Saturday, March 18, 2023

“The Oil We Carry With Us” - March 19, 2023

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

With the possible exception of the NCAA Tournament, there is nothing like a wedding.  Weddings can be wonderful, joyful occasions.  And because there is often a large gathering of friends and family and there is a lot of emotion involved, weddings can provide for drama – all sorts of drama.  It is interesting how many Biblical stories have to do with weddings – Jesus attending a wedding, even turning water into wine, or Jesus telling a story about a wedding.  We had one such story last week, about guests who refused the invitation to the wedding banquet, and now again this morning, we have another parable about a wedding.

I remember officiating for a wedding a number of years ago.  The bride and groom were from Nigeria, just a delightful couple.  It was the day of the wedding, and past time to start the ceremony, and the bride had not arrived.  The pianist was an acquaintance of the couple with a limited repertoire.  She had run out of music for the prelude and I told her to just put it on a loop – go back and play what she had over again, and again after that if need be.

About 30 minutes after the announced time of the ceremony, the bride arrived.  This turned out to be a tradition in her culture that the Nigerian guests knew about but some of us did not.  It is not a good look for a bride to arrive early for the ceremony – it looks like she is too eager to get married.  So the bride arrives late.  Kind of a cool tradition that I wish I had known about.

In the story Jesus tells, it is the groom who is late in arriving.   We are not told the reason why, but it is apparently unexpected.

There are ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom’s arrival.  These are not necessarily the equivalent of today’s bridesmaids.  The Greek word means virgin or young woman.  These young women seem to play an unofficial if not official function at the wedding.  Their job is to greet and welcome the bridegroom.  He is kind of like “king for a day” and part of the celebration is for him to be welcomed with fanfare.

It is apparently in the evening, as they have lamps.  And it takes a while for the bridegroom to arrive, longer than they expect.  The pianist has played that same set of songs like 20 times by now and she is still playing.  This is not a planned late entrance, or the bridesmaids would have been expecting it.  He is just plain late.   

It takes so long, in fact, that after a while the bridesmaids fall asleep, all ten of them.  Finally, around midnight, they awake to shouting and commotion.  The bridegroom was arriving.  So they trimmed their lamps and prepared to go meet the bridegroom.  But he is so late that the oil in the lamps is running out.  Five of the ten bridesmaids have brought extra oil, just in case.  Those without extra oil asked the others if they could have some oil.  But the bridesmaids who had prepared said, “No, there’s not enough to go around.  You need to go to the oil dealers and buy some more oil.”

And so the foolish bridesmaids go looking for oil at midnight while the five wise bridesmaids meet the bridegroom and go with him into the wedding banquet.  

The five foolish bridesmaids somehow find an oil dealer willing to sell them oil at midnight, or maybe they had a 24 hour Wal-Mart.  Those bridesmaids eventually returned with oil in their lamps.  Good for them.

Except that by then, the door to the banquet is shut and they will not be let in.  They cry, “Lord, Lord, let us in,” but the reply is “Truly, I do not know you.”

This just seems so petty.  “I do not know you?”  And it seems so out of character, so unlike Jesus.  What if Jesus followed this kind of thinking throughout his ministry?

So much for the feeding of the 5000.  Instead, it would be the story of the boy who ate lunch while 4,999 unprepared slackers watched.  So much for “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  We would have to revise Matthew 7:7-8 to read “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you, unless of course you’re late and the bridegroom answers the door, in which case you are out of luck.”  
This parable seems to fly in the face of some of the key teachings of Jesus, and ignoring others in need is really not what we want to teach our children about God.  

What is up with this?  Why wouldn’t the so-called wise bridesmaids share?  This is what the kingdom of heaven is like?  It doesn’t make heaven a very hospitable place, does it?

Why didn’t the wise ones just say, “Here, you can share my lamp with me”?  Five lamps would provide more than enough light.  That seems like a reasonable solution.  And what about being locked out when they come back late with their oil?  It seems way too harsh.  

Just a few weeks ago, we read the story in Matthew 20 of the workers hired at the end of the work day who get paid the same as the early morning hires.  Locking out the latecomers seems to be exactly the opposite of what we read just a few chapters ago.

The Moral of the Prepared Yet Selfish Bridesmaids is not what we want to teach about Christian living.  Following Jesus is not about holding on tightly to what I have because sorry, there just isn’t enough to go around.

Although - I do have to admit that this story has some appeal to me because I do like to be prepared.  I remember a mission trip years ago, when we were in Illinois.  Four churches in our small town joined together for a youth mission trip to the Bethel Neighborhood Center in Kansas City (where some of you have been).  

The adult leaders were me, another pastor, a college student who was a summer youth director, and Frances Atteberry, a member of our church.  Frances was around 80 and she was like everybody’s grandma on this trip.  And she had everything with her.  If you needed a band-aid or Tylenol or Benadryl or Pepto-Bismol or if you needed a needle and thread or a deck of playing cards or you forgot your toothbrush, Frances had you covered.

Frances was as prepared as a person could be.  I mean, there is a lot to be said for being prepared.  The difference between Frances and these bridesmaids is that Frances brought all of this stuff to take care of others, while these Wise Bridesmaids were prepared to take care of themselves.

Is that the deep meaning of this story?  Be prepared?  Is this passage nothing that the Boy Scouts or our insurance agent couldn’t have told us?  Be prepared, along with Look Out For #1?  Hang on to your oil, only a fool gives it away?  

That would make the kingdom of heaven no different than the kingdoms of earth.  I can’t believe this is it.  There has to be more to it.

You know, we’ve all had our oil run out.  You know as well as I do what that looks like.  We’ve all felt spiritually drained at times.  

You are already feeling frazzled, down to your last nerve, and your kids ask what’s for dinner, and you say tuna casserole, and they roll their eyes, and you lose it.  You’re out of oil.  

Just when things can’t get any worse, they somehow do.  You feel like throwing in the towel – you are out of oil.

When the gauge in the car is on E, you know that you will soon run out of gas.  When a 2-year old doesn’t get her nap, she is going to be cranky – you can count on it.  If you have been working 60 or 70 hour weeks for weeks on end, relationships are going to suffer.  It’s just the way it is.  If you don’t keep in contact with a friend, the friendship will weaken.  These are all things we can count on.  And if you don’t keep oil in the lamp, the flame will go out.

We are called to be the light of the world, but we can’t light anything without oil in our lamp.

The oil is what keeps our spirits alive.  Our oil is our spiritual vitality.

And the thing is, this is oil that you cannot borrow from anyone else.  Some things cannot be given away.  Students might borrow somebody else’s homework, but you can’t borrow the hours they spent studying for the test.  You can’t borrow peace of mind or happiness or contentment.  You can’t see another’s joy and say, “Hey, can I have some of that?”  You can’t borrow another’s passion for God.  And you can’t just get by on the glow of another person’s spirit.

There comes a time when all you have is the oil you carry with you.  Just like the parable, time will run out.   Matthew wrote to Christians who expected Jesus’ imminent return, and it speaks to that need to be ready, but it says much more than that.  There are all sorts of events we face when life is suddenly turned upside-down and there is no time to prepare, and all we are left with is the oil we are carrying with us.

A tornado or earthquake or fire or flood comes with little warning, and life is suddenly turned upside-down.

A routine visit to the doctor’s office brings a diagnosis of a serious illness and things change in an instant.  

You go to work on an ordinary-enough day and learn that the company is filing chapter 11 and everyone is out of a job effective immediately.

