in time out for it, he will inevitably climb right back onto the couch the first chance he gets. As many of you know, this is parenthood.

 

Now, I can’t get too frustrated with him; after all, he is just a toddler, not quite yet in control of his impulses. He’s still figuring out what his relationship is with Mommy and Daddy and testing how far he can push his limits. But even as he gets older and comes to understand more about why we follow rules and the fact that we get punished when we don’t follow the rules, I am sure he will continue to break them. He will continue to disobey me or do things that make me upset. He may pick a fight with someone at some point; he might even cause somebody serious harm. Kids, after all, are just as human as the rest of us, and are just as liable to make mistakes – even serious ones. Even as he enters into adulthood, there is always the possibility that he could mess up big-time, no matter how well Emily and I raise him. I suppose that’s at least one of every parent’s biggest fears. But, though I am young yet, and though parenthood is a relatively new thing for me, I have to say that I simply can’t imagine anything that Owen could do that would make me see him as anyone less than my beloved son. Oh, I could be disappointed in him, sure. Overwhelmed with grief and heartache over the consequences of his actions. Desperately longing for the days when he was sweet and innocent, running around and jumping on the couch without really knowing any better. But to stop loving him? View him as unworthy of being called my son? Never.

 

So, being a new parent has given me a new appreciation for our text this morning. Now, I suspect that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is quite well-known to you all. Many of us have heard or read it more than a few times, and I am sure we have already determined its meaning – we (the sinners) are the prodigal son, God is the father, and the Pharisees of the world are the elder brother. In fact, for those of us who have already made up our minds about this parable, it ceases to become a parable at all, because parables, by their nature, are supposed to subvert or upend our understanding of how the world works. So, as I have done with other texts in the course of my preaching here, I would like to invite us all to forget everything we think we know about this parable, and read it again together.

 

On its surface, this parable is simply about a father and two quite different sons. And let us not forget that these two sons are also brothers. The younger son asks his father for his portion of the inheritance, which, while perhaps unconventional, was not outside of his legal rights to do. He is not sinning by asking his father for the money. The father gives it to him, and it is at this point that the younger brother commits the sin – he leaves home and goes far away to a foreign country, and he spends it all. You see, as long as his father was still alive, he was allowed to invest his inheritance, but not to dispose of it. In leaving his home country and spending all of his money, he has effectively severed his relationship with his father. By all accounts of the day, he and his father were dead to each other.

 

Then, tragedy strikes. You see, the younger son would have been just fine if the famine hadn’t hit, but when it did, all of the sudden he was in a crisis. Being desperate for food, he hired himself out as a swineherd – to tend animals that were considered unclean from the perspective of his Jewish upbringing. So desperate was he that he even wished to eat the food they gave to the pigs! And it was at this moment, when he had hit rock bottom and there was no one else to turn to, that we are told “he came to himself”. Up until this moment, he had not even thought about his father. Up until this moment, he considers himself no more than a prodigal man. But here, for the first time since he left home, he remembers that he is not unattached. He remembers that he has a father; that he is somebody’s son.

 

This is the first lesson of the parable – the first case of mistaken identity. It happens when we forget who we are – whose we are – and choose instead to focus only on what we have done. Jesus calls us to come to ourselves in the midst of our brokenness, to remember that we have a Father, a Mother, who will take care of us in our time of greatest need. But this is not the only lesson that the parable has to offer, even though it is perhaps the one we are most familiar with. In fact, even though the prodigal son has remembered his father, we find out through his confession that he is still mistaken about his identity.

 

Now, if you have ever had any interactions with another human being – and I suspect that’s most of you – then you have probably had the experience that the younger son has after he decides to go back to his father. You have something you want to say to somebody, and you repeat it over and over in your head, working on it and trying to make sure you get every word exactly right. And a lot of the time you imagine what the other person is going to say, too, right? As if you could predict that. In fact, you orchestrate the whole conversation in your head over and over again until you either get the courage up to actually have the conversation, or you decide to just drop it and let it go. And if you do end up having the conversation, it never actually goes exactly the way you planned it in your head, does it?

