Friday, January 19, 2018

“Water into Wine” - January 21, 2018

Text: John 2:1-11

There are those times when things go wrong at church.  Well, things go wrong everywhere, to be sure, but when things go wrong in worship, the seriousness and solemnity of the occasion magnifies everything.  We try so hard to do things decently and in order, and when things go awry, it really stands out.   

Exhibit A for things that go wrong at church would have to be weddings.  Stuff just seems to happen at weddings. 

I had a groomsman, the younger brother of the groom, lock his knees and eventually pass out.  He was OK, but that does tend to get people’s attention.

Years ago, I was a groomsman in a wedding where the bride and groom were trying to light the unity candle and the bride dropped her candle on the open Bible on the table.  A Bible going up in flames is not the image you want to begin your marriage.

There was a wedding rehearsal where I was off in a side room with the groom and groomsmen, waiting to enter the sanctuary when the organist began the processional.  There was a woman at this rehearsal who seemed to be semi- in charge of things, but she was not one of the mothers.  So I asked who the woman in the orange dress was, and one of the groomsman let out an expletive to describe this woman.  That’s when I remembered my microphone was on.  We were all pretty scared for a moment there, but fortunately, nobody was paying attention to much of anything at this rehearsal, and no one heard or noticed what this guy said.

And then there was the wedding where the bride and groom were to come down the aisle to recorded music.  The song was by Luther Vandross, “Here and Now.”  “Here and now, I promise to love faithfully.”  It’s not what Susan and I had at our wedding, but it’s a nice song and an appropriate sentiment for a wedding.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned.  The usher who was to unroll the aisle runner, an uncle of the bride, was nowhere to be found.  We waited and waited, but this guy was out taking a smoke or something.  Finally, the maid of honor looked at the best man and said, “Eddie’s gone.  We need to do the aisle runner.”  The best man said “I’m not doing it,” so the maid of honor muttered a couple of choice words and said that she was going to do it, and she did.  She pulled the runner all the way down the aisle, unrolling it.

The problem was that by the time that was done and the maid of honor was back in her place and the bride and her father were ready to enter the sanctuary, the song was over.  The cassette – this was back in the olden days – went on to the next song.  The next song was, “Love the One You’re With.” 

Things can go wrong at weddings.  But this is definitely not a recent phenomenon. 

Our text this morning is from John chapter two.  In the first chapter of John’s gospel, we have the prologue, which speaks of Jesus as the Word become flesh; then Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist.  After that, he begins to call his disciples, Andrew and Simon and Philip and Nathaniel, which we looked at last week.

Then we come to our text for today.  After these sort of preliminary stories, the first thing we see Jesus doing is attending a wedding.  Jesus’ mother was there, and then we are told that Jesus and his disciples were also invited.  The wedding is in Cana, not far from Nazareth.  While at this wedding, something goes badly wrong.

Now we need to step back for a second to understand what weddings were like.  It was not simply a ceremony and a reception.  A wedding was like having a massive open house that could go on for as long as a week - days of eating and drinking and dancing and celebrating.  The wedding was all about joyous celebration with family and friends.

The poor, which included most of the population, had cheese and bread and olive oil for their basic diet, with water to drink for most of their meals.  The water was often of poor quality, but that is what they had.  Wine was a cash crop and while many worked in the production of wine, the poor had little wine to drink, just as they had little meat to eat.

It is still that way in a lot of places.  Those who work in the harvest don’t necessarily share in the harvest.  I was in Costa Rica in November.  Costa Rica is known for its coffee.  People there tend to drink coffee with warmed milk and often sugar.  The reason is that for many years, all of the really good coffee was exported.  You could be living in an area that produced wonderful coffee, but all you could get yourself was the B or C grade stuff.  The coffee they drank wasn’t very good, so everybody put milk and sugar in it.

For much of the population in Israel, when they had wine, it was wine of a poor quality.  But a wedding was different.  A wedding was a time for extravagance.  A family would scrimp and save for some time in order to do it right.  Sheep and calves and every delicacy would be served, and there would be wine in profusion.

Somewhere through the course of this wedding, long before the celebration is over, the wine runs out.  Mary, who seems to be a close friend of the bride’s family, gets wind of this and reports it to Jesus.

For the wine to run out in mid-party would be a great embarrassment.  People would talk about it for years to come.  “Remember the Cohen wedding, when the wine ran out?  What a disaster.”

For the family, this would have been a social faux pas, a great embarrassment.  But Jesus does not seem especially concerned.  His response to his mother seems rather harsh.  “Woman, what concerns is this of ours?  My time has not yet come.”  It’s not our problem, and besides, this is not the time for me to act. 

But Mary seems to have no doubts about it.  “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servants.  This seems to indicate that Mary was close to the family, an insider.  

