Saturday, May 11, 2019

“Crossing the Threshold” - May 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 4, 2019

“The Great Promise” - May 5, 2019

Text: Matthew 28:16-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a Great Promise.  Amen.



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

Text: Matthew 28:1-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text: Matthew 21:1-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Final Question” - April 7, 2019

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

One of the difficulties of modern life, I think, is that there is just so much.  So much everything.

There is so much to do.  We have all kinds of choices before us.  When I was a kid, our activities were pretty defined.  We played football in the fall and basketball in the winter.  We played baseball and rode bikes in the summer, although basketball was actually OK in other seasons too.  If it was raining we played Monopoly.  I went to church on Sundays, morning and night, and watched Batman at 6:30 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays.  I mean, the choices were not that hard.

But today – now there is so much.  You’ve got lacrosse, skating, tae kwon do, gymnastics, children’s choir.  You can be in the Lego League.  There is soccer and t-ball and my goodness, an endless variety of video games.  There are all kinds of camps to attend.  There are all kinds of lessons you can take.  There are a lot more options and it’s more complicated.  I’m not trying to sound like an old guy, I mean all of this is wonderful, but as far as organized activities, there are a lot more options than there used to be.

It’s not just kid’s activities.  There is so much information – so much to know.  So much to sort through.  Along with all of this information, there is so much noise.  We have 200 TV channels as well as Nextflix, Hulu, YouTube, and an incredible array of social media.  Messages and images and information are coming at us all the time.

Much of this is good.  Much of this is welcome.  If you have a question, about virtually anything, you can google it.  If you need to repair something – on your home, your vehicle, your lawn mower, whatever – you can find a video online to show you how.  You can keep up with friends and family from around the country, around the world.  But still – there is so much.  With such a wealth of information and possibilities, how do we determine what to focus our attention on?

This almost overload of possibility extends to the realm of faith – of religion.  There is a religious smorgasboard out there that is almost unimaginable.  Sociologist Will Herberg wrote this very famous book in the 1950’s with the title Protestant, Catholic Jew.  It was basically about three ways of being an American in the 1950’s.  It was and still is an insightful book, a classic, but wow, times have changed.  There are all kinds of religious choices out there, one of which is no religion, and the vast amount of information we have at our disposal helps in making such a variety of choices available. 

Of course, we know that there is not simply diversity between various faiths and traditions, there is diversity within traditions.  What kind of Baptist?  There are something like 57 flavors.  And even within the American Baptist Churches, one congregation can be very different from another.  This kind of diversity has always been there, but somehow it seems even more pronounced today.

But this morning, I don’t really want to talk about the array of options that are available.   I want to talk about our own faith, our own commitments, at deeper and more personal level.  Even within our own lives, we have decisions to make about what matters the most. 

Our text this morning is actually Jesus’ last lengthy teaching to his disciples before his death.  Jesus could have shared with them on any number of subjects, but this is what he chose to say to them.  So we can assume it is important.

In Matthew, we have what is known as the Great Commission, in Matthew 28.  “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and son and Holy Spirit...”  That is the Great Commission, and then we have this morning’s passage, which is known as the Great Judgment.

It is a vision of the end of the age.  The Son of Man comes in glory with his angels, and he separates people like a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats.

Now right away, we have to ask, what is the deal with the anti-goat sentiment?  What’s so bad about goats?  Why are they the bad guys?

I have no idea but I have heard of cultures in which goats are so important that this passage is translated differently, to where the goats are the chosen group and sheep or some other livestock are on the outs.  What we might take note of, however, is that with the species of goats and sheep raised at that time in the Middle East, the casual observer could not necessarily tell just to look at them which were sheep and which were goats.  You couldn’t tell which was which.

That is the situation at this Final Judgment.  You cannot tell who is who.  Even the so-called sheep and goats don’t know.  The group they wind up in is a surprise to them.

I remember a story about Charlie Chaplin once coming in fourth place in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest.  Here, nobody really knows who are the sheep and who are the goats – not even members of the flock.  Or herd.

These two groups, these two indistinguishable groups who are mixed together, are separated based on one question.  One final question.  This is where we get to that problem of so much.  In a faith filled with so much teaching, so many emphases, so many examples in scripture, what is this one question?

Now, I have to say, there are a lot of questions out there that church people will use to separate and divide.  Lots of issues that are seen as the most important one.  Churches divide over these questions.  In the Nicene Creed, the question is whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, or from the Father and the Son.  Sounds like an arcane, extremely technical theological point, but it split the church east and west in the year 1054.  It’s been almost a thousand years and the Eastern Orthodox and Western churches have been split ever since.

What is the final question?  What is this great question that will separate the flock?   Does it have to do with the way we worship?  With the amount of water used in baptism?  Or whether you immerse one time or three times, for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  Does it have to do with our posture and the frequency of our prayer?  Does it have to do with our ordination process or educational requirements for the ministry?  Or the way we support missionaries?  Or is it about a theological checklist?  Does it have to do with the nature of salvation?

