#ChurchToo 2

2 Samuel 11.26-27

When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.

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David saw something he wanted, a naked bathing woman, and he used his power and privilege to bring her to his bedchamber. Knowing full and well that she was a married woman, he nonetheless raped her and she became pregnant.

When David found out the result of his sexual assault, he worked to have the woman’s husband murdered in order to cover his tracks. And after the husband’s death, David sent for the woman and she was brought back to his house, and she bore him a son.

Names are important in the bible, and we must not forget that all of this happened to Bathsheba. But when the biblical writers stop using a name, or never use it in the first place, we know what the role of the individual is really like. Bathsheba went from the comfort of her home and her marriage to being nothing more than an object of the king. Her agency disappears in the story as David has his way with her and covers up his tracks.

But God was displeased.

The Lord then decided to send the prophet Nathan to hold up the mirror of shame to David by way of a parable. And when David heard the deep and frightening truth of the parable, by reacting harshly to his own fictional character in the narrative, he realized that he sinned against the Lord.

BUT WHAT ABOUT BATHSHEBA?

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I am thankful for Nathan’s willingness to call truth to power, to put David in his place. I am even thankful that David realized his sins against the Lord. But what about his sins against Bathsheba and her husband? What about his sexual assault and murderous plotting?

Sometimes when we hear about forgiveness in the church it is whittled down to, “If you ask God to forgive you, all will be forgiven.” And in a sense this is theologically true, but it does not account for reconciling with the people we have sinned. It does not make up for the horrible things that have been done to individuals in the church, or under the auspices of the church.

The cross of Christ indeed reconciles ALL things, not just our relationships with God. But the cross of Christ also compels us to repent for how we have wronged God AND neighbor AND creation.

When Christians gather at the table to feast on the bread and the cup, it is not enough to just walk away feeling right with the world when we have let the sins against our brothers and sisters continue without reconciliation.

The story of David’s trespasses is a prescient reminder of what happens when we let our sins percolate. We might not be guilty of the same sins as the beloved king of Israel, but God still uses Nathans to speak truth into our denials such that we can know how we have sinned against God AND one another. And, God willing, the truth of our prophets will also compel us to seek out those we have wronged, and begin the difficult and challenging process of reconciliation.

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Good Fences Make Bad Neighbors

Ephesians 2.11-22

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” – a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, but upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

It was still cool in the early morning when the man prepared to mow his lawn. He looked forward to being able to drive back and forth over the grass before the sun made it too hot, and it was an opportunity for him to escape from all the busyness of the world. The hum of the machine below his legs was barely audible over his ear protection and he continued to mow until the lawn was immaculate.

As he maneuvered the mower toward the garage, he hopped off to inspect the machine when out of nowhere BAM he was tackled to the ground. The two men rolled down the hill grappling each other until they came to a stop, and the fighting really began.

Hours later the mowing man was in the hospitable with six broken ribs wondering what had led him to all of this.

That man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, a senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the fight broke out. Was the assailant an opponent of Paul’s political ideologies? Was he so moved by debates on Capitol Hill that he felt violence was the only solution? Was Paul involved with some nefarious characters and now we were seeing behind the curtain?

Not since 1856 had a sitting senator been so beaten and sent to a doctor. It was a frightening moment for law-makers all across the country as they began wondering if it could happen to them too.

Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out. The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tired of Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.

I’m not making this up people! While a great sum of people assumed that Paul’s political persuasion was to blame for the attack, while the media continued to stir the pop as much as possible, it was all about a neighborhood squabble.

Though this one left a man in the hospital with 6 broken ribs.

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Remember that you were once without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. He is our peace! In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

Have you ever been mad at a neighbor? Maybe they kept playing their music too loud into the early morning hours, or perhaps they kept parking their car in front of your driveway, or maybe they kept blowing their lawn clippings on to your property…

Robert Frost once famously wrote that good fences make good neighbors. And one could make the argument that strong walls make for better peace. There’s a reason the Vatican is surrounded by walls, and the White House, and even the Temple in Jerusalem.

            Every child that has had to share a room knows the value of a wall (though in this case a figurative one).

            There’s a reason we have to go through security before we got on an airplane.

            But good walls also make for bad neighbors.

During the initial hearing after the lawn mower battle, it came to light that Rand Paul and his neighbor had not exchanged a word with one another for over ten years. Tens years of frustration about lawn clippings boiled over to the point that violence came forth. That’s a pretty tremendous wall to share with a neighbor, a wall of hostility that’s stronger than any bit of chain, any concentration of concrete, or any fabricated fence.