Mary knew her son.  Despite whatever misgivings he may have had, Jesus does something.  There were six very large stone jars used to hold water for Jewish rites of purification.  Jesus told the servants to fill them, all the way to the brim, and then draw some out and give it to the chief steward – basically the head waiter.      
They did what Jesus asked – and the water had become wine.  Not just any wine, but fine wine, far better than what had been served up until that point.  The steward was amazed.  Everybody serves the good stuff first, and then when people’s sense are perhaps dulled a bit they bring out the cheap stuff, the 3-buck Chuck.  But the chief steward says to the bridegroom, “You have saved the good wine until now!”  Of course, the groom had no idea what he was talking about, but he wasn’t arguing.

Now, one of the details that is easy to miss is the amount of wine we are talking about here.  There were 6 large stone jars that held water for rites of purification.  These would typically hold 20 to 30 gallons each.  So we are talking about a huge quantity of wine.  We are given this detail about the jars in order to point out the extravagant way that Jesus responds.  When Jesus supplies a need, he really supplies a need. 

Like most of what goes on in John, there is meaning at two levels in this story.  First, there is the very practical level.  Wine is running out and the party is going to fall flat on its face.  This will be an embarrassment for this family, and so Jesus acts.

It wouldn’t take much reflection here to question Jesus’ action.  Sure, it might be embarrassing to not provide the proper hospitality at a wedding, but did it call for a miracle?  Really?

In fact, maybe it would have been better to do nothing.  Maybe having the wine run out would teach them a good lesson about the need to plan wisely.  How else would they learn?  A bailout was not going to help them learn responsibility.  It was their own fault, and they did not deserve a miracle.  Not acting could have been an act of tough love. 

And even if Jesus were so inclined as to help out here, why would he do something so trivial as turning water into wine?  In the big picture of things, wasn’t this a small matter?

Well, perhaps.  It wasn’t a life or death circumstance, but it mattered to someone.  And that is important.  One of the things we learn here, right at the outset, right at the beginning of the gospel of John, is that if it matters to someone, then it matters to Jesus.  If it matters to you, it matters to Jesus. 

It is interesting that Jesus’ first miracle - or sign, as John calls it - is not some big, splashy, pyrotechnic kind of event.  He is not raising someone from the dead.  It is not a public healing.  He is not feeding the multitudes or walking on water.  And in fact, hardly anyone even knows about it.  Mary and the servants and Jesus’ disciples are the only ones in on it.  The bride and groom don’t know, the guests don’t know, the chief steward who discovers that the good wine has been saved for later does not know.  The miracle is not for public consumption.  Jesus simply sees a need and responds.  Or more accurately, a need is pointed out to him and he responds.

I think that is significant.  Miracles are not just show-offy sensational events that are witnessed by the masses.  Now, to be sure, sometimes they are.  If you were watching the Vikings game last week, as I was, you saw a show-offy miracle that was indeed witnessed by the masses.  But it’s not always like that.

Miracles are not just for those extraordinary moments.  Miracles are not just for the holiest persons among us.  And perhaps, each day is filled with miracles if only we will look and listen.  How many times a day are we blessed in ways we don’t even realize?  How many miracles are there around us of which we are unaware? 

Albert Einstein once commented, “There are two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Perhaps there are miracles all around us, miracles in abundance.  And it is important for us to know that even those matters which are not life and death are important to Jesus.  If it matters to us, it matters to Jesus.

This is one level, the obvious, up-front level of meaning.  But John always seems to have more than one thing going on at a time.  It is helpful to know the symbolic importance of wine in Israel.  Our call to worship, from Psalm 104, kind of summarizes the Hebrew understanding of wine when it says that “wine to gladden the human heart” is a gift of God.

Wine was so vital to the culture and economy of Israel, that it took on important theological significance.  Wine was used throughout the Scriptures as a symbol of holy joy.  Wine was not just something to drink, but it was a powerful metaphor that everyone understood.

And what does Jesus do?  He provides wine in great abundance, extravagantly providing far more than was needed.  This is not just about a beverage for a wedding; it is about God’s grace.  It is about God’s love and care and welcome that is poured out for everyone – for the whole community.  It is about grace that God pours out to us when we are feeling empty, when our spirits are depleted, when the well is running dry.  Jesus is the connection to a deep and boundless spring of God’s grace.

Now, one more thing: it is interesting the way that Jesus responds to Mary’s request.  He says. “My hour has not yet come.”  There are two kinds of time.  There is chronos – the time on your watch.  But Jesus is talking about kairos – God’s time, big-picture time.  It was not the right time.  It was not his intention to perform his first sign.  But he does anyway. 

Basically, Jesus had a Plan A, but circumstances intervened.  Life intervened.  Jesus was flexible enough to make up Plan B on the fly.