The question might have been about the way that we understand and experience grace and forgiveness and justification, or about our understanding of atonement and Jesus’ sacrificial death, or of heaven and hell.  But that was not the question.

These are all important questions.  And all of these issues have certainly split churches, divided Christians like sheep and goats - or dogs and cats, or rabbits and squirrels, or whatever wildlife metaphor you might want to use.  

This final question is a surprise, really, because there are a lot of Christians today who have one big question, and this question is definitely not it.  The United Methodists had a big blow-up meeting in St. Louis a few weeks ago, and this was not the question they were wrestling with.  The Westboro Baptist Church has announced that they will protest at Ames High and ISU in the morning, and this is not the question that concerns them.

Are you ready?  Here is the Final Question: How do you treat people in need?  That’s it.  How do you respond to human need?

Now, finals are coming up in a few weeks.  Did you guys know that?  Consider this a public service announcement.  Finals are coming up.  If students knew that there was only one question on the final, and they were actually told in advance what that question was, it stands to reason that they would make sure they got that question right.

Well, we have that chance.  How do you respond to people in need?

This is not a trick question.  And it is not just an extra credit question added to the test.  In this vision of the Great Judgment, this is the entire test.

The question really is surprising.  It’s not a theology test.  But at the same time, it has a great deal to do with Jesus.

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  This is Jesus’ last extended teaching to his disciples before his betrayal and arrest and trial and execution.  And what happened after this?  In the garden, he said, “I am sick with grief.”  He was arrested - a prisoner.  He was stripped – he was naked.  He was in the company of strangers.  On the cross he said, “I am thirsty.” 

This was not just an abstract, theoretical exercise.  Jesus really did suffer these things.  And when we respond to suffering around us, we are serving Christ.

“I was alone.  I had nobody in the world.  My husband had died.  My kids lived on the east coast.  Did you reach out?”

“I was in prison, cut off from society for my misdeeds.  I was a criminal, but still a human being.  Did you visit?”

“I was hungry, living in a society where an enormous amount of food is just thrown away.  Did you offer me anything to eat?”

“I lacked clothing, waiting for styles to change and hoping for an old coat.  Did you give me anything to wear?”

“I was a stranger, new in town, new at school, new in the neighborhood, new at church.  Did you introduce yourself and welcome me?”

It’s interesting – the sheep – the ones who served the least of these – did not do it to score points with God.  They didn’t know God was watching and they didn’t know that to serve those in need was to serve Christ.  They just did what they did because that was who they were.  They were people who cared.

There was a story on the news this week about some middle school kids who went to a skate park in New Jersey.  There was a mom with her 5 year old son at the park.  It was her son’s birthday.  Her son has autism, and he normally doesn’t like a big group of people and a lot of noise, and when this group of kids showed up, she thought they would leave.  But she was stunned when one of the middle school students, a kid named Gavin, went up to her son and started talking to him.  And they hit it off.  And the other kids joined in.  They helped him, they played with him, and when they learned it was his birthday, they all sang happy birthday to him. 

This boy had a great birthday, and the kids have continued to meet him at the skate park and hang out with him.  I think they were actually doing what Jesus was talking about. 

Hundreds of years ago, the Church made a list of the Seven Deadly Sins – sins that gave rise to other sins and could just destroy a person.  Among these were sloth, or acedia.  It basically means, “I don’t care.”

When you see human need – do you care?  Do you do something about it?  That is the Final Question.  And now that we know what is on the test, we can act accordingly.  Amen.


“Joining the Party” - March 31, 2019

Text: Matthew 22:1-14

Life is chock-full of invitations.  Invitations of all sorts.  As I mentally scan the past week, a lot of different invitations came my way.  There was an invitation to a preaching conference and to an annual meeting.  There were invitations to make contributions to various charitable and educational institutions.  And we keep getting invitations in the mail for investment and retirement planning seminars. 

Of course, there were all kinds of invitations that came through e-mail.  “Save 35% on Appliance Top Deals during the Spring Savings Event.”   ‘Vote for the Best of Story County 2019.”  “Rent a Car from $4/Day.”  “Learn the Tax Benefits of Incorporating in Nevada.”  And on and on it goes.  How did we ever get by without e-mail?

And then, there are those more personal invitations we receive: to go to lunch or a ballgame or a movie or to play cards with friends.  Maybe there is an invitation to go to prom.

Clearly, all invitations are not the same.  Responding to an invitation takes some discernment.  Incorporating in Nevada was an easy invitation to decline.  But many of the invitations that come our way are a bit more difficult.     

In our scripture this morning, Jesus tells the parable of a king whose son was being married.  Invitations went out for the gala event of the year: a royal wedding.  Invitations went to the A-list: the rich and famous, jet-setters, beautiful people, important people, the kind of people who deserved to be at a royal wedding.   