The higher we build the walls around us, both the real and the imagined, the higher the hostility tends to be. Every year more and more gated communities are completed. Year after year new boundary lines are drawn for schools, for taxable business, and a whole slew of other items. Year after year we tend to spend more time with people who look like us and think like us and talk like us than ever before.

And yet Paul is bold, some might say foolish, to proclaim that Christ has broken down the dividing wall, that Christ has eradicated the hostility between us.

One need not drive around for very long, or turn on the television, or simply swipe on a phone, to know that hostility is still very real, and that new walls are being constructed each and every day.

However, in the blood and cross of Christ, Jesus’ peace has been made possible for us.

And this is where the struggle between building walls and erasing hostility really comes into focus. It is far too easy to read a passage like this from Ephesians and then make some sort of declaration about current realities like the proposed wall at the southern border with Mexico, or furthering divides within our local community. And for as much as that might be true, those are walls and hostilities and visions of peace defined by our terms, and not necessarily by Jesus.

When we think of peace, we might imagine a time and place where everyone will just get along, or at least where people will just start being nice with one another.

But Jesus, the Lord of lords, he doesn’t have a lot to say about being nice. Sure, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to the sick… those are all nice things. Doing all of that might make the world a little more peaceful.

But Jesus’ peace, a divine peace, also looks like turning the tables over in the temple, it looks like calling to task the political and religious elite for making such a mockery of the kingdom, it looks like abandoning the people closest to you if it means making God’s new reality manifest on earth.

And sometimes Jesus’ peace doesn’t jive with our version of peace.

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One of the greatest challenges of being a Christian today is that many of us simply cannot resonate with the deep and profound truth that we were once far off and have now been brought near by the blood of Jesus. If we’ve grown up in the church, or can’t remember a time when the church was not pivotal in our life, we make the assumption that we have always been near. But all of us here are gentiles, we were far from the Lord and were only brought close because of Jesus.

And when we recognize our far-off-ness, when we recognize the immense chasm that has been joined in the blood of Jesus between us and God, it makes the peace of Jesus a whole lot more interesting.

Jesus’ peace is different than our peace, and is only possible because of his peace. We are no longer stranger and aliens to one another, but instead we are citizens of the household of God. This is the best news my friends! Whatever divisions and hostilities we might imagine between us, they have been wiped away! The cross stands as the great unifier between all of God’s people, including us.

            Jesus’ peace is greater than any earthly vision we could possibly imagine. It is more powerful than any political policy, it is mightier than any magistrate’s order, it is more life giving than any piece of legislation.

            Jesus’ peace is revolutionary.

And Jesus’s peace is nothing short of Jesus himself. In the life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Lord we discover not just a way to live differently, but also the way that makes a way where there was no way. Jesus destroyed, and continues to destroy, the walls and the hostility between us, because we have been made one in the blood.

Now, of course, there is the temptation to treat the church like the unique place of peace, a one-hour a week reprieve from the madness of the world. Church, what we are doing here right now, is not the place where we pretend peace is possible by sitting next to people whom we might otherwise ignore during the week. The church, as the body of Christ, is a new peace, one in which a different power from the cross redefines the ways of the world.

Does this mean that we need to leave from this building and start tearing down our backyard fences? Should we go to our country’s southern border and protest the construction of a giant wall? Is this text compelling us to destroy every boundary that has ever existed?

Destroying walls does not in itself create peace. We still live in a very broken world in which our sinful desires compel us to make choices we know we should not make. Peace, Jesus’ peace, only comes by eliminating the hostility behind the dividing walls, and that’s not something within our own power.

Rather than building walls that separate us and keep us safe, rather than trying to become our own Gods and destroying new walls, Paul pushes us to let ourselves be built upon the cornerstone of Christ into a temple where God dwells.

And friends, this is no easy task. To do so requires humility all but lost in the world today. It requires a willingness to say that I cannot do this on my own, that I have failed to love my fellow brothers and sisters, that I have ignored the power of Jesus blood.

To be built upon the cornerstone of Christ, rather than building our own walls, is to fundamentally commit ourselves to Jesus instead of trying to commit Jesus’ to whatever we want.

            It is nothing short of letting our lives embody the words we pray each and every week, “let thy will be done.”

When each of you entered the sanctuary this morning you were handed a Lego piece. I asked you to hold it and consider your piece in the kingdom. I did this because each of us has a piece to play in peace.

But it’s not our responsibility alone.

As Paul so rightly puts it, Jesus came and proclaimed peace to us! We were far off and through Jesus we have been united with one another in one Spirit to the Father.