That’s life, right?  We may have a Plan A, but we often have to go to Plan B, and maybe Plan C or D.  The Good News is that God provides new wine in the midst of the losses and disappointments and general disruption of life.  God is there when Plan A doesn’t work out.  And I have seen it – I have seen this happen right in our midst, right in this place, right among you.

Some of you have known tragedies that could make you sour or angry or completely defeated, but you are not.

Some of you have been so bruised by life that you could become cynical and hardened, but you have not.

Some of you have achieved great success and could easily feel pretty self-important, but you continue to demonstrate a deep humility.

Some of you have honestly faced challenges and new realities and with God’s help, you have been open to new possibilities, new approaches, new people, new ways of living.

Turning water into wine was not on Jesus’ calendar, but he gave up Plan A and embraced a new possibility.  And for all the times that things do not go the way we had planned, Jesus is there.  The well never runs dry, and in whatever circumstance, Jesus pours out grace upon grace.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

“Come and See” - January 14, 2018

Text: John 1:35-51

Do you remember when you first met your closest friends?  Do you remember where you were and your first interactions and impressions?  When I was four years old, we moved from in town out to the suburbs, next door to a church.  I was four years old.  And I remember seeing a kid about my age in the church parking lot.  He was hammering rocks in the gravel parking lot.  Which seems like a kind of dead-end activity today, but I guess if you are 4 years old it looked kind of impressive.  I still keep in touch with that kid, who today lives in South Carolina.  He was the pastor’s son.

Do you remember when you became a fan of a particular musician or sports team or actor or public figure?  Did it happen all at once, or was it a gradual thing to where you really couldn’t say how and when it happened?  Did other people influence you? 

Do you remember when you met your significant other?  Do you remember when you met your spouse?  Were there fireworks?  Was there an instant connection?  Or were you acquaintances and then maybe friends, maybe for a long time,  before things took off?  

And then, do you remember when you met Jesus?  Do you remember when Christian faith became real and meaningful to you, something that you owned for yourself?  Was there a flash of insight, was there a moment of dramatic conversion, or was it more of a gradual coming to faith?

We are (mostly) following the Narrative Lectionary, a set of scripture readings for each Sunday that sees the Bible as a continuing story, a narrative.  Over the course of a year, we cover a pretty wide variety of Biblical material.  We began in September with the book of Genesis and the story of creation.  Through the fall we hit some of the great stories of the Old Testament.  We looked at the Psalms; we heard from several of the prophets – Isaiah, Amos, Zephaniah, and last week Gary Martin shared from Hosea.  We looked at Jesus’ Advent and birth, and now we are in the gospel of John.  We will be in John through Easter, taking in a story or episode from the gospel each week as we follow the life of Jesus.

This morning we have this very interesting passage from the first chapter of John, which tells about the calling of the first disciples.  How did they learn about Jesus?  How did they come to follow Jesus?  How did this whole movement get started?

John reports on how the ball got rolling, and what is perhaps remarkable about it is how laid back it all is.  There is no pressure, no real fireworks, no arm-twisting, not much drama about it.

We heard from John the Baptist several weeks ago.  John had developed a following, with disciples of his own.  Part of John’s message, of course, was that he was preparing the way and that one greater than him would come.  One day, while John was with a couple of his disciples, Jesus walked by.  John said, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  John basically says, “This is the guy,” and the two disciples right away decide that they will follow Jesus.

The dialog is very interesting.  Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?”  And they reply, “Where are you staying?”

What kind of answer is that?  If someone asks you, “What are you looking for?” would you reply with “Where are you staying?”

Well, the word is actually a little stronger than staying.  It’s more like, “Where are you abiding.”  The question may have had to do with geography, but Jesus does not answer it that way.  He doesn’t say, “I’m staying over there on Lynn Avenue, you turn the corner and it’s third house on the left.”

The deeper question is whether Jesus is the one for whom they have been looking.  Where are you abiding?  Where are you hanging out?  What are you really about?  What’s your story?

Maybe that is more of what they are asking, but still, Jesus doesn’t really answer.  He just says, “Come and see.” 

Come and see.  You can’t really get the answer ahead of time.  To get the answer, you have to follow Jesus.  The answer takes time.  You get the answer through lived experience.

Now you may have already known this, or maybe you just noticed this morning, but John is somewhat different from the other three gospels.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all follow pretty well the same story line and contain many of the same stories, much of the same teaching from Jesus.  John is a little different.  It was the last of the four gospels to be written.  It is more theological in tone - not just reporting what happened but explaining it for us.  Although explaining might be overstating it, because there always seems to be multiple layers of meaning, and in John, everything is not always spelled out.