But surprisingly - shockingly, really - the invited guests could not be bothered.  They are dismissive of the king and the invitation.  And when the invitation was issued a second time, it goes beyond indifference to the invitation.  Some of the invited guests even killed the messengers.

This does not make the king happy, of course, and so he sends his army to destroy the murderers and burn their city to the ground.

Another invitation is issued.  This time not to the rich and famous, but to everyone else.  Invitations are sent to everyday people.  Invitations are sent to the down and out, to the have-nots and has-beens and ne’er-do-wells.  Everybody is invited, both the good and the bad.

Now, as stories go, this is completely ridiculous.  It is extreme.  Luke tells this same story, and it is a much nicer story, lacking the extreme violence.  The invitees don’t show up and so everybody is then invited.  That is a better story – a more reasonable story.  But not here.  Well, this is what happens when you decide to work your way through a gospel – you not only get the nice, pleasant passages, you get the difficult parts too.

In the first place, nobody would refuse a royal invitation.  When William and Kate were married, when Harry and Meghan were married, everybody wanted to be there.  Not only did the invited guests attend, millions of people watched on TV around the world.  Thousands and thousands of people lined the streets just hoping for a glimpse of the couple and cheered as their car passed by.

Jesus’ story is completely over the top.  It is disturbing.  But we have to admit, it does grab our attention. 

This story can be seen as a picture of salvation history: the prophets proclaimed God’s invitation and were ignored and killed, and finally everyone is invited to the party, Gentiles included.  If you think of it in this way, it is still a tough parable, and we still don’t necessarily like it, but that helps a little, maybe.  But I’m not sure that was what Jesus intended with the story.

What can’t be overstated here is the importance of the wedding feast – of the banquet.  This was a time in which many people did not have enough to eat.  This was a time in which there might be a drought every few years, and just surviving could be a struggle.  And so a feast, a banquet, was a great image and a very appealing image. 

This image of a great feast did not originate with Jesus.  Isaiah 25:6 says, “On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.”  Scripture is full of festive meals, and the kingdom as a great banquet is found throughout scripture.  There is the Passover meal and the table prepared in the presence of enemies in Psalm 23. 

In Jesus’ own life, there are so many references to Jesus eating and drinking with sinners.  There is the Last Supper with his disciples and the breakfast by the sea after his resurrection.  And then there is the final wrap-up of the Bible, the marriage feast of the Lamb in Revelation 19 – and that’s just to name a few.

There is a persistent theme of the kingdom of God as a great feast, a big party.  I wonder: how often do we think of the church in this way?  Those great theologians of my college years, The Talking Heads, said, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around,” and that is the way we generally think of the church.  This is serious business.  A lot of things may come to mind when we hear the word “church,” but “party” is generally not one of them.   

But Jesus says that the Kingdom of God – God’s way, God’s movement - is like a party.  It’s not the first time Jesus has identified with parties.  In fact, when you read the gospels, it seems that Jesus is either at a party, like the wedding in Cana where he turns water into wine or a dinner party in someone’s home; or he is giving advice on party-giving, saying don’t just invite people who can afford to repay you, invite those who can’t return the favor; or he is telling a story about a party, like the prodigal son and the father who throws a big party upon his son’s return.

By the time of Jesus, the image of the Messianic Banquet had become a symbol of salvation.  The Essenes were a group of devout people looking for the Messiah.  They believed that the banquet would be connected with the Messiah’s coming, but they believed that invitations would be offered only to those who were wise, intelligent and perfect.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were very different from the Essenes, but they agreed that only a limited pool of people were acceptable before God.  There was a sharp line drawn between those who were in and those who were out.  If you had money and came from the right family and kept the law, you were in.  If you had a disease or were in the wrong line of work, or were of the wrong ethnic heritage, you were out.  There were very particular ideas about who would and who would not be allowed into the banquet.

Jesus’ parable challenges those rules.  Jesus’ parable, in fact, throws out those rules.  The invitation is not simply for the few, it is for everybody.  It is almost scandalous: the text says that all were invited, the good as well as the bad.  Everybody.  After the A-list refuses, everyone else accepts.  Everybody comes, and the place is just packed for the great wedding feast.

This is a parable of the wonderful, expansive, inclusive grace of God.  Everyone is invited.  Everyone is welcome.  You don’t have to be perfect; you don’t even have to be “good.”  You are invited.  Our choir will be singing – next week, as it turns out – an anthem called “A Place at the Table.”
For everyone born, a place at the table, for everyone born, clean water and bread, a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing, for everyone born, a star overhead...

It’s that image of the Table, the feast, to which we are all invited. 

The invitations have been sent.  They have been issued to everyone.  The only choice for us to make is whether we accept or refuse the invitation.

But the thing is, there is more than one way to refuse an invitation.  After all of the drama, after killing the messengers and sending the army after the perpetrators, we finally have this nice story about everybody being welcome at God’s feast.  But then there is this guy who seems to accept the invitation.  I mean, he is there, he arrives at the party.  But as it turns out, he is a party pooper.  He refuses to celebrate.  We have all seen it, and maybe we have all done it.  We go along out of obligation or guilt or maybe out of boredom, but we really don’t want to be there.  We keep looking at our watch.  We don’t really join the party.