We are no longer strangers and aliens; all has been made new! We are citizens with fellow saints and members of the household of God. We have been built about the foundation of those who came before, with Christ himself as the cornerstone.

In Jesus the entire structure of reality is joined together and it continues to grow in the holy temple in the Lord. Our oneness, the destruction of our hostility, is the beginning of the dwelling place for God.

And so we hold our piece that is part of Jesus’ peace. But we are not alone. In just a moment, each of us will be invited forward to connect our piece to Jesus’ peace. We will be built upon the cornerstone that is Jesus the Christ, the one who is our peace. We will see our connected and stuck we each other we really are. And we will remember that Christ has already destroyed the walls between us and erased the hostility. Amen.

Devotional – Matthew 5.23-24

Devotional:

Matthew 5.23-24

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the alter and go; first be reconciled to you brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

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“I want you to write down the name of someone who is currently driving you crazy.” That’s how I chose to begin a sermon more than a year ago. Each bulletin had a blank piece of paper inside, and after writing down the name I asked everyone to crumple it up and hold it in their hands until the end of the sermon.

The sermon was focused on Isaiah 6.1-8 and I talked about how Christians, for centuries, have been called by God to confront conflict. I said that to be faithful is to meet the outcasts where they are and show them love, that to be a disciple means a willingness to forgive people when they have done something wrong, and that to follow Jesus means having the courage to ask for forgiveness when we have done something wrong.

I concluded the sermon by asking everyone to look at the names crumpled up in their hands, and seriously consider making the first move to confront the conflict with that person. I warned everyone that it might not go well, and that it might blow up in our faces, but that the longer the conflict remains, the harder it would be to hear the living God speaking in our lives.

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Like a lot of sermons, I preached it and hoped the people of St. John’s took the challenge seriously. Over the next few months I occasionally heard about what happened when certain individuals confronted the conflict in their lives, but a few people told me that it was too hard and they were too afraid to face the person whose name they wrote at the beginning of the sermon.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, takes the art of reconciliation very seriously: Before you bring a gift to the altar (before you place your tithe in the offering plate during worship) you need to leave; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come back to offer your gift.

I’ve often thought about what this would look like in the middle of a worship service: How would people respond if we told them to leave the church right then and there to be reconciled with the people they are quarreling with before giving their gifts to the church? Would any of them come back the next Sunday? Would anyone walk straight up to me because I’m the person they’re frustrated with?

It is easy to show up to church every week as if we have everything in our lives figured out and squared away, when the truth is that we are quarreling with people in our lives and that we don’t have everything figured out. Church, however, is the place where we learn what it means to be broken, and how God is working through us to put the pieces back together.

So, if we took Jesus’ words seriously, who would we need to reconcile with before we show up to church next Sunday?

What Does The Bible Say About Divorce?

Mark 10.2-12

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of you hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

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This morning we continue our sermon series on Questions. After polling all of you about your queries regarding faith, scripture, and the church, I compiled three of the most prevalent questions: What Are Angels? What Does The Bible Say About Divorce? And How Can We Be Biblically Wise? Though there are no simple, black and white, answers to any of these questions, we will strive during this series to bring clarity to our wonder. This morning we continue with “What Does The Bible Say About Divorce?”

 

 

Good morning. It is so nice to see and be with both of you for this premarital counseling session. I am really excited about your wedding and I considerate it a privilege that you’ve asked me to preside over the service.

Before we really get started, let’s pray… Amen.

So, tell me about your last fight… Uh huh, interesting. And would you agree? … Okay. So let me get this straight, your mother keeps offering her unsolicited opinion about what you two should do with your money, and then your mother keeps inserting herself into wedding plans? But the fight really started when you began arguing about where you would be spending your first Christmas as a married couple. You think you should be with your parents and family? And you think you should be with your parents and family?

This is going to be a great session!

Marriage is a strange thing. Out of all the people in the world, out of all the conversations and friendships and relationships, you two have been brought together (somehow or another) and you are now about to make a public covenant that you want to be together for the rest of your lives.

Let’s talk about why you want to be married. Everything in your relationship seems to be going fairly well, so why do you want to move toward marriage?

Because you love each other… How precious. We’ll talk more about love later. What else? What makes you feel like the person next to you in the one you want to wake up next to forever?

You trust each other… nice. You feel complete when the other one is around… good. You want to start your own family together… great.

Marriage is a public union ratified by God in heaven. In gathering together before your friends, families, and the Lord you will make a covenant to embody Christ’s love for us with the person sitting next to you. It is just about the most serious decision and commitment that you will ever make.