In Mark, Jesus’ first words are “The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe the good news.”  In John, Jesus’ first words are “What are you looking for?” and “Come and see.”  It is about looking and finding and inviting.  As the gospel begins, Jesus makes no big dramatic claims.  Now John does – he begins the gospel with a very theological prologue, saying “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”  But Jesus simply says, “Come and see.”  Check it out.

It is a low drama, very invitational way to call people - through their own curiosity and interest, a way that respects and honors their own experience.  And that’s the way it is for many of us, maybe most of us.

Many years ago, what was then the American Baptist Convention had something called Life Service Sunday, a day to especially encourage people to consider ministry as a profession.  In 1959 they published a brochure which told about how various leaders had been called to ministry.  Joan Thatcher, publicity director of the American Baptist Convention, asked Martin Luther King, Jr. to compose a statement for that brochure. In her request, Thatcher noted, “Apparently many of our young people still feel that unless they see a burning bush or a blinding light on the road Damascus, they haven’t been called.’

This is what King wrote:

My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular.  It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life.  Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization.  Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me.  This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry.  At first I planned to be a physician; then I turned my attention in the direction of law.  But as I passed through the preparation stages of these two professions, I still felt within that undying urge to serve God and humanity through the ministry.

During my senior year in college, I finally decided to accept the challenge to enter the ministry.  I came to see that God had placed a responsibility upon my shoulders and the more I tried to escape it the more frustrated I would become.  A few months after preaching my first sermon I entered theological seminary.  This, in brief, is an account of my call and pilgrimage to the ministry.

For King, his calling was a process, a journey.  It was a matter of, come and see. 

Two potential disciples expressed interest in a life of faith with Jesus.  And Jesus’ call to them was: come and see.  And they did.  These two followers of John become followers of Jesus. 

One of them is identified as Andrew.  He finds his brother Simon and says, “We have found the Messiah.”  Which is a pretty strong description of Jesus, based on Andrew’s brief interaction with him, although I suppose he is going by John the Baptist’s word as well.  But the fact is, at this point, he really has no idea what it means to be the Messiah.  This is something that he will have to come and see.  But he brings his brother Simon to Jesus and Jesus immediately calls him Cephas, or Peter, which means Rock.

The next day Jesus heads to Galilee.  He finds Philip, from Andrew and Simon’s hometown, presumable a friend of these brothers, and says “Follow me.”  And Philip does.  And like Andrew who immediately went and found his brother, Philip immediately goes and finds his friend Nathanael.  He tells Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth.

Nathanael’s immediate response is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’  You’ve got to love that response.  Nazareth was not a cosmopolitan kind of place; it was more of a backwater, Podunk town, with Gentile and Samaritan territory nearby, Roman soldiers and citizens in the area, far from the good influence of the temple in Jerusalem.  Nazareth was not exactly known for producing religious leaders, much less Messiahs.  And so Nathanael understandably responds with skepticism, with a bit of an eye roll.

Now, Philip might have tried to argue with Nathanael.  He might have tried to use scripture and his debate skills to try and convince his friend.  Or he might have just let the comment slide and said, “Whatever, suit yourself.”  But I like his response.  It is the same approach that Jesus took.  “Come and see.”  Why don’t you check it out for yourself?

And Nathanael does.  For his part, Jesus seems to appreciate Nathanael’s honesty and straightforwardness.  “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” he says.  And Nathanael winds up making a great profession of faith: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”  Nathanael repeats some of the traditional language.  He really doesn’t know what these words mean.  But he has signed up to find out.

There are a great number of people who find meaning and value in being part of a community of faith.  There are countless people who find love and healing and community through the church and who find hope and joy in following Jesus. 

But the trend isn’t so good.  Every year, surveys indicate that more and more people claim no religious affiliation.  People read about misconduct on the part of church leaders or see self-proclaimed Christians who seem to be a lot more interested in political power than in serving a hurting world, and they are turned off.  It’s not really news, but there is a lot of skepticism out there regarding a life of faith. 

Taking a stance of superiority and just assuming we are right and we have all the truth is not going to cut it.  It’s not real attractive.  I’ve had strangers knock on my door and tell me that I need to turn my life around, and I have to say that their message was not very compelling.  I have heard preachers on campus yelling at students as they walk by, and to be honest, their approach is not very effective.

There is a way of sharing the Good News that respects the other person.  I love these words of Jesus that we also hear from Philp.  “Come and see.”  We can bear witness to our own experience and invite others to come and see for themselves.

To say “Come and See” is to honors each person’s unique experience.  “Come and find out for yourself.”  When we do that, what we experience may not be exactly the same as the next person.  We understand Jesus, we grow in faith, we come to know God as part of our journey.  That journey may be different for each person, and it can take us places we never would have imagined.  Faith can’t be completely explained in advance, if it ever can.  It has to be lived.

