Saturday, February 16, 2019

“The Surprising Kingdom” - March 3, 2019

Text: Matthew 13:24-43

It is good to be together here this morning.  It has been quite a stretch, hasn’t it?  Right now the wind chill is about 20 below.  We have a decent chance of setting record low temperatures tonight and tomorrow.  And this is the best weather we have had on a Sunday morning in a month!

Now, when they have too many snow days, public schools have to have make up days.  You may not have known about this, but there is actually a statutory limit to how many Sundays we can cancel worship.  And we have passed that limit.  Instead of scheduling extra worship services on weeknights so we can make up for those missed services, the plan is that I will just preach  one hour sermons the next few Sundays.

OK, maybe not.  But if nothing else, this winter has been memorable.  It has been newsworthy.  And we are drawn to that.  We are drawn to the spectacular.  We live in a bigger is better kind of world.

If you pull into a gas station, you might notice the advertisement as you are pumping gas.  They push the 44 oz. Big Gulp.  I have not seen any ads for the 8 oz. Small Sip.  You will find TV shows devoted to 1 pound burgers with four slices of cheese, 6 slices of bacon, pulled pork and a fried egg on top.  You don’t find shows devoted to finding the perfect 3 oz. soyburger.

If you somehow won a free car, would you choose the 3 cylinder, 74 horsepower Mitsubishi Mirage or the 580 horsepower Porsche 911 Turbo S?  Would you rather have a 5’8” starting center on your basketball team or a 6’11” center?  (As it turns out, my dad was a 5’8” high school center).  

The bulk of Jesus’ teaching is found in parables.  He teaches by telling stories.  Our reading today includes three of these parables, and it is striking how small and everyday these stories are.  They are not flashy and over the top.  These are not Big Gulp stories.  These are not “Remember the Blizzard of ‘19” stories.  These are simple and rather homely stories Jesus tells to describe the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is like a field that has both wheat and weeds.  The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  The kingdom is like some yeast mixed into dough.
Now, understand that Jesus taught pre-PowerPoint.  Pre-Instagram.  Lots of people are visual learners, and one way to teach visually –maybe the best way available in Jesus’ day – was through telling stories that allow the listener to create a picture in one’s mind, in one’s imagination.  Jesus’ parables create imagery that the hearer can reflect on and chew on.

The way that Jesus piles on stories, one after another, does leave it to the hearers – that would be us – to make sense of it all.  In this instance, there is an explanation given for one of the parables, but that is unusual – and in fact, some scholars think that this may have been tacked on by the early church as a way to better make sense of it.

This morning, we have read these three parables – similar and yet each unique – and the question for us is, “What is Jesus trying to say to us about the kingdom of heaven?”

First, the kingdom of heaven – or the way of God, or maybe God’s Neighborhood - is like a farmer who sowed good seed in the field, but then in the middle of the night somebody snuck in and spread some bad seed.  And when it all germinated, there were weeds as well as wheat growing in the field.  The field workers ask if they ought to pull up the weeds, but the owner says, “No, you would risk pulling up some of the good stuff at the same time.  Just wait till harvest and then we’ll sort it out.”

It is a terrible approach, of course.  It is completely the opposite of what you would actually want to do.  If you don’t control the weeds, by the end of the summer you might not even be able to find your peppers and tomatoes for all of the weeds.

To follow Jesus’ advice, to just let the weeds grow till you’re ready to pick the corn or gather in the beans, is asking for all kinds of trouble.  Lutheran preacher Barbara Lundblad says,

These parables about sowing seeds and leaving weeds must have sounded completely ridiculous to people who knew about farming.  But come to think of it, would one shepherd really leave 99 sheep in jeopardy to go searching for one who got lost?  Jesus’ parables that seem so simple and ordinary don’t really make good sense at all.  Not to people who make their living by farming!  Did Jesus really mean to draw such pictures of the Kingdom of God?  Or was he simply a bad farmer?

Jesus’ real subject, of course, is not farming.  And while this may be a poor farming strategy, it is an excellent storytelling strategy, because people would remember this crazy farmer.

In this world, there is good existing alongside the bad.  There are weeds among the wheat.  That is painfully obvious.  The question for us is, “What do we do about those weeds?”

In King James language, Jesus speaks of the “wheat and the tares.”  That word, tare, refers to a specific plant called a bearded darnel.  It looks very similar to wheat, and in fact farmers can’t always tell which it is until it matures.  It belongs to the wheat family, but it is toxic.  It won’t kill you, but it will make you sick.  You don’t want tares mixed in with your wheat.

We might be tempted to think of this in terms of people.  That person is wheat and that one is a tare, a weed.  And I don’t know if you have noticed, but generally we think of ourselves as the wheat and others, whoever they may be, as the weeds.  But that is way too easy.  We are all both saints and sinners.  You might say that we all have wheat and weed within us.  And while Jesus speaks of fire in this passage, of burning the weeds, fire is so often a symbol of purification in the scriptures.  It might be our lives that need purifying.

This parable counsels patience, and it speaks of God’s patience towards us.  In God’s kingdom, there will be accountability, but God is patient and forgiving.  And here’s the thing: sometimes, what appears to us to be a weed is actually wheat.  What appears to be useless is actually a beautiful flower.

A pastor in Michigan, performed a funeral for a man named Vic.  Vic was 96 and had no children.  Chris said that he’d known Vic only the last few years of his life.  Vic’s wife had died several years earlier, and some friends had taken him in and cared for him in his final years.

As a young man, Vic had had a promising baseball career.  Among the memorabilia on display at his funeral was his Detroit Tigers uniform.  He had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, as they say, but alcohol ended whatever career he might have had, along with a lot of other things in his life.

Ordinarily, at 96 and with no children, there would have been just a handful of people at the funeral.  But over 200 people showed up.  The funeral home had to pull out extra chairs.  People came from neighboring states.

Why did so many come to Vic’s funeral?  The man was a legend in Alcoholics Anonymous.  He had not only remained sober for 55 years, but his gentle testimony had influenced thousands of people.  His funeral became an impromptu AA meeting, with many people coming forward to tell what this man had meant to him.

To know Vic as a young man in his 30’s and 40’s, already bankrupted both financially and emotionally by alcohol -- who would have guessed that he would make such a difference through his life?

Writing off others as weeds can be dangerous.  We might recall our own history as Baptists.  Early on, we were considered the weeds, the unwanted undesirables, of the colonies.  Baptist Roger Williams fled from Massachusetts and established Rhode Island as a “refuge for persons distressed of conscience.”  Which meant that Rhode Island was where the religious misfits of the day – Baptists, Catholics, and Quakers - could live in peace.

This parable is not about being passive in the face of evil.  Rather, it is about the way we think of others, and it is about leaving final judgments to God.  Eliminating the weeds is not our job.  We may not even be able to identify the weeds.

Jesus goes on to say that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.   So small you can hardly see it.  Just a little seed – unimpressive and unremarkable.  But it grows into – what? – a mustard bush.  Even all grown up, it is still not all that impressive.

If Jesus really wanted to emphasize how something so small and insignificant becomes so great, why not an acorn becoming a mighty oak?  Why not a small seed growing into a great Cedar of Lebanon?  But no, he tells about a little seed growing into a decent-sized shrub.  I know that the text says that is becomes the greatest of all shrubs and becomes a tree, but this was either hyperbole or possibly sarcasm on Jesus’ part – because a mustard bush just isn’t that great.