So you know why you want to get married. The next question, then, is why do you want to get married in the church? Because the three of us could get in the car and head down to the courthouse right now and you could be married within the hour. It would be a legal marriage in the eyes of the state and it would probably cost a whole lot less. So, why get married in the church?

I love that answer: You believe that marriage is bigger than just the two of you, and you want to the community of faith to be there with you. Wow.

Have you all thought about what scripture you want to use in the service? I encourage all couples to spend time in the bible and search for a verse or a passage that has special meaning for you. My only caveat is this: I will not preach on 1 Corinthians 13. Do you know it? “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends”

Why won’t I preach on 1 Corinthians 13? Love is not enough to make a marriage work.

A successful marriage will never be contingent on your whims or your romantic feelings for one another. There will come a day, I promise, that you will not look or feel as good as you do right now. Love is not enough to carry you through the changes and the frustrations that will occur. Marriage requires more than love.

Between this session and the next, take the time to dive deeply into your bibles and find a scripture you want to use in the service and we’ll go from there. Just stay away from 1 Corinthians 13.

Have you thought about any hymns you would like to use in the service?

Number 408. Wait… is that “The Gift of Love”?

Were you not listening to anything I just said? Love is not enough. A successful and faithful marriage is based on qualities like endurance, patience and hope, conversion and renewal, forgiveness and reconciliation. (sigh)

Anyway. Have you all considered the seriousness of your marriage? Which is to say, have you talked about divorce?

Both sets of parents are currently divorced? And it happened when you were a child, and when you were in college? How do you feel about divorce?

Interesting. You believe this covenant is so important that you will never get divorced? That’s rather admirable.

But here’s a dose of reality. 50% of all marriages end in divorce. In our country there is one divorce every 36 seconds. That’s nearly 2,400 divorces per day, 16,800 divorces per week and 876,000 divorces per year. Divorce is so remarkably prevalent in our culture and society to the degree that we have become numb to it.

For too long the church has refused to confront divorce. We’d rather talk about every other controversial subject under the sun, but bring up divorce and you start making people really uncomfortable.

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And let me be clear, there are circumstances that occur in marriage where divorce is probably the best possible solution. Situations like physical abuse or traumatic adultery, but people get divorced for the most mundane reasons. “Our interests have grown apart” “We no longer effectively communicate” “We’re not in love anymore.”

As a society, we no longer take the covenant of marriage seriously. Some of us are too quick to end the relationship whenever we feel those first hiccups. As Christians, however, we are called to hear the bible and Jesus who are quite clear in their reflections on divorce.

The pain and complications of divorce cast a great shadow across almost every family and congregation, yet we fail to talk about it. Jesus once told his followers “What God has brought together, let no one separate.” God is the one who does the joining; it is we, with our fallen and broken natures, who do the separating. Marriage is a serious thing, perhaps the most serious, and we need to start taking it seriously. Divorce will always be a possibility, but it should be a last resort.

I have some tips for you. They’re not full-proof ways to avoid having your marriage fall apart. But they are practices that you can initiate now in order to help when things get rocky.

Accept the fact that you two are different. Opposites tend to attract and each of you are not only physically different, but have different backgrounds and outlooks to particular situations. God designed these differences for a reason. The more you learn to celebrate the things that make you different, the stronger your marriage will become.

Leave and cleave. Don’t let either set on in-laws dictate how you will lead your new family. Decide in advance that no one will become a wedge between the two of you. Every couple has lots of other relationships, including the possibility of children at some point, but none of them should be allowed to interfere with the oneness God will create in your marriage.

Make a commitment to the marriage no matter what. Couples usually assume that everything in their marriage will work out, when the reality is that many couples only commit until it becomes difficult or until the love starts to fade. If, and when, you struggle, you need to learn to ask for help. Remove the fear of asking for professional counseling if necessary. It would be better to get help early than to see your marriage disintegrate beyond repair.

Model after the right couples. I encourage both of you to find a couple whose marriage you admire, and follow them closely. If they are as good as you think they are, the probably have stories to share about how they got there. Things may not have been as wonderful throughout their marriage as it is right now.

Put Christ first. This is the one that you were probably expecting me to say, but it’s not just the preacher in me talking, it’s the best way to ensure a lasting marriage. Your individual and collective relationship with Christ will enable you to move through the toughest days in marriage. When I stand with you before all of your friends and family, you will make a vow, but it is not a private one. In marriage, the two of you will enter into a union that is not your own, but will be received in participation with Christ and properly lived out in the church.