Montgomery, Alabama.  1955.  The issue facing the community is the forced segregation of city buses.  Local pastors are gathered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.  The pastors are strategizing, trying to figure out what to do, how to proceed.  Rosa Parks had recently been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. 

The meeting went on, with nothing clear emerging.  Until - the most unlikely thing.  The young pastor of the host church, new to town, unknown to the city fathers - a guy in his 20’s - raises his hand.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott had a leader.

Dr. King, who had been at the church for about a year and earned his doctoral degree just six months before, became the leader of the civil rights movement - not just in Montgomery, but in the country.  His journey with Jesus would take him places he never could have imagined.  There was no way to know where it would all go, but Jesus said, “Come and see.” 

Jesus continues to say to each one of us, “Come and see.”  Because following Christ is not a once-and-done thing – it is a daily choice, a continuing journey.  Come and see.  Amen.

Monday, December 11, 2017

“Choosing and Being Chosen” - December 3, 2017

Text: Isaiah 40:1-4, Matthew 3:1-17

Today is the first Sunday of Advent – a season of waiting and preparation.  Many of the scriptures for Advent focus on Old Testament prophets, in their longing and hoping for God to come and make things right.  One of those prophets was Isaiah.  We heard his words of “Prepare ye the way of the Lord... make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

The image is of a highly anticipated royal visit.  Preparations had to be made.  Roads were repaired.  Potholes were filled.  New flyover exit ramps off the interstate were constructed.  The whole community threw itself into making preparations.  But instead of making ready for a ruling monarch, Isaiah said that the time would come to make ready for the coming of God.

Our New Testament scripture involves John the Baptist.  John, of course, was Jesus’ cousin, born to Elizabeth in her old age.  Matthew, writing the gospel, sees in John’s preaching and ministry the living out of Isaiah’s words.  John was preparing the way of the Lord.

Now, this is a season of family get-togethers, of fabulous food and beautiful music and gift-giving.  For a lot of folks, this is their favorite season – like the songs says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

Into the joy and excitement of this season, this wild-eyed prophet shows up.  John the Baptist didn’t fool around.  He lived on honey and locusts and wore camel skin.  His preaching was all fire and brimstone, all the time.  The kingdom is coming all right, he said, but don’t think that it is going to be punch and cookies.  Your only hope is to clean up your life like your life depended on it.  He called for repentance – for serious repentance – and then he said that he was just the opening act, that he wasn’t even worthy to carry the sandals of the one who was coming.

John was one serious dude.  His message is jarring to us.  But sometimes that is what we need.  Sometimes we need to be awakened from our complacency.  Some of you may remember those old Mennen Skin Bracer commercials – they would say, “It’s like a cold slap in the face.”  Somebody would slap a guy with Skin Bracer and he would say, “Thanks, I needed that.”

Well, that is John.  He was like a cold slap in the face for people who needed to wake up to the reality of their lives.  He helped people to be ready for the message of Jesus.

John was out doing his thing in the wilderness, but he took one look at Jesus and knew who he was immediately.  “You’re the one who should be baptizing me,” he said, but Jesus insisted, and John was the one who baptized Jesus.

Now, think about John.  He is out in the wilderness.  There is no walk-by traffic.  Nobody just happened to be in the neighborhood, happened to overhear his sales pitch and decide to buy.  You had to really want to hear his message.  You had to be very intentional about it.  You had to make a deliberate choice to go hear his preaching, and you had to make a personal choice to be baptized by him.

Jesus makes the deliberate choice to go to the wilderness to be baptized by John.  When Jesus is baptized, the Spirit of God descends like a dove on him, and a voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  Jesus says Yes to the anointing of the Spirit, and he proceeds to live into his calling.

Jesus chose to take charge of his own life.  He chose to make changes in his life and in his world.  People want to ask, “Why was Jesus baptized?  Wasn’t he without sin?  Isn’t baptism about repentance?  Why did he need to be baptized?”

That’s a good question, but the fact is, those kinds of questions followed Jesus throughout his ministry.  Both his followers and detractors kept asking that same question: why?

•    Why did Jesus hang out with sinners and tax collectors?

•    At the height of his popularity, with crowds growing, why did he seem to purposely offend people and make following him sound so hard?  Why was he so bad at marketing and PR?

•    Why did he flaunt convention and upset established piety?

•    When Jesus would heal somebody, why did he say to the person healed, “Don’t tell anybody”?

•    Why did he keep using Samaritans and foreigners as the good guys in stories he told?  Why did he make religious leaders out to be the bad guys?

•    Why would he hold up a poor widow as an example and criticize wealthy members of society, on whose generosity the running of the temple depended?

•    Why did he choose a bunch of everyday folks to be his disciples?  Why not respectable people of high social rank? 

•    And then why were there women among his group of friends and supporters?  In that day, it was seen as scandalous.