 

Well, this is what happens to the prodigal son. He has this whole confession ready, admitting his sin and saying he is not worthy to be his father’s son, but would his father at least be willing to hire him on as a servant – and when he gets there, he doesn’t even get the whole thing out! I mean, if you play this scene out in your head, it’s actually quite hilarious. As soon as the son comes into view, the father goes running out toward him – and by the way, in this culture, grown men never ran; it was extremely unbecoming – but he goes running out toward him in his sandals and tunic and everything, and embraces him. And kisses him. And holds him like he’s never letting go of him again. And, perhaps taken aback by this display of affection, and not really knowing what else to do, the son starts in on his rehearsed apology. But the father, probably not even listening to him, interrupts him halfway through to call to his servants for a celebration in his honor – in honor of his son, who was lost but has now been found.

 

The father, you see, was never mistaken about his son’s identity – not one bit; not even while he was gone. To the father, his son could never be anything else in his eyes – not a sinner, a degenerate, a “bad kid”, a vagabond, a thief – none of these was an appropriate label for his son, whom he loved. In fact, the only thing that kept this father from having a relationship with his son was his son’s own choice to put some distance between them. But even that distance could not stop – or even diminish – the father’s love. He refused to identify his son by what he had done, recognizing him instead for who he was.

 

And this is the second lesson that the parable teaches us – that no matter what we have done; no matter how we see ourselves; no matter what other people call us or what we call ourselves, we, all of us, are the beloved children of God. We are all bearers of the image of God, and as human beings we all hold our value in that particular identity, and no other. This is, in fact, the radical message of the Gospel, and it is why the Gospel is supposed to be such a stumbling block. Because it says that even the people we dislike the most – even those who have done the most despicable things in human history – are loved and valued by God. That no matter what other labels we might reserve for those people, God rightly calls them “my children”. Let me be clear and direct: Adolf Hitler is a child of God. Joseph Stalin is a child of God. Augustus Caesar, King Herod, Nero – all children of God. All those who ever owned slaves are children of God. So are all of the members of ISIS. Donald Trump is a child of God. Barack Obama is a child of God. Those who have committed murder, rape, theft, torture, genocide – all of them are children of God. I am a child of God. You all are children of God. And this is not to say that the actions of a lot of those folks I just mentioned are not wrong – in fact, terribly wrong – or that those actions do not carry severe consequences, as they should. But the message of the Gospel is this – that no matter how monstrous or demonic a person’s actions may be, it does not make that person a monster or a demon. Your actions can never fundamentally transform who you are in relationship to God.

 

Of course, if you have any sense of justice at all, you’re probably having an extremely difficult time entertaining the suggestion that Hitler is a child of God. I’m sure any reasonable person might be fuming at the thought that God loves Hitler as much as them. I mean, tell me that makes you angry; because even just thinking about what he did makes me sick to my stomach myself. Which is why there is a third part to this parable. If you recall, Jesus is telling this parable to the scribes and Pharisees who are angry that he is hanging around with “sinners” – drug addicts, prostitutes, convicted felons, murderers, thieves, thugs, gangsters, corporatists, bigots, despots; basically, just all-around “bad people”. Their anger, perhaps like ours, would seem justifiable. We didn’t do all of those bad things. We didn’t break the rules. Sure, it’s not as though we’ve never sinned – we all do – but we are not as bad as those people. We worked hard to be morally upright, so we deserve to be the ones that Jesus hangs out with; we deserve to be more-loved by God than Hitler!

 

And this is precisely how the older son feels in the third part of the story – he worked hard! He never disobeyed his father; he served him his entire life – but he never got a celebration like the younger son did. The father’s grace is unfair; by all accounts, he should be the one to receive favor. We may not be able to recognize it, but this older son is also suffering from a case of mistaken identity. He believes himself to be a good servant – in fact, the word he uses is slave – to his father. But what he doesn’t realize is that his relationship with his father, like his brother’s, is not measured by the quality of his service, but simply by the reality of his sonship. Both he and his brother are his father’s sons – end of story.