Are you still feeling like you want to get married? I know I’ve made it sound like one of the hardest things in the world, but that’s because it is. If you are serious about committing to your marriage, then you have to recognize that the only way it can be done well is with the grace of God. There will come a day when you wake up next to the person you are sitting next to right now, and you will have no idea how it happened. You will move through tragedies and hardships, you will celebrate on the mountaintops of joy, and if you are still married it is because you have found the true nature of marriage through the God of hope.

Marriage, and I mean Christian marriage, is committed and covenanted. Marriage, seen this way, is about as counter-cultural as can be. Marriage can only be sustained in a community, like the church, which understands itself as something strange compared to the world. Marriage is one of the ways the community of faith embodies the surprising hope of new creation.

If you want to know the real secret to a successful marriage, is begins with discipleship. As disciples, you learn about how God’s commitment to us is so strong that God will never divorce himself from us; God will never abandon us. As disciples, you learn about the sacrifice Christ was willing to make for us and therefore we are able to sacrifice for one another. As disciples, you learn that the only way to make it through this thing called life is to have a community around you to support you through it all.

I want to thank both of you for taking the time to meet with me in preparation for your wedding. Over the coming weeks and months we will meet again to talk more about marriage, the church, and your actual ceremony. It’s going to be great. Throughout his ministry, Jesus loved comparing the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast. This means that your wedding will be one of the rare times that we can experience a little bit of heaven here on earth. Thank you foe inviting me into this holy and remarkable moment in your lives. But I have to warn you, if you chose to invite me to the reception following the ceremony, I will dance the entire time. Amen.

 

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But I Say… – Sermon on Matthew 5.21-26

Matthew 5.21-26

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. ‘But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on they way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

 

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Lets assume that all of us are here this morning because we want to be good people. We see what our lives look like on a daily basis, and we recognize Sunday mornings as opportunities to better ourselves, to hear about the kind of people we are supposed to be.

Lets also assume that we are already fairly decent people. I mean look at us. We are sitting here in church on Sunday morning, thats certainly doing better than the people who are still sleeping in at home, curled up under their soft and warm blankets.

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Becoming a better person is what Christianity is all about, isn’t it? One of the main functions of any religion is to be shaped and molded into something greater than we currently are. This journey of faith is aimed at reconstructing ourselves so that we might resemble Jesus in the way that we live in the world.

But, the trouble for us who know a little bit about Jesus is that we know it was the good people, the scribes and the Pharisees, the ones who obeyed all the laws, the ones who, like us, showed up for worship on time, the people who gave fervently to the temple, who remained faithful to their spouses, who loved the Lord their God with all their heart, who knew all the scriptures, who walked humbly with God, those people were the ones who eventually yelled, “Crucify him!” 

What drove them to such disregard for the Messiah who walked among them? What could have made them move from strict religious adherence, to crowds thirsty for punishment?Well, one answer is the scripture that we have today.

We find Jesus here in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. Let me set up the trajectory: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, escaped to Egypt with Mary and Joseph, returned to Nazareth, was baptized by his cousin John in the river Jordan, was cast into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil for 40 days and nights, began his Galilean ministry, called his first disciples, and then gave his Sermon on the Mount.

This sermon marks the beginning of Jesus’ mission to God’s people. The words of the sermon will come to dictate who Jesus will serve, how he will share God’s grace with the people, and why he was dragged to the cross.

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890

The sermon begins like all good sermons, Jesus jumps right to the point: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, and so forth.

With the people no doubt scratching their heads regarding whatever this inversion of the world’s dynamics was supposed to mean, Jesus moves forward, “You all are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

The sermon concludes with Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Mosaic ten commandments, which is where our scripture begins today:

You have heard it that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or a sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

What a sermon this is shaping out to be.

Jesus’ teaching is stricter than the law itself. He will go on to proclaim do not get angry, do not lust, do not swear, do not seek revenge, and do not hate your enemy. He takes the law and make it even harder to obey.

Under the old law only murder and other extreme offenses were guilty of death, but under Jesus’ understanding angry temper is to be similarly judged. And he doesn’t stop there! Even those who would call others, “stupid” or “fool” are worthy of judgment by the court.

For Jesus, anger is just as bad as murder. Killing is not done by knives, and guns, and fists alone, but by the angry words muttered between friends, or the casual indifference between classmates that often makes people feel less than human.