•    Why was Jesus so self-effacing?  Why did he wash the disciples’ feet?  Why didn’t he insist on the honor and respect due and appropriate for such a prophet?

•    Why did he teach using such obtuse, hard-to-understand parables?  Why couldn’t he just spell it out for us?

•    And why was he so big on forgiveness and loving enemies?  What was up with that?

Jesus carried out his calling in completely unexpected ways.  The question that followed him was, “Why?”  Time and again, Jesus’ teaching and behavior baffled his followers and enraged the establishment.

Jesus was a man of his time.  He responded to the world around him - he wasn’t controlled by it, but he wasn’t aloof from it, either.  He chose to do the right thing, and then the next right thing, rather than the conventional or the easy thing.

Why did Jesus do what he did?  Why did he make the choices he made?

Jesus made the choice to serve others, rather than himself.

He made the choice to serve God, not power or popularity.

He made the choice to pursue righteousness rather than personal ambition.

Jesus chose to violate traditions that he considered hurtful to people.  He believed that we were not made to serve traditions, but traditions were created to serve us.

He chose to follow the commandment to love God and love neighbor, even when it was hard, even when doing so came with a cost.

And it did come with a cost.  We all pay a price for acting freely.  But the fact is, we’re going to pay a price anyway.  There is a price to most anything we do – or don’t do.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and mammon.”  We have to decide.  Mammon is money or greed or the pursuit of wealth, but in a larger sense it represents all of those things that we may be tempted to serve rather than God.  We have to choose who or what we are going to serve.  We have to choose what our life is going to be about.

Why did Jesus submit to baptism by John?  It seems to me that Jesus was choosing to cast his lot with humanity.  He was choosing to be one with all of us.  He was choosing to identify with our needs, our struggles, our pain.  He was choosing in baptism to set the course for his life.  He was choosing to identify with the movement which John had started. 

This was a choice he made in his baptism, and it was a choice that he made over and over, again and again.

It’s that way with us.  We follow Jesus daily, making choices large and small along the way, again and again.

Baptism is a symbol of new life, a symbol of God’s grace, a reminder that God says to each of us, “You are mine.  You are my beloved child.”  There is nothing we do to earn that, so baptism is a witness to the fact that God has chosen us.

But baptism is also a choice that we make.  And it is symbolic of all the choices that we will come to make.  In baptism, we are saying that we have chosen to follow Jesus, that we have chosen to continue down that path of loving God and neighbor.  We are saying that like Jesus, we are choosing to trust God, to serve others, to live by the law of love.  We are committing ourselves to Jesus’ way in all of those daily choices that we make, large and small.

This may sound like a huge, cosmic undertaking, and it might sound like a lot of pressure.  Well, don’t worry: we’re not called to be perfect.  We are not called to bat 1000.  There will be bumps along the road, mistakes and failures, even major failures along the way.  But baptism serves as a reminder that we are God’s beloved children, and that in those times when we fall short, we are still loved and still surrounded by God’s grace – in fact, baptism tells us that we are standing in a  river of God’s grace – we are immersed in it.

This morning we celebrate with Lauren in her decision to profess her faith in Christ and to follow Jesus though baptism.  In our tradition, baptism is always done in corporate worship.  It is done in community.  Because we don’t live the Christian life all by ourselves.  We do it together.  We walk the journey of faith with brothers and sisters.  We choose to follow Jesus for ourselves, and that is symbolized in baptism, but we don’t have to follow Jesus by ourselves.  We need each other because it’s not always easy.   

Like Jesus, we have choices, every day.  We don’t have to accept our lives as they are.  We don’t have to accept the world as it is.  We can speak up for what is right.  We can choose a career path that fits our gifts.  We can help a neighbor in need or encourage a person who is hurting or use our gifts in service or get involved in a cause we care about. 

We can make the choice for kindness, for understanding, for patience.  We can refuse to give in to cynicism and to stay hopeful.  We can choose to be people of prayer.  We have choices about how we are going to live every day, and the small choices really do add up.

Jesus did not have to submit to John’s baptism.  But he chose to do so.  He was free to choose, and he knew that the choices he made would matter.

It’s like that with us.  We are called to take our lives, our freedom, the choices we have, seriously.  We are called to choose life, abundant life.  And as we do that, we live out our baptism.  Amen.

“Let Justice Roll” - November 26, 2017

Text: Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24

This fall, as we have followed the Narrative Lectionary, we have had a brief tour through the Old Testament, beginning with creation and including Jacob and the ladder to heaven, God speaking to Moses in the burning bush, and God giving the people manna from heaven.   We looked at the call of the prophet Samuel and the call of King David.  In our focus on stewardship we looked at David’s prayer acknowledging God as the source of all we have as well as Psalm 103, a great Psalm of Thanksgiving.