There guy accepts the invitation, but he is not wearing wedding clothes.  The result seems just a wee bit harsh: he is cast into the outer darkness.  Kind of a bummer don’t you think?  It seems like a bit of an overreaction on the king’s part.  What’s the big deal with clothes anyway?  If the king’s servants were just inviting anybody they could find from off the street, you can’t expect them to be dressed for a wedding.

It seems like some information is missing here.  Did the people on the street run home and put on nice clothes?  What if they didn’t have any fancy clothes to wear?  Some commentators have suggested that hosts of such a wedding provided dressy robes to those who did not have any, but that is not entirely clear and there is some dispute about that.

Well, this is not exactly a logical story.  It is instead told to convey a point. 

Somebody said, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.”  I’ve always liked that quote.  And there is a lot of truth there.  There is something to be said for simply being there.  But the reality is, it takes more than just showing up.

Just “showing up” at class might make you a student, but it is not going to write your paper or complete your project.  Just showing up is not enough to earn a degree.

Just “showing up” at your wedding might get you married, but it doesn’t build a living, loving, caring, give-and-take, make-it-through-the-hard-times relationship.

Just “showing up” at the birth of your child might make you a parent, but it does not make you a diaper-changing, up-all-night, doing homework, enforcing curfews, saving for college, Mom or Dad.

Just “showing up” at church on Sunday morning might make you a member in good standing, but it does not by itself put feet on your faith.  G. K. Chesterton used to say that “Just going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.” To be a Christian takes action; it takes a day-to-day commitment to follow Jesus wherever that leads.

The guest at the wedding didn’t have to show up.  But if he was going to attend, he needed to truly be there.  His nonchalant attitude about the celebration showed that he was not all in.  Just showing up didn’t cut it. 

The fact is, going all in with God is not an easy choice.  Not today, not in our culture.  Turning to God has become a fairly counter-cultural choice.  So the question is, Is God happy just to have guests at the wedding?  Is God happy just to have people show up?

Tom Ehrich wrote,

It turns out that choosing God is, as always, a matter of going all in.  Not just the easy commandments, but the hard ones.  Not just loving friends, but loving enemies.  Not just good times, but suffering.  Not just going along with the crowd, but standing for justice and mercy.  Not just praying for oneself, but for others.  Not just the pleasing rituals of Sunday communion, but confession, remorse, lost certainties, new ways of being, mission to the world.  Not just hot coffee, but the wind of change.
Most of Jesus’ parables can be put into two categories:  parables of grace and parables of judgment.  Which is this?  I have no idea.  I think, really, probably, this is both.  The doors are flung open wide and everyone is invited to God’s great feast.  The good, the bad, and the ugly are all welcome.  God’s grace and welcome are offered freely, to all.  But with grace comes accountability.  There is tension there, a balance.  When grace is ignored and refused and squandered and mocked, again and again, there will be consequences.  If there weren’t, then grace really wouldn’t mean very much.

We want to skip the judgment component, but judgment is about God’s love too.  It is meant as a warning, meant to steer us the right way.

Those who refused the invitation to the wedding, and the one who showed up but then refused in his own way to join the celebration, failed to recognize the incredible gift they had been offered.

We are all invited to God’s party.  We are all offered God’s wonderful, marvelous, gracious invitation.  Every one of us.  To accept the invitation requires showing up, yes, but it requires more.

In the parable, the guests needed to change clothes.  In God’s kingdom, we are to change our lives.  We are called to not just show up but to be truly, fully present, to change our hearts and minds and spirits.  And then together, through God’s grace, we are called to go out like those servants, inviting everybody to the feast.  May it be so.  Amen. 



“Jesus’ Pay Scale” - March 24, 2019

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

There are few things as touchy as how much we are paid.  In many workplaces, it is strictly verboten to talk about your salary, lest people start making comparisons and there is conflict.

Have you ever filled out some kind of survey and they will ask for income level?  Maybe it is for the warranty on the new coffeemaker you bought.  Our response is, “Why do you want to know?  It’s none of your business.”

Our work and our income can be very sensitive.  So of course, Jesus tells a story that is all about work and income and inequity and fairness.  It is about hiring practices and compensation.  Week after week, as we read the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has been telling these rather difficult stories, and here again, he does not disappoint.

There is a landowner who goes to hire day laborers to work in his vineyard.  He goes down to the corner where the day laborers hang out and he hires some men to work that day.  They agree on the rate of pay - one denarius for a day’s work.  And off they go to the vineyard. 

Now, a little background here.  In the Old Testament there were no day laborers.  This was something brought about by the Roman occupation of Israel.  This class of landless laborers had been created by the Roman economy.  Some were freed slaves, some were peasants whose lands had been seized by Rome, others were immigrants and refugees who were victims of war and displacement.  They often worked doing piece work.