A mustard shrub is actually considered a weed.  For Jesus’ hearers this must have been a startling image.  The kingdom of heaven is like – an unsightly and invasive weed?  Are you serious?  Mustard can reach 9 feet in height, but still – it would seem to be kind of a pitiful symbol for the kingdom of heaven.
But here’s the deal: you just can’t get rid of mustard.  It’s a noxious weed that will not go away.  It refuses to die.  It just grows and spreads and grows and spreads, and sometimes your best efforts to get rid of it only make it spread more.

In Matthew chapter 17, Jesus talks about having the faith of a mustard seed.  Just a little bit goes a long way, and it can grow and grow.  Well, that is true, and that is part of what he is saying here – the kingdom may be small, but it will grow into something great.  But the tone and feel of what Jesus is saying is much more than that.

This is not a comforting, homespun message about the way God is at work in the world.  Jesus is describing a kingdom that is invasive, shocking, scandalous, and a nuisance – but also relentless and unstoppable and abundant.

The kingdom of God is not like the biggest tree on the mountain.  The world will not stand back and admire its branches.  On the contrary, the work of the kingdom will mostly be seen as weak and insignificant alongside the powers that shape the world and call the shots.  Signing up for the kingdom of God is not about glory and honor.  A mustard shrub, a weed, is not highly regarded – in fact, it is more often detested.

Jesus sees the kingdom of God, or the empire of God, as being completely unlike the Roman Empire which ran that part of the world.  The kingdom of God has no status at all to it.  It is not powerful or dominant, but it is pervasive.  It is persistent.  It takes over.  It cannot be stopped.  These are words of hope and promise for those times when we feel that evil seems to have a leg up, and that we are not making much headway in doing God’s work.

And then Jesus threw out another parable for his followers to chew on.  He says the kingdom is like a woman putting a little yeast in her dough, and it leavens the whole loaf.

I don’t do much baking.  I make pizza dough more than anything.  But that is absolutely the way yeast works.  Just a little yeast goes a long way, and it makes the whole loaf rise.  A while back I had some yeast that was past date.  I thought it was probably OK and used it, but that turned out to be a poor decision.  The dough would not rise and the pizza crust was terrible.

It takes just a little bit of yeast – but that little bit is so important.  The whole loaf rises or falls, if you will, on the yeast.

OK, that is all well and good.  The kingdom of God is like yeast that leavens the whole loaf.  Something small that has a great effect.  Except here is the deal: yeast was almost always a symbol of corruption.  In chapter 16, Jesus warns his followers to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Saducees.”  Yeast was not kosher – so at Passover, you have unleavened bread.  And so this seems like a weird way to describe the kingdom.  “The kingdom is like an unclean and unkosher symbol of corruption.”  That sounds a little different.

The kingdom of heaven, says Jesus, is scandalous and surprising.  The kingdom is not what you might expect.  Now, just looking at dough, you can’t necessarily tell if there is yeast present – but it is there and it will do its work.  The kingdom may be unexpected.  God’s work may come about in ways we would not have predicted.  The kingdom may even be hidden, but it is there, and it will be revealed.

Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary, says:

the reason Jesus spends so much time explaining the kingdom of heaven is because we need to be reminded that it’s there even when it seems so excruciatingly absent.  The promise of the parables about the kingdom of heaven is that even when the kingdom is not seen, it is near.   
Life can be hard, as we well know.  Sometimes, God can seem absent.  But the Good News is that in this crazy, mixed up world in which goodness and evil, in which joy and misery, in which hope and despair can exist side by side – wheat and weeds, all mixed together - God is nevertheless at work, often in surprising and unnoticed and even subversive ways.  Often, even, through us.

Take heart because like yeast working in dough, like an insignificant weed that just keeps growing, God’s kingdom is among us, even now, and it cannot be stopped.  Amen.

“Building on the Rock” - February 10, 2019

Text: Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29

The weather we have been having has really put infrastructure to the test.  Going from 20 below to 50 degrees above zero, repeatedly, is tough on everything.  And I don’t mean just on our skin and aching joints.  Expansion and contraction of driveways, roads, and sidewalks is a recipe for cracks and potholes, and some of those potholes are getting serious out there.  I noticed that the snow removal people damaged a couple of our new parking bumpers – those beautiful yellow parking bumpers.

Then you have got all of the issues that come with extreme cold, like pipes freezing.  We are probably not the only ones who have left cabinet doors under sinks open when it gets below zero and the wind is blowing.  Some people have reported leaks in their roofs as ice dams have formed and melting water has nowhere to go.

And then, I don’t know how many car batteries have died in recent weeks, but I do know it is a busy time of year for repair shops, just as it is for heating contractors. 

The weather reminds us of what we, of course, already knew: it is a lot easier to take care of potential problems before they happen.  Last week, with a wind chill of 40 below or so, it was getting a little chilly in the college lounge so Bob Parrish and I took out the window air conditioning unit, which wasn’t putting up that much resistance to the cold.  It was probably time.  Now, if we had taken it out back in September, it would have been a lot easier, a lot simpler.  There is a right time to do these kinds of things.

We have been in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount now for three Sundays.  It is chock-full of teaching – much of Jesus’ important teaching to his followers is found in these three chapters of Matthew.  There is so much there that last week, we actually took a vote on which part of the passage we wanted the sermon to be about.  The winner was Worry, which just crushed prayer, fasting, and money.  It was no contest.

Well, today, you are not going to get a choice.  In the seventh chapter of Matthew, Jesus speaks of not judging others - or really, of being able to be self-critical.  There is that wonderful phrase of not throwing pearls before swine.  He talks about seeking, knocking, and asking, knowing that God wants to give us good things.

There is what we know as the Golden Rule, a way of living that Jesus says is pretty well a summary of the law and the prophets.  And Jesus tells us that the road to destruction is wide and easy, while the road to life is narrow and difficult.

But you don’t get to vote for any of those today.  We will be looking especially at the last part of this chapter, which is also the last part of the Sermon on the Mount.    Jesus says, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them is like the wise person who built their house on the rock.  The rains fell, the floods came, the wind beat down on the house but the house was secure because it was built on rock.  But if you hear my words but don’t act on them, it is like building your house on sand – the rains come, the wind blows, and the house falls.”

Jesus is talking about infrastructure – the building blocks of our faith.  When the storms come, when the floods come, when the snow and brutally cold weather comes, we need to be ready.  We need to be prepared.  Waiting until the storm comes is not the time to prepare for it.

Of course, Jesus is not talking about the weather and he is not talking about houses.  He is talking about life.  And we know that when it comes to life, the storms will certainly come.  One contemporary commentator and author, Peter Vale, has described the change that we are experiencing in our culture as white water change, meaning that it is as fast and furious and sometimes as treacherous and turbulent as the white waters of a raging river.

The question for us is, How do we find stability?  How do we make our journey through life when so much is changing and changing so fast?  What is sturdy and stable and steady and dependable in a time of such rapid change?

Jesus knew about how quickly things could change.  He knew about storms and rising waters and shifting sands.  There had been political upheaval brought about by the Roman occupation of Palestine.  It was a time when corruption in high places and competing religious and political factions made life disjointed and conflicted and just plain messy.  It was a time when many people lived at a subsistence level - one injury, one illness, one emergency away from disaster. 

Jesus speaks to people who have come out to hear him, people who want to follow him.  These are people facing difficult times, living hard lives, and Jesus speaks to them of how to live in such difficult times.