 

Here, finally, we come to the end of the story, and we find that Jesus is calling out one of the most basic tendencies of human beings – the tendency to label one another according to our actions, instead of our divine parentage. We love to do this. If someone does something heroic, we call them a hero. If someone steals something, we call them a thief. We have convicts, felons, murderers, adulterers, criminals, prostitutes, addicts, etc. – these labels that we use over and over again until they come to define the people we apply them to, and they cease to even be people in our eyes. We place our own worth, and the worth of others, all in actions, and this is the very antithesis of the Gospel. It severs relationships, and makes reconciliation impossible. Which is why, when the older brother accosts his father over that son of yours, his father is quick to remind him that the very son of whom he speaks is his own brother. And it’s not that there are no consequences for the younger brother – he has already spent his portion of the inheritance, and “all that [the father] has” left belongs to the older brother – but, in the father’s words, “we have to celebrate”, because your brother – who has always been your brother, and nothing less, even when he was out and about committing his horrible crimes – was lost, and now is found.

 

In the breath of one parable, Jesus reminds us that no matter how lost we are, there is always a chance to be found, and that no matter how lost we think others are, they have that same chance. And that even though someone may be incredibly and almost irretrievably lost, they are still our brother or sister; they are still a child of God. They may break our hearts, yet shall we still love them. Always. Amen.

Into the Wilderness

Here is the sermon I preached this past Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent, on Luke 4:1-13. The issue of prooftexting is a major one in today’s church – how many of us share a piece of Scripture on Facebook without even a second thought? How many of use have fully read and understood the context of a particular verse before repeating it to bolster some pre-conceived theological opinion we have? As the following story and sermon shows, even Satan can quote Scripture. Let us be mindful that the Bible is a dangerous weapon, and we must use extra caution whenever we wield it. Here follows the text and sermon:

 

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

So, how many of you have ever tried to read through the whole Bible? And how many of you succeeded? More than once? I remember the first time I tried to read through the whole Bible. I think I must have been 6 or 7, because it was before we moved to Mooresville. I had my Adventures in Odyssey Bible – do any of you remember that show? Where the kids go back in time and live out the Bible stories? Anyway, I decided that I needed to read the whole thing, cover to cover. I got to Exodus.

 

Later on, when I went to college, I decided to try again. This time I had my archaeological study Bible – I was studying to be an archaeologist, you know – and I printed off a plan from online that would allow me to read through the entire Bible in a year. I got about halfway through it, and stopped. It was one of those things where you had to read a little bit each day, and I eventually got so far behind that I got discouraged, and didn’t feel like I could catch up. Well, two years later, I decided to pick it back up again and finish the second half. Even though there were stories and verses I’d read before, I made sure to read each page as thoroughly as possible – notes and all – so that I could say without a doubt that I’ve read through the entire Bible, front to back. Kind of important, if you’re going to be a minister, don’t you think?

 

Of course, we studied the Bible extensively in Divinity school, and the sum total of our reading requirements included most of the Bible (as well as, of course, apocryphal texts, articles, papers, books, commentaries, sermons, etc.), but there were parts that we skipped over. There were some verses that we read and studied in what seemed like every biblical studies class I took, and some verses that we just didn’t get to at all. And as a result, I can confidently say that I’ve read each verse in the Bible somewhere between one and one thousand times. Some verses I know a lot better than others. I can paraphrase quite a few, but honestly I probably have less than ten memorized word-for-word (depending, of course, on which translation you’re using). All-in-all, I would say that I know my Scripture pretty well, but there is certainly room for improvement.

 

Now, that is my story – my experience with the Bible; but if I had to guess, you probably aren’t thinking about my relationship with Scripture right now, unless you are comparing it to your own. Each of us has our own relationship with Scripture. Each of us can remember the first time we tried to read through the Bible, or the first verse that spoke to us on a personal level, or the first time either reading through or experiencing the Noah’s Ark story in Sunday School. Some of us have a continuing relationship with the Bible, making sure to read our daily devotional each morning. Some of us haven’t read the Bible in a while, but we see Bible verses on Facebook or in church. Some of us have our favorite verse tattooed somewhere on our body, or plastered across our computer’s desktop, or hung up on the wall in our homes. We all each have a unique relationship with Scripture, and I suspect that it means something very different to each of us. But, whether we post it on Facebook or recite it to ourselves daily, we all share one thing in common – we all use Scripture as a weapon.

