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.
In the 1990’s Jerry Falwell, bastion of theological conservatism, pleaded for funds for his “Save A Baby Homes.” The organization was designed to establish homes, all over the country, where a young woman who decides to continue in a difficult pregnancy could go and receive free, caring support all the way through pregnancy and birth.
And, rather notably, Falwell ended his plea by saying something to effect of, “If we do not give our resources, our money, to this venture, if Bible-believing Christians do not demonstrate through our gifts that we are willing to give to, and sacrifice for, and to support these women, then we have no right to tell them what they should, or shouldn’t, do with their bodies.”
It isn’t easy for ordinary people like us to do some of the extraordinary acts as Jesus commands. “Turning the other cheek” is a lot easier to preach than it is to practice. The same holds true for loving our neighbors as ourselves, particularly when it comes into contact with our theological understanding of reproductive rights.
On Monday evening a draft was leaked of a revision to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that focuses on reproductive rights in the United States. In response, those in favor and those opposed to the draft have been celebrating/protesting in various parts of the country.
Reproductive rights are often painted as a faith-based matter for a variety of reasons and there are a great myriad of theological positions with regard to the understanding of being bodily creatures. The United Methodist Church, in our Book of Resolutions, both affirms the sanctity of life for all persons born and unborn and, at the same time, we support those who choose the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers. We are committed to ministering with those who have had an abortion, providing support and encouragement. (You can read more here: Social Principles)
The only time I can remember hearing about abortion in church, prior to becoming a pastor, was in a small group setting as a teenager when one of my peers asked the pastor how we should think theologically about abortion. His response has stayed with me ever since.
He said something to the effect of: “If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses to carry the baby to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc. But the same holds true for the other side of the spectrum. If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses not to carry to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc.”
I remember thinking his answer was both deeply theological and faithful. I only realized, much later, that not every church feels and thinks that same way.
We do not talk of such things in the church today for a variety of reasons: we prioritize the privacy of the individual, we treat the church as a place to talk about churchy things and not worldly things, we are afraid of upsetting sensibilities, we don’t want to appear too political, etc.
And yet, we, in large part, have fallen into a fallacy of believing that the most important things in the world are political and can only be handled in a political manner. We therefore worry and lose more sleep over who sits behind the desk in the oval office (or behind the rail in the Supreme Court) than we do over who sits at the throne of the universe (and who comes to be the Judged Judge in our place).
The church is, and always will be, political but it is political on terms that run counter to the world. Put simply, the church does not exist to proclaim a list of do’s and dont’s, but rather to follow and point to the One who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Therefore, the most interesting, creative, and faithful solutions we (that is: Christians) have to offer our weary world are not new laws, new politicians, or new social programs (though we certainly can support such efforts). The most important thing we have to offer the world is the church. We best serve the world by showing the world what it is not: a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.
We, the church, exist to be present for others not to judge them or to damn them, but to love them and support them to the end.
It isn’t easy – but nothing really important ever is.
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
There’s a moment that happens every single Sunday without fail. It doesn’t matter what the context is, or what music is offered, or even what scripture is read.
It happens right before I stand right here.
There’s a silence.
An eerie silence.
Perhaps it sounds different to me than it does to all of you. Your experience of the strange silence might be born out of discomfort or awkwardness.
But as far as I can tell that moment happens every week and its special; there is true attention and silence. And in that silence there is hope.
People like you and me hope, even for but a moment, that this time we will hear an answer to the question: Is it true?
Sadly, more often than not, that hoped for question isn’t even addressed. And if it is, it is only done so indirectly. There’s an assumption that, just by being here, we all assume all of it to be true.
But that’s not right. I think we’re all here, the tall and the small, the first and the last, the believer, half-believers, and unbelievers, because we want to have our question answered.
Is it true?
Today is the second Sunday of the season we call Eastertide. It stretches all the way from Easter Sunday up to Pentecost Sunday, its the great 50 days. Every Sunday in this season is a little Easter in which we re-celebrate the most amazing thing ever to take place in the cosmos.
