Saturday, May 11, 2019

“Crossing the Threshold” - May 12, 2019

Text: Acts 10:1-17, 34-48

“Never trust anybody over thirty.”  Anybody remember that?  It is by no means a recent phenomena, but we live in an us and them world.  An insider-outsider kind of world.  We separate by age, by nation, by language, by ethnicity, by race, by educational level.  We separate by political party and by ideological commitments.

And it is not surprising that people are divided by religion.  There are insiders and outsiders.  And of course we probably think of ourselves as the insiders, the ones with the inside track to God.  But the thing is, when we turn to the Bible we find that God stubbornly refuses to acknowledge these distinctions.

You’ve got Ruth, a Moabite.  The Moabites were despised by ancient Israel, and Deuteronomy says that no Moabite shall ever be admitted to the people of Israel.  But there she is, Ruth from Moab - a model of love and faithfulness.  Her commitment to her mother in law Naomi leads to her marriage to Boaz and Ruth, the Moabite, becomes the great-grandmother of King David.  Jesus is a direct descendant of Ruth.  Somebody who was supposed to be prohibited from the community becomes a central figure in the story of Israel.

Figures such as Ruth keep appearing in scripture, and we have such a person in our scripture today.  His name is Cornelius.  He is a Roman Centurion – a soldier.  This is not an insignificant detail.

Israel is a small nation struggling for survival.  Through most of its history it had struggled, and at this point, Israel was occupied and ruled by Rome.  It would be hard to imagine someone a typical Israelite would have more disdain for than a Roman soldier such as Cornelius.  Politically and culturally, he is the enemy.  He is an oppressor.  He represents the power of empire.

Cornelius is stationed in Caesarea.  There were several Caesareas, cities dedicated to Caesar.  This was Caesarea Maritima – Caesarea by the sea, a seaport on the Mediterranean, a recently built and thoroughly Roman city.  Religiously, Cornelius is a Gentile.  To protect themselves, to protect the faith, to survive in a hostile environment, the Jews kept strictly separate from Gentiles – which means anybody who is not a Jew.

But there were those Gentiles drawn to Jewish faith, drawn to Jewish worship.  And Cornelius was in that category.  We read that “he feared God.”  Gentiles drawn to Jewish faith were called “God-fearers.”  He apparently is very devout and a person of deep prayer – even though he would not have been eligible to worship in the temple in Jerusalem or participate fully in community worship.

Cornelius has a vision.  An angel appears to him and says, “Your prayers and your alms – he didn’t just pray, he gave of his means to help the poor – your prayers and alms have been heard and seen by God.  Send men to Joppa for Simon Peter – he is staying with Simon the Tanner who lives by the seaside.  

Pretty wild, huh?  God sends an angel to this outsider – a Roman’s Roman, a soldier, a Gentile.  God was not respecting the careful boundaries and sure understanding of the nation of Israel.  But Cornelius had prayed and God had answered.  So Cornelius sends men to Joppa, just down the coast.  Unlike Caesarea, Joppa is in Jewish territory.  While Cornelius’ men are on their way, Peter goes up on the roof to pray.  We don’t typically do that today, but then our roofs are not like roofs in that day.  Think of this as more like the patio or deck for us.  He is there praying and he gets hungry.  And while somebody at Simon the Tanner’s house is making lunch, Peter goes into a trance.

Peter falls into this trance and has this vision, of a giant sheet descending from heaven, full of all kinds of un-kosher food—pigs, and shellfish, and reptiles, and weird-looking birds.  A heavenly voice commands, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”

So, Peter is hungry, he goes into a trance, and he sees bacon wrapped shrimp and lobster and pulled pork, as well as some reptiles and weird looking birds – all of which are not allowed because of Jewish dietary restrictions.  God says, “Bon appetit.”  But Peter answers, “By no means, Lord.”  No way.  I have never eaten anything that is unclean, not a crumb.  Peter is reminding God of Leviticus 1, which forbids all of these foods.

This was not a small thing.  This is what Peter had known all of this life.  Peter’s mother had taught him well.  This was part of his identity.  You may remember that when Daniel is taken to Babylon, he will not eat the food that the king provides.  He negotiates with the king to eat a diet in accordance with his religion’s dietary laws.  This was very serious. 

Peter says, “No, this isn’t right.”  But the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  All of this happens a second time, and then a third time.  And then the sheet is suddenly taken back up to heaven.

Just about then, Cornelius’ men show up.  The Holy Spirit has orchestrated the whole thing.  They explain what has happened and how the angel had spoken to Cornelius.  So Peter invited them in and they stayed the night.  

Interestingly, Peter didn’t ask permission from the homeowner, Simon the Tanner – who already seems a hospitable person because of the fact that Peter is there.  But then, having Gentiles in the house was something else altogether.  But it seemed clear to Peter that God was in this.

The next day, Peter went back with Cornelius’ men, along with some believers from Joppa.  Peter tells Cornelius and the others he encounters that God had shown them that he should not call anyone profane or unclean.

Did you catch what happened there?  Peter understood God’s message.  It wasn’t just about food.  It was about people.  It was about life.  It was really about the limits we can place on God.  It was about the way we can assign insider and outsider status.  And it was about the new thing God was doing. 