You learn that someone close to you has been arrested for drugs and will probably spend the next 10 years in jail.  You didn’t have a clue.  

You suddenly learn the truth about a person you love, and find they are not the person you had thought.  The pain is sudden and deep.

These and a thousand other sudden changes in life are things we cannot see coming.  When they happen, you have to have oil in your lamp.

We prepare for sudden upheavals in life and we prepare to meet God face to face the same way God calls us to live each day.  By cultivating our relationship with God, we prepare ourselves for those things we cannot prepare for.  If we have never prayed, it is hard to learn in the midst of a crisis.  It is hard to find support and encouragement from a caring community of faith if that kind of community is not a part of our life.  We can’t call on our reserve of grace and peace and faith and hope if we don’t have such a reserve.  These are not things we can borrow from anybody else.    

It is the smaller, daily choices we make that really shape our lives.  Those daily choices are the ones that decide whether or not we will have oil in our lamps when the time comes.  

This text has been used and misused over the years.  Some church folks have used it as a way to scare folks straight – you better be ready or you’ll get locked out of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I think that misses the point.  This is not about fear.  And you don’t stockpile oil so that you can look down on the poor saps who don’t have any.  We fill our lamps with anticipation and joy.

And when does the bridegroom arrive for us?  Where do we meet Jesus?  It’s right there for us in this same chapter of Matthew, just a few verses later.  In fact, we will look at this more next week:  “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a 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.”  

Ironically, we fill our spiritual tank by doing what those bridesmaids would not do: by sharing what we have and caring for those in need.  This is where we meet Jesus.  This is is where we fill our flasks of oil.  And this is where we gather the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Things we cannot borrow from our neighbor.  

Through faithful living, day by day, we fill our flasks of oil.

Give us oil in our lamps, keep it burning, burning, burning
Give us oil in our lamps we pray.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

“Wedding Apparel” - March 12, 2023

Text: Matthew 22:1-14

There are those churches where people really dress up.  Men wear suits and ties, women wear dresses and heels.  At one time, a lot of churches were that way.  But it has been at least a few decades since First Baptist was like that.  Some of us may dress up, there’s a lot of what you might call some may wear jeans, some wear shorts when it is warm and few wear shorts even when it’s not warm, and it really doesn’t matter.  

A number of years ago I started a “No Tie July” campaign, and after going through more than a year of online only worship, I am now personally observing more of a No Tie or at least occasional tie from May-August rule.

We may not be too concerned about what people wear, but our scripture is all about somebody who shows up for a wedding with inappropriate clothing.  And it is a problem.  It is a serious problem.

The story that Jesus tells is kind of out there, to be honest, and it is troubling.  Now Luke tells this parable a little differently.  In Luke’s version, a man has a big banquet, but the invited guests don’t show up.  So the host says go out into the streets and just invites everybody.  All manner of humanity shows up for the big feast.  It is much more of a feel-good story.  We sang a hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette just a moment ago, and it appears to me to be based more on Luke’s telling of this parable.

But Matthew takes it to another level.  It is way over the top.  A king invites the movers and shakers, the important people, leaders of society, to his son’s wedding banquet.  But they have no interest in going.  When they don’t show up, the king sends messengers to tell the invitees that the dinner is ready, come to the wedding banquet.  Some leave to do other things while the rest wind up killing the messengers.  Really?  Who kills letter carriers because you don’t like the mail?

The king retaliates by raising an army, killing those who had murdered the messengers, and burning their city to the ground.  

At this point, the king says, just go out and invite everybody to my son’s wedding.  And all kinds of guests arrive – the good and the bad, we are told.  The invitation to the wedding feast is not based on merit or personal character – everybody is welcome.  And they seem to be having a great time.

But one guy is not wearing appropriate clothing.  The king approaches him and says, “Friend, how did you get in without wearing a wedding robe?”  He calls him “friend” in a way that you just know he is going to lower the boom.  The way a police officer approaches someone that is going to be arrested.  The king has this guest thrown into the outer darkness – for a clothing faux pas.

This is clearly not a “go and do likewise” kind of story.  And it’s not a “think of the mustard seed” kind of story, either.  

This is not a story based on everyday life.  In the first place, nobody would refuse a royal invitation.  When there are royal weddings, everybody wants to be there.  The rich and the famous hope for an invite, and millions watch on TV.  Thousands and thousands of people line the streets just hoping for a glimpse of the couple and cheer as their car passes by.  Who would refuse an invitation from the king?

After all of that ugly business about murdering messengers and burning a city to the ground, finally, everyone is invited to the feast.  Of course, since the dinner was ready before the king even raised the army to deal with those who refused the invitation, it seems like the food might be a little cold.

We talked about parables being stories that you have to consider and chew on, and to be honest, I’m still chewing on this one a bit.

This parable 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.  The immediate context is that in Matthew chapter 21, the chief priests and elders were opposing Jesus.  In fact, they were even then plotting his death.  They can be seen as those who are rejecting the invitation.  It is still a tough parable, but that helps a little, maybe.

Now keep in mind that this was a time in which many people did not have enough to eat.  Just getting by was a struggle for most of the population.  Nobody would turn down an invitation to a feast, at least no common person would.  A feast was a very appealing image.

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 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 quite 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.  

Jesus’ parable challenges those rules.  It actually throws out those rules.  The invitation is not simply for the few, it is for everybody.  It is almost scandalous: 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.  The kingdom is like a big party.

But then, we have the problem of this guy who is not dressed appropriately.  What is up with that?

Just reading the story, the thing that seems out of place is not this person who is not wearing a wedding robe.  What is out of place is that everybody else was wearing a wedding robe.  These people had just been pulled off the street and taken to the banquet.  Where did they get their robes?  Even if they had time to go home, a lot of them no doubt did not own that kind of clothing in the first place.

Some scholars have suggested that hosts of such a wedding provided dressy robes to those who did not have any.  Kind of like if you go to a fancy restaurant where a coat and tie is required and if you are not wearing them, they will have some jackets and ties on hand that you can wear.  (I don’t think we have that kind of restaurant in Ames, but I understand they exist.)

If it is understood that robes are provided, the spotlight shifts from the king who is put out about this guy’s clothing to the wedding guest who arrives for the feast but who in a sense rejects the invitation as well.

He is there – he is at the party.  He shows up, but he refuses to celebrate.  He refuses to honor the king and the couple being married.

You may have heard that “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.”  I’ve always liked that quote.  There is something to be said for simply being there.  But the reality is, it can take 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, 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, helping with homework, enforcing curfews Mom or Dad.

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.” It takes more than just showing up.  To be a Christian involves action – it involves the way we live.  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.  

Going all in with God is not an easy choice.  Not today, not in our culture.  The culture really doesn’t care.  Turning to God has become a fairly counter-cultural choice.  So the question is, in a time where more and more people give God little if any thought, is God happy just to have guests at the wedding?  Are we doing God a big favor just by showing 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 winds of change.

Most of Jesus’ parables can be put into two categories:  parables of grace and parables of judgment.  Which is this?  I’m not sure; lie I said, I’m still chewing on this.  But I think the answer is probably 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.  

That is fantastic news for us.  The flip side is that 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.  

God is not just looking for warm bodies.  God is looking for guests who will honor the son.  We can do that in t-shirts and running shoes as well as we can suits and dresses.  Because the wedding robe that God cares about is made up of the whole fabric of our lives.  It is made from the patterns God has given us – patterns of goodness and mercy and justice and compassion and forgiveness and care and service and peace. (1)

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 be there but to be truly, fully present, to change our hearts and minds and spirits.  That happens when we understand the incredible invitation God has offered to us all.  Amen.