And let me tell you: you all are a special bunch. There is something remarkable about those in worship for the second Sunday of Easter. You’re here because you know that following the Lord is more than just being present for the big moments. You’re clued in to what takes place behind the curtain of the cosmos. You’ve experienced the Lord in such a way that you can’t imagine being anywhere else doing anything else.
But, we must confess, we of the second Sunday of Easter crowd, that the promises of Easter are not yet fully realized.
We need only turn on the television, or scroll through Twitter, to be reminded that not all is as it should be.
I, myself, riding the incredible wave of Palm Sunday worship was deeply grieved to receive a phonemail the Monday of Holy Week that my oldest friend in the world took his own life the night before.
We sang some good old gospel hymns down in Memorial Hall on Maundy Thursday, we shared the body and the blood of our Lord, and my family and I had to jump in the car to drive up to Alexandria so that I could speak at my friend’s service of death and resurrection the next day.
Not all is as it should be.
Easter Sunday, exactly one week ago, it was remarkable! First sunrise service in 100 years, the First Light Band had the whole sanctuary clapping, even our children shouted out the Good News in song and shakers.
All told we had more than 300 people in worship last Sunday! Truly remarkable.
And, I’m no mathematician, but I don’t see 300 today.
Why is that? Why are there those who only darken the doors of the church twice a year?
Much has been made of the so-called Chreasters, the C and E crowd. They come because of familial obligation, or guilt, or tradition. There’s a hope, even if people like me refuse to admit it, that one year they will actually all return the next Sunday.
But the longer I do this, the more I understand that the church swells at Christmas and Easter because those who don’t normally attend know they have a better than good chance of hearing nothing but Good News: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” and “Christ the Lord is risen today!”
Part of the challenge is that we always proclaim the joy of the resurrection, in song, sacrament, and sermon, to people who, admittedly, feel like those two on the road to Emmaus. We know something has happened, but life beckons us elsewhere.
It is true?
John the Revelator certainly seems to think so.
I don’t know what you know of John of Patmos and his epistle of Revelation. It is, perhaps, the most misunderstood book in the Bible and yet, at the same time, the most important. It, like the concluding chapter of any good book, ties everything together. But to drop in at the very end, without knowing the beginning or the middle is a recipe for disaster.
There are some wild bits to this book, some that we will encounter over the next few weeks, but, as GK Chesterton noted, “John saw many strange monsters in his vision, but he never saw a creature so wild as those who try to explain it all.”
John, whoever John was, wrote for a people living in a time in-between. They were stuck squarely between the already but the not yet, planted in the time before the end time.
You know, people just like us.
Easter people, while all is not as it should be.
Oddly enough, even with its bizarre images and confounding cassations, Revelation is an odyssey of encouragement. It tells us who we are, who God is, and what is the world is going on in the world.
To put it simply, it tells us the truth.
John begins, rather abruptly, with the decisive declaration that Jesus is Lord and King of the cosmos. He was, he is, and he will be.
Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the one who remains steadfast even when we don’t, he points to the real things that matter in this life, and he is committed to doing so no matter what.
Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead, he is the one who, by death and resurrection, makes possible an impossibility, that in our deaths we are raised to new life.
Jesus Christ is the ruler of the kings of the earth, he is the one in charge.
I wonder though, if we actually believe that, or if we trust that to be true. I think, all things considered, it’s not difficult to affirm that Jesus is faithful, and that Jesus is risen. If it looks like Good News and it sounds like Good News. But Jesus being the ruler of the kings of the earth?
Its like a church meeting I remember attending long ago, certainly not something that would ever happen here, where we gathered for an important conversation, debate, decision making, and as we gathered voices were raised, accusations were made, and when finally came to the end of our appointed time, fists clenched, no wiser than we were when we stared, someone present had the audacity to ask if we might end our time in prayer.
I thought, “What for? We certainly didn’t behave like God was in the room, why invite the Lord in now?”
You see, when Jesus is in charge everything changes. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that it gets better. Have you read about the stuff he got up to the in the backwater towns of Galilee?
Are we sure we want Jesus to be in charge?
From the very beginning he predicted that those in power would reject him, and they did. I would say that’s strike one. Jesus has the gall to call all kinds of people who have no business being in the kingdom business. I mean, fishermen for disciples? Tax collectors for apostles? What’s next, bankers for Sunday school teachers? Lawyers on the mission committee?