And then if we think about the community to whom Matthew was writing, some years later, the same was true.  They had seen many changes, and at times it seemed like the storms were blowing furiously.  They had seen the growing separation of the followers of Jesus from the rest of the Jewish community.  They saw growing violence in the land as people tried to rise up against the Roman occupation.  And they had started to experience persecution at the hands of those who rejected their religious beliefs and opposed their choice to follow Jesus.

When you are facing difficult times, the foundation is crucial, says Jesus.  You have to build your lives on that which is solid and dependable.

Jesus suggests a very firm and solid foundation here - the rock of faith, the rock of hope, the rock of love.  He says, “Anyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them is like the person who built his house on the rock.”

What words is Jesus talking about?

Well, remember, this comes at the very end of the Sermon on the Mount.  We read that the people marveled, saying that he spoke as one with authority.  These weren’t just words for Jesus.  This was authentic, this was real, this was from the heart.  He wasn’t just talking about God; he had a deep connection to God.

Jesus had just spoken a lot of words.  Powerful words.   But he concludes by saying that words are not what matter the most.

I’ve got a question for you: Five frogs were on a log.  Four decided to jump off.  How many were left?  Answer: Five -- because there’s a big difference between deciding to do something and actually doing it.

“Everyone who hears my words and acts on them will be like the wise person who built on the rock.”

Earlier in chapter 7, Jesus speaks of those who will call out “Lord, Lord” but are not interested in actually doing God’s will.  Having the religious lingo down is not what matters.  Jesus is not talking here about having the correct beliefs, about getting the doctrine exactly right.  Having a trove of religious knowledge is not what really counts.  Winning at Bible Trivia is great, but it’s not something to build your life on.

Being a decent and respectable person is admirable – I mean it is better than being an indecent and unrespectable person, right?  But that will not carry us through the storms of life.  

“Everyone who hears my words and acts on them will be like the wise person who built on the rock.”  Listening to Jesus’ words and acting on them.

Author and pastor Eugene Peterson, who died last fall, translated the Bible into contemporary and everyday English – his translation is called The Message.  I love the way he translates this verse:

These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living.  They are foundational words, words to build a life on.  If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock…

But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach.  When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.

I love that translation because it has a kick to it – it gets at the urgency of what Jesus is saying.

Jesus is part of a long tradition in scripture, because building references abound in the Bible.  The Psalmist says, “Unless the Lord build the house, the laborers work in vain.”  The Church is referred to by Paul as “God’s building,” and Hebrews speaks of God as “the builder of all things.”  Jesus himself is called the cornerstone.  And speaking of death, Paul says, “We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, eternal in the heavens, not built by human hands.”

“Building” is an image we may use to talk about faith.  We all know that when it comes to building, the foundation is crucial.  Mess up the foundation and you have a real problem. 

Even before the beautiful bell tower in Pisa, which we know as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, was completed, it was obvious there were problems.  The soft, sandy soil wasn’t stable enough, and foundation was too shallow for the height of the tower.  They have worked to stabilize it for centuries, most recently by pumping concrete into the ground, but it would have been a whole lot easier to just build a good foundation right from the start.

How do we build our foundation of faith?  It starts at the beginning.  I am thankful for those who work with children in our church.  I am thankful for those who teach and guide us and are examples and mentors for us.  I’m thankful for all who have a part in helping us construct a foundation of faith. 

But the metaphor breaks down at some point.  They can’t go back and rebuild the foundation for the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  But we can continue to lay the foundation for our lives.  It’s never too late and we’re never really finished.

We have been thinking about all of this in an individual sort of way.  Jesus talked about the wise person.  The smart carpenter.  But building our faith is not is not something we do completely by ourselves.  It’s more like a Habitat for Humanity build, with a whole bunch of workers who give of themselves to see that the house is built.

We lived in an Amish area before moving to Ames.  In Amish communities, building is very communal.  They will have barn raisings.  It is a community event.  Everyone turns out.  Men and boys are building, women are cooking.  Everyone works together to build a new barn, and it is a wonderful social occasion for the community.

Building our faith – building our lives – is like building a Habitat House.  It’s like a barn raising.  It involves the community.  It involves all of us.  It takes a church.

Now just to look at a couple of houses, you wouldn’t necessarily know which one had a good, solid foundation.  In Jesus’ parable, the strength of the foundation was seen only when the storms came and the waters rose.

So often, that is the case.  We only know how strong our foundation of faith is when we are tested.  I have known people who had to endure heartache and tragedy and difficulties in life that seem almost overwhelming, folks who have been called upon to meet enormous challenges, and who were able to do so with a strength they themselves may not have even known they had.  The strength of their foundation was seen in the midst of the storms of life.

How do we weather the storms of life?  When illness comes, or heartache, or divorce, or betrayal, or when we lose our job, or when our children are in trouble, or when we are just plain scared, what do we hold on to?  The foundation we have built our lives on does matter.

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like the wise person who built their house on rock.”  And what are Jesus’ words?  What is the message he has been proclaiming?

God blesses those whom the world does not consider blessed.  God loves us and wants our words and actions to honor each other as fellow children of God.  God wants us to engage in acts of mercy and worship not so people will notice us and be impressed but simply because that is who we are.  God desires that we help each other rather than judge each other. And God wants us to see that the best way to love God is to love each other.

Jesus starts out on this mountain teaching his disciples – both then and now - what it means to be human, what it means to be children of God.

Blessed are the merciful.  Turn the other cheek.  Be reconciled to your brother or sister.  Love your enemies.  Beware of practicing your piety before others.  Forgive one another.  Don’t store up treasures for yourselves on earth.  Do not worry about tomorrow.  Do not judge others.  Ask, and it will be given unto you.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The foundation, the rock on which to build our lives, is Christ.  Not just knowing Jesus’ words, but living Jesus’ way.  Living in the love of God is the foundation that will see us through the storms of live.  May it be so.  Amen.

Friday, February 15, 2019

“Prayer, Fasting, Money, Worry” - February 3, 2019

Text: Matthew 6:7-34

I don’t know if you noticed, but we had a very long scripture reading this morning.  We will be in the gospel of Matthew through Easter, and in the coming weeks we will read a good portion of Matthew.  But since we have a long passage this morning, since this is a lot to cover, I thought I would give you all the option on where to focus the sermon.  What in this reading do you find the most engaging?  What would you like to hear about?  The choices are:

  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • Not making a show of fasting
  • You can’t serve God and money
  • Do not worry
Ok, the winner is: worry!  (Worry actually crushed the other options!)  If you voted for worry, you can come to the Super Bowl Party tonight and celebrate!

Now you may be impressed that I put together four different sermons this week, to cover the various possibilities.  Pretty good, huh?  I guess it’s just a good thing it wasn’t a tie and you would get two sermons, right?

I was wrestling a bit with what angle to take, what to focus on in this rather long passage of scripture.  So I went through this same exercise myself and decided to let you all make that choice.  Now I have to admit that my first plan was to guess which section would win and just go with that and hope for the best.  But as I explored this passage, part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount - teaching to his followers - I was struck by how much these teachings were all a part of one piece – how connected this all was.  So regardless of how you voted, I can truly say, we will be looking at that part of the text today – at least to some extent.

