Saturday, August 12, 2023

“When God Is Silent” - August 13, 2023

Text: Psalm 13, 1 Kings 19:11-13

This summer, we have been looking at questions and topics that were suggested by the congregation.  One person submitted this:

“I often think about how to be faithful and patient when God is silent.  Am I praying for the right thing and in the right way?”

This is a question that at some point or other, every one of us can relate to.  How do we get through those times when God is silent?  When it seems like God is not there?  

Silence, in the first place, is difficult for many of us.  We are so used to constant sound.  We are so used to talk, to chatter, to tv, to music, to muscle cars gunning their engine down the street.

I ride my bike on some of the bike paths and multi-use trails around town.  When you come up behind someone walking and you are going to pass, you call out, “On your left.”  It’s just common courtesy and it is a safety issue.  The problem is that sometimes people have earbuds or headphones and they are playing the music so loud they are oblivious.

We are used to sound.  For some of us, silence can be uncomfortable.  

When it comes to silence, context can be everything.  If you walk into a room where another person is sitting and no one says anything, it may be because you don’t know each other.  Or it may be that you know each other so well that words are not necessary.  It may be that there has been some conflict between the two of you and there is an awkward silence.  It could mean that you are both too sad to speak.  It might mean that you both know the room is bugged.  It might be that the other person is sleeping.  There are many reasons for silence.

Our dog Rudy died almost 3 months ago now, but it is still hard.  And I know of several families in our church who have lost a pet just this year.  One of the ongoing painful reminders of the loss is that the house is so quiet.  

We live in a culture that is not especially comfortable with silence.  

Quite a few years ago we had a church retreat at Dayton Oaks – some of you will remember this.  We all took something called the Spiritual Type Inventory.  You answer a bunch of questions and then find what your spiritual type is - you could be head, heart, mystic, or activist.  It was very interesting (to me at least!), and the point was not to pigeonhole people but to think about the various ways we are wired spiritually and live out our spiritual lives.

This was part of a doctoral project I was working on. My hypothesis was that in a university-type congregation such as ours, members would tend to have a “head” spirituality – a focus on thinking and intellect and rational faith.  As it turned out, we did have more people in the head group but it was a good mix.  Another church in a university community had more people in the heart group and another had more in the activist group.  So much for my hypothesis.

At any rate, one of the things we did was to have the head spirituality people gather in a group, and the mystics over there, and activists over there, and so forth.  There were questions for each group to discuss and then we all talked about them in the larger group.

One of the questions was, “What part of the worship service is most meaningful to you?”  Folks with different spiritual types might be drawn to different parts of the service.  One person in the mystical group said that the time of silence after the sermon was the most meaningful part of the service to them.  It was very meaningful to that person, but some in the other groups hadn’t really noticed that that was part of the service at all.  

For some, silence is an opportunity to “be still and know that I am God.”  For some others, silence can be uncomfortable.  Some of us are moved by the quiet and the meditative nature of a TaizĂ© service.  For others, it’s just not their thing.

However we feel about silence, when it comes to God, we want a God who speaks to us.  We want a God that keeps in touch.

As we think about our question this morning, we need to ask: what do we mean by God’s silence?  This might mean different things to different people, but I think it can mean something like spiritual dryness – a time when we may feel far from God.  It may come about in the midst of difficult circumstances.  Maybe we are feeling kind of beaten down by life.  Maybe we have tried to do the right thing and got nothing but grief for it.  Maybe we are filled with worry for a loved one.  

Or maybe we are trying to make a decision and unsure of what we should do.  We may pray and pray but don’t find much of an answer.  We may pray for clarity and don’t get any.  And after a while, maybe we stop praying.  It may feel like God isn’t there, or that God isn’t paying attention.

To think about God’s silence, we might ask about the flip side of that.  What is it like when God is talkative?   When God is communicating?

It is interesting the way that God speaks in the Bible.  After creation, God speaks to the man and woman in the garden, just like we might speak to each other.  God spoke audibly to Abraham.  God spoke to Moses regularly.  God spoke to the prophets.  But over time, God spoke less and less directly.  