Jesus is risky and foolish, spending all of his time among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. If we ever want to make the world a better place, we need a leader who’s going to spend time with the first, the best, the found, the big, and the lively.
What kind of leader forgives betrayers? What kind of ruler leaves ninety-nine behind to find the one who is lost? What kind of king hosts a banquet and invites everybody to attend?
John reminds us, across the centuries, through the power of words that Jesus is the one in charge, and in his infinite and confounding wisdom, he loves us, he has freed us from our very worst mistakes, and he has made us into a new people who will always feel like strangers in a stranger land.
And, to be clear, being in charge doesn’t mean being in control. If God in Christ is the author of every war, cancer diagnosis, and car crash then God isn’t worthy of our worship. But as the one in charge it means that God in Christ is the one we follow. He leads the way.
It is to Jesus, John says, that we owe our allegiance because he does for us what we cannot do for ourselves – he makes a way where there is no way. He, himself, is Easter for us.
The key according to the Revelator, the important truth that will be brought up again and again, is that it’s all up to Jesus. We can absolutely respond to what Jesus has done, we can even take up our crosses to follow, but he’s the one in charge, he gets all the good verbs. He, to put it plainly, is the Alpha and the Omega, the A and the Z.
Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or improve the improvable, or correct the correctable; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life for people like you and me, the good and the bad and the ugly.
The message of Revelation, of the one who is, and was, and is to come, is that it isn’t over yet. Easter is still happening. Until we all feast at the Supper of the Lamb, we will live in the in-between – the place where we vacillate between mourning and dancing, crying and laughing.
Every Easter we make the same declaration – Christ is risen! But that’s a little deceptive. It is true, but we have more to say: Christ is risen, and he’s in charge. Amen.
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Jesus motions for the crowds to come closer and he announces, “Listen, this is important: If you want to be part of this whole turn-the-world-upside-down endeavor, then your world needs to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, then you’re on the road to salvation. Because, in the end, you can try all you want to perfect yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”
Jesus drops this on the disciples and the crowds shortly after Peter rebukes the Lord for suggesting that the Son of Man would be betrayed and ultimately killed. What good is a Messiah that dies? But then Jesus mic drops the “take up your cross and follow me.”
It’s somewhat comforting to know we’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world-turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inauguration through Jesus because he was so wedded to the way things were. Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five-step program of spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best version of themselves by abstaining from everything wrong with the world.
Instead he says, “Follow me.”
The world is forever telling us to do more, to be better, to earn, produce, and reform but things largely stay the same. Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing is already finished – all we have to do is trust him.
Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own destiny, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly Kingdoms.
But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same – He came to raise the dead.
And the dead can’t raise themselves.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether or not we stop sinning, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world, nails them to the cross, and leaves them there forever.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in the Son and loves us in spite of ourselves.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what the Lord wants because God is in the business of raising the dead.
We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives with a word of profound transformation. We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to make all things new. Even us.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
My son’s preschool class announced a few weeks ago that there was going to be a school wide field trip to a farm in order to celebrate the season of fall. Parents were encouraged to attend and act somewhat like chaperones as the children would have access to most of the property including many of the animals. In the days leading up to the field trip, I didn’t give it much thought, until yesterday morning when we arrived at the farm and saw the hundreds of other kids and families descending on the farm.
The place was massive and filled with all sorts of activities – there were pirate ships to climb on, pumpkin patches to weave through, and a 45 min long hay ride through the whole property.
The best way to sum up the experience was something I overheard between a husband and his wife (outside of earshot from their children), “Who needs Disney World when we have this???”
All in all it was a great experience, and one that my son talked about all afternoon, evening, and even while I was putting him to bed last night. And I hope he will remember with fondness the slides, and the doughnuts, and the castles, but the thing I will always remember will be the wandering sheep.
It should go without saying that sheep are dumb. They are some of the most simple minded creatures and they have to be taken care of with particular attention.
The sheep at the farm yesterday morning was wandering around outside of any fence or pen and no one seemed to notice. But the longer it paced back and forth, the more it commanded my attention. At least, it did until one of the farm workers walked over and presumably began directing the sheep back to its proper place, and when he saw me watching he said, “She’s nothing without a shepherd.”