It’s kind of like an orange: there may be various sections, but it’s still the same orange.  That’s a cop-out maybe, and you may feel like this was a bait and switch, but I do actually have 4 different sermons here.  They are pretty similar, but there are four sermons.  And as a bonus, there will be a bonus joke on the winning choice, in this case worry. (I’m not saying it’s a good joke, I mean I can only do so much, but there is that.)

Now – with that out of the way - The Sermon on the Mount takes up three chapters – Matthew 5-7.  If you have a red letter edition, with the words of Jesus in red, you will notice that other than an introductory sentence and a closing sentence, those three chapters are entirely in red.

Jesus had been talking about not practicing your piety before others, so that they would see how good you are.  He returns to that theme when he talks about fasting in the scripture we read.  He warns of praying in order to impress others, and then says, don’t pray like the Gentiles.  Don’t pray like the Gentiles.  This always seemed kind of curious to me.  Usually, it’s don’t be like the scribes and Pharisees.  Don’t be like the self-righteous religious leaders.  But here it’s “don’t be like the Gentiles.”

Well in the first place, this tells us that the Gentiles – those who were known by Jesus’ followers but were not Jews – were people who prayed.  The Jewish people did not have a monopoly on prayer.   But unlike the way that some prayed, Jesus said that you don’t have to use a lot of words or impressive phrasing – just pray like this.  And he gives what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.  Although this is a fine prayer for use in worship, the point is not that you have to use these exact words when you pray.  It is more of a model prayer for us, an example of what prayer is about.

And I think a key is found in the very first verse, in fact in the first two words.  “Our Father.”  The point is not about gender.  It is about relationship.  It is about intimacy.  Those who prayed to gods and followed other religions in the Greco-Roman world would not have dreamed of having such a close and intimate relationship with God that you would address God as Father – and Abba could even be translated as “Daddy.”  This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Don’t pray like the Gentiles.” 

The prayer is simple; it is direct.  It includes praise, a statement of dependence, and an acknowledgement that this is God’s world.  We pray for God’s will to be done.  There is an acknowledgment that all is not right with the world, and we pray forgiveness for our part in that and discernment in how to live into God’s kingdom.  It is a deeply personal and relational prayer.  This is what made the prayer different.

Connected to prayer is Jesus’ teaching about fasting.  Now, fasting is not a big part of our tradition.  For many of us, the best we do when it comes to fasting is to give up something during the season of Lent.  But fasting is a way to learn and deepen our dependence on God.  In Jesus’ time it was commonly observed as a spiritual discipline.

A couple of weeks ago we looked at Jesus’ temptation.  One temptation was to turn stones into bread, and quoting from Deuteronomy, Jesus told the devil, “We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” 

Jesus says that when you fast, don’t put on a big show about it.  Don’t look pitiful and tell everybody that you are suffering for Jesus.  Because you are not doing it for others.  You are doing it for the sake of your relationship with God.  The audience is not other people, it is God.  And “audience” is not the right word, really - the idea is a deepened connection to God and dependence on God.

Jesus goes on to say, you can’t serve two masters.  You can’t serve God and wealth.  Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.

At first it seems like this is backwards.  It seems like it should be, “Where your heart is, that is where you will put your treasure.”  If we care about something, we will invest in it.  Well, that may be true, but that is not what Jesus is saying here.  He is saying that where your treasure is, there your heart will be.

Have you ever bought a new car – or a new used car? You buy a Hyundai Elantra and suddenly you see Hyundai Elantras everywhere.  Our loyalty follows our money.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.  When we give to the poor, we notice the poor.  When we give to the needy, we notice the needy.  When we invest in the things of God, we notice the things of God.  You can’t have two masters, Jesus says.  Something is going to claim our ultimate loyalty.  As Bob Dylan sang in that period when he was making Christian music, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

We act like we can separate our financial life from our spiritual life, but the fact is we only have one life.  What we do with what we have has spiritual implications.  What we do with our money is connected to and actually influences the deepest yearnings of our heart.

All of this leads into our winning topic of the morning: worry.  Yay, worry!  I had thought that worry would probably win, although I was a little surprised by the margin of victory.  But the reason I thought that this might be the most engaging topic for the most people is that we all struggle with worry.  This is a universal concern.  Worry comes pretty naturally to most of us, and let’s face it: we have had a lot of practice. 

There is a cartoon that shows a guy sitting up in bed, scribbling on a note pad while he talks on the phone.  He says, “When I have trouble sleeping at night, I find it’s sometimes helpful to jot down my anxieties.”  Then you notice the walls of his bedroom and they are just plastered with sticky notes listing all kinds of anxieties - war, the stock market, killer bees, measles, hair loss, on and on.

If we were to make a list, we could probably take most of the morning jotting down reasons for worry.  Just among my circle of family and friends and acquaintances, I can count unemployment, struggling children, aging parents in poor health, serious illness, divorce, mental illness, student loans, maddening neighbors, workplace problems, financial problems, difficult professors, roommate problems.  We worry about what other people may think.  We could add to our list items those big national and world issues that weigh heavily on our minds. 

And you know, it’s not just individuals.  Churches worry.  A lot of churches look at the demographics, look at the saints who are providing a lot of the financial support and leadership, and wonder what kind of shape they will be in a few years down the road. 
That reminds me of the message seen on a church sign.  It says, “Don’t let worry kill you- let the church help!”  (In case you didn’t notice, that was your bonus joke.)

We’ve all got reasons for worry, and most of us are pretty good at it.  But Jesus comes along and says, “Do not worry about your life.”  Jesus’ familiar words strike a chord deep within us:

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they? …

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field… will he not much more clothe you… Therefore do not worry... But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Jesus is speaking of a different way of living, a way of living that we long for.  We are not meant to live surrounded by worry and anxiety; we are meant to live with the certainty of God’s care and provision.

Jesus says, “God gave us life, so surely we can trust God for the smaller things.  God cares for the birds and plants and flowers, so surely God cares for us that much more.

Don’t fret about the past or obsess about the future over which you have no control.  God knows your needs and God cares for you.  Learn to trust in God.  Learn to live in the present moment.”

Jesus says, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”  Worry is misplaced energy.  It is unproductive.  It can be debilitating.  We can become paralyzed with worry and fear.  Most of the things we worry about are things over which we have absolutely no control. 

All of our worrying does no good, and our worrying can do us harm.  Worrying takes our time, it takes our energy, it keeps us from thankfulness, it robs us of joy.  John Powell said that worry is “a mild form of atheism.”

Now I want to circle back to where we started.  At the most basic level, Jesus’ teaching - about prayer, about fasting, about money, about worry – it is all connected.  It is about dependence and trust and relationship with God.  Worry and prayer are connected – Paul wrote, “Don’t worry about anything but pray about everything.” 

We can fill our lives with worry, we can fill our lives with seeking after money, we can fill our lives with impressing others – or we can fill our lives with trust and dependence on God and live in relationship with God and others. 

Living in relationship with God and trust in God does not mean we will be problem-free or worry free.  That is just part of being human.  But it means that we are connected to the source of hope and power and grace and joy that we need.

Julian of Norwich was a 14th century English mystic.  She lived during the Black Death that killed 75 million people in medieval Europe.  I mean, you talk about reason for worry.  Many interpreted the plague as divine punishment, but not Julian.  She believed that God loved every person and that God would redeem every tear.

In her book of visions called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, the first book published in the English language written by a woman, Julian wrote one of the best-known sentences in all of Christian history that is also the perfect antidote to worry.
Julian concluded that she was wrong to worry about the sins and sorrows of life.  Jesus told her that these trials and tribulations were simply a part of our human story.  And she said that in God’s love and providence, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

And it will.  “Don’t worry about anything but pray about everything.”  “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  Amen.