Jesus looked out at the crowd and saw people worthy of love. His sermon is not just a message for Christians to follow regarding other Christians, but its a call to recognize the inherent value in all people. In Jesus’ day there was a custom of placing a large gold coin beneath the mainmast of most sailing vessels. For those who knew, this meant that even a wreck had value. Jesus recognized that value in all people, and called those with ears to hear to a life of grace, mercy, and love toward all people everywhere.

“You have heard it was said to those of ancient times… but I say to you…” Thats a classic Jesus move. It is possible to be so good, and right all the time, that you are wrong. You can be so religious that you miss the point of religion. Legalistic adherence to the law can begin to overshadow the importance of love and grace in your daily living. Overvaluing the law can lead to a faith that is cold, calculated, dry, and dull instead of a faith that is warm, wide, fun, and forgiving.

Jesus continues, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar (when you decide to place your offering in the plate) if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

A professor of mine in seminary told a story about a church in Africa that took this command quite seriously. Every Sunday morning the people would make their way to the church located in the middle of the village. Some with sleep still in their eyes would drag their lethargic bodies down the dusty road, continuing the same march they made every week.

At the bottom of the steps leading into the small sanctuary, the local pastor would be smiling from ear to ear greeting everyone as they came forward, however the doors would remain locked. The crowd would grow and grow until everyone from the village was present, anxiously waiting outside the church.

“Look around you,” the preacher’s voice would echo, “who do you need to reconcile with? Who have you betrayed since last we met? Go and find your brothers and sisters, make peace with one another. Until you do, these doors will remain locked.

For the next twenty minutes, all of the African congregants would slowly make their way throughout the crowds searching for those who they had wronged, and who had wronged them. Now this wasn’t a town where you could just stand around and pretend that everything had been perfect since last Sunday. Everyone knew everyones’ business. That meant that they truly had to make peace with the collective church. Without the reconciliation, the people had no business entering the church to worship God. Only after the pastor was satisfied that everyone had been merciful with one another, were the doors opened and worship continued.

Some might say that Jesus’ command that someone should leave their gift at the altar to reconcile with his brother or sister is a depreciation of worship; however, it is actually an exaltation of worship. Just as it happened for that African church, God sees our inmost motives, and we are called to worship God in truth. If we have baggage with others in the community, we mock God by coming before the altar instead of first reconciling ourselves with others. God is concerned with our lives and our worship; we cannot ignore one while participating in the other.

I thought about doing something radical this morning. After reading the scripture for Sunday, and remembering the story from my professor, I wondered what it would have been like to stand outside those doors preventing all of you from entering today. But, after having shoveled at the parsonage and the church the last few days in the cold, I thought better of it. Nevertheless, what would our worship in this place look like, if first we made peace with those in the pews, rather than anonymously continuing down our faith journeys all alone?

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What Jesus presented to the crowd, what Jesus presents to us this morning is not so much a new law to be strictly observed, but instead a new way of living our lives. Jesus makes his point dramatically in order for a change of heart to take place.

Jesus is here with us this morning, addressing us as he did to that crowd so long ago: You already know that you are forbidden to murder anyone, but now I’m telling you that you are forbidden to become angry with anyone. Call someone a fool and you’ll be worthy of punishment. Do you truly want to be good? Don’t just keep the law like the “good” Christians, go beyond the law.

Challenge yourselves to be greater than following guidelines and lists. Strive to love those around you to such a degree that the world will be transformed into the kingdom of God.

As a professor of mine once said, we are so accustomed to coming to a church like this and, if we should struggle and stumble with a passage like this one, it usually takes no more than 15 minutes for a skillful preacher, using the skills of story-telling, diversion, and trite formulaic expressions to explain it away. To reassure all of us that a nice person like Jesus never would have had a reason to say something tough to good people like us.

I know of no way to do that with this text. No amount of pop-psychology or narratival reductionism can remove the true message of Jesus’ words. The tougher the text, the more likely  it was to have come straight from the lips of Jesus. Being a Christian is no easy thing. It requires us to love greatly, and to forgive deeply.

Now more than ever we need to reclaim the high call of Jesus’ sermon. Young people today find and seek validation in their peers and parents that, when not offered, leads to self-destructive habits. Just think of the cases of bullying that have recently dominated significant media attention. Words and actions are powerful things. We often do not realize how powerful we can be with our words, and how destructive we can be if we are not careful.

Love is the key to all the commands of scripture, particularly Jesus’ sermon on the mount.

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Today, Jesus’ sermon is as hard to swallow as it was 2,000 years ago. You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “Do this and don’t do that,” but what Jesus says to us is to do more, go beyond the law, strive for something incredible, work for the kingdom, let God’s Word be incarnate in your lives, imagine a more graceful and purposeful life, seek out the last, least, and lost, be better than good, be holy as your heavenly father is holy.