It starts with the visit of the angel to Cornelius, and Peter falling into that trance on the rooftop.  That is a really interesting detail.  Have you ever gone into a trance?  Me neither.  I mean it looks like my cat might occasionally go into a trance, but I’m not sure.

In the Bible, however, this seems no big deal.  It is just casually reported.  “Oh, yeah, Peter went into ta trance.”

I think this is a matter of being ready and able to see.  Of being open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit might speak to us.  To be awake to the idea that God might do something new.

Why does Peter fall into a trance and not somebody else?  Why does this vision come to him?  And why do we see what we see?  Today we talk about people “getting it.”  That can be a condescending term, but it can also express a truth.  Why do some people “get it” while others don’t?

The Bible is the continuing story of God doing new things.  Often, the new thing may involve the recovery of an old thing that has been forgotten or overlooked or set aside, but again and again God does something new.  Sending Abraham and Sarai to a new land God would show them, or speaking to Moses in a burning bush, or leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, or calling for justice through the prophets, or telling a young woman named Mary that she would have a child, or bringing life out of death.

God is doing a new thing, but all along there had been this call to be a light, to be a blessing, to the nations.  The new thing was in some ways a recovery of an old thing.  What is interesting is that Peter’s upbringing – his religion – gets in the way of what God is doing.  His compulsion to defend and protect his understanding of God gets in the way of following what God is actually doing right in front of him. 

Initially, Peter is so sure that he is right that he gets it wrong.  Which is entirely in Peter’s character, as we were reminded in our cantata a couple of weeks ago.  But then, as he is wondering about things, wondering about the theoretical idea of clean and unclean food, actual people, people he had been taught were unclean, show up - and it is not a theoretical issue any more.

The great preacher Fred Craddock told about his first student church, in East Tennessee.  It was during the time that Oak Ridge was just booming, with all kinds of building activity with the atomic projects there.  So there were construction people who had come from everywhere to turn this little town into a thriving city.  Craddock pastored a beautiful little church nearby - a nice white frame church, very classic building with very nice people.  Just lovely people.  And here were all of these newcomers to the area.  They were living in tents and trailers and all kinds of temporary housing.  Many workers had their families with them, they had little kids with them. 

Craddock suggested to the church board that they reach out to these folks.  They had come from everywhere and here they were nearby.  It looked like this was the church’s mission.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said the board chair.  “They won’t fit in.  After all, they are just here temporarily, living in trailers and all.”

Craddock said, “Well, they may just be here temporarily but they need the gospel and they need a church.”  “No, I don’t think so.”

There was discussion about this and in the end there was a resolution for the board to vote on, a resolution moved by a relative of the board chair.  The resolution essentially said, “Members will be admitted to this church from families that own property in this county.”  The vote was unanimous except for the pastor, and Fred Craddock was reminded that as pastor he was not a board member and could not vote.

Well, years later Craddock was teaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, in Atlanta. He wanted to take his wife Nettie to visit the site of his early failure.  The church was hard to find because I-40 had been built since then, cutting off a lot of county roads, but they finally found it.  There it was, nestled in pine trees, just as he remembered, still a beautiful white frame building.  Just like he remembered it except that now there were cars and pickup trucks parked everywhere.  And a big sign out front that said, “Barbecue.   All you can eat, chicken, ribs, pork.”

Craddock said, “Well, we might as well go in for lunch.”  They went in and the beautiful oil lamps were still hanging on the wall.  The pump organ was still there but now it was a decoration.  The pews that had all been cut from one giant poplar tree were still there but now they were on the side and people sat there while they were waiting for their tables.  And the place was filled with people, all kinds of people from all over the place.

Craddock said, “It’s a good thing this place is not a church now.  These folks would not be welcome.  They wouldn’t fit in.”

Peter went to Caesarea.  It was not his kind of town, but the Spirit had led him there.  He came to the home of Cornelius.  Cornelius was waiting for him.  And it is only a few words, seemingly insignificant, but we read the Peter went in.  He had probably never been in a Gentile home in his life.  He had been taught his whole life that you just don’t do that.  But he crossed the threshold and entered the home.

Cornelius had gathered friends and family.  And Peter speaks to them, telling them the story of Jesus, beginning with John the Baptist and telling them about Jesus’ life and teaching and healing, and how he had been crucified but rose on the third day and how forgiveness was available to all who believed in him.  And he did not say “all from the nation of Israel who believed,” but simply “all who believed.”

And the Holy Spirit descended on everyone there, and all believed, and all were filled with the Spirit.  Peter said, “How can we withhold baptism from these people who have received the Spirit just as we have?”  And so Cornelius and his family and friends were the very first Gentiles to be baptized. 

Peter was a little slow at first, but he now understood what God was doing.

It is interesting to think of this in terms of mission.  It is not that Peter brought God to these people.  God was already there.  The Holy Spirit showed up long before Peter did.  We don’t really bring God to anyone.  God beat us to it a long time ago.  Our mission is to discern where the Spirit is moving, where God is working, and join in that work.