“All we like sheep have gone astray,” says the prophet Isaiah, “we have all turned to our own way.” We modern people tend to think that we’ve got all of this life stuff figured out; we wake up day after day and go through the motions we presume give us meaning. But the hard truth of the matter is that, many of us, are no better than the wandering sheep.
When we become so consumed by our own desires, our own hopes, our own expectations, we become like that farm animal trapped in our own loop of isolation.
Thanks be to God, then, that we have a shepherd named Jesus – the one who comes when we are lost and guides us back to the flock – the one who pulls us out of our self-absorption and helps us to see that there is a better way.
But take care that this liberty of your does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.
When I graduated from High School, my family put together a big party in the backyard and invited a ton of people. All of the usual suspects were in attendance: relatives, neighbors, and family friends. But my parents also extended a handful of invitations to my favorite teachers. And of all the teachers I had, my very favorite was my band director.
Mr. Rice was everything you could have wanted in a teacher. He was intelligent, funny, and easy to talk to. He made studying, and performing music, an absolute joy. Because of his commitment to his discipline, and his ability to lead and engage his students, some of my fondest memories from high school are of sitting in the band room playing music.
So I was in my parents’ backyard, celebrating my graduation from High School, when Mr. Rice walked around the corner. I remember the immense pride I felt in that moment, and not just for graduating, but also for the fact that he took the time to come celebrate with us.
As the afternoon wore on, people came and went, and Mr. Rice continued to mingle among the crowd, always keeping his right hand down by his side. He was someone who always spoke with both arms flying about (as if he were conducting) so it stood out that one arm remained unmoved. Finally, I had a chance to ask him about it and I noticed that he was holding a beer bottle, wrapped in five napkins, hidden down by his side. At first I thought he was hiding the drink because he was embarrassed, or worried it wasn’t allowed, and then I just decided to ask what the deal was. And I’ll never forget what he said: “I don’t want to become a stumbling block to others. Particularly my students.”
Mr. Rice was there to rejoice with us, but he was also cognizant of the role he was still playing regardless of the location and occasion. There were plenty of high school students in the backyard and he didn’t not want them to make some assumption that because he was drinking, that it would be okay for them to do so as well. Mr. Rice, even in the midst of a party, remembered who he was, and the impact he had on us.
To this day I give thanks to God for placing Mr. Rice into my life. I learned a lot from him, and not just about music. From his witness I learned about the virtues of kindness, hope, and patience. Through his leadership I learned what it means to listen and to guide. And above all, he taught me what it means to carry myself in such a way that I won’t become a stumbling block to others.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
It sounds easy. Jesus is walking along the road with his disciples and someone says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” In a sense, this is the same declaration we make each and every Sunday that we gather for worship; we want to follow Jesus wherever he goes. But do we really?
If we assume that Jesus is revealed to us in the sanctuary then it makes sense that we will follow him there. Sunday morning worship is a comfortable arena where we can feel good about our Christian identities; we can sing together from the hymnal, we can pray for the world to be a better place, and we can hear a sermon that makes us laugh and reminds us that God is love. But what about the end of the service? Are we willing to follow Jesus wherever he goes between worship services?
If Jesus walked into a Hillary Clinton rally to demand more honesty from our politicians, would we follow him? If Jesus wandered into a Donald Trump rally to demand an end to racism and bigotry, would we follow him? If Jesus marched against the NRA to boldly request better gun control laws, would we follow him? If Jesus made his way into the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando to spend time with a marginalized community, would we follow him? If Jesus asked us to take up our own cross and follow him to Calvary, would we follow him?
To follow Jesus is a radical thing. It means putting the needs of others before our own. It means seeking out the last, least, and lost in addition to the people who make us comfortable. It means we need to strive for mercy instead of sacrifice, communion instead of correctness, and Kingdom instead of nation. It means following him into the places of life that we would otherwise avoid.
Many of us have grown comfortable with our Christianity because it does not ask much of us. So long as we can be present for an hour on Sundays, we believe we are covering our spiritual bases. In turn, the church has become another civic organization and no longer the life-giving arena of grace, mercy, and love.