“Salt and Light” - January 27, 2019

Text: Matthew 5:1-20

If you are sitting here this morning feeling a little hungry, maybe your stomach is growling, well, as they say, you have nobody to blame but yourself.  We had a wonderful and bounteous breakfast buffet here this morning with all kinds of offerings – biscuits and gravy, eggs, potatoes, bacon, fruit, coffee cake.  I think the bigger concern is probably staying awake through the sermon after having this big meal and then sitting down in the nice, warm sanctuary.

We had all of these wonderful foods, but it is really the little things that really make a meal work.  When it comes to food, you can have quantity, you can have variety, you can have color and texture, you can have fiber and protein and antioxidants and nutritious choices, but when you get right down to it, if you don’t have flavor, then you have a big problem.

The Food Network used to have this show called "Restaurant Impossible."   Anybody ever watch that?  I loved it because it combined cooking and travel and building renovation and marketing and budgeting and sometimes even conflict management and family therapy – all interesting in themselves, but then you put those things together with this no-nonsense chef Robert Irvine, you had great television. 

The way it worked was that he would travel to a failing restaurant, quickly assess the situation, and then work to turn it around.  He had an interior designer, a carpenter, two days and $10,000.  They might remodel the dining room, tweak the menu, update the kitchen, or change the way the business was managed.  They worked feverishly with the limited budget and time schedule, and then they would reopen and a crowd of diners would test the new and improved restaurant.

What always struck me was how sometimes it was just the smallest of things that was causing the place to do so poorly.  Robert Irvine would have the cook make four or five of their best dishes and he would taste them.  And it was amazing how often one of the big problems is that the food was poorly cooked.  Bland.  Just tasteless.

The chef would put a little oil on the grill and then sear a steak, and Irvine would go ballistic.  The chef had used no salt, no pepper, no seasoning.  You could fix everything else but if the food had no seasoning, if it was lacking in taste, you weren’t going to make a go of it.

Well, some folks like a little more seasoning than others.  That is why I was assigned to bring hot sauce for our breakfast this morning.  And as it turns out, in our scripture today, Jesus talks about seasoning as well.  In people, in the church, in life as in cooking, seasoning matters.

Our scripture comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  And to be honest, it is a pretty imposing passage.  It is a big chunk of important teaching.  You could get 10 or 15 sermons from this passage of scripture without even trying.  But to get a sense of what is going on here, we need to go back to the very end of chapter 4.  Jesus went through Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news and healing people of disease and sickness.  And the crowds started growing.  We read that they brought to Jesus “those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demioniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them  And great crowds followed him.”

The people following Jesus were needy.  Many were sick, many were very poor, many were looking for some kind of hope.  This is the group following Jesus, and to these people, Jesus says, you are blessed.  He spoke not to spiritual superstars, not to the strong, not to people with excellent credentials.  Instead, he said, those of you who are poor in spirit, those of you who mourn, those of you who are meek, those of you who want so bad for the world do be just – you are blessed.  Those who are maybe not altogether pure, but at least pure in heart, those who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted because you are doing the right thing, you are blessed.

Nobody talked to these kinds of people in that way.  They were usually told that they were not good enough or not clean enough or not wealthy enough.  They were usually told that they didn’t count for much, didn’t amount to much.  But Jesus told them that they were blessed.  Not happy, not lucky, exactly, but that God looks at them in their distress, in their hurt, and says that they are beloved of God and that they have a blessed future.  God meets people in their suffering and brings a future with hope.

He says that they are blessed when they are persecuted for his name’s sake – when they are persecuted and suffer because they are following Jesus – and that this made them like the prophets who went before them.  Now understand that nobody had ever compared these people to the prophets.  But Jesus does.

Anna Woofenden is the pastor of a unique church community in Los Angeles.  It is called the Garden Church, and the church is literally an urban garden.  In the middle of the city they have a plot of land filled with various fruits and vegetables and herbs and flowers, with a big cedar stump table.  On Sunday afternoons, people bring their food scraps in five gallon buckets for the big compost pile, and they sing and pray and read scripture and share communion.  Then they have a meal together on picnic tables.  That’s the church.

Woofenden wrote,

Grandmothers and little children, downtown lawyers, construction workers and people recovering from addictions all sit and share a meal together.  On any given Sunday you might find a weathered man who’d been living on the streets planting beet seeds with a six year old with autism – a child whose mother was once asked to leave her former church because her son was “disriptuive.”

One day James was walking down the street with a colleague, both in suits and carrying briefcases when they heard a voice call out, “Hey James!”  The speaker wore camo shorts and was on a bench near the alley where he slept at night.  James replied without missing a beat, “Hey Derek!”  As James and his colleague continued to walk down the street, the colleague turned and asked. “How do you know him?”  At that moment Derek’s friend, sitting on the same bench, asked the same question.  “From church!” Derek and James both replied.
Jesus is talking to a group of followers that includes both James and Dereks, and he says to them, you all matter to God.  You are all blessed by God.

And then Jesus says to this crowd, “You are the salt of the earth.”  This is a word of affirmation that Jesus has for his followers.  And it is an expression we still use.  We describe someone as the “salt of the earth,” and by that we mean a good, solid, dependable person.

Why did Jesus speak of these followers in this way?  Well, salt had a couple of important uses in the ancient world.  For one, it was a preservative.  There were no freezers.  They did not have sodium benzoate or monosodium glutamate or the host of other chemical preservatives that are used today.  Salt was the most important food preservative, used to brine or cure meats and other food.  It was valuable. 

And then, of course, salt adds flavor.  It’s a seasoning.  Today, we have all kinds of spices and flavorings available – you can go to the grocery and easily get anything from Adobo to harissa to fenigreek to Old Bay to chili lime to Everything but the Bagel seasoning.  In ancient Israel, there weren’t so many choices. 

And salt was important for its healing properties.  Medicines were limited.  But you can gargle salt water.  You can treat a wound with salt.  Salt is very important today, but it would be hard to overestimate the importance of salt in that culture.

But here is the thing: salt could go bad.  The salt that we use has been processed and cleaned up enough that if you keep it dry, it can last pretty well indefinitely.  But in that day salt was harvested along with other natural substances that could and did go bad.  When that happened, the salt was good for nothing.  You had to throw it out.

So the point Jesus is making is that his followers are to preserve and protect and add flavor and seasoning to life.  When they no longer did that, they were like salt that had no flavor.

The sad thing is that so often, Christians are not exactly known for adding flavor and zest and seasoning to life – it is almost the opposite.  Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers.”  Not to make a dig at undertakers, because there are plenty of funeral directors who are wonderful people, but we get his point.  Following Jesus is not supposed to make us dull and lifeless.  We are to add interest and flavor – we are to be engaged in life.

And then Jesus says that we are to be light.  “You are the light of the world.”

Light, of course, allows us to see.  Houses in Palestine were very dark.  The lamp, such as it was, was typically a small bowl with oil and a floating wick.  Now they did not have matches, didn’t have cigarette lighters, didn’t have those Elon Musk flamethrowers, and oil lamps could be difficult to re-light.  So when people left the home, the lamp was sometimes put under an earthen basket that allowed enough air for the flame to burn but also insured that it could burn safely.  But that was not its purpose.  A lamp was not meant to be put under a basket; it was meant to provide light.