 

In fact, it is a weapon. Ephesians 6 describes Scripture as the “sword of the Spirit”,and if you’ve ever fenced, or watched sword-fighting, you know that the sword is as much a defensive weapon as it is offensive. In the same way, Scripture can be used both to attack and to defend oneanother. It is, like the sword, merely a neutral tool that can be used to do great good or great harm, depending on who is wielding it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our text today, which recounts in vivid detail what I consider to be one of the greatest spiritual duels of all time.

 

Jesus, having just come off his baptism (where he was imbued with the Holy Spirit and declared in front of everyone to be the Son of God), is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Just as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, Jesus remained there for 40 days. And during that time he ate nothing. Now, if you ever wondered where we get the Lenten tradition of giving something up for 40 days, well, this is it. At the end of those 40 days, it says he was famished, as anyone who hadn’t eaten for that amount of time obviously would be. And this sets up the scene for the duel between Jesus and Satan.

 

Now, we are told that Jesus was tempted by the devil throughout the forty days he was fasting; presumably, he held his own pretty well. But these next temptations are a different story, because Jesus has been psychologically compromised. He is starving. He cannot think straight. He can no longer rely on his own merits, his own reason, to fend off Satan’s temptations. As we will see, all of Jesus’ words in this exchange are not his own – they come directly from the Jewish Scriptures; specifically, from Deuteronomy. Let us examine each temptation, as well as Jesus’ response, in turn.

 

The first temptation that Satan presents to Jesus represents that of physical, bodily desire. It is, quite simply, the temptation to eat something when Jesus has already committed to fasting. It’s not that Jesus isn’t allowed to eat, or use the restroom, or have romantic encounters, or anything else we might consider “instinctual” impulses. All of these are part of being human, and all of them have been declared “good” by our Creator. The temptation for Jesus is not to give in to his physical needs, but rather to violate his sense of self-control, to go against what he had already decided for himself, just as those of us who have committed to a strict diet might give in on a particularly stressful day. Jesus’ response is to parry Satan’s attack with the Scripture from Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone,” – i.e., I am fasting for a purpose, and that purpose is spiritual nourishment, which I need just as much as I need physical nourishment. Point Jesus.

 

The second attack made by Satan appeals to Jesus’ thirst for power and wealth. He takes him up to a high mountain and shows him everything – all of the kingdoms of the world, with all of their accompanying wealth and power – and says that they will belong to Jesus if only Jesus will worship him. This may not seem like much of a temptation, since Jesus is God and all of everything already belongs to God anyway – except that we later learn that everything is given over to Jesus only after his crucifixion and resurrection. This temptation is about offering Jesus an easier path to supreme Kingship. More specifically, it is about gaining power and authority through the worship of something other than God. In response, Jesus again quotes Deuteronomy – “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” – and I should note here that this isn’t actually an exact quote. Jesus is paraphrasing “You shall fear the Lord your God, and serve him. By his name alone shall you swear.” Well, that’s okay because Jesus knows the quote well enough to understand its meaning – don’t worship anyone but God. Again, point Jesus.

 

This final temptation is one of my favorite exchanges – and if you were looking for the main point of this whole message, here it is – Satan takes Jesus to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, and tempts him with a verse from Scripture!!! He tries to get Jesus to test God by throwing Psalm 91 at him – “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you; on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” He’s saying to Jesus, “Prove your Sonship – the Sonship that was just announced! Because if you really are the Son of God, then this Scripture will apply to you.” And if you’re Jesus, and that’s all that you heard, and you aren’t really sure whether you’re the Son of God or not – I mean, the Spirit said you were at your baptism, but are you really sure? This would be a way to be sure – and the devil isn’t some actual, physical being standing there saying these things to you – because, let’s face it, that would just be obvious – but it is, in fact, all just happening in your head, the suggestion that why shouldn’t you throw yourself off the Temple and prove to yourself and to everyone else in the crowded streets of Jerusalem that you are, indeed, the Son of God sounds very tempting. I mean, it says right there in the Bible that you’re going to be okay.