When the boy Samuel was serving in the temple with the priest Eli, we read from 1 Samuel: “Now the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  Which sounds not unlike our day.

God seemed to give up audible words and went to speaking through dreams.  Angels appeared less and less.  And the seemed to pay less and less attention.  Until finally, God spoke to a young woman named Mary.  And God came to us in Jesus.  He revealed who God was.  He spoke God’s words.  Jesus was God’s Word. He showed us how to live.

So how does God speak to us today?  In a time when the Word of the Lord is rare and visions are not widespread?  We do not expect to hear the audible voice of God.  We do not expect the shrubbery to catch fire and begin speaking to us – we don’t expect burning bushes.  We do not look for angels to appear or expect vivid and unmistakable visions.  

I suppose the way God speaks is a little different for each person – maybe depending on those spiritual types – but it may be through the words of scripture – as the words we read become God’s word to us.  It may come as we seek to follow Jesus, knowing that Jesus is God’s Word.  

It may be through a growing conviction, a sense of what is right.  It may come as we take in the beauty of God’s creation and spend time in nature.  It may come through other people who help us, who encourage us, who inspire us.  

Sometimes it involves taking one step forward and finding some confirmation that this is the way to go, and then taking another step.  God may speak to us as we follow that part of God’s will we know to be true, as we follow the light, and we receive more light.  It may come as we work for justice, work to make things right and bring healing in God’s world and we find God’s strength and power.  

Or maybe we find a sign of some kind – that might be different for different folks – but some sign of God’s leading us.  Sometimes we have a powerful experience of God’s presence.

Maybe none of that is happening for you.  Maybe it feels like it is complete radio silence from God.  If that is the case, know that you are absolutely not alone.

Many of the Psalms speak of a sense of profound sense of God’s silence.  Susan read for us Psalm 13.  And then we sang it.  There is a reason we tend to sing happier, more joyful hymns than singing Psalm 13.  But it is honest and true to our experience, just as the joy is true to our experience.  There are those times when Psalm 13 describes our lives.

What does Jesus cry out from the cross?  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus felt God’s silence, God’s absence.  When he said that, he was quoting from Psalm 22.  Some would say, “Oh, he was just quoting from the Psalms.”  What do you mean just quoting?  There is a strength that comes from knowing that others have gone before you and that they have been there too.  There is power in knowing you are not alone.

Yet after speaking of God’s silence, Psalm 13 concludes:

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
   my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
   because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Where does that come from?  It seems to come out of nowhere.  It seems like a sudden departure.  But it comes from knowing that God had been there before.  It comes from knowing that others had experienced this same sense of God’s silence - and yet God had always proven faithful.

Martin Marty is the dean of American church historians, a longtime professor at the University of Chicago.  A group from our church went to hear him speak at Drake together with Bill Moyers – this was 22 years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11.  He was already long retired even then, and today he is 95.

Years ago, after the death of his wife, he wrote a moving book reflecting on the Psalms.  He said that there is a summery kind of spirituality, a spirituality of joy and praise and thanksgiving.  But Marty wrote about those times when God seems silent.  Roughly half of the Psalms reflect a wintry sort of spirituality.  The title of that book is A Cry of Absence.

Marty wrote, 

Winterless climates there may be, but winterless souls are hard to picture.  A person can count on winter in January in intemperate northern climates, or in July in their southern counterparts.  Near the equator, winter is unfelt.  As for the heart, however, where can one escape the chill?  When death comes, when absence creates pain – then anyone can anticipate the season of cold.  Winter can also blow into surprising regions of the heart when it is least expected.  Such frigid assaults can overtake the spirit with the persistence of an ice age, the chronic cutting of an Arctic wind.

We can all experience those times when God seems absent, when it seems like God has gone silent.  We can all face those winter times of the soul – and in time, we all will.

How do we get through those times?  How do we stay faithful when God is silent?  