Amen.

 

(I am thankful for Will Willimon’s sermon “Being Good” for inspiring parts of the above message)

 

The Magnificent Defeat – Sermon on Genesis 32.22-31

Genesis 32.22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The Sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

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Jacob was left alone. He had sent his entire family, all of his possessions, and his future across the Jabbok river. There he was all alone basking in the glow of the sunset, terrified but hopeful for the morning. Jacob had lived a strange life, but nothing would compare to what was about to happen.

Out of nowhere, a strange unnamed man arrived and began to wrestle with Jacob till daybreak. Scripture is rather lacking in details about this epic match, but we can imagine the blood, sweat, and tears that went into this fight. Two men grappling with each other in the bleak conditions of the ancient near east. When it seemed as if one man was finally getting an advantage, the other would return with a defensive move pinning the other one to the ground. This was probably not some glorified hollywood-esque battle, but rather like the ones you used to have with your brother or sister, where no one would relent.

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The fight went on throughout the evening, and when the stranger knew that he could not prevail against Jacob, he struck him precisely on the hip socket, knocking it out of joint as they continued to wrestle. Then the stranger in the night said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Though already having received a remarkable blessing, a new name, a new identity, Jacob further pushes the man, “Tell me your name!” But the man replied, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. Jacob would later name the place Peniel (which means face-to-face) saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” And for the rest of his life, Jacob walked with a limp because of his battle with the man.

What a story! 

Some theologians are convinced that this narrative has received more scholarship than almost any other story from the Old Testament. Yet, last Sunday, when I casually mentioned this narrative to a few people before church, they remarked that they had never heard about it. In our current culture, we can no longer take for granted the amount of scriptural knowledge everyone has in the church. A lot of people will be quick to blame the laity for not reading enough scripture outside of church, but I believe the fault doubly lays with the clergy who are afraid or unwilling to preach on particular texts.

So, if you’ve never heard this story before, or even if its the 100th time you’ve heard a sermon on it, what do you make of it?

It is one heck of a story, but like many passages in scripture, we have read this section in isolation and we are missing the rest of the narrative. If we really want to know what is going on here on the sandy banks of the Jabbok river, we have to go back to the beginning…

 

Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebekah (son of Abraham and Sarah). When Rebekah became pregnant with twins she felt a struggling within her womb, and after praying to God, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two people born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”

The first born was Esau, red and covered in hair, and later Jacob who came out gripping the heal of his brother; each of them were named after elements regarding their birth (Esau – red // Jacob – one who grabs the heel). When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau; but Rebekah loved Jacob. 

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Like most sibling rivalries, Jacob and Esau were combative throughout their lives. You can imagine them as children fighting over simplest little things while the father would side with one, the mother the other.

Once, when they were older, Jacob was cooking a stew while Esau came in from the field famished. Esau said to to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” Jacob, the cunning heal-grabber that he was, agreed to give his brother food, in exchange for his birthright, and thus Esau gave up his birth right to his younger brother.

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And then later, when their father Isaac was approaching death, with weakened eyesight, he beckoned for Esau to bring him some wild game in order to bless him before his death. However, when the cunning little heal-grabber found out about this from his mother, he covered himself in fur and deceived his father by pretending to be his brother. Before Jacob had had enough time to even make it away from his father’s tent, Esau returned from the field shocked to discover that Jacob had stolen his blessing.

The heal-grabber had gone too far this time and Esau was furious. He vowed to kill his brother after the death of his father. But Rebekah discover Esau’s plot and sent Jacob away to flee from the inevitable wrath of his twin.

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Years pass. Esau and Jacob continue to live out their lives apart from one another. When it seemed like Jacob might finally be able to forget his past and his brother, he had a vision which made him realize that he needed to return to the land of his father.

And so, with all his possessions and children and wives Jacob prepared to encounter his brother, unsure of what would happen. However, the little heel-grabber had one trick left up his sleeve; knowing that his brother would surely kill him, Jacob sent ahead of him all his possessions and family in order to appease Esau before their reunion, while thinking to himself, “I may appease him with presents that go ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me.” Therefore his gifts passed on ahead of him, and he stayed behind alone for the night before meeting his brother in the morning.

At this critical moment in his life, at the matrix of what would determine everything forward, spending the night on the border of the Promised land, Jacob struggled with God.