Following Jesus involves being open to the new things that God is doing.  I think about my life – the way I grew up, the things I was taught, the things I believed at one time.  You know, I have changed.  I have grown.  My understanding has broadened, evolved, developed.  And I am so much better for it.  I bet your experience may be a lot like mine. 

Peter went into this trance and got the message.  We can be pretty slow sometimes.  We are a lot like Peter.  But if we are open, we can hear the Spirit’s voice, we can observe the Spirit’s doings, and we can join in.  Amen. 

Thanks to Rob Bell for helpful ideas in his Robcast #25, The Sheeeeet Factor.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

“The Great Promise” - May 5, 2019

Text: Matthew 28:16-20

Since the first of the year - Sunday, January 6 to be exact - we have been in the gospel of Matthew.  That is 116 days, if you have been counting.  About a third of the year.  And this morning, finally, we come to the conclusion.

It is after the resurrection.  Jesus appears to his disciples and what we have this morning are Jesus’ final words to them.  It is like George Washington’s farewell address – these are his parting instructions.  These words are shared with those who were closest to him, those who have followed him.

A few weeks ago, we looked at a passage from Matthew 25 called The Great Judgment – it says that in the end, the question will be, did you care for those in need?  When you saw others hungry and gave them food or thirsty and gave them a drink or sick of in prison and you visited them, you did it for Jesus. 

The passage we just read is known as the Great Commission.  It is a very Baptisty scripture.  I heard it a lot growing up.  We memorized it in the King James Version.   “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”  The Great Commission is a call to take the gospel to the world out there – to all nations.

Well, our reading this morning actually begins a couple of verses before that.  This part does not get as much attention, but maybe it should.  If you remember, Jesus had told the two Marys at the tomb, Mary Magdalene and his mother, to go and tell the others to go to Galilee – to leave Jerusalem and go back home, and he would meet them there.

So they are all on their way back to Galilee, they arrive at the mountain where Jesus had told them to go, and the description is very interesting.  “They worshiped him, but some doubted.”  It is even more interesting when you consider the Greek, which does not have the modifying word “some” in there.  They worshiped and doubted.  It is just understood that it has to mean “some” doubted, but it does not literally say that.

In the Gospel of John, Thomas doubts and gets this bad rap as Doubting Thomas, but I had never really paid much attention that we read in Matthew that “they worshiped, but some doubted.”

We really shouldn’t be surprised.  If we are honest, even on our best days we wonder a bit – about God, about life, about mystery, about the universe.  It means we are alive.  It means we are sentient beings.  It means we notice what is going on around us.  It means we are engaged, and we are honest with ourselves. 

What is stunning is that these disciples – who worshiped and also doubted, are the ones that Jesus sends out to do his mission.  To continue his work.  Jesus is leaving everything up to them.

Just so you caught that, let me say it again.  Jesus is depending on people who are not completely sure.  This is who he is sending out.

Now often, we may feel like we are not spiritual enough, not polished enough, that we don’t have special gifts or training or abilities.  You know what?  Jesus depended totally and completely on people just like us.  He still does.

The commission Jesus gives is to go and make disciples of all nations.  And at this point, the gospel has come full circle.  It begins with a genealogy – Jesus is set in a very specific community and tribe and nation.  But then Jesus is born, and the news of the messiah is first revealed to who? – To the Wise Men.  Gentiles.  People from another place, another land. 

Jesus’ mission is largely to his own people, to the Jewish nation, but all along we continue to have these inklings, and sometimes more than inklings, that the gospel is not just for insiders, but those on the margins.  And not only for Israelites, but for all the nations.  There is the Syrophoenician woman who comes to Jesus for healing.  The Good Samaritan.  The Samaritan woman at the well.  And all along, Israel was called to be a light to the nations.

So Jesus’ parting words are that his followers are to go to all nations and make disciples.  Now, a couple of things about this.  First, we tend to think that his is for missionaries.  I mean, it is a great missionary text.  But we can think that it is just for super-spiritual people.  But then remember, these words were spoken to people who had questions, people who weren’t even sure.

But on the other hand, we can read this as though it is totally written to us – as though we are the ones on whom Jesus’ mission depends.  And by us, I mean us Americans.

The missionary impulse runs deep in American life.  And as an organized denomination – if that isn’t an oxymoron – Baptists first organized to do mission work.  We came together as a national denomination in 1814 as we sent our first missionaries, Ann and Adoniram Judson, to Burma.

But today, there are groups in other countries who send missionaries to the U.S.  And it is not just missionaries who come to share the gospel.  Last spring a number of us went on a mission trip to Murrow Indian Children’s Home in Muskogee, Oklahoma.  It is located on the grounds of Bacone College, a historically Native American college affiliated with the ABC.  Today, about 1/3 of the students at Bacone are Native American.  Roughly another third are students who came to the U.S. as refugees from Myanmar.  They are ethnic Chin and Kachin and Karen.  Their families came here from refugee camps in Thailand.  They came to this country as Christians and as Baptists – a result of the early mission efforts of the Judsons and others.  And they are bringing the message of Jesus to our country. 