(1) Thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor for the fabric and patterns motif.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

“The Kingdom Pay Scale” - March 5, 2023

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

A woman in Illinois had just started a new job.  On her very first day of work, one of her co-workers asked what she was making, and she told them her salary.  Word got around.  This new hire was making more than some employees who had been there awhile.  This caused a bit of an uproar and in fact one woman got mad enough that she quit.  And the next day, the new employee was called into the boss’s office and fired for disclosing what she was making.    

It is illegal to fire an employee for sharing salary details, but it happens nevertheless.  But most of us are pretty private about such matters.  We generally don’t like to discuss money and certainly not our salary.  

Jesus tells a story about workers who learned what others were making.  It causes an uproar, and what’s more the employer seems to want everyone to know.
There is a vineyard owner 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.  The presence of day laborers is actually 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 victims of war and displacement.  They often were immigrants and refugees doing piece work.

This vineyard owner hires the workers for 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 day laborers 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.  He doesn’t specify what that is, but if you are already into the workday, you are really not in a position to bargain.  His word was good enough for them.  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, just an hour before quitting time, 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.  Well, I guess that was obvious.  But this vineyard owner goes ahead and hires them – even though the work day is nearly over.

By now, the early-morning workers are beat.  It is hard work.  Their shirts are drenched with sweat.  Just from the looks of them, you can tell who had been there all day and who was hired in the mid or late afternoon.

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.

They were right: it was too good to be true.  Everyone received the same amount.  Those who had worked 8 hours were paid the same as those who had worked for an hour.

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.

Jesus’ economic plan would be a disaster because there is no incentive to work.  Why go to work early in the morning when you can just show up shortly before quitting time and get paid the same?

The landowner in the story 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.  So do we.  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.  The vineyard owner could have been more subtle about it.  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.

These day workers were all victims of the imperial economics of Rome.  I mean, that is why they had to hustle for work each day – they no longer owned land and had no other livelihood.  They had suffered from this system, and yet they had all bought into the economic model of the empire that had used and abused them.  The economics of empire is about scarcity and control and power.  

The economics of God, on the other hand, are about abundance and gratitude and generosity.  God operates by a completely different model of economics and fairness.

We have all bought into the economics of empire, I think.  Some are upset that there are folks who may potentially get 10 to 20 thousand dollars in student loans forgive.  It’s not fair because others paid off their loans or didn’t even take out a loan in the first place.  Why should they get this break?

I understand that.  It’s not fair.  But why isn’t there an uproar over the fact that educational opportunity is very much dependent on economic status?  Over the fact that some people can’t afford college?  There aren’t so many complaints that those with student loans may have to work a year to earn what the CEO makes in one day.  There is more than one way of thinking about fairness, and this vineyard owner is viewing it in a different way.

At the end of the work day, imagine 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?  I think most of us see ourselves as being the early morning workers.  We don’t necessarily 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.

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 employees.  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.  He is not as concerned with being equal as he is with being equitable.  It is a different way of seeing.

There was an NPR story this week about a woman in Perry, Iowa who required care for dementia.  She had Lewy Body Syndrome, a terrible disease.  A state case worker told the family about a program that would pay the costs of in-home care that Medicare and Tri-Care did not cover.  The family was not told that this was an offshoot of Medicaid, and they were not told that Medicaid had a rule regarding repayment after the person was deceased if the individual had assets – the so-called Medicaid clawback rule.  Or that Iowa claws back more than almost any other state.

A few weeks after she died, her husband received a letter saying that her estate owed the state of Iowa $226,000 for her care.  The family thought it was a scam at first but it was real.  The husband can continue to live in the family home, but after he dies the state of Iowa will take half of the value of their home – the wife’s portion.  The couple had wanted to leave the home to their daughter, but it will have to be sold.  It is assessed at $88,000.

You could call this fair in that Medicaid is for those with very little means, and this rule insures that people are not scamming Medicaid.  But there are other ways of thinking about what is fair, and I’m not sure that the vineyard owner would be a fan.

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.  But we do need to keep in mind what this story is about.  It’s not actually about salary and compensation per se, although it certainly has something to say about economics.  And it’s challenging for sure.

But Jesus tells this parable to show what the kingdom of heaven is like.  What is he saying?  At the bottom line, this is about the amazing grace of God who loves us and accepts us and values us, wherever we may be in that line.  Those who have just come to the faith are as precious to God as life-long saints.  Children are valued as much as seasoned church members.  Ordinary folks matter just as much to God as those superstar Christians.  None of us have a claim or entitlement or get an extra portion when it comes to God’s love and grace.  And it is not about all the work we do.

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.  Jesus tells this story while his disciples are trying to push their way to the front of the line – as they argue about their worth and greatness.

Is the front of the line where we stand?  Maybe not.  We 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.  

Maybe we’re not those early morning workers.  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 working all day, 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.  

This is often called the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.  But I’m not sure that is really what it is about.  I’m thinking that maybe it is the story of the Generous Vineyard Owner.  And the kingdom is not all about one-upping each other and figuring out who is of greater worth.  It is more about caring for and valuing each and every person, even those – maybe especially those – who are struggling.

The vineyard owner is not fair.  Not really.  God is not fair, not by our standards.  Instead, God is generous.  When we begrudge others that generosity, it is only because we have forgotten how generous God has been toward us.  

No, we do not get what we deserve.  Thank God, we all get far better than that.  Amen.  

Saturday, February 18, 2023

“AI and Real Faith” - February 19, 2023

Text: Matthew 16:24-17:8

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Today, we gather to reflect on the remarkable event that occurred on the mountaintop as described in Matthew 17 – the Transfiguration of Jesus.  This is a significant event in the life of Jesus, and it offers a message that is relevant to our lives even today.  Let us take a moment to delve into this passage and gain a deeper understanding of what it means to us as Christians.

OK, the beginning to this sermon probably doesn’t sound quitelike me.  And there is a reason for that: I didn’t write it.  Have you heard about ChatGPT?  It is an artificial intelligience language chatbot, which basically is a robot you can have a conversation with on the internet.  It can report on whatever you ask it to.  Students can use ChatGPT to write essays and papers.  It has become such an issue that somebody has created a program that teachers can use to determine whether a paper was written by ChatGPT.  

There was a conversation about Artificial Intelligience and ChatGPT in an online pastors group that I’m a part of.  There was a question of what kind of sermon this would come up with.  

I had been thinking about that and I decided to find out for myself.  I typed in “write a sermon on the Transfiguration of Jesus from Matthew 17:1-8.”  It took about 5 seconds for words to appear on the screen and they came at a fast rate than I could read them.

It was kind of amazing, and what was shocking about it is it was not a terrible sermon.  I mean, I have heard a lot worse.  But it was pretty – what’s the word?  Generic.  Humorless.  Pretty dry.  It was completely lacking in local context.  There weren’t any illustrations and there wasn’t any plot.  The great preacher Fred Craddock said that the purpose of an introduction to a sermon is simply to get people on the bus so that they will go along for the ride.  Well, I’m afraid this AI sermon would have a mostly empty bus.

But again, it wasn’t terrible.  So I tried again.  I typed in “write a sermon on the Transfiguration of Jesus with illustrations.”  It spat out a similar sermon with a few points, and then it would say, “To illustrate this point, think of a GPS system.  Just as a GPS guides us on our journey, so does Jesus guide us on our journey of faith.”