I don’t presume to have the answer.  I think one of our problems is that we talk way too much, maybe to cover up the fact that we don’t have answers.  I could have actually taken a number of the questions that came in for sermons this summer and preached the “I Don’t Know” sermon series.

So let me just suggest a few things.

The example from the Psalms is helpful.  Even though God is silent, the Psalmist continues to cry out to God, and there is a confidence in God’s goodness and care.  The Psalm actually ends with praise.  So keep on praying.  You can cry out to God, you can even complain to God.  God can handle it.  And we can depend on God’s love.

And then we can sometimes think of prayer as primarily asking for God’s blessing for ourselves and those we care about.  As we grow in our understanding of prayer, we can see the larger picture that at the heart of it, prayer is not about telling God what needs to happen but building a relationship with God.  And we can maybe focus our praying there.

That means that prayer is not just our talking to God, but listening to God.  It may be that sometimes we can’t hear God because we are too busy talking.  We read from the story from Elijah.  He was fearful and running for his life.  There are all kinds of pyrotechnics in Elijah’s story, but we find that the Lord was not in the mighty wind, and the Lord was not in the earthquake, and the Lord was not in the fire.  The Lord was in the silence.

God may speak to us out of the silence.  In the midst of the silence.  But we have to listen.  We have to “be still and know that I am God.”

There are those times when we are too numb with grief or too filled with pain or too distracted by the crises around us to really be able to listen.  To really be able to pray.  And I think that is where the community comes in.

We can pray for one another.  And with one another.  And when you are too hurt or too tired or too discouraged to even pray, the community can hold you up and pray for you.  And when others are too hurt or too tired or too discouraged to even pray, you can pray for them.

And we can trust that in time, we will "sing to the Lord, for God has dealt bountifully with us."  Amen.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

“A Scientist (?) Looks at Life from a Faith Perspective” - July 23, 2023

Text: Genesis 1:1-28, 31

On your Summer Sermon Request line, the request for today is “A favorite from the archives – for those of us who missed it the first time.”   

Well, the archives go back pretty far.  I could have chosen a sermon from 25 years ago, but the sermon that came to mind was more recent - it was actually from the time I asked for sermon suggestions a few years ago.  Back then, the suggestion slip read “A scientist (chemist) looks at life from a faith perspective.”  It was signed simply Borgen, but I knew it wasn’t from Dianne.  This was Fred’s doing.

As most of you know, Fred is a psychologist and much of his professional work focused on personality and vocation.  I have watched Fred countless times talking to students after the service.  He was especially interested in their majors and more than that, where their lives were heading.  

My undergraduate degree is in chemistry, and when Fred suggested this topic, he was really giving me more respect than I deserve.  I would not describe myself as a chemist or a scientist – that’s where the question mark in the title comes from.  I took Fred’s suggestion as really asking for both something about my personal experience – of the journey from chemistry to ministry, and something about the relationship between the two – between science and faith.

Gerald Kirkman was my high school chemistry teacher.  He was a big athletic guy with a sharp mind and a great sense of humor.  He played college football at Indiana State and was a PE major, not taking the academic side of things too seriously, until one day an assistant coach pulled him aside and said, “Kirkman, you are a decent player but you are not going to make a career of this.  You are a smart guy and you need to find yourself another major.”  (No offense to any PE majors out there.)  That assistant football coach was also Indiana State’s head basketball coach – that’s the way things worked back then.  His name was John Wooden.  Yes, the John Wooden who coached UCLA to 10 NCAA basketball championships.

I can say that Johnny Wooden had an influence on my life, because Mr. Kirkman decided to become a chemistry teacher.  He was a great teacher and was elected president of the National Science Teachers Association.  North High School offered a second year of chemistry, Advanced Chemistry.  We had to come in an hour early, before school started, to have time for the labs.  Mr. Kirkman was a great guy and I loved it.    

I went to college in my hometown, at Evansville, and majored in chemistry.  I was president of the American Chemical Society student affiliate.  I worked two summers in the research division at Mead Johnson, a pharmaceutical and nutritional manufacturer in town.