People like students we met at Bacone are coming here, starting new churches, and transforming long-existing churches.  As of sometime last year, 8 of the 10 newest ABC churches in our region were made up of immigrant groups, and mostly refugees.  

The world is getting a lot smaller, and we don’t have to go anywhere to be in conversation with the world.  Living in a university community, we know this well.  We are all blessed by a rich diversity of folks from many places.  So, you can go and make disciples of all nations, or you can just as easily stay home and make disciples of all nations.  And to top it off, some of those who go will wind up in places like Ames, Iowa and will help us as we become disciples.

Go, make disciples, baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Help others come to faith.  And then, “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
The obeying part is kind of a downer, right?  We are not really up for a heavy rules-based kind of religion, where obeying every little thing is what it’s all about.  And we especially don’t want to try and teach a bunch of rules to others as being the way that you follow Jesus, the way that you serve God.

Well, let’s back up.  “Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you.”  Well just what is exactly that Jesus commanded his followers?

Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and mind and soul and strength.
Love one another as I have loved you. 
Love your enemies.
I give you a new commandment: love one another.

Do you see a pattern here?  The command is to love.  We get scared and more than a little nervous with talk about evangelism, and evangelism can become almost a bad word because we associate it with manipulative methods and fire and brimstone and damnation.  But when you get right down to it, what we are asked to do is to love others.  That is what we are called to do and that is what we are called to teach – by word and example.

A few weeks ago, Westboro Baptist Church came to Ames.  This is the group that protests all over the country – against gay people, at churches, at the funerals of soldiers.  Incredibly hateful stuff.  My impulse was to just stay away, as they are just looking for attention.  But they were going to protest at Ames High School.  I felt like with students seeing this going on, there needed to be support for students.  And this was my neighborhood.

When she was in high school, I remembered Marian Thompson saying that a lot of her friends could not believe she was Baptist – because they thought that all Baptists were like Westboro.  So I felt like I needed to be there to give witness to what real Baptists are like.

I walked over to the high school about 7:00 am that morning and it was a surreal experience.  There were a few protesters from Westboro Baptist Church, with their hateful signs and strange stuff playing over a portable PA system.  They had signs saying God Hates – well, I won’t use their incendiary language, but basically signs saying that everybody except them is going straight to hell.  And there were about 150 people there to support students and stand against hatred.  With all kinds of signs talking about what God hates, I brought a sign along that just said, “God is love.”  It was my little effort to witness for Jesus and I didn’t have to leave my neighborhood.  But in a world with so much hate, a message of love can be very powerful.

The same day that Westboro was here, I went to a pastors’ conference in Omaha.  One of the speakers was a man named Elie Haddad.  He is the president of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.  He was talking about the churches in Lebanon.  Lebanon is about 1/3 Christian, 1/3 Sunni Muslim, and 1/3 Shia.  But in reality it is a quite secular country with a minority of people who actually practice their faith, whatever that faith may be.

The churches there had always been very insular, very focused on survival and inward-looking.  But they have been challenged by the war and upheaval in Syria next door.  There are over 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.  This is a small country.  A million refugees in Syria would be like having 50 or 60 million refugees in the U.S.  Can you imagine?  I mean, there are those who argue that a limit of our country accepting 50,000 refugees a year is way too high.  Lebanon has over a million refugees.     

So there are all of these refugees, mostly Muslim, and the Lebanese Baptists have historically been very inward looking.  But the need was so great they could not ignore it.  And so they started providing services for refugees.  They started serving meals.  They started schools for children in refugee camps who were not getting any schooling.  They started reaching out and something happened.  It didn’t just make a difference for these refugees, it is transforming the churches.  Churches that had always looked inward are now looking outward. 

The Baptists in Lebanon do not have to go far away to take the Good News to the nations.  They are doing it right where they are.  And they are teaching both by their words and their actions to obey what Jesus has commanded.  Love one another.

We may go to all nations or we may just wait for all nations to come to us.  And actually the sense of Jesus’ words is “as you go.”  Wherever you go.  As you live your life.  As we live our lives, we are to share Jesus’ message of love.  It is a powerful message for a difficult and dangerous time. 

But here is the last part.  Just as important as anything else.  Jesus says, “I am with you always.”  Doubtful, believing, worshiping, going, staying, living – whatever happens, wherever we go, whatever we do, Jesus says, “I am with you always.”

This scripture is called the Great Commission, but it contains both a commission and a promise.  You could even call this the Great Promise.

Think of your life.  And think of all the situations that you find yourself in.  Wonderful and terrible times.  Joy and happiness as well as pain and desperation.  Those times when life is easy and those times when we feel we can barely go on. 

Jesus knew it would not always be easy.  And so he gives this wonderful promise: “I am with you always.”

Earlier this week, Joe Parrish asked about the sermon for today, what the theme would be.  He was trying to find a song to sing that would fit the theme.  I told him the scripture was the Great Commission, but anything he wanted to sing would be fine.  I mean, I was really helpful.  So Joe came up with “You Are Mine,” and I said, “Yeah, that would be good.”

Well, it’s a great song and Joe does a great job with anything.  But as it turned out, it fits perfectly.  Do not be afraid, I am with you.  Lo, I am with you always.  I love you and you are mine.