William Willimon told the story of a group of church women who wanted to do a service project.  They wanted to be salt and light in their community.  They lived in a small town where students would flock on spring break and over the summer months.  Young people came to drink and hang out at the beach and invariably some would get into trouble.

This group of women decided to something for people at the jail, so they made up toiletry kits.  When they visited at the jail, however, they were taken aback by the conditions.  For one thing, they were surprised by the sheer numbers.  There were over 30 people in the jail each week.  They never would have guessed that in this little town.  And then they were shocked by the procedures at the jail.  Young people were thrown in with older people; first time offenders were in cells with repeat offenders.

So one woman stood up at a church meeting and said, “Our jail is a disgrace.  It does more to encourage crime than discourage it.”  And the more time these women spent at the jail, the more they didn’t like it.  There were signs of excessive force.  There were rumors of money changing hands to get better treatment.  They didn’t like what they saw and they didn’t like what they heard.  And that is when the trouble really started.

The group went to share their concerns with the jailer.  “I knew we were asking for trouble when we let you women in here,” he said.  “What goes on here is none of your business.  Why don’t you stick to church work?”

An older woman pounded his desk and said, “This is church work!”  Eventually, an investigation was launched.  The jailer resigned and conditions improved.

To be the light of the world is to shine light on the world around us.  And then light is also a guide.   If you have ever got up in the middle of the night and stubbed your toe o something, you appreciate the value of some light.  I remember going on a camping trip.

We moved to Ames from Arthur, small town in Central Illinois.  I would explain to people how to get to our house or how to get to the church (the explanation was the same – we lived in the parsonage next door to the church).  I would tell them to turn off the highway onto the main street and keep going till you got to the flashing light that didn’t flash and turn right.   Seriously - we had one stoplight in town, a flashing yellow light and it didn’t even work.

I think that when it comes to shining our light, we can be like that flashing light that doesn’t flash.   

Salt and light are among the simple necessities of life.  And Jesus called his followers – he calls us - us salt and light.  Jesus says that in fact, we are blessed, all of us, and we are called to be a blessing to others – to all of the world.

Pastor John Pavlovitz wrote an article on why he is a Christian – or as he puts it, why I am still a Christian.  In too many people’s minds, he says, Christianity has been identified with beliefs and behaviors that are the opposite of what Jesus lived and taught.  What he says has a lot to do with the idea of being salt and light in the world.  He wrote,

I refuse to be a Christian who lives in fear of people who look or speak or worship differently than I do.  I refuse to be a Christian who believes that God blesses America more than God so loves the world… I refuse to be a Christian who is generous with damnation and stingy with Grace.  I refuse to be a Christian who can’t see the image of God in people of every color, every religious tradition, every sexual orientation…

I refuse to be a Christian who sees the world in a hopeless spiral downward and can only condemn it or withdraw from it.  I refuse to be a Christian devoid of the character of Jesus; his humility, his compassion, his smallness, his gentleness with people’s wounds, his attention to the poor and the forgotten and the marginalized, his intolerance for religious hypocrisy, his clear expression of the love of God.

I refuse to be a Christian unless it means I live as a person of hospitality, of healing, of redemption, of justice, of expectation-defying Grace, of counterintuitive love… I am still a Christian—but I refuse to be one without Jesus.

To be a Christain, to live as a follower of Jesus, means that we are salt and light for our community and for our world.  Amen.

“In the Wilderness” - January 20, 2019

Text: Matthew 4:1-17

As much as we might life to be easy and carefree and just one joy after another, that is not the way it generally works.  We would like for life to always be sunshine and smooth sailing, but let’s be honest: we all run into turbulent times.  This is simply part of being human.  And Jesus was no exception.

Fresh from his baptism, with his hair still wet and God’s words of affirmation still in his ears, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  He fasts for forty days and forty nights.  By then he was famished.  He was empty.  And that is when the devil comes along and tempts him – when he is most vulnerable.

The devil says, “If you are the Son of God, then command these stones to become bread.”  Why not?  Jesus was hungry, bread is good – what could be the problem?

And then the devil takes Jesus up to the very top of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down – for it is written, ‘angels will bear you up and you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  By proving his identity, Jesus could make a real splash.  People would be lining up to follow him.

And then the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and says to him, “All of this will be yours, if you will only worship me.”  But Jesus fends off each temptation, and the devil departs.

There are a few things I want to point out here.  First, 40 days.  Where have we heard this before?  Well, the number 40 is all over the place in the Bible and generally has to do with a time of trial and testing.  The Israelites wandered 40 years in the wilderness.  Moses was on the nmountain 40 days receiving the law.  In the great flood, it rained 40 days and 40 nights.  Goliath taunted Israel for 40 days before David defeated him.  So the number 40 has to do with big, significant matters.

Another things to point out: the devil is biblically literate.  The devil quotes scripture to Jesus.  He knows exactly what the Bible says and he knows how to use it. 

There is a long tradition of following the devil’s interpretive approach when it comes to the Bible.  Scripture has been used to support and to provide cover for all sorts of monstrous things – like slavery, bigotry, the subjugation of women, the oppression of the poor, disdain for minority groups, homophobia, blind obedience to unjust governments, and more.  It is possible to use – or maybe misuse scripture for all sorts of purposes.  Familiarity with the Bible does not necessarily translate into a living relationship with Christ in which scripture is discerned and followed according to the love and grace of God.

We might say that the devil knew the scripture but Jesus was willing to live the scripture.

And then look at the way the devil appeals to Jesus – not only with scripture, but twice by saying, “If you are the Son of God…”  Prove you are the Son of God.  It is about identity. 

I think this is at the heart of Jesus’ temptation.  We might think of this as Jesus struggling with what it meant to be the Son of God, struggling with what it meant to be Jesus.  He did not choose the path of power.  He did not opt for the spectacular.  He chose to identify fully with us.  He chose to be fully human, which meant not avoiding or escaping from pain and not taking on the persona of a superhero, but being faithful to his calling even in the midst of difficulty.  Jesus embraced his humanity.

Another question here: is the devil telling the truth?  When the devil says, “All of this is mine, this world is mine, and I will give it all to you if you will just worship me,” is that true?  Does the world really belong to the devil?  Is the world really given over to the power of evil?  It’s not.  It’s a lie.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”  Now you may say, well, you just said that you can use scripture to support all kinds of things.  That is true, but it is pretty clear that the big picture of scripture sees the earth as belonging to God, with humans being the caretakers or stewards.  The world is not the devil’s to give.

We can be tempted by appeals to our vanity, appeals to our identity, appeals to prove ourselves, appeals to the hunger we are feeling, appeals to power and to use power for our own purposes.  We can be tempted by appeals to escape from all of the difficulties that come as a part of being human.  But we need to know that often as not, the promises of the temptations that we feel are not true.  They are lies. 

What I really want to think about this morning is where this all took place: in the desert.  In the wilderness.

The wilderness is actually a place that we are familiar with.  Maybe not wilderness as in the Palestinian desert, but we will all face those times in the wilderness. 

The wilderness might look a lot like a hospital waiting room.  It might look like a mailbox or inbox that seems to only get rejection letters, if anything.  It might look like a friend’s couch when you don’t have any other place to stay. 

The wilderness might be staring at the computer screen as you register for classes and wonder if this is really what you want to do with your life.  It might be watching someone you love self-destruct, or maybe the wilderness is a feeling deep inside, that feeling when you have looked and listened and pleaded for a word from God but come up empty.