And honestly, this makes sense. Throughout the gospel narratives Jesus’s followers and disciples continued to grow in number until he set his face toward Jerusalem. The closer he came to the cross, the more the people started to fall away. As the expectations and costs increased, the level of commitment dwindled.
At the end, while he was hanging on the cross with only a few faithful disciples remaining, it was a thief who wanted to follow Jesus wherever he went. And Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Following Jesus comes with a cost, but the reward is beyond all measure.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
This morning we continue in the season of Lent. Christians throughout the world will use this time to repent of sins and seek renewal in their commitment to follow Jesus Christ. We are exploring and examining Jesus’ life from baptism to resurrection by walking in his footsteps on the way that leads to life. We are using Adam Hamilton’s book The Way to guide our weekly services because it follows Jesus’ life in a way that is important for us to rediscover during Lent. Today we are looking at Jesus’ healing ministry.
Have you ever listened to a sermon that made you so mad you wanted to kill the preacher?
Jesus, after his baptism by John and his temptations in the wilderness, was filled with the power of the Spirit when he returned to Galilee. He began teaching in synagogues and people were praising him left and right.
When he came home to Nazareth, the place where he grew up, a town of no more than 200 people, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom. The place was filled to the brim with people who had known him his entire life, filled with friends who were more like family, filled with people full of expectation.
He stood up to read, and the scroll of Isaiah was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and started to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus then slowly rolled the scroll back up, and sat down to begin his lesson. Everyone was glued to Jesus. They sat around him and waited to hear what he had to say. When he opened his mouth, he said these words, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The people could not believe their ears. Who in the world does this son of a carpenter think he is? The Messiah? They began to murmur among themselves regarding his audacity and some even wondered if he would perform miracles like they ones that were rumored.
Jesus, however, cut through the air, “I’m sure that some of you want a sign, you want me to do some quick healings. But the truth is, prophets are never accepted in their hometown. Prophets get rejected all the time. I am here for bigger things than Nazareth. Do you remember what happened during the time of Elijah? There was a severe famine across the whole land, but God only sent the prophet to one widow in Sidon. And do you remember what happened during the time of Elisha? There was lepers all across the land, but God only sent the prophet to cleanse Naaman the Syrian.”
When the people in the synagogue heard his words, they were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Have you ever listened to a sermon that made you so mad you wanted to kill the preacher?
Jesus spent the majority of his ministry looking for the sick and the oppressed. Rather than showing up at the palaces of the wealthy and powerful, Jesus looked for the people living on the margins of life and made them whole.
Healing, at least the kind of healing Jesus did, was not limited to physical health. He cleansed the sick, and brought sight back to the blind, and helped the lame to walk, but he also did so much more.
He proclaimed that he came to bring good news to the poor. He did not give them money to reverse their socio-economic situations. Instead he pointed out how, in the kingdom of God, the last would be first and the first would be last. He gave meaning to their lives by giving them the time and attention they deserved.
He proclaimed that he came to bring release to the captives. He did not go around encouraging insurrections against prison guards and corrupt politicians. Instead he reunited broken families, forgave wrongdoers, and encouraged the downtrodden; all that were held captive by the power of sin.
He proclaimed that he came to recover the sight of the blind. He did not go around healing individual’s eyes and leave them to their own devices. He healed them and sent them back to the families that had disowned them, to the friends that had abandoned them, and to the towns that had forgotten them.
Jesus’ ministry of healing went beyond biology and into the realm of relationships. He brought newness to people’s lives and then expected the culture to change at the same time. Jesus came to heal the sick of body, and of spirit, all at the same time.
And while Jesus loved healing others, he also loved disrupting contentment. He showed up in his hometown, proclaimed an incredible and powerful message, and then basically told the people that they needed something more than cheap grace. The kinds of people who really needed Jesus’ physical healing were not in the synagogue that day. They were the ones forced out of town, abandoned by friends, and disowned by families. By withholding his physical healing ministry from their gathering, he implicitly told them to start healing their brokenness first.
Have you ever listened to a sermon that made you so mad you wanted to kill the preacher?
Let me tell you, Jesus is a tough pill to swallow. You think the message in the synagogue that day was bad? Wait till you hear some of the other things Jesus told his followers.