Again, it wasn’t a stirring or especially inspiring sermon, it was all kind of bland, but it wasn’t terrible.  It wasn’t offensive or have really weird theology.  But it felt like a student doing all of their research on Wikipedia the night before and coming up with a research paper.

I mention all of this because maybe because you have been hearing a lot about artificial intelligence - this is very much in the news.  But I also mention this because it may actually relate a bit to our scripture this morning.

Let me back up just a bit to the verses before our reading.  Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And there were a few answers, some thought he was like John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.  And then Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?”

And Peter said, “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.”  But Peter’s response, it turns out, was something like ChatGPT.  He was spitting out the answer but without context or real understanding.  This was simply the biggest response he could think of.  Because shortly after that, when Jesus starts talking about having to suffer, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him, saying “God forbid, this can never happen to you!”  Basically he was saying, “Jesus, you can’t be that kind of messiah, I won’t allow it.”  And Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

So there is a lot of tension in the air at the beginning of our reading.  And Jesus continues on the same theme.  “If any want to become my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Suffering and sacrifice are not only the road that Jesus is choosing; this is the road his disciples must follow as well.

Right from the very beginning, the world has taken offense - even Jesus’ closest followers have taken offense at the suffering of Christ.  Jesus in power and glory, wiping out evil can be a lot more appealing than Jesus overcoming through the power of sacrificial love.

This is where things stand with Jesus and the disciples.  They weren’t quite catching who he was, even if Peter had said the right words, and Jesus challenges them.  This is a complicated moment.  

It is really difficult for Peter and the other disciples – maybe including us – to conceive of Jesus in a way other than what we always have.  Peter and those around him understood that the Messiah was supposed to come in power and defeat the Roman oppressors.  It was really hard to think any other way.

Jesus teaches them otherwise, sets them straight.  But we all know that sometimes, words are not enough.  Words alone can’t always motivate us to change.

Look at how those around Jesus learn and grow.  He teaches them – but not simply through rote memorization or class lectures.  He’s not just disseminating information; he uses parables, stories, metaphors that grab their imagination.  

He teaches not only through his words but through his life.  He breaks social norms.  He confronts power brokers.  He is a person of absolute integrity.  He feeds the 5000.  He walks on water.  He turns water into wine.  These miracles are the sorts of things that break through preconceived ways of thinking.  

But even after all of this, the disciples still don’t quite get it.  Peter has the language but still does not fully understand.  And so Jesus takes James, John and Peter, kind of the inner circle of the disciples, with him up the mountain.  

Again and again, the mountains are a place to meet God.  Moses receives the Law on Mt. Sinai.  Elijah defeats the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel.  The temple in Jerusalem is built on Mt. Zion.  Jesus goes to pray on the Mount of Olives.  He went up on the mountain to teach the people – we’ve just looked at the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus takes Peter up on the mountain and suddenly, Peter is confronted face to face with the depth of what he is dealing with.  There is a bright light and these disciples see visions of Moses and Elijah with Jesus, representing the Law and the prophets – these are the heroes of Hebrew faith.  They are star struck.  And it is almost too much. Peter feels like he needs to do something.

He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Peter wants to memorialize this moment.  We can just shake our heads at Peter, but we are exactly like him.  He wants to get out his phone and take selfies with Jesus and Moses and Elijah rather than simply experience the moment.  

The text is actually kind of funny.  It says, “While Peter was still speaking, a cloud overshadowed them and there was a voice from the cloud.”  It’s like nobody even noticed that Peter was speaking.  And the voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

They fall to the ground.  Of course they are terrified.  And Jesus says, “Get up, don’t be afraid.”

There is a big difference between thinking about God or speculating about God, and actually having an experience of the Holy.  It’s like the difference between an AI generated sermon, kind of dry and rote and impersonal, and a personal experience of God’s presence.

I’m wondering – have you had a mountaintop experience?  A brush with the Holy in which God seemed especially real and near?  

Such times can be very important for us – they are times when it is reinforced for us that our faith is not simply a collection of beliefs that we sign on the bottom line.  These Holy Moments are times when faith is experienced, when faith is lived.  They grab us with the truth that faith is not just about the facts; it is about trust and wonder and awe and joy and relationship.  

We need these Holy Moments – those times when we may experience God in a new way or a very real way and see a bigger world out there.

These moments may not necessarily be big and dramatic.  God may speak to us in a still, small voice.  For me, some of those mountaintop moments have actually been on a mountain, or in the woods, or along the ocean or at least far away from my normal routine.

Last summer Susan and I were in Minnesota, on Lake Superior.  I got up at 5 am to see the sunrise over the lake.  It was amazing.  And then I saw something in the lake.  It came closer, and an otter swam by.  It was just kind of goofing off, seemed to be enjoying itself as it swam past me.  It was one of those moments when I felt the power and the mystery and the beauty of God’s creation.

Sometimes this happens in worship – for me, it is often in a stirring hymn or choir anthem or cantata.

Holy moments may occur when we clear the distractions that are so much a part of our everyday lives and really have time for God.  It’s no accident that the Transfiguration took place on the mountain, a place where immediate worries and concerns could be set aside in order to focus on prayer.

But then again, sometimes it may happen in the midst of the everyday when we somehow are enabled to see things – to see one another, to see life, to see God – with new eyes.  It can happen even in some of the most difficult times of life as we are sustained by the love and care of God, often experienced through the love and compassion of others.

We cannot create or force these moments - they just happen.  Peter and James and John were not expecting this “brush with the holy.”  It was God’s doing.  Those mountaintop experiences are not up to us.

It is important that these mystical, mysterious stories are included in the scriptures because we can be tempted to give an overly rational explanation for faith.  Many of us in this university community can make faith largely about our heads.  We can be tempted to think of Christianity like we do trigonometry or algebra, as a largely intellectual enterprise in which these are the facts, these are the seven golden principles for living, and if we do “x” then God will respond with “y.”  But deep down, we know that faith doesn’t work that way.  

The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church has a wonderful prayer to be said for the newly baptized.  The prayer concludes with these words:

Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  

I love that last line: “The gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

Faith is not simply about the facts.  Following Jesus is not about believing certain things and taking certain positions.  In the words of that prayer, following Jesus is about having an inquiring and discerning heart, about having the courage to will and to persevere, about knowing and loving God, about finding joy and wonder in all of God’s works.

Now back to that ChatGPT sermon.  I typed in a response to it.  I wrote, “This is kind of stiff and humorless but surprisingly good.”

It responded,

Thank you for your feedback.  As an AI language model, my programming is focused on delivering informative and factual content.  However, I do understand that a sense of humor and warmth can add value to a sermon and make it more relatable to the audience.

It was a little bit frightening how OK that sermon was.  It made me think that given a little time, with machine learning and improvements, I could be replaced one day.  But I’m not too worried.  Because faith is not just facts and information.  It involves experience and relationship and commitment and care and it not just about our beliefs and not just about words, it is about our living.  

Let us pray: Sustain us, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, spirits to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  Amen.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

“The Surprising Kingdom” - February 12, 2023

Text: Matthew 13:24-43

I’ve had some really good teachers over the years – in seminary, in college, in high school.  The ones I remember the most, whether it was Mr. Kirkman in high school chemistry or Dr. Beckman in college or Bill Leonard or Henlee Barnette in seminary, told stories – about the subject at hand or just about life.  They used humor and were engaging and encouraged you to think for yourself.