The way the landowner relates to them is really interesting.  He bargains with them for the rate of pay – did you notice that?  There is collective bargaining!  And it is a fair wage – a denarius is what a soldier was paid for a day’s wage.  And it’s not piece work!  He wasn’t paying by the amount of grapes picked.  The workers had to love this gig. 

A few hours later, the landowner stops by the marketplace and sees some more workers who have no work that day.   So he hires more laborers and tells them he will pay them what is right.  That is good enough for them, and off they go. 

Three hours later, he again stops by the marketplace and sees more laborers with no work and he hires them as well.  And then finally, about 5:00, he goes and finds still more workers just standing around.  “Why have you been idle all day?” he asks.  They respond that nobody has hired them.  So this owner goes ahead and hired them for the day – even though the work day is nearly over.

Finally it’s quitting time, and the owner has his steward pay the workers.  For some reason, he pays those hired last first.  And these folks who were hired at 5:00 received a denarius – the regular daily wage, for just an hour of work.  Word soon spread.  If those who only worked an hour got a denarius, then we are going to clean up, they thought.  This was too good to be true.  Well, it was.  Everyone received the same amount.

Predictably, this did not go over well.  And it doesn’t go over well with us, either.  Equal pay for equal work is fair.  Equal pay for grossly unequal work – that is not fair.

The landowner in the story, however, has a different take on it.  He had done exactly what he said he would do.  He had not shortchanged anyone.  He had paid the early morning workers exactly what they had agreed on.  And if he wants to be generous with his money, what is that to them?  Did they begrudge him because of his generosity?

Well of course they did.  We all do.  Give your money to United Way if you want to be generous, but don’t go and ruin the smooth operation of the vineyard.  I mean, can you imagine what it is going to be like at the vineyard the next morning?  Can you imagine what it will be like at the day labor pool?

It is interesting that in the story Jesus tells, it is not simply that those who arrive last get paid the same.  They also get paid first.  If those hired first had been paid first, they may have taken their money and been on their way and have never known about the generous pay to those hired late in the day.  Instead, the owner seems to go out of his way to be sure that everyone knew that those hired at 5 o’clock were getting a full day’s wage.

Marilyn McDonald owned a graphic design and printing business.  She and her partner in the business decided to pay everyone the same, regardless of experience or the particular job they did.  (The only ones not paid as much were the two owners, who frequently got less than the others because of revenue shortfalls.)  Most employees were paid more than they would make at the same job elsewhere.  This small company was operating under the revolutionary idea of viewing all work as meaningful, and equally meaningful, and looking at need more than relative merit.

All went well until a new employee was hired.   The new employee said to a co-worker, “It’s not fair – I’ve only been here a short time and we are getting the same pay.  You should be getting a raise!”  Even though this new employee was making 1 ½ times the wage she would have gotten anywhere else, even though she was the one who would have been at the bottom of the pay scale under a more conventional approach, she was the one who complained that it wasn’t fair.

Of course, discontent started to be felt among the employees, and morale went downhill from there.  But it all began when this person could not accept that all were being treated equally.  There is something about human beings that wants to compare ourselves with others.  Even if that would put us on the bottom, we still want this, knowing that some day, at least, we will be able to look down on somebody else.

I am on the board of a non-profit group.  At a board meeting, we were updating the Personnel Policies and Procedures.  It wasn’t exactly a scintillating meeting, but it was necessary.  The policy says that salary changes will take effect on January 1, but if an employee has been employed for less than 6 months on January 1, any salary change will be effective after 6 months of employment.

We weren’t changing the policy, just adjusting some of the wording for clarity, but someone commented on it.  This was a good rule, they said.  “Otherwise somebody could start in December and get a raise in January, and that wouldn’t be right.”

Well, thinking about our scripture for today, I thought I would have a little fun.  “What about the Bible?” I asked.  “Isn’t this a Christian organization?  What about the part where the people who get hired at the end of the day get paid just as much as those who worked all day long?”

Well, of course I was just kidding around.  We wouldn’t give somebody a raise as soon as they started while others had to wait a year for a pay increase.  That wouldn’t be fair.  And believe me, this organization is very fair.  If anybody was going to follow Jesus’ teaching, it would be this organization.  But no, they are not going to follow this approach.  We have all bought into the economics of the empire.

At the end of the work day, there is this long line of workers – the last hired on one end, the first hired on the other.  Here is the big question for all of us: where do you locate yourself in that line?  Are you at the front of the line, or the back?  It is interesting that most of us see ourselves as being the early morning workers.  We don’t read the story and think, “What a generous owner!  What a great deal!”  We read it and say, “How unfair is that!?”  It offends our sense of what is right.

But why is it that everybody thinks of themselves as being at the front of the line?  Why does everyone think that they are the hardest workers, the ones who arrive early and stay late and clean up the messes and take on responsibility? 