It is a Great Promise.  Amen.



“Make Room for the Unimaginable” - Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

Text: Matthew 28:1-10

William Willimon was preaching in a little church in Alaska when an earthquake hit.  “The earth heaved for a moment that seemed forever,” he wrote.  “The little church shook.  But the Alaskan Methodists sat there like it was another day at the office.  Their only response was the woman who said, ‘How about that, the light fixtures didn’t fall this time.’”

Willimon ended his sermon immediately.  He was shaken by the earthquake, but also a bit shaken by those nonchalant Alaskans.  Afterwards, he asked the pastor, “What the heck would it take to get this congregation’s attention?  I’d hate to have to preach to them every Sunday.”

Easter is like an earthquake, only we have been through the routine so many times, we have grown kind of nonchalant about it.  The surprise and the joy isn’t quite so strong when you’ve been through it time and again.  But what must it have been like that first Easter morning!

Jesus had entered Jerusalem to palm branches and shouts of hosanna.  But it wasn’t long before he was throwing the money changers out of the temple, and it went downhill from there.  After sharing the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus was betrayed and arrested.  And on Friday, he was crucified.  On Sunday, Jesus was hailed as the great hope of the nation, and by Friday he is dead.

Everything had gone so badly so quickly.  His followers were stunned, just numb with grief.

As Matthew reports it, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb.  “The other Mary” is apparently Jesus’ mother, who is mentioned in the previous chapter.  The women do not have an agenda.  They are just going to the tomb, which makes perfect sense.  We may go to the cemetery after the funeral of a loved one.  The women went to remember and grieve.

But they did not find what they expected.  When they arrive at the tomb, there is an earthquake – the kind that really gets your attention - and an angel descends from heaven.  An earthquake and descending angels.  The angel rolls back the stone from the entrance to the tomb and sits on it.  Guards posted at the tomb are so terrified that they pass out like dead men.  And the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.”  And then the news: Jesus is not here; he has been raised from the dead.  Stunning, unfathomable news.  Jesus was alive! 

We are told that the reaction of the women to the news that Jesus was alive was fear and joy.  Fear and joy.  They are an unlikely pair. 

Cardinal and gold – they go together.  Winter and potholes.  Spring and daffodils.  College and ramen noodles.  They all go together.  But fear and joy?  As it turns out, we have all have had the experience of simultaneously feeling joy and fear, in both large ways and small ways.

You’ve saved and scrimped and looked forward to the day when you could buy your own home, and now the day has come.  You make an offer, and it is accepted.  And then it hits you that you have committed to paying an incredible sum of money over the next three decades, and so you feel both excitement and joy at owning this home as well as this feeling of “what have we done?”

You have looked forward so much to the birth of a child.  And seeing this tiny baby, you feel such incredible love and joy and thankfulness.  But at the same time, as you think of the challenges of parenthood, there is fear mixed in - a sense of the awesome responsibility you now have.

You are off to college for the first time.  It is exciting.  It feels like freedom.  It’s a new chapter in your life.  But it is also scary.  You are not sure what to expect and your roommate is a bit – well, questionable.  There is both joy and fear.  For parents whose child has gone off to college, there is fear and joy as well.

Joy mixed with fear is actually common.  What the two Marys experienced, however, went far beyond this.

An earthquake and an angel will elicit fear every time.  But what is really frightening is to have your understanding of reality challenged, and that is exactly what happened on Easter morning.  What really provokes fear is a sense that things are out of control and that the world is not the way we had thought it was.

As they ran to tell the others, suddenly, Jesus is there with them.  He speaks to them.  They took hold of him and worshiped.

There was fear, and then there was joy.  If the guards became like dead men, Mary and Mary, who had felt dead before, suddenly became fully alive.

The resurrection challenges us with the notion that God is at work in ways that we cannot see or even imagine.  There is a reality beyond the logic and analysis of our minds, and God is not limited by our understanding or experience.

The resurrection is the heart of the Christian gospel.  It is reason for great, soaring joy, and it can also scare the living daylights out of us, because it means that we thought we had the world all figured out, and maybe we don’t. 

The resurrection inspires both joy and fear, but we have had mixed feelings about Jesus all along, if we are honest.

  • We really like a Jesus who taught about love, but not so much a Lord who commands us to love our enemies.
  • We really like a Jesus who helped the unfortunate, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to sell what we own and give the money to the poor.
  • We really like a Jesus who threw the moneychangers out of the temple, but not so much a Lord who calls us to reform our practices of worship.
  • We really like a Jesus who includes everybody, who was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, but not so much a Lord who encourages us to embrace people we feel are beneath us.
  • We really like a Jesus who accepted people as his disciples, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to take up our own cross, to lose our lives for his sake, and to find new life through sacrifice.
Resurrection can be threatening.  New life can actually be scary, because we prefer the certainty of the way things are, even if the way things are isn’t all that great.

We can get used to going through the motions.  We can get used to a kind of ho-hum existence.  We can easily make what we think are the safe and usual and conventional choices, even if we don’t find a lot of joy in it.  We just tell ourselves that is the way things are, and it to do something different just seems too much trouble, or too uncertain, or too scary.  