Telling stories seemed to be Jesus’ preferred method of teaching.  Lots of people are visual learners, and one way to teach visually was through sharing stories that allow the listener to create a picture in one’s mind, in one’s imagination.  And Jesus really couldn’t use PowerPoint slides or make a TikTok, right?  

Jesus teaches primarily through parables that a person can think about and chew on and supply the conclusion or determine the meaning for oneself.  That is not always easy.  I talked to somebody this week who said they were reading through the New Testament and they found some of Jesus’ parables indecipherable.  Well, that was pretty well the experience of his earliest followers.  And the way that he piles on stories, one after another, leaves it to the hearers – that would be us – to make sense of it all.  

Because we have to sit with the parables for awhile and think about them, we have some skin in the game, so to speak.  If we really chew on these stories, we will be invested in what they have to say to us.  It is a great teaching strategy.  

In this morning’s reading, we have three parables – similar and yet each unique.  And the question for us is, “What is Jesus trying to say to us about the kingdom of heaven?”

First, Jesus says that the kingdom is like somebody who sowed good seed in the field, but then found that there were weeds growing along with the wheat.  The field workers ask if they ought to pull up the weeds, but the owner says, “No, you would risk pulling up some of the good stuff at the same time.  Just wait till harvest and then we’ll sort it out.”

It is a ridiculous approach, of course.  It is the opposite of what you would actually want to do.  Most of us know from experience that if you don’t control the weeds in your garden, by the end of the summer you might not even be able to find your peppers and tomatoes for all of the weeds.

Jesus describes a terrible plan for farming.  This would be a recipe for disaster.  Is Jesus just a terrible farmer, or is he trying to make a point?

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

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

We might be tempted to think of the wheat and the weeds as people.  That person is wheat and this person over here is a weed.  And I don’t know if you have noticed, but generally we think of ourselves as the wheat and others, whoever they may be, as the weeds.  How many of you read this and think of yourself as the wheat?  Of course.  And we wonder what to do about those weeds.

But that is way too easy.  We all have wheat and weed within us.  If this represents people, I think we are both.  We are all capable of great things and terrible things.  For me, it is not helpful to think of these people as wheat and those people as weeds.  Our world has got into all kinds of trouble with that kind of thinking.  This just leads us to demonize those who are different or with whom we disagree.  

It might be more helpful to think of the wheat and weeds being mixed up – in our world, in our community, in our church, even within ourselves.  It is all a mixed bag.  Martin Luther said that a Christian is both saint and sinner.

So this parable counsels patience.  In God’s kingdom, there will be accountability, but God is patient and forgiving toward us.  And here’s the thing: sometimes, what appears to us to be a weed is actually wheat.  What appears to be useless is actually a beautiful flower.  We can’t always make that determination.  

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

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

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

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

To know Vic as a young man in his 30’s and 40’s, already bankrupted financially and emotionally by alcohol – he would have looked like a weed.  

We might recall our own history as Baptists.  Early on, we were considered among the weeds of the colonies.  Roger Williams fled from Massachusetts and established Rhode Island as a “refuge for persons distressed of conscience.”  Which meant that Rhode Island was where the religious misfits of the day – Baptists, Catholics, and Quakers - could live in peace.  Were they wheat or weeds?  The answer is probably yes.

This parable is not about being passive in the face of evil.  It’s not about doing nothing,  Rather, I think it has something to say about the way we think of others, and maybe the potential of each person.  It asks for humility, and it is about leaving judgment to God.

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

We have heard this parable so many times before, about the tiny seed that grows into this impressive shrub, that we don’t catch what is going on.  If Jesus wanted to emphasize how something small and insignificant becomes great, why not an acorn becoming a mighty oak?  Why not a small seed growing into a great Cedar of Lebanon?  But no, a little seed grows into a decent-sized shrub.  I know that the text says that is becomes the greatest of all shrubs, but this was either hyperbole or maybe sarcasm on Jesus’ part – because it just isn’t.

A mustard shrub is actually considered a weed.  For Jesus’ hearers this must have been a startling image.  The kingdom of heaven is like – an unsightly and invasive weed?  Are you serious?  This seems like a pitiful symbol for the kingdom of heaven.
But here’s the deal: you just can’t get rid of mustard.  It refuses to die.  It grows and spreads, and sometimes your best efforts to get rid of it only make it spread more.

This is not simply a comforting, homespun message about the way God is at work in the world.  Jesus is describing a kingdom that is surprising and relentless and in the end unstoppable.  

The kingdom of heaven is not like the biggest tree in the forest.  It may not look all that impressive.  It may be seen as insignificant alongside the powers that shape the world and call the shots.  

The kingdom of heaven is completely unlike the kingdom of Rome, which ran that part of the world.  The kingdom of heaven is not powerful or dominant.  Signing up for the kingdom is not about glory and honor.  

But the kingdom of God is persistent.  And it becomes pervasive.  Even the principalities and powers of this world cannot stop it.  And in the long run it will outlast those kingdoms built on dominance and oppression and violence.

And then Jesus throws out one more parable for his followers to chew on.  He says the kingdom is like a woman putting a little yeast in her dough, and it leavens the whole loaf.  That’s it, that’s the whole parable.  Just a simple little observation.

I don’t do a lot of baking.  I make pizza dough more than anything.  But that is absolutely the way yeast works.  Just a little yeast goes a long way.  I had some yeast that was past the due date on the package.  I thought it was probably OK and went ahead and used it.  That was a big mistake.  The dough would not rise and the pizza crust was terrible.

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

OK, that is all well and good.  The kingdom of God is like yeast that leavens the whole loaf.  The work of God may be something that seems small but has a great effect.  A little like the mustard seed, maybe.  

Except here is the deal: yeast was almost always a symbol of corruption.  In chapter 16, Jesus warns to beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Saducees.  Yeast was not kosher – so at Passover, you have unleavened bread.  And so, yet again, this seems like a weird way to describe the kingdom.  “The kingdom is like an unclean and unkosher symbol of corruption.”  That puts it in a somewhat different light.

The kingdom of heaven, says Jesus, is surprising and may even be seen as scandalous.  It’s not always what you might expect.  Now, just looking at dough, you can’t necessarily tell if there is yeast present – but it is there and it will do its work.  The kingdom may seem hidden, but it is there, and it will be revealed.  

Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, says:

the reason Jesus spends so much time explaining the kingdom of heaven is because we need to be reminded that it’s there even when it seems so excruciatingly absent.  The promise of the parables about the kingdom of heaven is that even when the kingdom is not seen, it is near.   

Let me say a brief word about the end of this passage.  It says that Jesus taught only in parables, to proclaim what had been hidden.  But then he turns around and explains the first parable, of the wheat and the weeds, to the disciples.  Jesus hardly ever does this and it doesn’t seem his style.  And it is almost over-explained, with each character, each part of the story representing something very specific.  Many scholars think that this is more the explanation that Matthew, writing 40+ years after Jesus’ death, gave for the sake of his readers in the early church.  This explanation ends with the weeds being burned.

It is easy to think of the weeds being burned as the evil people going to hell and the wheat being gathered as the good people going to heaven.  And you can interpret it that way, a lot of people have.  

But for me, that is way too easy.  And again, it easy to categorize individuals as wheat or weeds, good or bad.  We all have both wheat and weeds within us.  Fire is also a symbol of purifying, of refining.  You can do what you want with this, but I like the image of God working in our lives, refining and purifying so that we are more like Christ, more about love and hope and peace and justice and compassion, more like wheat and less like weeds.