Well, we all have our own story and it is the story we are most familiar with.  And we all know the difficulties and hassles we have to endure, even if no one else does.  And we know how hard we work and even if we don’t always quite follow through, we know how good our intentions are.  We don’t necessarily know these things about others.  We all have reason to think of ourselves as the early morning workers who have toiled all day in the heat, battling the humidity and the mosquitoes and the grapevines.

We might think of those 5 o’clock employees as slackers.  And maybe they are.  But try to imagine what the day labor reality might be.  Someone comes early in the morning to hire, say, 5 workers.  I’ll take you - and you - and you - and you - and you.  Who was chosen?  The youngest and strongest workers and those whom the owner had hired before, whom he knew to be good workers.  When he comes back, he hires the best workers still available.  And on it goes.

So who is left at the end of the day?  The weakest and least skilled.  The ones who are least desirable.  The same ones who probably didn’t get hired the day before.  And yet, they too have families to provide for.  They too need shelter and food and clothing.  They too have to buy school supplies and pay the heating bill.

The owner apparently pays based not on worth but on need.  I had never noticed this before, but the landowner does not hire more workers because he needs more help in the vineyard.  Did you catch that?  He sees people who are not working, people who haven’t yet been hired, and he tells them, “You also go work in my vineyard.”  It is not about being efficient or matching workload with labor supply.  It is wanting to give a job to people who need one.

Last year, Forbes magazine reported that CEOs of large companies make about 361 times what the average American worker makes.  In other words, these CEOs make in one day what an average worker earns in a year.  This is the prevailing economic model of our society.  We have seen that same model at work this past week as the fabulously wealthy can purchase “merit based” college admissions for their children.  We mostly just accept this sort of thing as being the way life is, while we see it as unfair if somebody gets a raise before they have worked six months. 

Jesus’ story speaks to inequities in life and the value of every person, not just the biggest and strongest and wealthiest and most well-connected.  The economics of empire is about scarcity and control and power.  It is about entitlement and transactions.  The economics of God, on the other hand, is about abundance and gratitude and generosity and freedom. 

But we do need to keep in mind what this story is about.  It’s not about salary and compensation per se; it is about the kingdom of heaven, as Matthew calls it.  At the bottom line, it is about the amazing grace of God who loves us and accepts us and values us, wherever we may be in that line.

Zoe and I went to the ISU women’s NCAA tournament game yesterday.  It was a lot of fun.  The Cyclones looked great and the whole game, I had been saying that they were on track to score 100 points.  But Zoe was more observant than me.  At the end of the game, the bench was cleared, and with 2 minutes to go, Lauren Mills got in the game.  She had played in only a handful of games all year.  As it turned out, everybody on the team had already scored, and sure enough, with about a minute to go, they got the ball to Lauren and she made a nice play and scored.  And the bench erupted.  Everybody celebrated.  It was better than scoring 100 points.  It was kind of like Jesus’ story: whether you were a starter or just got in at the last minute, everybody scored.  But in this case, everybody celebrated.  

It is worth noting that this parable of Jesus comes right after Peter says, “Lord, I have given up everything for you – what will be my reward?’  And it is right before the mother of James and John asks that they be given seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom.  He tells this story while his disciples are trying to push their way to the front of the line – as they argue about their relative worth and greatness.

Is the front of the line where we stand?  Maybe not.  Maybe, as far as God is concerned, we are not at the front of the line at all.  I mean, we’re not Mother Teresa.  We probably haven’t suffered because of our faith.  We haven’t taken a lot of unpopular stands to follow the gospel.  There are folks who pray more and give more and sacrifice more than us.  There are those who have a deeper and stronger and surer faith. 

And as much as we intend to put our faith to work and really make a difference, we don’t always follow through.  So maybe we’re not at the front of the line, but then again we are the ones who come to church on Sunday mornings, and we try to do the right thing.  So maybe we are the 9 a.m. people - or at least the noon time hires.

But then again, once we give up the idea that we are the best and brightest and God’s very favorites, it is a slippery slope.  Maybe we are the ones in back of the line.  We might be there for all kinds of reasons – maybe we didn’t even know there was a line.  But there we are – we show up late and get in line and crane our necks to look toward the front, to see the people who have been in line for hours, when the manager suddenly shows up and says, “We’re starting at this end of the line today,” and starts handing out big checks while everybody starts cheering and high-fiving. 

It’s not fair.  It really isn’t.  God is not fair.  Instead, God is generous.  When we begrudge others that generosity, it is only because we have forgotten how generous God has been toward us.  We do not get what we deserve.  Thank God, we all get far better than that.  Amen. 

“That Sinking Feeling” - March 10, 2019

Text: Matthew 14:13-33

This morning we have read two of the best known stories of the Bible – two miracles of Jesus.  The Feeding of the 500 and Jesus walking on water.  It’s a double feature.  It’s like Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, back to back.  It’s like The Sound of Music and West Side Story.  It’s like Caddyshack and Animal House – take your pick.  