Full disclosure: What I am about to say are not my own words. If, while you’re listening, you start noticing that your fists are clenched, and you start wondering about where the closest cliff might be to throw me off, just remember that these are Jesus’ words and not my own.
“Woe to you that are rich, for you have already received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you that are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6.24-25)
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6.19)
“You have heard that it was said an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone want to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to anyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5.38)
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10.24-25)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate you enemies.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5.43-44)
Feeling angry yet?
Jesus loved disrupting people’s false contentment. He came to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Even today, Jesus loves gathering people in a place like this and then turning our heads around to the people we are supposed to be healing.
What we often fail to realize is that God uses people like us to accomplish his will on earth. We are the instruments of God’s peace to deliver healing to the people around us.
Healing for others and ourselves can only come when we are willing to get uncomfortable in church and start living like Jesus outside the church.
When we catch ourselves mocking the people begging for money on the streets, Jesus wants us to know that if we ignore them, we are ignoring him.
When we catch ourselves serving the master of money and losing sleep over how much we have in our bank accounts, Jesus wants us to know that we are supposed to be using our blessings to bless others.
When we catch ourselves cursing the people fleeing their countries out of fear, Jesus wants us to remember that he once had to abandon his home out of fear.
If we want to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, if we want to be part of his kingdom on earth, then we need to start healing our broken understanding of reality and start healing others.
Have you ever listened to a sermon that made you so mad you wanted to kill the preacher? When it happened to Jesus in Nazareth, he was able to sneak back through the crowd and continue his ministry. But when it happened to Jesus in Jerusalem, they nailed him to a cross. Amen.
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
The small town sheriff was frustrated when he received a phone-call from the station that interrupted his Sunday supper. A report had come in that a group of young boys were throwing water balloons at strangers walking along Main Street. Reluctantly, the sheriff changed out of his Sunday best into his uniform and went to find the hooligans.
Just as the report noted, a group of young boys were standing on a street corner with a bucket of water balloons and were striking anyone within distance. As he approached in his patrol car, he expected to hear the boys laughing and hollering, but they were rather silent as he inched his way forward. He recognized all the boys from his local church, and dreaded the phone calls he would be making to all of their parents, but he knew their behavior had to stop.
The boys were smart enough not to throw a balloon at the police car, but the sheriff was still nervous to roll down his window in case a wayward throw made it inside. “What do you think you’re doing?” he yelled to the boys. In unison they all solemnly replied, “we’re working for the Lord.” He was mystified by their response, after all how could throwing water balloons at strangers be equated with the almighty? So the sheriff sat in his car with one eyebrow raised and motioned for them to explain.
The ringleader then stepped forward and said, “Didn’t you hear the preacher this morning sheriff? He told us to go out baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We’ve got Holy Water Balloons and we’ve done already made 45 Christians.”
Every good thing in our lives, every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, every blessing, every compliment, is from above.
Throughout our days, the Lord nurtures, guides, and provides all that we need. More often than not, God uses the people around us to do so, but nevertheless God supplies the goodness in our lives.
The letter of James is beautiful, and it begins with a quick assessment of the discipled life and what it means to live into this identity.
James knew how to notice the small things, because the small acts of life are the nuts and bolts of existence. It is the little things, the small actions and the tiny compliments, that hold together the fabric of our lives and give us the power to build and shape community. What we say and how we act are more important than we can possibly imagine.
The Lord has given us new life by the Word of truth and the power of scripture so that we would become a kind of first fruits. We have been given the great blessings of God’s presence, scripture, and Jesus Christ and now we have the responsibility to let those blessings bear fruit in our lives, and in the lives around us.
We must understand this, children of God, we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, because our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. How many times have we jumped to a conclusion, or said something without thinking it through and immediately regretted it? How valuable is James’ advice: be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger?
Our contemporary conversations are filled with “uhhs” “buts” “likes” and other verbal bridges because we are afraid of silence. Rather than actually listening to others, or at least giving them the chance to speak, we fill up every ditch between our words out of fear that someone else will jump in with something else to say. Imagine how much our relationships would change if we only heeded James’ words in our conversations? Can you picture how different our identities would be if we were quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger?