What are we to make of these parables, taken together?  What is Jesus saying about the kingdom of heaven?

Life can be hard, as many of us well know.  Sometimes, God can seem absent.  But the Good News is that in this crazy, mixed up world in which goodness and evil, in which joy and misery, in which hope and despair can exist side by side, God is nevertheless at work – often in surprising and unnoticed and maybe even shocking and subversive ways.  

Like yeast working in dough, like wheat and weeds growing alongside one another, like an insignificant mustard plant that just keeps growing, God’s kingdom is near us and among us, even now, and it cannot be stopped.  Amen.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

“The Foundation” - February 5, 2023

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

We are on our third Sunday looking at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  When Phyllis was our emergency pinch-hitter three weeks ago, she got us started.  She just picked out a scripture for Sunday morning the night before, focusing on "you are the light of the world," not knowing what I would be doing on the following Sundays.  That was definitely the work of the Spirit.   

The Sermon on the Mount is chock-full of teaching – much of Jesus’ important teaching to his followers is found in these three chapters of Matthew.  There are the Beatitudes, being salt and light, love your enemies, teaching about prayer and the Lord’s Prayer, consider the lilies of the field and do not worry – God will provide for you.

And then in our scripture this morning, there is so much.  Jesus speaks of not judging others but rather being able to be self-critical, being able to see our own flaws and failings – the log in our own eye.  There is that wonderful phrase of not throwing pearls before swine.  He talks about seeking, knocking, and asking, knowing that God wants to give us good things.

Our scripture this morning included what we know as the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  It is a way of living that Jesus says is pretty well a summary of the law and the prophets.  If you can follow this teaching, you will be in good shape.

There is so much to be found in the Sermon on the Mount - this is really the core of Jesus’ teaching.  The way that Phyllis and I alternated verses in our scripture reading today was by design.  Each snippet was a teaching that could have been a sermon in and of itself.  We could have spent weeks in the Beatitudes and weeks on the Lord’s Prayer and we could probably spend a full year looking at the entire Sermon on the Mount if we wanted to.  

But we’re not, not this year.  This morning we are going to look at the last part of today’s reading.  Jesus gives all of this teaching to his disciples, some of the best known teaching in the Bible, and concludes with these take-home words.

“Everyone who hears these words of mine” – and he is talking here about the whole Sermon on the Mount – “everyone who hears these words and acts on them is like the wise person who built their house on the rock.  The rains fell, the floods came, the wind beat down on the house but the house was secure because it was built on rock.  But if you hear my words but don’t act on them, it is like building your house on sand – the rains come, the wind blows, and the house falls.”

Jesus is talking about a faith that can survive hard times.  When those storms of life come, we need to be ready.  We need to be prepared.    

Jesus says that there are those who build their houses on sand.  When the storms come, the foundation will wash away.  And there are those who build their houses on rock.  Those houses are solid and will withstand the storms.

We know that when it comes to life, the storms will certainly come.  Storms can hit us suddenly and without warning.  There are also those storms that we can see coming on the horizon but can do nothing to stop.  

The theology class is discussing a video series about how religion has changed since 9/11.  It is amazing how much has changed in our world and in our society in the last 20 years.  One commentator described the change that we are experiencing in our culture as white water change, meaning that it is as fast and furious and sometimes as treacherous and turbulent as the white waters of a raging river.

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

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

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

The foundation is crucial, says Jesus.  You have to build your lives on that which is solid and dependable.

Last spring I noticed that some cracks had appeared in our basement wall.  We wound up having to have some foundation repair work done.  We started looking into it, got a couple of estimates, and we started noticing advertisements for foundation repair all over the place.  If you watch the local news at 6:00 or 10:00, every other commercial is for foundation repair.  Almost every day, I see a truck or van from some foundation repair company in a driveway.

Over times, houses can settle, and sometimes the soil was not compacted as well as it should have been when the house was built.  Foundation problems, it turns out, are very common.

Jesus knows this.  And he knows that building on sand is inviting disaster.  He suggests a very firm and solid foundation - the rock of faith, the rock of hope, the rock of love.  He says, “Anyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them is like the person who built his house on the rock.”  Living by Jesus’ words is something you can absolutely build your life on.

Jesus has been speaking to the crowds who had gathered.  And we read that the people marveled, saying that he spoke as one with authority.  These weren’t just words for Jesus.  This was authentic, this was real, this was from the heart.  He wasn’t just talking about God; he had a deep connection to God.

Jesus had just spoken powerful words, but he concludes by saying that words are not what matter the most.

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

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

Earlier in chapter 7, Jesus speaks of those who will call out “Lord, Lord” but are not interested in actually doing God’s will.  Having the religious lingo down is not what matters.  Having a trove of religious knowledge is not what really counts.  I mean, winning at Bible Trivia is great, but it’s not something to build your life on.

Being a decent and respectable person is admirable.  It is definitely better than being an indecent and unrespectable or disrespectful person, right?  But that will not carry us through the storms of life.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus teaches his disciples – both then and now - what it means to be human, what it means to be children of God.

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

Saturday, January 28, 2023

“Revolutionary Prayer” - January 29, 2023

Text: Matthew 6:7-21

A few weeks ago, I was watching the NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills.  After making a tackle, a player for Buffalo stood up and then about a second later collapsed.  It was a medical emergency, and it went on and on.  They kept cutting to commercials and would come back and each time nothing had changed, the player was still lying on the field.  An ambulance was on the field and medical personnel were working on him.  The announcers did not know what to say and they were as shaken as anybody.  We heard that his heart had stopped.

And all around, football players were in tears.  They surrounded the injured player in part to give him privacy in the midst of 80,000 people and a national TV audience.  And these players and coaches, from both teams, were praying for Damar Hamlin.  It didn’t particularly matter what their faith or even whether they were religious.  They were praying for their teammate and friend and fellow human being.

In such times, prayer seems to be just the natural inclination of our hearts.  And whenever we join together in worship, prayer is a part of it – connecting with God.

For Christians, the most prayed prayer, far and away, is what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.  In first century Israel, it was a common practice for rabbis to teach a model prayer to their followers.  In fact, in the gospel of Luke, when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, they mentioned that John the Baptist had given such a prayer to his disciples.  

In the verses preceding the prayer in Matthew, Jesus says, “Don’t try to be all show-offy with your prayer.  Do it in private, don’t worry about using a bunch of words, if you are doing it for the benefit of others then you have already received whatever good you are going to get out of it.”  In other words, while Jesus is teaching us how to go about personal, private prayer, this has nevertheless become the most public and communal prayer in Christianity.  

I think that is OK.  Prayer is not about the magic of saying certain words in certain settings.  This model prayer of Jesus, this template for prayer, if you will, is about orienting us all to what God is about and what following Jesus is about.  And while it may have been taught as guidance for individual prayer, the themes of the prayer are not individual at all – they are very much about the wider community.

Well, how do we take in something as powerful and familiar as the Lord’s Prayer?  It is kind of like the 23rd Psalm in that it is so familiar.  And there is so much here.

What I want to do this morning is to look mostly at just two words.  Two little words that are absolutely revolutionary.  Two words that can change everything when it comes to prayer.

If you pay attention to the Lord’s Prayer, it is different from most of the prayers we offer.  You don’t find the words “me” or “my” or “I” in it.  You won’t find requests for a new car or a victory for quarterback Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers.  