 

But Jesus knows his Scripture. He knows it oh so well, and so he is able to counter Satan’s use of Scripture with his own – “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Deuteronomy 6:16. Game. Set. Match. Jesus wins.

 

This story about Satan and Jesus doesn’t just tell us how to deal with temptation when it arises; it shows us. Better than just writing a “How-to” book, Jesus actually gives us a demonstration. We see that temptation strikes when we are at our most vulnerable; when we are least able to think for ourselves – when we are “in the wilderness”. Notice that throughout the story, Jesus is never said to have left “the wilderness”. Even when the devil leads him to the top of the Temple in the middle of Jerusalem, Jesus is still in “the wilderness”. Which means that “the wilderness” does not always signify this uncivilized, God-forsaken place. In fact, as we see in the story, “wilderness” can be broken down into three different categories:

  1. The “wilderness” of the self. Temptation arises when we seek to gratify our own bodily desires to the detriment of ourselves or others. As Jesus shows us, this temptation is most easily countered by a full knowledge and understanding of Scripture.
  2. The “wilderness” of the world. Temptation arises when the world tells us what we need to do, who we need to be, and how we need to behave in order to ‘fit in’ with the rest of the group. In most cases this temptation comes in the form of power and wealth. Again, this temptation is most easily countered by a full knowledge and understanding of Scripture.

 

The final category of “wilderness” will probably take the most explanation. It is, put simply, the religious establishment. For Jesus, it was the Temple. For us, today, as Christians, it is the Church. This type of “wilderness” is the most difficult to recognize, because it looks and feels so much like home. The temptation that arises in this wilderness is even more devious, because it sounds like the right thing to do. In fact, much like Jesus’ final test in the wilderness, the temptations found in Church often come straight out of Scripture. And they most often have to do with who God is and how we relate to God and others. And if you don’t believe me, all I can do is once again direct you to our text this morning, where Satan uses Scripture to try and get Jesus to relate to God in a sinful way.

 

A few weeks ago, I saw an example of this kind of temptation pop up on my Facebook feed. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of proof-texting – in theological circles, it is the pulling of Scripture out of context in order to make a specific point. This is exactly what Satan does to Jesus, and this is exactly what happens so often in the Church. And, to be fair, I don’t think that those of us who do this are intentionally misleading others the way Satan does in our story; but we need to recognize that when we post or recite certain verses out of context we are carelessly mishandling a dangerous weapon. For example – in this particular Facebook case, one of my Facebook friends posted the following verses from Job: “Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong. For according to their deeds he will repay them, and according to their ways he will make it befall them. Of a truth, God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice. Who gave him charge over the earth and who laid on him the whole world? If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust.” This sounds nice, and was clearly meant to be uplifting and reassuring to all who read it – to communicate God’s providence over the world. Except, this is Job 34:10-15, and it is a part of a speech given by Elihu. Elihu has joined Job’s three friends in arguing against him that he must have done something wrong to deserve all the awful things that happened to him. And at the end of all of this arguing, God answers, and specifically says to Job’s friends “My wrath is kindled against you…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” In other words, God says in the Book of Job that the verses that my friend shared on Facebook are not a correct description of God. But if you didn’t know all that, you could very easily be led – tempted – to believe that they are an accurate description of God.

 

And that’s why it’s so important to know and to fully understand Scripture. It’s not enough to just have verses memorized without understanding how they fit into the rest of the story. It’s also not enough to know the story pretty well if you don’t have any Scripture memorized and ready to parry any attack of temptation that comes your way. After all, it’s important to be thoroughly knowledgeable about a subject before you enter into a debate on that subject – if you’re going to debate physics with someone, you better know the laws of physics, and be prepared to back up your claims with specific information. And when it comes to Scripture, Satan’s an expert. So read up. Study the Scriptures. Seek to understand the full range of meaning and context of each verse. Prepare yourself. Because you never know when you might be heading into the wilderness.