In the verses preceding today’s scripture, we read about the death of John the Baptist.  Herod had thrown a big birthday party, everybody had too much to drink, his daughter had danced to Herod’s delight, and he said he would give her anything she asked for.  Prompted by her mother, she asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and Herod felt that he had no choice but to oblige.

News of Herod’s death reached Jesus.  And immediately, Jesus goes off in a boat to a quiet place by himself.  He is mourning.  He gets away by himself to grieve.  But the crowds hear of it and when he gets to the shore, there they are.  A mass of humanity.  But rather than being aggravated that the crowds have found him, we read that Jesus had compassion on them, and he healed those who were sick.

But by now it is getting to be late in the day.  The disciples advise Jesus to shut it down and send the crowds home or to neighboring towns for supper.  But Jesus says, “No, you give them something to eat.”  He asks them what they have.  And they say, “We got nothing.”

We got nothing.  Just a little bread and a a couple of fish.

Did I mention how many people were there?  How many?  5000 men.  Not counting women and children.  I don’t know how they figured that out; I don’t think they passed around attendance pads like we do here.  If there were 5000 men, maybe there were 20,000 all told.  The point is that this was a massive number of people who had come from various towns to see Jesus at the height of his popularity. 

“You give them something to eat,” says Jesus.  So the disciples bring what they have: 5 loaves and two fish.  Jesus blesses it, they distribute it, and there is more than enough, in fact there are 12 baskets of leftovers.

The disciples offered what they had and it was enough.  Because with God, there is abundance.  Jesus takes what we have, and it is enough.

Jesus practiced proactive compassion here.  He didn’t wait for people to start asking where the food trucks were.  He anticipated the need.  Compassion can actually form a community.  People are drawn in by compassion, and as we practice compassion in real, tangible ways – by offering what we have, even if it doesn’t seem like that much – God can do amazing things.

So Jesus did not dismiss the crowds to go find something to eat.  First he fed them, and afterwards he dismissed the crowds.  He sent his disciples on ahead in the boat to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  Remember, Jesus had come here wanting some time alone.  His cousin John, the one who had prepared the way for Jesus, had been killed.  Jesus needed to pray.  He needed time with God.

But in the early morning hours, a storm rolls in.  There is  a strong wind and waves batter the boat.  The disciples are soaked.  And they are scared.  They are all watching the horizon, looking for land, when a shadowy figure comes walking across the water.  They are terrified.  “It’s a ghost,” someone cries out.

It might be useful to know that in that day, the sea was seen as the home of demonic forces, the place on earth where chaos reigned.  (Kind of the way we today would think of Iowa City).  The depths of the sea were considered a scary place, and this makes Jesus’ walk across the water that much more significant.  As he walks across the waves he literally beats down Satan under his feet, proving he has power not only over the wind and waves but over the evil lurking below. 

Now this story is reported in three of the gospels: Matthew, Mark, and John.  The three accounts agree on the details.  It was immediately after the feeding of the 5000.  But Matthew’s version is our favorite because of Peter.  Only Matthew includes Peter walking on water.

It is hard not to like Peter.  He is the brash, overly confident disciple who rushes into things without a lot of thought.  He says what the others are only thinking and does what the others would not dare.  He is the first to answer Jesus’ questions, and occasionally he even gets it right, but even then he doesn’t fully understand what he is saying.  He swore he would never deny Jesus, and then he did just that, three times.  Jesus asked him to come with him to Gethsemane to pray, and Peter promptly falls asleep.  Jesus called him the Rock on which he would build the church, and a minute later, after Peter’s cluelessness is apparent,  called him Satan.  Peter is excitable and impulsive.  But he is also completely authentic.  He is completely himself.  You’ve got to love Peter.

The disciples are scared to death when the figure walking across the water speaks.  But they hear words of comfort.  “It’s me,” says Jesus.  “Take heart.  Do not be afraid.”  And then Peter opens his mouth, as he is prone to do.  “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

This is the only time I recall someone asking Jesus to command them to do something, which seems kind of odd.  What a weird way to prove it was really Jesus.  Why not, “If it is you, tell us what town Bartholomew is from.”  Or “Tell us what we all had for supper last night.”  Or better yet and more to the point, “If it is you, make this storm stop!”  Given the circumstances, that is the only request that would really make sense.

But no, Peter says, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter swings a leg over the boat, and then the other.  He puts his feet on the surface of the water and with the waves beating against the boat, and him, he takes a few tentative steps across the water.

The others watch, speechless.  For a brief moment, Peter is walking, like Jesus was.  He is doing it.  But then a gust of wind nearly knocks him over, and he gets scared.  Peter means “Rock,” and like a rock he dropped in the water until Jesus reaches out and saves him.

I have always thought of this as being really odd and kind of funny.  Gravity didn’t scare him.  The laws of physics didn’t bother him.  But the wind did.  How much harder is it really to have faith that he can walk on the water in the wind than to have faith that he could walk on water at all?