If we have the strength to change the way we converse, then we will begin to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to change the world. Instead of relying on our own words at all times and places, with patience we can remember the great Word of God in Jesus Christ and put all our trust in him. Instead of believing that we are alone in the world and in our situations, we will come to see that God is with us, and has carried God’s people through this before and will again.
But it’s not just about the words we use and speak, as Christians we are invited to be doers of the Word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
Have you ever departed from church on a Sunday morning, after hearing a particularly convicting message, only to believe that it had nothing to do with you? Have you ever picked up the bible and started reading only to think about the other people the scripture should apply to instead of you?
For if we are hearers of the word and not doers, then we are like those who look at a mirror and as soon as we walk away immediately forget who we are. Our identities are rooted in the scriptures we read, and in the water of our baptism. But too often, we leave from church, or we put down the bible, or the water dries from our hair, and we immediately forget who we are and whose we are.
If church is supposed to accomplish anything on a regular basis, it is to act like a giant mirror so that we catch a glimpse of who God is calling us to be, and then never forget what we have seen.
It was New Year’s Eve 1999 and Javier was afraid. For months news pundits and writers speculated about the “end of the world” coming with the year 2000. In addition to some strange and warped biblical prophecies, technologically proficient workers warned about the change that might come with the digits 99 changing to 00 and the blackouts that could ensue. For weeks people throughout the world prepared for the worst, and the rhetoric about the end times increased.
So Javier found himself getting ready to attend a worship service with his family and friends in El Salvador on the eve of the new millennium and he was afraid. The service itself was fine; it proclaimed the word of God’s faithfulness in spite the warnings about the new millennium, yet Javier could not rid himself of the fear that was shaking him to his core. Before the service came to a close, Javier stood up, walked to the front and asked to be baptized. He did not know what the New Year would bring, he did not know what would happen to the world, but he figured that a little water on his head couldn’t hurt.
Except, that simple affirmation that God was bigger than himself, that simple humbled moment of reverence to God’s power to save was enough to change Javier’s life forever. Of course, the year 2000 did not bring about the end of the world, but it did bring about Javier’s new identity in Jesus Christ. From that night forward he saw himself as a disciple and has lived into that ever sense.
My own baptism took place when I was 19 days old. Other than some strange blurry photographs of my mother and father standing at the front of the church, I have no idea what it was like or what happened. But it came to shape my very identity. The people who were present in worship that day 27 year ago took seriously the commitment to raise me in faith, and helped me hold on to my identity in Jesus.
The Sunday before I became the pastor at St. John’s I stood before my home congregation and thanked them for nurturing me in the faith all these years and said goodbye. But while I stood in the narthex shaking hands after the service, a much older woman came up with a very worn bible in her hands. Without saying much she turned to the back inside cover and showed me my name and the date of my baptism. For decades she had written down the name and date of every person baptized in her presence and made a point to pray for every single one of them, every single day. Her prayers shaped me into who I am.
Those of us to look in the mirror and remember who we are when we walk away, those of us who are doers of the word will be blessed in our actions. Our religion is pure when we, like the disciples from long ago, actually live into the Word of God and start caring about the people in our midst. Our religion is pure when we clasp our hands together and pray for the world. Our religion is pure when we remember our baptisms and are thankful.
Who are you?
What defines your identity?
Perhaps we’ve forgotten who we are and whose we are. Instead of seeing disciples of Jesus Christ in the mirror, we only see fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. Instead of holding on the image of God in our hearts, we turn away from the mirror of church and we immediately forget what God is speaking into our lives.
Do you remember your baptism? Can you recall the details of what eventually led you to yearn for the water of a new identity? Were you, like Javier, led to baptism out of fear? Were you, like me, led to baptism before you even had a chance to know what was happening?
Baptism is not about quantity; we’re not interested in throwing Holy Water Balloons at everyone within distance. Baptism is instead about discovering our fullest identity in Christ through a covenant by water and the Spirit.
Today, we are all invited to remember our baptisms and be thankful. In a few moments I will pray over our baptismal font, and everyone may come forward to remember and give thanks. The mirror behind the water is there for us to take a good look, so that when we turn around we will not forget who we are.