So you see, the story of Jacob wrestling with God is placed perfectly within the greater story of Jacob’s life; while anticipating a frightful reunion with his brother Esau, Jacob must first meet with the dreaded stranger of the night and these two meetings are intimately related to one another.

The story, as we find it in scripture is not explicit about who Jacob actually wrestles with. Is he wrestling with his metaphorical brother? Himself? A stranger of the night? Though arguments abound for many interpretations, it makes most sense to understand the story in such a way that Jacob is wrestling with God

During the night, the cool evening when precision and detail are lacking, the divine antagonist arrives and takes on features of others with whom we all struggle during the day.

What a man this heal-grabber was! He may have been frightened of the coming repercussions of the reconciliation between he and his brother, and he may have been afraid of the almighty Lord, but in the fray he held his own with either one.

This is no ordinary story.

In a way, what Jacob experienced was a magnificent defeat. A defeat because Jacob is left with a limp for the rest of his life, and magnificent in his ability to prevail. From that day forward Jacob limped every day to show others (and remind himself) that there are no untroubled victories with the Holy One. Yet his limp was also a reminder that he had prevailed in this skirmish between humanity and the divine.

It is important to note that this meeting with God, this nighttime wrestling match, did not lead, as we are wont to imagine, to reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing. It resulted in a crippling. There is a dangerous consequence of meeting the divine, resulting in a marking that we will carry throughout the rest of our lives.

And so, when the day broke the stranger left a crippled Jacob, now Israel, limping toward his powerful and vengeful brother.

Can you imagine how he must have felt? Weak after wrestling all night long, afraid of the coming consequences, isolated from all his family and possessions, sand caught in his eyes, clothing ripped, walking across the deserted landscape toward his brother?

When Jacob made his way forward, lessening the space between himself and inevitably, he bowed seven times until he came to his brother.

Like the stranger from the night before Esau rushed forward and grappled his brother to the ground, falling upon his neck. However, instead of punches and scrapes, Esau covered his brother with kisses and tears.

The juxtaposition of the wrestling in the night with Jacob’s reunion with Esau offers us a warning; God will not be taken lightly or easily. There will be no cheap reconciliations. On the way to the affronted brother, Jacob must deal with the crippling and blessing of God.

It is easy to take the story in isolation and make it into a simple lesson: “being a Christian is about wrestling with God. There will be times when we cannot understand what it happening and though we are grappling with the divine in a negative, God will positively hold onto us while refusing to let go.” And though that message is true, there is so much more going on with the greater story.

Don’t we all have a little Jacob in us? At times we’ve all acted like the little heel-grabber, willing to do less to receive more, willing to focus on ourselves alone rather than those around us. And at the same time, don’t we all have a little Esau in us too? At times we’ve felt betrayed, unloved, and hurt, our trust broken from broken relationships. Being Christian is about wrestling with God, but its also so much more. This story in scripture reveals to us how the love of God and the love of brother belong together. We were never meant to be alone, scavenging for ourselves, removed from others. We were all created in the abundant image of the triune God, made out of unified plurality to be in plurality with others.

Like Adam and Eve, like Jacob, like the disciples, and so many other figures from scripture, we want to know the answer to the ultimate question. We want to bridge the gap between us and God. In this passage Jacob wanted to know God’s name, the mystery of heaven and earth, to overcome all the distance. When wrestling, the stranger did not win, but he did not lose either. Jacob gained a great deal, but the depth of God’s being had not been given. The stranger stopped short of giving the ultimate gift – that would have to wait until a cramped night in the crib of a manger in Bethlehem.

In a few moments I will be inviting Isabella Bailey-May Sullivan and her family to come forward and gather around the baptismal font. In Isabella’s baptism she will be incorporated into this body here, to learn about these kinds of stories from scripture, to begin a life of wrestling and reconciling with God. Like Isabella, all of us gathered here have been grafted into the story of Israel through Christ’s death on the cross. We will encounter our brokenness through God’s Word but we will also rejoice in the grace that God gives us in spite of our brokenness.

And so what are we left to make of this heel-grabber and his wrestling match on the banks of the Jabbok? Like Jacob’s wrestling and Isabella’s baptism, when we enter the church we are marking ourselves for the rest of our lives. It is in this place through the worship of the people and the proclamation of the Word that all the Jacobs of the world become reconciled with the Esaus. Its where we can meet one another and God face-to-face and prevail. We might be brought down in a way that we are truly wrestling and we will walk away marked by God. Though we may not walk with a physical limp, we have been struck by the almighty God in a way that we will never be the same again.

And that, is good news.

Amen.