Before we begin Advent next Sunday, we wind up this excursion the Old Testament with the prophet Amos.  You have got to love Amos.  He is an equal opportunity prophet in that he points out wrongdoing wherever he sees it.  He goes after pretty well everybody.  Amos is willing to speak God’s truth whatever the consequences.  He does not hold back and he does not mince words.  He just let’s ‘er rip.

Now, there is some biographical information about Amos that is worth knowing.  In the first place, he is not what you would call a professional prophet.  He is not a priest, he is not seminary trained, he was not a member of the school of the prophets (which was a thing.)  He describes himself as a herdsman and dresser of sycamore figs.  So he is not a professional prophet, certainly not a court prophet who would be an advisor to the king, but a shepherd and farmer who is called by God to proclaim the truth.  The second important piece of information we know about Amos is that he is from the southern kingdom of Judah but he prophesies in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

So, imagine an untrained lay preacher from Mexico, who comes along and points out the corruption and hypocrisy of our society and tells us that we are all going to hell in a handbasket.  That’s Amos.  He is a disturbing outside voice.

Amos is the earliest of the prophets whose name is attached to a book of the Bible.  He is an older contemporary of the prophet Isaiah.  Amos begins his book by pointing out the sins of Israel’s neighbors.  “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment…”  he says, and proceeds to point out the faults and the evil of Damascus. It’s like, “here is this list of wrongdoing, three big things, no wait, there is even more, it’s even worse than I had realized.”  He continues with condemnation for each of Israel’s neighbors. 

Now, Israelites hearing this prophecy might want to cheer Amos on as he points out the transgression of Israel’s neighbors.  “Way to go, Amos, let those Moabites have it!”  But that would be a mistake, because he saves the better part of his condemnation for Israel.

Amos wrote at a time of relative peace and prosperity for Israel.  The economy was good and after years and years of near-constant conflict, Israel was not at war and not under the thumb of a regional power.  But a closer look revealed trouble.  There was widespread neglect of God’s laws, and a rising inequality in the nation – an increasing disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor.  There was a neglect of justice and a lack of concern for those in need.  All of which make Amos sound very contemporary.

We might want to applaud Amos for his truth-telling and his willingness to speak truth to power.  I mean, this is what a prophet is supposed to do, right?  But here is the thing: no one escaped his words of judgment.  No one escapes his words of judgment.  One Old Testament scholar put it this way: “If you like the prophet Amos, you don’t understand him.” 

Just to hear Amos’ words, it can sound almost shocking.  A lot of us have a favorite verse of scripture, right?  John 3:16 – “for God so loved the world.”  Last week, our scripture was from Philippians – “The peace that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  There are those verses that especially speak to us.

Well, how about this for a memory verse: “I hate your worship.  I am sick of your songs.”  This is Amos’ message.  Hear his words again:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings and offerings of well-being,
   I will not accept them;
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
  I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  
Wow.  Pretty strong stuff.  What are we to take from this? 

There have been those who argue that this is an indictment of ritual and formalism in worship, that worship can become formulaic and cold, a kind of going through the motions.  Well, that may be true, but that can be true regardless of worship style – worship can become kind of going through the motions whether it is highly liturgical or very informal.  But that is really missing the point.  That is not what Amos is saying. 

The point is not that what’s wrong with worship.  The point is what’s wrong with worshippers

The problem is offering worship to God and then going out and living as though our words of praise and worship are meaningless.  The problem is saying very pious words but then going out and failing to love our neighbor.  The problem is claiming to worship a God of love and justice and then acting in hateful and corrupt ways.

The issue is integrity.  We can sing beautiful hymns, we can bring sacrificial offerings, we can erect impressive cathedrals, we can have a big, growing, happening congregation.  And it’s not that these things are unimportant.  The point is that without compassion, without a love for neighbor, without regard for what is right, then all of these things are empty. 

Integrity means to be whole, to be undivided.  It means that what we proclaim on Sunday, we try to live out through the week.  It means that we don’t try to put on a false piety on Sunday just as it means that we don’t try to hide our faith throughout the week.  It means we are who we are, and that who we are is a people committed to love and justice and righteousness.

Israel’s claim to be God’s people and its commitment to follow God’s law was belied by the reality of its national life.  A fabulously wealthy elite was living the good life while many were barely subsisting.  Corruption was rampant – corruption on the part of the very people who loved to bring their offerings to the temple and be seen as upright and religious. 

If you take the time to read through the book of Amos, it is amazing that he even lived to write the whole book, so pointed are his words.  He could not have been popular with anyone in power.  It is a hard book to read.  But then, the best-known words from this prophet, and what we hear as words of hope are found in chapter 5 verse 24: “Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Water is a good metaphor for what Amos was trying to convey because water was a very precious resource in that part of the world back then, even as it is now.  There were wadis – small creeks – that were dry for much of the year, but there would be flash flooding when it finally rained.