The wilderness might look a little different to each one of us, but it is that place where we look around for the things that we usually count on to save us and they are nowhere to be found.

And here is the thing about the wilderness: nobody wants to go there.  This is not a situation that any of us would seek after.  Yet – we read that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness.  This is something that Jesus needed.  This is something that God wanted for Jesus.

Isn’t that odd?  I mean, it almost sounds as though God is helping out the devil here, leading Jesus to a time of temptation.  And don’t we pray almost every Sunday, “lead us not into temptation?”  Why would the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness?

Barbara Brown Taylor put it this way:

Even if no one ever wants to [be in the wilderness], and even if those of us who end up there want out again as soon as possible, the wilderness is still one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be.  Take Jesus, for instance.

•    How did he end up there?  The Spirit led him.
•    What was he full of?  He was full of The Holy Spirit.
•    What else did he live on?  Nothing.
•    How long was he there?  Weeks and weeks.
•    How did he feel at the end?  He was famished.

What did that long, famishing stretch in the wilderness do to him?  It freed him--from all devilish attempts to distract him from his true purpose, from hungry craving for things with no power to give him life, from any illusion he might have had that God would make his choices for him.  After forty days in the wilderness, Jesus had not only learned to manage his appetites; he had also learned to trust the Spirit that had led him there to lead him out again, with the kind of clarity and grit he could not have found anywhere else.
Pardon the basketball metaphor, but college basketball coaches have a couple of ways they can go about it when it comes to scheduling opponents.  You can load up on cupcakes – you can play the Little Sisters of the Poor and Pitiful State U and get some guaranteed wins to pad your record.  But that does not really help you become a better basketball team.  When you have to play those tough games, you will not be prepared.  On the other hand, you can schedule really tough opponents, knowing that you are going to lose your share of games – but that tough competition helps the team learn how to manage adversity and develop skills they would not otherwise develop. 

Of course, Jesus isn’t playing a game.  And neither are we – this is real-life stuff.  But it is during the difficult times, during those wilderness times, that we can learn a lot about ourselves and a lot about God and even find it to be a time of growth and transformation.

We are remembering Martin Luther King this weekend.  If he were still alive, Martin Luther King would have turned 90 years old this past Tuesday. 

King attended Crozer Seminary, an American Baptist seminary where Ron Wells, who was pastor of our church when this building was built, later served as seminary president.  King is known around the world as a great civil rights leader, but his faith is the key to understanding his life and work.

In the early days of the civil rights movement, during the bus boycott in Montgomery, it seemed like he could not go on.  He received death threats on the phone.  He feared for his family.  Many sympathetic whites didn’t want to rock the boat and many middle class blacks were offended and unsupportive.  The image of the sheer neediness of so many people pressed on his mind.  Constant phone calls added to the pressure.  On an already sleepless night, there came another death threat, and he couldn’t go back to sleep.

In a life that faced many wilderness times, this was perhaps the low point.  Taylor Branch, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Parting the Waters, described what happened:

King buried his face in his hands at the kitchen table.  He admitted to himself that he was afraid, that he had nothing left, that the people would falter if they looked to him for strength.  Then he said as much out loud...His doubts spilled out as a prayer, ending “I’ve come to the point where I can't face it alone.”  As he spoke these words, the doubts suddenly melted away.  He became intensely aware of an “inner voice” telling him to do what he thought was right.
This experience of God’s grace and presence was a life-changing event for King.  And it came out of his wilderness experience.  King learned to trust God in those wilderness times.

In 1968, he gave a stirring speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis.  It was the last public speech he gave; he was shot and killed the next day.  King ended that speech by saying,

I have been to the mountaintop… God’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.  And I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing anyone.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
I read that speech again this week and was struck by something he said a little bit before the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” part that struck me as very contemporary.  He said, “The world is all messed up.  The nation is sick.  Trouble is in the land; confusion all around… But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

He was talking about what we can learn and how God sustains us in the wilderness.

Martin Luther King accomplished what he did because of his vital relationship with God – the God who was with him even in the wilderness.  He followed the way of Jesus in that he sacrificed for the good of others, even at a cost to himself.  His vision of a Beloved Community that encompasses all races and faiths and nationalities is a vision toward which we are still working.  But it may have been that wilderness experience that made what he did possible.

Now, we will all have to face our own wilderness.  It won’t be like Jesus’ and it won’t be like Martin Luther King’s.  I don’t know what yours may be like.  I don’t know what devils may be after you or how they will try to appeal to you.

When we face those wilderness times, those times of testing, we can find that the Spirit sustains us.  We may find ourselves losing our appetite for those things that cannot save us.  And we just may find our lives renewed and transformed. 

We pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”  But temptation cannot always be avoided, and so we also pray, “Deliver us from evil.”  And not only does God deliver us, but through the wilderness, God can bless us and transform us.  Amen.


“You Are My Beloved Child” - January 13, 2019

Text: Matthew 3:1-17

A while back I received an email from a student who was taking a religion course.  The class had been assigned to visit a place of worship in a tradition different from their own.  They were to interview a religious leader, and especially pay attention to the sacred space.  What was important about the building, about the structure, about the symbols?

This was not all that unusual; from time to time I will hear from a student who wants to talk to me about a religion class assignment.  Students call because our church is nearby or because they want to investigate this strange group called Baptists.  Well, we made arrangements and at the appointed time this young man showed up.  His tradition was Roman Catholic, and he asked some good questions.  I enjoyed visiting with him and we looked around the building, especially the sanctuary. 

I talked a little about the New England meetinghouse style of our church building.  The New England Puritans believed in a simple, unadorned worship space that was free of worldly distractions so that people might worship God.  They didn’t even have crosses, they certainly wouldn’t have had banners, and they would have been absolutely mortified at the thought of pew cushions.  (I didn’t mention to this student that the Puritans adopted this very plain style because they rejected anything that smacked of Catholicism). 

We don’t have a lot of ornamentation in our sanctuary, no fancy stained windows, although unlike the Puritans we don’t think there is anything wrong with that.  But we do have something that a person looking at the architecture of sacred spaces might be interested in: I showed him the baptistry and talked about our tradition of baptism.  We have the curtains open on the baptistry today as we think about baptism – Jesus’ baptism as well as our own.

Some of you were baptized here in this church.  For some, that may have been 50 years ago or more.  Some of you have been here early on a Sunday morning, filling the baptistry with water.  Some of you have been present to assist baptismal candidates get in and out of the water.  And I imagine that a good number of you have never seen the inside of our baptistry.

We actually have a huge baptismal pool.  The architect made it much larger than it would need to be – we could have big old hot tub parties in there.  And all things considered, it really is a strange thing we do, baptism.     

Peter Gomes was the much-loved chaplain at the Memorial Church at Harvard.  He recalled the story of an undergraduate couple who approached him, asking to be baptized.  He talked it over with them, they discussed what baptism meant and he said yes, he would be glad to baptize them.  They wanted to be baptized by immersion, which was great.  He was a Baptist - an American Baptist, at that - but they did not have a baptistry at the Memorial Church.  They had a baptismal font, and it just would not do.  So they had to find a place to hold the baptism.