Now, scripture does say, “Don’t worry about anything but pray about everything,” and it is good to lift all the concerns of our hearts to God in prayer.  But according to Jesus, prayer is not about having our wishes fulfilled by God but rather having our lives transformed by God.  This prayer is to tune our lives to God’s ways, God’s values, God’s concerns.  More than anything else, the Lord’s Prayer is about developing a relationship with God.

So here are those two words, those two powerful, revolutionary words that we find in the Lord’s Prayer.  They are the very first two words.  “Our Father.”  The prayer begins, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

Of all the words in this prayer, we may give these two words the least thought.  We might have questions about sins vs. debts vs. trespasses.  We might ask, “What does daily bread mean, anyway?”  We might wonder what it means to pray “thy kingdom come,” and we could spend a lot of time thinking about God transforming this world into the kind of world that God would want – on earth as it is in heaven.  

But we may not question “Our Father” very much.  We can skip right past that to get to what we think of perhaps as the “meat” of the prayer.

It is interesting that Jesus is teaching his disciples how to go about private prayer, not so much public prayer.  And yet, he doesn’t begin with “My Father.”  It is deeply personal, and it is also plural.  Our Father.  We pray to a God who cares for us deeply, but not only for us.  

Chuck Denison asked:

Why will [a large percentage] of Americans answer a survey by stating that they have a belief in God, while less than half that many confess to any involvement in a church?  One reason is because Americans have replaced ‘our’ with ‘my’.  This, of course, is stunning because the thoroughly biblical view is that Christianity is not exclusive.  It’s inclusive.  It’s not private.  It’s shared.  It’s not a solo flight. It’s a commuter jet.

It is very easy to have a personal claim on God.  It is very easy to make God into our own image, make our pressing concerns into God’s pressing concerns, and eventually turn the deity into our own thoughts and opinions and preferences writ large.

But “Our Father” does not mean just the God of our side,  the God of our team.  God is bigger than that.  “Our” does not mean people just like us.  God is not just God of the Baptists, or God of relatively in-the-know Midwesterners.  When we say “Our Father,” that is not what we mean.  

God is not just an American God.  If God is really the Creator of the Universe, if God is really Lord of all, then God does not belong to any particular segment of the human family.  To pray “Our” Father says something about our common humanity, our shared existence.  It says that God is the God of all who are gathered here and God of all in our circle of relationships.  It also means, like it or not, that God is the God of people who don’t believe the same as we do, and even people who don’t believe in God.  And if God is Father of us all, then we are all – siblings.  We’re all brothers and sisters.

Rather than just a kind of boilerplate intro to a prayer, these are two revolutionary words.  Think about how it would change things if all who prayed this prayer took this seriously.  We are praying to the God of people who have different political beliefs than us, different values, who live in far-flung places.  We are praying to the God of people we don’t even like.  If we really reflect on that, and consider the scope of God’s love and compassion, it can change things.  

We say “OUR” Father because we can’t say “MY Father in heaven.” God does not belong to me.  God does not belong to you.  Rather, we belong to God.

Just as the word “our” is packed with meaning, so is “Father.”  What does it mean to call God “Father?”  

First off, this has nothing to do with gender.  We are not saying that God is a boy.  God is neither male nor female.  In Genesis, we read that both male and female are created in God’s image.  

If by Father, Jesus is not really speaking of God’s gender, then what does it mean?  Why not “Spirit” or “Creator” or why not just “God”?

When Jesus prays in the New Testament, he usually calls God “Father.”  And the specific word here is “Abba,” which means something like “Daddy.”  It’s not exclusively what a child would call one’s Father, but it’s a very intimate relationship.

By “Father,” Jesus is saying something important about our relationship to God.  John Dominic Crossan (in The Greatest Prayer, p. 40ff) argues that in Biblical language, Father is most often an inclusive word that not only speaks of the parent of children, but “householder” in charge of a home or an extended family.  

Those who heard Jesus’ words, and most people today, know what a well-run home and a good householder is like.  Fields are cultivated and well-kept, livestock have provisions, dependents are cared for, food and shelter are provided.  Sick children receive special care, nursing mothers get special care.  Everyone has enough.  The householder acts justly, treats everyone fairly, and is a teacher and example to all who live in the house.

A good householder is a provider and protector and model.  To pray “Our Father,” then, is to pray to one who is intimately related to all of us, who cares for and provides for us, who models for us how we are to live.

I know that “Father” can be a loaded term for some who have not had a good relationship with their father or even been harmed by their father.  Some may be more comfortable with “Mother,” and that is a Biblical image as well, but that may not work very well for everybody either.  I think whatever image works for you is great.  There are all kind of Biblical images of God, but the image Jesus uses is one that is powerful and comforting and caring and familiar, one that is very personal.

“Our Father” conveys two important and powerful things about God.  First, this is not just my God, it is our God.  Yet at the same time, God is deeply personal, deeply invested in our welfare.  This is the God to whom we pray.  Not an earthly parent, but Our Father in Heaven.

We begin with “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”  Hallowed is not a word we use just every day.  I can only think of two common usages.  One is the Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which unless you have read it may not be that helpful.  The other is that we sometimes speak of a place as being hallowed ground.  For Cubs’ fans, Wrigley Field is hallowed ground.  Maybe your old home place is hallowed ground.  It means something like sacred, holy, venerated.

The ancient Hebrews were extremely cautious about using the divine name – to even speak it could put the person in jeopardy.  That is how seriously they took the name of God.  In the Hebrew Bible, God’s name is often just written as the consonants YHWH.  When Moses met God in the burning bush, he asked for God’s name, and God responded, “I am who I am.”  God would not be pinned down, God was free and God was holy.  The letters YHWH come from the Hebrew verb “I am,” but because God’s name was so holy they were generally not spoken.  These letters came to be pronounced Yahweh, and this is where the word “Jehovah” comes from.  God’s name is hallowed, holy.

We are to honor and respect God’s name – to hallow it.  Jesus knew that the failure to honor God’s name goes far beyond the way we address God.  Jesus knew that the failure to take God seriously, the failure to consider God’s claim on our world and God’s call on our lives and the failure to take to heart God’s values of justice and peace and righteousness and fairness – this lie at the heart of the troubles facing his day.  And it is exactly like that today.

When we pray, “Holy be your name,” we are in effect pledging ourselves not to misuse God’s name, not to use God’s name for our own purposes.  When we hear the commandment to not use God’s name in vain, a lot of people think that is talking about using God’s name in profanity.  And, I suppose that is taking God’s name in vain.  But that is a minor infraction compared to German troops in World War II going into battle with the words Gott Mit Uns, or God With Us, on their helmets.

To invoke the name of God as the patron of our own causes is to take God’s name in vain.  And in one way or another, that is something most of us find a way to do. To carry the name of Christ and treat others without respect is to take the name of God in vain.  To speak glibly about what God wants is a failure to hallow God’s name.  To put loyalty to clan or tradition or ideology or nation above commitment to God is to take God’s name in vain.

To pray the Lord’s Prayer really is to learn how to hallow God’s name.  To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to be shaped in a way that leads us to honor God.  Jesus taught this prayer because he knew that prayer is not about us changing God; it is about God changing us.  Understanding to whom we are praying and understanding our oneness with all of God’s children puts us in the right place as we pray.

Our Father, who art in heaven.  Hallowed be thy name.  Amen.