It can be hard to live by faith when what most of us know, what most of us are taught in so many ways, what most of us are programmed for, is to live otherwise. 

The poet Mary Oliver, who died in January, wrote, “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”  I love that.  And that is the heart of the message of Easter: “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

Kim Fabricius told about going to a meeting at a university where someone spoke on “The Resurrection of Jesus.”  The talk was brilliant.  All of the arguments against the resurrection – that Jesus hadn’t really died, that the disciples stole the body, that it was all either a hoax or a hallucination – all of these the speaker roundly refuted.  And then he presented evidence in favor of the resurrection.  The witness of the disciples and especially the women (nobody would invent the testimony of women in first-century Israel); the conversion of the persecutor Saul into the apostle Paul; the birth of the church, believers willing to die for their faith – marshalling all this evidence, the speaker claimed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Jesus rose from the dead.

The audience was impressed, but somehow this all left Fabricius kind of cold.  The main reason the talk fell flat for him was that it was as if the speaker had it all figured out.  He had all the answers to what came across as a kind of algebra problem, an academic game and it made it sound as though the resurrection of Jesus were easy.

Fear and joy.  While the speaker was short on joy, he had completely left out the fear.  There was no sense of mystery about it, which to this man who attended the talk made it feel like there was no sense of God in it.

The fact is, resurrection is not easy at all.  It’s existentially disturbing.  It’s threatening.  It’s explosive.

Of course, this speaker did what we are all tempted to do – to make God manageable, to have it all explained and figured out.  Now certainly, our faith is worth examining in a rigorous way.  But the way the gospels present the resurrection, each a bit differently, leaves things kind of messy.  And it is interesting that none of the gospels are trying to prove the resurrection; they are simply reporting, and inviting us to experience the mystery of God and the joy of new life as well as the fear and messiness of following Jesus for ourselves.

New life is unpredictable.  It can mess up our reality.  That can be scary, but at the same time this is good news, because there is a lot of reality that needs to be messed with.  There is a lot in this world that needs some shaking up.

Last Monday, I was between running errands and doing projects.  I came inside for a minute and Susan said that there was a fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Wow, I thought, and I went on with whatever I was doing.  But a little later I sat down in the front of the TV, and this time it was, WOW.  We watched the video of the spire falling.  We saw the roof consumed by flames and collapsing and all of the people watching in shocked horror.  The building had stood for 850 years, and it looked like it might be completely destroyed.

But then came morning.  After firefighters labored for nine hours, the fire was out.  The nave of the church was open to the sky.  There was a huge pile of timbers and debris and ash across the floor in front of the altar.  But amazingly, the altar still stood, and there was a gleaming cross that had escaped damage.  You have probably seen the photograph.  In the midst of all of this destruction, there was the cross. 

It was almost as if to say, this has been a dark, terrible day, but God is still here.  And coming in Holy Week, this somehow told the story of our faith.  Hurt, pain, loss, grief will come.  But God is there through it all, God is with us through it all, and there will be life on the other side of that pain.  Life beyond our imagining.

I was reminded too of other places of worship that have burned.   In Louisiana, three African-American churches in Landry Parish were destroyed in fires set by an arsonist.  Those churches have had to endure not only the loss of their place of worship but the hatred expressed by those church burnings.  The outpouring of support for the Cathedral in Paris prompted an outpouring of support by Americans to rebuild those Louisiana churches.

For the cathedral in Paris, for those churches in Louisiana – not just buildings, but flesh and blood people - and for all of us, the message of Easter is that beyond the pain, on the other side of loss, there is hope and there is new life.

If there is anything we share in common, it is loss.  There are broken relationships and dashed hopes and shattered dreams.  We lose those whom we love; for some here this morning the grief is fresh and raw.  In one way or another, we all have to face loss, and if we are not careful, death can have a grip on us long before our bodies die.

But Easter tells us that there is resurrection.  There is new life, not just awaiting us in the future, but here and now.  Easter tells us that the power of God is greater than the power of death, greater than all the losses we suffer in this life.  And while Easter elicits both fear and great joy, in the end the power and grace and love of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, is greater than all our fears.

I noticed an interesting news item on Friday.  Researchers at Cal Tech and UC-San Diego found that between 2008 and 2017, Southern California was hit by an average of 495 earthquakes a day, or roughly one every three minutes.  This is about 10 times more than previously thought. 

“It’s not that we didn’t know these earthquakes were occurring,” said Zachary Ross, lead author of the study.  “The problem is that they can be very difficult to spot amid all of the noise.”

For the women who went to the tomb, the women who became the very first preachers of the gospel, the first to proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead, Easter came with an earthquake.  And the thing is, Easter keeps happening.  New life keeps bursting forth in places where we don’t expect it, those Easter earthquakes keep happening, at least every three minutes, but sometimes it can be difficult to spot amid all the noise. 

This morning, the announcement comes not just to the women at the tomb, it comes to us.  Do not be afraid.  Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.  The power of God is greater than any of the losses we suffer, greater even than death.  Ester earthquakes are all around.  So “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”  Amen.