That is not the way justice was supposed to be – not once in a while, not an occasional outpouring that interrupted the norm of corruption and oppression and favor for the rich at the expense of the poor.  God’s justice is to be the way the world works.  Not a dry creek bed that occasionally flows, but a mighty river, an ever-flowing stream.  “Let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Our church is part of a community organizing group called AMOS.  AMOS is an acronym for A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy, but of course it is one of those purposeful acronyms because as an organization that works for justice, you could do a lot worse than taking the name of this Hebrew prophet who had such a strong call for justice.

Most churches do a pretty good job with mercy, and our church certainly does.  When people are hungry we provide food.  When people need housing we work through Good Neighbors to help make housing available.  We support and participate with Habitat for Humanity.  We go on mission trips.  We are generous in providing help.  That is mercy.  Justice goes a step further by asking, “Why are there so many hungry people?”  “Why is it that a person can work hard and still not be able to afford a decent place to live?”  So in AMOS, our efforts as an organization are hopefully in the tradition of this prophet who called for a world that was just and equitable for all people.

Martin Luther King Jr. expressed the message of Amos as well as anybody.  Hid message was that our faith and Christian commitment cannot be separate from concern for our neighbor.  Our faith commitment demands a social commitment.  Love for God requires love for neighbor, and if we show no love for neighbor, then our claim of love for God is empty.

Now, there is something interesting about Amos’ words.  Amos is not asking us to go out and design a water delivery system.  He doesn’t say, go construct a canal, build some culverts, run a new pipeline, and get that water to flow.  We are not asked to build a river of justice.

The river is already here, he says.  Our job is simply to let it flow.  We are not the source of justice or righteousness.  God is the ultimate source.  What we are called to do is clear out those things that are damming up the flow, restricting the waters.  “Let justice flow.”   

In other words, we are not responsible for everything.  The river can take care of itself and given half a chance it can wash away any obstacle.  We are simply called to work on those things that keep justice from flowing.  Stuff that has gotten in the stream by accident, things we have put in the way on purpose.  There are those things that may benefit a few folks, even while there are people dying of thirst downstream.  Our job is to do what needs to be done to let justice roll.

We have seen it time and again through history.  In the colonial period, many Baptists, along with others, were persecuted – the notion of religious freedom even for minority faiths was considered crazy, even blasphemous.  But there came a time, following the Revolutionary War, when that view was washed away by the waters of justice.  And that same kind of “sudden change” that comes after decades or even centuries of waiting keeps on happening.  

Women getting the right to vote.  The Civil Rights movement and passage of the Voting Rights Act.  The Berlin Wall coming down.  Fifteen years ago, it was would have been hard to imagine that attitudes would change and laws would change to give LGBTQ persons the rights and opportunities they have today.  In recent days, there have been revelations of sexual harassment and sexual abuse made against one public figure after another – from Hollywood to the Iowa Legislature to newsrooms to Washington DC to Senate campaigns.  Stuff that has gone on for years, apparently with little to stop it, is suddenly, it seems, not going to be tolerated any more.

Eventually justice will roll.  Martin Luther King Jr was fond of quoting Theodore Parker, who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  

The point is, it is not up to us to have to do everything – justice and righteousness is God’s work – but we are called to let it flow, to clear away the impediments to justice and righteousness.

I cited several historical movements toward justice.  There is a long way to go, still, on most of these issues, and plenty of other concerns to be addressed, especially in the matter of the separation between haves and have-nots, which was a major issue for Amos.  But here is the thing: in each and every one of those changes that brought greater justice and freedom and equality, there were religious folks who stood in the way - who said that infidels (as they defined infidels – and that included Baptists) should not have religious freedom, or we should protect women by not bothering them with the vote, or that the Bible supports the separation of the races, if not slavery.  Even in recent days, there has been the spectacle of so-called religious leaders minimizing sexual harassment and abuse and standing with perpetrators.  Some of the same people who have always preached about family values.

In each and every case, the issue is power and control and not wanting to give it up.  Amos didn’t really care who was perverting justice or abusing the poor or preying on the weak: he called them on it.  He spoke the truth, even to power.

I have to say, I am not entirely comfortable saying all of this, because I recognize that Amos would have something to say to me.   (This is where the “if you like Amos, you don’t understand him” part comes in.)  It is easy for all of us to be in favor of justice and righteousness until there is a chance it might cost me personally.

If you had to put it in a nutshell, Amos’ question for our day might be: “Do you love your comfortable way of life and your desire for power and control more than you love Jesus? 

The prophet’s words are as timely today as they were in Amos’ time.  “Let justice roll like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  Amen.