Saturday, January 21, 2023

“Temptation and the Wilderness” - January 22, 2023

Text: Matthew 4:1-17

It is good to be here with you all today.  I had some kind of stomach virus last weekend and I was sick.  I appreciate Rita and Mindy and Phyllis steeping in at the last minute to lead our service.  I was able to join you all on Zoom.  

You may remember that the scripture that was read last week was from Matthew chapter 5.  Phyllis did a meditation on being light, we sang This Little Light of Mine, and I really liked the trouble light she brought.

Well in the lectionary we are following, guess what the scripture was for today?  Of course, from Mathew 5.  Which is perfect – I’m going back to what was planned for last Sunday and we will be completely back on track as we make our way through the gospel of Matthew.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at Jesus’ baptism.  As it turns out, there is no family reception afterwards.  No enjoying the moment.  Jesus’ hair is still wet when he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  Jesus is baptized and then immediately – boom - there is a time of intense trial.

He fasts for forty days and forty nights.  By then he was famished.  He was empty.  And that is when he is tempted – at a time when he is most vulnerable.

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

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

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

That is the Cliff’s Notes version.  But there is all kinds of stuff to be found in this scripture.  First, 40 days.  Where have we heard this before?  The number 40 is all over the place in the Bible and generally has to do with a time of trial and testing.  The Israelites wandered 40 years in the wilderness.  Moses was on the mountain 40 days receiving the law.  In the great flood, it rained 40 days and 40 nights.  Goliath taunted Israel for 40 days before David defeated him.  The number 40 has to do with big, significant matters.  This is a crucial time for Jesus.

Another thing to point out: the devil quotes scripture to Jesus.  Did you notice that?  He knows exactly what the Bible says and he knows how to use it.  

There is a long tradition of following the devil’s interpretive approach when it comes to the Bible.  Scripture has been used to support and to provide cover for all sorts of monstrous things – like slavery, bigotry, the subjugation of women, the oppression of the poor, disdain for minority groups, homophobia, blind obedience to unjust governments, and a lot more.  

Familiarity with the Bible does not necessarily translate into a living relationship with Christ in which scripture is discerned and followed according to the love and grace of God.  We might say that the devil knew the scripture but Jesus was willing to live the scripture.

And then look at the way the devil appeals to Jesus.   “If you are the Son of God…”  Prove who you are.  This is all about identity.  Proving who we are, proving we belong, proving we have what it takes – these can be tempting for all of us.  

Now the devil says, “All of this is mine, this world is mine, and I will give it all to you if you will just worship me.”  I’m just wondering – is that true?  Is the world really the devil’s to give?  Is the world really given over to the power of evil?  It’s not.  That’s a lie.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”  The earth belongs to God, with humans serving as caretakers or stewards.  The world is not the devil’s to give; this is a false promise.

We can be tempted by appeals to our vanity, appeals to our identity, appeals to prove ourselves, appeals to the hunger we are feeling, appeals to power.  We can be tempted to escape from all of the difficulties that come as a part of being human.  We can be tempted by all sorts of things, but we need to know that often as not, the promises of the temptations that we feel are not true.  

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

I’d like for us to think about where this all took place: in the wilderness. The wilderness is actually a place that we are familiar with.  The wilderness might look a lot like a hospital waiting room.  It might look like an inbox that seems to only get rejection letters, if anything.  It might look like a friend’s couch when you don’t have any other place to stay.  

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

The wilderness is that place where we look around for the things that we can usually count on to save us and they are nowhere to be found.  This is not a place that any of us would seek after.  Yet – we read that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness.  This is something that apparently Jesus needed.  This is something that God wanted.

Isn’t that odd?  I mean, don’t we pray, “lead us not into temptation?”  Why would the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness – into a time of temptation?

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote,

“Even if no one ever wants to be there… wilderness is one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be…

What did that long, famishing stretch in the wilderness do to (Jesus)?  It freed him--from all devilish attempts to distract him from his true purpose, from hungry craving for things with no power to give him life, from any illusion he might have had that God would make his choices for him.  After forty days in the wilderness, Jesus had not only learned to manage his appetites; he had also learned to trust the Spirit that had led him there to lead him out again, with the kind of clarity and grit he could not have found anywhere else.

College basketball coaches have a couple of ways they can go about it when it comes to scheduling non-conference opponents.  You can load up on cupcakes – you can play the Little Sisters of the Poor and get some guaranteed wins to pad your record.  But that does not really help you become a better basketball team.  When you have to play those really tough games, you won’t be prepared.  On the other hand, you can schedule really difficult opponents, knowing that you may lose your share of games – but that tough competition helps the team learn how to manage adversity and develop skills they would not otherwise develop.  That experience will help later in the season when Kansas comes to town.  

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

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

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

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

This experience of God’s grace and presence was a life-changing event for King.  And it came out of his wilderness experience.  King learned to trust God in those hard times.

I recently re-read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  While in jail, he made use of the time and wrote a letter to white clergy leaders in Birmingham.  

The letter is found as a chapter in King’s later book, Why We Can’t Wait.  I have had my copy since seminary.  I read it for the very first seminary class I took, Introduction to Christian Ethics with Henlee Barnette.  Henlee had invited Dr. King to speak on the Southern Baptist Seminary campus 25 years before.  This was controversial, and Barnette got an enormous amount of flak for it.  He was told that this cost the seminary tens of thousands of dollars in contributions.  His response was, “Money well spent.”

Well, I had notes in the margin of the book from my class with Henlee Barnette about the people to whom this letter was written.  They were all prominent clergy in Montgomery.  Among others, there was the Methodist bishop, the Episcopal bishop, the Lutheran bishop, and the pastor of First Baptist Church.  These were all leading religious figures and all considered moderates, perhaps liberals.

Rev. Earl Stallings was pastor at First Baptist and had led the church to integrate, welcoming blacks to worship there on an integrated basis just before King was arrested and jailed in Birmingham.  King actually commends Stallings for this in his letter.  For a white Baptist church in Alabama in 1963, this was considered wildly liberal.

As far as King’s purpose in writing, this may get at the heart of it.  He wrote:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Council or Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than justice… who says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action, who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…”

I thought about Rev. Stallings at First Baptist Church and those other leading ministers.  I’m sure that church would dwarf us in size, but we would be similar in being seen as a progressive congregation, especially for Baptists.  So essentially, this letter was written to people like us.

What was the great temptation for Rev. Stallings and Bishop Durick and Bishop Carpenter and those other moderate-to-liberal clergy?  It is really the same as the temptation for those seminary leaders who were so upset about Dr. Barnette inviting Dr. King to come speak in Louisville.  The temptation was to put social standing and discomfort about conflict and what they saw as institutional advancement and survival ahead of what they knew to be right.

King’s words are not a historical document about the way things were.  They speak to us today about the way things are.  How often are we tempted to keep quiet, to stay on the sidelines, to do nothing when doing nothing means allowing the evil that is present to continue?

Of course there are often considerations about tactics and strategy and how best to move forward.  The answers are not always easy.  But sitting idly by can be a great temptation.  

Sometimes, it seems, God’s invitation is to head right into the wilderness and trust that the Spirit will provide for us.  Sometimes the Spirit leads us to do what is difficult and right rather than what is expedient and easy.

We often pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”  But let’s face it: we can do our best, but temptation cannot always be avoided.  We all know this.  So we also pray, “Deliver us from evil.”  

If you are feeling like you are in the wilderness today, take heart.  Not only does God deliver us from those times of challenge and stress and hardship, but through the wilderness, God can bless us and strengthen us and prepare us and transform us.  Amen.