“Turning the Tables” - Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019

Text: Matthew 21:1-17

I love Palm Sunday.  It is fun and chaotic and it’s a little bit weird.  Palm Sunday is actually one of the odder days of the church year, if you really think about it.  I mean, looking at it from the outside, strange and funny things happen in church all the time.  Almost every Sunday.

About once a month, at the end of the service, we all get a little piece of bread and a tiny cup of juice and we all eat and drink and call it a meal.  We actually call it a supper.  Kind of odd.

When a person wishes to profess their faith in Jesus, we dunk them in a tank of water.  No kidding.  It is very meaningful and baptism is full of rich imagery, but again, just to see it, it seems sort of strange.

There are all kinds of customs and traditions that come about that are at the very least quirky, if not bordering on bizarre.  And I would count actually listening to somebody stand before the congregation and talk for 15 or 20 minutes, week after week, among the strange and amazing things that happen in church.

But Palm Sunday is different in its own way.  It starts out as a really fun day.  We all get these palm branches and parade around, waving them.  How cool is that?  I know that the Hammond family has parades all the time, for any kind of reason, but most of us don’t get to be in parades very often.

When it comes to the Palm Sunday parade, some years we have actually started outside, and I wanted to head down the hall, go outside by the library, and then come in the front door, but despite the fact that Palm Sunday will never fall on a later date, it is still kind of cold outside.  But it worked anyway.

So it is kind of different, but it is a lot of fun, and I think it is great that so many take part in our Palm Procession.  And the joy of the day was made a little greater for me by something I learned just in the last month or so.

I have learned a lot about the history of our church over the last year, and I am still learning things.  I want to tell you about Rev. Robert Davidson.  He came here as pastor in 1920.  He was originally from Scotland.  He was a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School and became pastor in Rockford, Illinois.  In Rockford he was a key part of a group that began the first mutual hospital insurance association in the country.  That is cool.  From there he went to become pastor in Marshalltown, and he came here in 1920.

While he was pastor, the Roger Williams House was built, which was our college student center.  That house is now the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, just a couple of doors down.  Rev. Davidson and his family lived on the top floor, the first floor was the student center, and the basement contained student apartments - the students fired the coal furnace and mowed the lawn in exchange for the room.

Rev. Davidson died suddenly at the Roger Williams House in 1936.  Here is the part I recently learned.  Dating back to his student days, Rev. Davidson sang “The Palms” on Palm Sunday every year for 48 years, with only two exceptions.  He was a musician and while pastor he was also the choir director at our church.

Now when I came to this church and we sang this anthem called “The Palms,” I had never heard of it.  But there was apparently a tradition of singing it here on Palm Sunday.  While we don’t sing it every year, we have sung it a lot. 

What I learned recently was that this tradition of singing “The Palms” goes back 99 years, to when Rev. Davidson introduced it in 1920.  After his death, the tradition continued, in his memory at first, I would imagine - but over the years – over the decades - we had forgotten where the tradition came from.  So, for me, this is a fun day not only because of the palm parade but because of singing that anthem, which I have sung many times, but this time I sang it knowing where it came from.

And then, it’s not exactly like Jesus entering Jerusalem, but today we have the great anticipation of Fellowship Time – of celebrating with Fred and Dianne Borgen on their 60 years of marriage.  That is something to celebrate.   

That is the fun part of Palm Sunday.  But it is a strange day, like I said, because there comes this abrupt change in the tone and mood of the service.  We begin with this great celebration, we begin with anticipation, but by the end we are heading toward the cross.  And that makes this a strange day because we can suffer a sort of spiritual whiplash.

Jesus and his disciples arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration.  It was the biggest festival of the year.   Jesus enters Jerusalem - the capital city, the center of culture and commerce – and the center of faith.  A large crowd gathers.  There was excitement and enthusiasm.  There were great hopes and expectations that he was the Messiah they longed for, the one who would lead the nation to overthrow Roman rule.  The crowd welcomed him as a king and shouted, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Jesus arrives on a donkey, fulfilling the prophecy found in the prophet Zechariah.  A donkey is significant.  Horses were not used for agriculture or transportation.  You would use an ox for agriculture and a donkey for transportation.  Horses were used for war. 

There was a pattern to receiving a conquering hero in the Greco-Roman world.  A military general or the king would come to town, and as this hero approached, people came out to offer a welcome.  They would come out beyond the city gates and escort the person into the city.  Today we would call it “rolling out the red carpet.”

Jesus arrived as a hero.  The crowd laid palm branches and cloaks on the road as he entered Jerusalem.  There was cheering and celebration.  There were shouts of “Hosanna!”  But Jesus was a very different kind of messiah, a different kind of savior, a different kind of king.  On a donkey and not on a war horse, he represented the way of peace. 

The Roman governor Pilate would have been entering Jerusalem around this same time.  But Pilate entered the city differently.  He entered with an air of power and domination.  He surely did not come riding a donkey.  Pilate inspired fear.   But Jesus came in humility. 

As the week unfolded, it became clear how different Jesus was – how vastly different Jesus was than what people had expected.

Jesus’ entry into the city grabbed a lot of attention.  We read that as Jesus entered Jerusalem, “the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?”  And the crowds would say, “this is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth.”