Think about Peter’s words to Jesus.  “If it is you.”  Where have we heard that before?  It was several weeks ago.  It was the temptation of Jesus.  What did the devil say?  If you are the son of God, command these stones to become bread… If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from the top of the temple and the angels will save you.

Peter says, “If it is you, command me to walk to you.”

Similar words.  Satan sought to set the terms for how Jesus should operate.  And Peter did as well.  “Command me to come to you.”  Jesus obliges him, and says, “OK, let’s see how well that works.”  Peter walks – but just for an instant.  He found that it wasn’t so easy.  It took great faith.

When we set the terms for how Jesus is to work, it doesn’t work so well.  Instead, Jesus sets the terms for the way that we encounter God.  So often, it is a different way than we would expect.

This is not to blame Peter.  And you have to applaud Peter’s faith, as tentative and impulsive as it was.  Peter, taking a step on the water, is exactly where many of us find ourselves.  Somewhere between faith and doubt.  Somewhere between confidence and fear.  Somewhere between having it all together and being completely clueless.  Trying to move forward but feeling like we are sinking fast.

I have watched people speak in front of a large crowd and do a fine job until they realize that they are speaking to hundreds of people, and anxiety kicks in, and their mind goes blank, and their face turns red, and they lose their way.  I once judged at a high school debate meet where a poor kid in the round I was judging was doing just fine but then couldn’t figure out what to say next and he just stood silently, like a statue, for literally 2 or 3 minutes.  Which is a long, long time when you are supposed to be giving a speech.

Or it’s like a child learning to ride a bike, trying and trying, until they finally get the hang of it and off they go riding down the street – until they remember that they don’t know how to ride a bike, and they look down, and they fall.

I haven’t actually seen anyone walk on water, but I think about something like the balance beam.  I have watched gymnasts do a routine on that beam, 4 inches across.  It can be like they are walking across the water, turning and flipping and cartwheeling across the beam and doing just fine, until they make an error or two, and they lose confidence.  Suddenly that 4 inch beam seems more like ¾ of an inch wide, and they are likely to fall.

Peter fell because of a fear of sinking, a fear of failure.  It was a lack of faith.

Or maybe it was something else.  Perhaps it was not a fear of failure.  Maybe it was actually the opposite.  Maybe it was fear of success.  Maybe he was afraid that through Jesus’ power, he really could walk across the water.  Maybe the implications started to sink in (pardon the pun). 

Maybe our fear is not that we will fail, not that we don’t have what it takes.  Maybe we are afraid that we do have what it takes.  Maybe we are afraid that we can succeed.

As long as we anticipate failure, life is a lot easier.  We are saved from having to try new things.  We are saved from worrying about falling.  We don’t have to be very creative because when you start getting creative, there is a chance of falling.  If we anticipate failure, then we don’t have to take risks. 
Marianne Williamson once wrote,

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world.  There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Maybe Peter was afraid of falling.  Maybe he was afraid of the storm. Maybe he realized that he was doing what he wasn’t supposed to be able to do.  But maybe, he was afraid of succeeding.  Maybe he was frightened not because he might fall but because he was actually walking on water.  And if by God’s power he could walk on water, what else could he do?

Maybe it was a little of both.  I expect that all kinds of things would go through a person’s mind when one walks on water.  It was heady and thrilling and scary and surreal, all at the same time.

Again, that is a lot like us.  Whether it is fear of failure or maybe even fear of success, we can be somewhere between faith and doubt, faith and fear.

Truth be told, for some of us, it is not a question of choosing whether to get up out of the boat.  Some of us have been caught in the storm and the boat has tossed and turned and we have been thrown out.  It may feel like the boat has capsized, and we are in the water in the midst of the storm.

The image of walking on water is a great image.  But it is important not to get so caught up in the spectacular elements of the story that we miss the deeper meaning.

St. Augustine understood all of this metaphorically, though he did go a bit overboard (pardon the pun again) with the nautical images.  He wrote:

The boat carrying the disciples – that is, the church – is rocking and shaking amid the storms and temptations while the adverse wind rages on.  That is to say, its enemy strives to keep the wind from calming down.  But greater is he who is persistent on our behalf, for amid the vicissitudes of our life he gives us confidence.
Our church leaders, board and committee members, met yesterday to talk about both the strengths of our church, the ways God has blessed us, and the challenges we face.  Sometimes those challenges can feel like being caught in a storm, like waves battering the ship of the church.  Where do we turn in the midst of the storms?  As is the case for each one of us, Jesus reaches out and grabs hold of us, and keeps us from sinking, and calms the storms that surround us.

What if Peter didn’t sink?  What if he just strolled right across the water and maybe did a little break dancing for an encore?  What if James and John and Andrew and Thomas followed?  What if all the disciples got out of the boat and walked across the water?  It would have been a good story, a great story – but it would not have been our story.  Peter is just like us, faithful yet lacking in faith.  Someplace between faith and doubt.

But even with our imperfect faith, we can face the storms knowing that Jesus is always there, even – and maybe especially - when we feel we are sinking.  Amen.