Walden Pond was a special place for this couple, so it was decided to have the baptism there.  Unfortunately, it was October, but they found a decent day and headed off to Walden Pond.  Gomes said that he went into the water, the two young people followed, there were words of testimony shared, and then Gomes wrote:

I performed the deed as I was taught: down and up, down and up.  As soon as I brought the woman up from the water, she being the second, there was a great burst of applause.  We were not alone.  We looked and found that the shore was full of people who had come out of the woods and were absolutely fascinated at this bizarre activity going on at Walden Pond.  Many strange things have been seen at Walden Pond but nothing, I’m sure, quite as strange as this, and clearly some word of explanation was in order lest they call the police.  I explained that this was what Christians did when they wanted to make a profession of their faith, and I quoted a little scripture.  One of the fellows on the shore asked, “Do you do a lot of this sort of thing?”  I replied, “Not as much as I would like, but yes, I do.”  He and his friends on the shore scratched their heads and said, “Well, it looks like fun,” and off they went into the woods.
It is a bit more domesticated and certainly easier when you have indoor plumbing.  John and Elaine Anderson remembered breaking the ice in winter to have a baptism in northern Minnesota.  But the fact is that wherever you do it, at Walden Pond or in a Minnesota creek or at First Baptist, it is still a bit odd.  As a testimony to our faith in Jesus, we get dunked in a pool of water while friends and family watch in anticipation.  Someone who wasn’t familiar with the idea would surely scratch their heads like those onlookers at Walden Pond and ask, “What is up with that?”

Since we are called Baptists, the rite of baptism probably deserves some thought.  Why do we baptize, and what does it mean?  A good place to start is Jesus’ baptism. 

We have been (mostly) following the Narrative Lectionary this year.  We spend the fall in the Hebrew Scriptures, with great Old Testament stories and passages from the prophets.  Now we will be making our way through the gospel of Matthew, all the way through Easter.

But just to step back a bit, the very last words of the Old Testament, right before Matthew, come from the prophet Malachi: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”  A cheery way to end a book, right?

The gospel of Matthew begins with genealogies, the birth of Jesus, the visit of the Magi, and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt to escape Herod.  And then Matthew skips ahead in time - nothing about Jesus’ childhood or adolescence.  The next thing we know, here comes John the Baptist.  John fulfills the role of Elijah, who the one would be sent ahead.  He is in the mold of a wild Old Testament prophet, out in the wilderness.

John does not have an especially comforting message.  Like the prophets of old, he calls down judgment.  “You brood of vipers! … even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.”  To be honest, this wouldn’t seem to be that popular of a message. 

And yet, everybody wants to come out to see him.  Pharisees, Saducees, members of the religious establishment, folks with power and position came for baptism – and John confronts them with judgment.  But here is the thing: while John comes across as this wild-eyed prophet, wearing camel skins, eating honey and locusts, and giving these turn-or-burn sermons, his message is actually reasonable and doable.  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Righteousness is not about your identity as children of Abraham, it’s not about historical identity or group identity, but about the way you live your life in relationship to God.

The same message can be heard in two ways.  A call to repentance can be heard as a harsh demand to change.  (And if you are called a brood of vipers, that does add to the harshness of the message.)  But a call to repentance can also be heard as an invitation.  Repentance can be not just a turning away, but a turning toward.  The kingdom of heaven is near.  A new way is calling to us that would make us want to change.  Repentance is not just leaving behind the past, it is claiming and moving toward a new future – toward God’s coming reign.  Baptism is a symbol of that new life.

And then, Jesus himself comes to John for baptism.  This is puzzling for John, who does not understand why Jesus would come to him for baptism.  “You’re the one who should be baptizing me,” he says.  But Jesus says, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  Jesus is baptized to show us what righteousness is like, and in his baptism he identifies completely with us in our need and in our humanity.

The passage ends not in judgment, not in fire, but with love and affirmation: “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

What exactly is God pleased with?  Jesus has not actually done anything, not yet.  He has simply been baptized, and God says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  Baptism has to do with who we are – with our identity as beloved children of God.  Following Jesus in baptism is a choice we make, but it is not about anything that we have earned.

John’s baptism was not exactly the same as Christian baptism, but it certainly anticipates it.  As practiced in the New Testament, we believe that baptism is for those who have accepted God’s gift of grace and chosen for themselves to follow Christ.  As Paul describes it, it is a symbol of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ.  Many of you grew up in other traditions – some of you were baptized as infants and then at a later point professed your own faith in Christ.  Either way, baptism is a sign of God’s grace and God’s claim on us as beloved daughters and sons.

Jesus’ baptism points out for us a dimension of faith that we need to take seriously, and that is, authentic, vital faith is both individual and communal.  It is deeply personal, it involves our own choice and commitment, but it also happens in community and involves the community.

At his baptism, Jesus decides for himself that this is the path he will follow.  And as he rises from the water, there is a voice from heaven: “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” 

And yet, it happens in community.  Jesus doesn’t go to John after business hours, he goes like everyone else; he goes with the crowds to the Jordan River where John is doing his thing he is baptized in the midst of all of those who have come to be baptized by John. 

Faith is a deeply personal for all of us.   We cannot scoot by on our parents’ faith or our church’s faith or anyone else’s faith: it has to be our own.  And God says to each of us, even as God said to Jesus, “You are my beloved child.”  At the same time, we are baptized into the Church, into a community of faith made of those flawed, imperfect, yes, sinful people who are seeking together to follow Jesus.

The Church is a community where we encourage one another and challenge one another and support one another and teach one another, a place where we remind each other who we are – God’s beloved children.

Now, we do not believe that baptism is magic – it doesn’t transform a person just by virtue of getting wet.  The faith that is present and the commitment that is made and more than that, God’s love and grace toward us are what really matters.  We don’t believe that baptism saves us, not in a transactional sense.  And so, why is it so important?

There is something very powerful about entering the waters of baptism as people have for hundreds of years, over the centuries, back to Jesus himself.  There is something about having the waters wash over you and experiencing this very tangible sign that we have been made clean, that we have risen to new life.  As we seek to follow Jesus, we follow his example in the act of baptism.

What really stands out about Jesus’ baptism is the voice from heaven – not simply speaking to Jesus but announcing to the world: “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” 

I happened upon a news story this week that really caught my attention.  It is about a church in Oklahoma.  It is a Baptist church, but then when I said it was Oklahoma that almost makes it redundant to say it was a Baptist church. 

The pastor of the church, Rev. Jim Standridge, is seen in a video of a worship service telling off a member who has fallen asleep before chastising another member for missing services.  He says to this second man – in a sermon – "I noticed on the calendar I’m supposed to marry you all.  What makes you think I would marry you?  You’re one of the sorriest church members I have.  You’re not worth 15 cents.”

Well, you see why this caught my attention.  This was said in a sermon, captured on video, and of course it went viral.

Now I doubt that this pastor would be interested is advice from me, but if he were, I would suggest he not post videos of his sermon on the church website.

His comments were just unfathomable.  And monstrous.  He later defended his words as a kind of “tough love,” but I’m not buying that.  This was antithetical to the gospel and miles and miles from the spirit of Jesus.

God says to each of us, "You are my beloved child.  You are of great value.  You are so important and I love you so much that I took on human flesh."  In Isaiah, we have God’s words, “Do not be afraid, I have called you by name, I have redeemed you, you are mine.”

Now of course, we are not perfect.  Of course, we fall short, but God loves us and offers us grace and invites us to make new beginnings.  God sees us as beloved children.

And that, really, is what baptism is about – following the one who loves us.  Amen.