Now if there was anything that the powers that be did not want, it was turmoil.  It was uncertainty.  It was celebration that got out of hand.  There were crowds, out of town folks from everywhere in Jerusalem for Passover.   Along with these large crowds, the city was filled with Roman soldiers sent to keep the peace, to keep the Pax Romana.

The religious leaders were already skeptical of Jesus.  His popularity and message they found threatening.  When you speak out for the powerless, you threaten the powerful.  When you give hope to those on the margins, you irritate those at the center.  His teaching called into question their authority.  So the religious leaders took note of Jesus’ arrival and worried about possible repercussions.  They were right to be worried, and their concern quickly escalated.

Jesus arrives in town, and the first thing he does is to head over to the temple.  When you hear temple, don’t think big church building.  The temple was an enormous complex.  The most outlying part was an outside court, the Court of Gentiles.  Anyone could go there.  For a Gentile who was drawn to God, this was as close as one could get.  Closer was the Court of Women.  Closer still was the Court of Israelites—only the men could go there, and this was where worship took place.  And then there was the Holy of Holies, where only the priests could go.

Jesus was observing what was going on in the Court of Gentiles.  Everyone who came to worship had to pay the temple tax.  People brought their Roman money with them – it was the coin of the realm.  But a Roman coin, bearing the image of Caesar, was considered a graven image, and the temple tax had to be paid with temple currency.  And so, as a public service, there were people who would exchange your money for temple money.  The temple literally could not function without this service.

And then there were animal sellers.  At Passover in particular, sacrifices were offered.  You didn’t want to have to haul your sacrifice over a long distance, so a person could purchase a dove or lamb or other appropriate sacrifice.  Again, this was a helpful service.

Some have speculated that Jesus was angered about the way sellers took advantage of those who had come for worship.  The exchange rates on temple currency could be high, and then they would tack on that exorbitant processing fee, like trying to buy tickets from Ticketmaster.  It’s galling, isn’t it? 

And then, animals for sacrifice might sell for far more at the temple than they would in some private transaction.  It could be like going to Hilton Coliseum.  You can buy a coke for a dollar or two other places, but at Hilton it’s 5 or 6 bucks.  And they know they’ve got you.    

The money changers and animal sellers were using the worship of God as a chance to make a shekel.  They were taking advantage of folks who had come to worship.  This is a common explanation of why Jesus gets upset.  But as you read the text, it doesn’t actually say that this is what got Jesus so worked up.  I expect Jesus didn’t approve of shady business practices, if that was in fact going on, but that does appear to be the issue here.

It is a pretty big undertaking to singlehandedly drive out everyone selling and buying and then to overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the temple.  I mean, who does that?  This is a wild, dramatic, disruptive action.  There is chaos and confusion in the temple court.  The question is, what makes Jesus so angry?

Matthew’s telling of the story is pretty spare.  Not a lot of details.  Jesus just says, “‘It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

I’m not sure that the problem is deceptive business practices.  Jesus’ concern had to do with the temple itself.  The selling and moneychanging at the temple was actually a recent innovation.  Jesus says that the temple is supposed to be a house of prayer.  By saying that it had become a den of robbers, he was quoting from Jeremiah 7.  He is not talking about the temple as a place where robbery occurs but as a “den” - where people take their gains and feel safe.  Jesus is demonstrating against the secularization, against the commercialization and corporatization of the temple. 

Remember, this was the only part of the temple where a Gentile could go, and this is what was happening.  The temple had become a place where those who may have had little interest in worship could come to earn money.  Nothing wrong with providing a needed service, nothing wrong with making money, but this was a place for prayer.  Jesus is demonstrating what had become an entire system of temple worship. 

Now, did you notice Jesus’ other action in the temple?  “The blind and lame came to him, and he cured them.”

That part does not get as much attention, but it important, and it tells us about Jesus’ concern.  Jesus is challenging the prevailing piety of the temple.  He says that God’s purpose is to welcome and to heal the excluded, the marginalized, those who are hurting.  The temple is not a place for monetizing faith.  It is a place for receiving God’s gift, a place to experience God’s life-giving power. 

Jesus stands against religion that is more about its system and tradition and practices than it is a living, breathing faith.  He stands against those who put the needs of the institution and the commercialization of faith above the needs of the community and the movement of the Spirit. 

The Cleansing of the Temple, as it is called, seems like the last straw as far as the religious leaders were concerned.  And Jesus knew it.  He knew it, but in his faithfulness to God and faithfulness to who he was, he did it anyway. 

Jesus entered Jerusalem to such fanfare, such high hopes, but from here, things only go downhill.

This episode challenges all of us.  As you think about your own life – what tables need to be overturned?  What is it that needs to be changed?  What allegiances are misplaced?  What – or maybe who – are you ignoring as you focus attention on lesser matters?  What priorities need to be rearranged?

And then, how do we as a community miss the bigger picture, while there are those in our midst, at our doorstep, in need of hope and welcome and healing?

Palm Sunday is a weird day.  We began with a parade.  We end with our eyes toward the cross.  We will gather again on Thursday as we join Jesus and the disciples in the Upper Room.