Disciples of Jesus Christ: Remember that every good thing is from above, that God has given us the word of truth so that we may bear fruit in our lives. Remember to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Remember that we are called to be doers of the Word. Remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember who you are. Amen.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.
“I’m post-racial” he said. “I am color blind to racial differences and I have no prejudices.” At the time we were discussing racial inequality in Durham, North Carolina (a still very pertinent topic) and the man claimed that if more people could see the world the way he did, everything would be fixed. He proudly claimed his lack of prejudice for anyone with ears to hear but I had a hard time taking him seriously. I did not know him well enough to begin arguing against his so called “prejudice free lifestyle” so I decided to let him him wax lyrical about himself. However, while he continued to go on and on, a friend muttered next to me under his breath, “Show me someone without prejudice, and I’ll show you a liar.”
One of the hardest tasks of following Jesus Christ is to try to live without prejudices precisely because many of us aren’t aware of how deeply rooted our prejudices are. We may think that we are “color blind” or that we relate to people who are different from us in religion, sexual orientation, or political persuasions, but in many circumstances our involuntary thoughts, uncensored words, and knee-jerk reactions often demonstrate that our prejudices are still there.
If we’re driving in our cars and we see two women holding hands walking down the side-walk, what are our first thoughts? If we are at a restaurant and we witness a black woman and a white man kissing one another across the table, how do we immediately respond? If we’re flipping through news channels and come across a political campaign of a different perspective, how do we initially react?
Strangers, anyone who is unlike us, stir up fear and discomfort. They break down our sense of security and well being by simply being “different.” We can puff ourselves up all we want with claims of living with a post-whatever lifestyle, but most of us, if we’re honest, are prejudice in ways big and small, seen and unseen.
As Christians, we give thanks to the Lord for he is good. Only when we learn to fully believe that God loves each of us unconditionally and see others as equally loved can we begin to behave according to God’s goodness. The great variety in the world is a sign of God’s immense wonder and beauty. Living with a non-judgmental frame of mind is exceptionally difficult, but it is worth working toward.
This week, while we continue to journey through the season of Lent, let us admit our own prejudices. When we have those knee-jerk reactions toward those who are different from us, let us immediately go to the Lord in prayer and ask for Him to create in us clean hearts so that we might become people of love rather than prejudice.
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
There is a burden that comes with being a Christian leader (or as the Spiderman comics would put it: with great power comes great responsibility). Just as in the day of Paul, we, as Christians, are expected to imitate the Lord through our actions, so that we can be examples to all other people. The great challenge with this responsibility comes with the temptation to use the power we have been given for ourselves, rather than for God’s kingdom.
For too many years some Christians leaders and preachers have tended to elevate their ministry to such a staggering degree that they become more important than the living God whom they claim to follow. I have seen churches that have no images of Christ displayed in the sanctuary, no cross to remember the great act of the incarnate God, and nothing else that would lead anyone to know that the gathered people were Christians. I remember visiting a church when I lived in Harrisonburg, Virginia that looked like a music venue and by the time the service was over I realized that the triune God was not mentioned even once. It seemed that doing church, for them, was more about living a good life based on the standards imposed by the leaders rather than a profound commitment to discover the living God and follow Christ.
When the great theologian Karl Barth was a pastor in Basel, Switzerland he discovered Matthias Grunewald’s depiction of the crucifixion and kept a copy of it on his desk throughout his ministry, from his days as a young pastor until his death. Barth believed the work of art was a worthy metaphor for Christians; John the Baptist stands off to the side holding an open bible while pointing away from himself to Christ on the cross. Christians, at their best, are called to be like John and point away from themselves to the incredible Christ who is the only one worthy of our imitation. We point toward Christ through our words and actions, while also remembering the distance between us and Christ; we will never live exactly like him, but we nevertheless strive to imitate him in our living.
When I learned about Barth’s affection for the Grunewald piece, I made sure to find a copy for my office. It is the first thing I see when someone enters my office, and the last thing I see before heading to the sanctuary for worship. It hangs at eye sight right next to the door as a constant reminder about my responsibility to point toward Christ and not myself.
How do you imitate the Lord in your daily life? Where in your life can you point to Christ so that others can come to know the love of God?