But other things were happening in my life through those years.  I became involved in the Baptist Student Union and began to feel a call to ministry.  And eventually that was the path I took.

I don’t think it really occurred to me that the scientific approach to life, if there is such a thing, could not mesh with a spiritual approach to life.  And in fact, I felt like I was better prepared for seminary than some of the students who had gone to Christian colleges and majored in religion.  

A background in chemistry helped me to think analytically.  It helped me to ask questions, to consider possibilities.  And if someone were so inclined I would encourage them as a pre-theology student to major in chemistry or biology or a similar field as a good preparation for seminary – and to take some psychology and sociology and religion courses along the way.

I also remember as a seminary student coming home and preaching at my home church.  Sitting there in the congregation was my chemistry professor and research advisor Dr. Beckman.  Some of the chemistry faculty felt like I had squandered a promising career and they kind of disowned me the spring of my senior year, after I had applied to seminary.  I think this was Dr. Beckman’s way of giving her blessing on the choice I made.  A progressive Presbyterian who came to hear me preach as a then-Southern Baptist seminary student, she had this sense that faith and ministry and science could all be toward the end of making for a better world.

Years later, after coming to this church, I earned a Doctor of Ministry degree at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities.  My thesis project involved university congregations.  Basically what I was doing was Sociology of Religion – a scientific approach to a question about faith communities.

It strikes me that my background is similar to many of you.  I think about our church – in recent years we have we had professionals and undergraduates and grad students in agronomy, soil science, chemistry, biology, biochemistry, neuroscience, plant science, forestry, food science, nutrition,  animal science, veterinary science, computer science, and other sciences – I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out - along with just all kinds of engineers.  And then we have plenty of social science people in our church, including Dr. Borgen.

With all of these sciences represented, the question may be, which is the highest science?  Which is the most “sciencey” science?  You might think of a progression from less exact to more exact sciences – from biology to chemistry to physics to mathematics.   But centuries ago, one science stood above all others.  Do you know what it was?  It was Theology.  Theology was known as the Queen of the Sciences because it dealt with ultimate matters.  And sciences – discovering natural phenomena, solving mathematical equations, working out the laws of physics – science was understood as thinking God’s thoughts after God.  

Well, it has been a long time since theology has been thought of as the Queen of the Sciences.  But some today go so far as to see faith and science as opposed to one another.  This view comes both from secularists who see no place for matters of the spirit and from religious fundamentalists who see science as the enemy.  

The Tom Troeger hymn we sang, “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning,” speaks of the way that science and faith need each other and complement each other.  The hymn ends, “Blend, O God our faith and learning till they carve a single course; till they join as one, returning praise and thanks to you, the Source.”

I know that plenty of you are more qualified than me to speak on “A Scientist Looks at Life From a Faith Perspective.”  (We have actual chemists here in the sanctuary and on Zoom.)  I think about Bob McCarley.  Bob was a chemistry professor and chair of the department at Iowa State.  He also served as our moderator and trustee and Sunday School teacher here at First Baptist.  Nine years ago, on the Sunday before school started, I sat with Bob and Jenna at a table during fellowship time.  I remember Bob having this engaging conversation with a new student here for the first time.  And then, two days later, Bob was gone.  

I remember a story I told at Bob’s funeral.  His family was on one of those epic family trips.  They made a palette in the back of the station wagon and the four kids would lie down and go to sleep, but one was supposed to ride shotgun and keep Bob awake.  One night Bob and Jenna’s daughter Kyanne was riding shotgun.  It was a beautiful night, the sky was filled with stars, and Bob talked to her about his work.  He described the intricacy of molecules and the beauty of the way things worked and fit together in the universe.  He said that the world was so beautiful and so amazing, there had to be a higher power.

That is a chemist looking at life from a faith perspective.  For Bob, science actually pointed toward faith.  

His views were captured by the Psalmist who wrote, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.”  If the ancient world had known what we know, the writer could have just as easily written, “The atoms are declaring the glory of God and the molecules proclaim God’s handiwork.”

Our bulletin cover artwork this morning is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.  It captures the wonder and awe of the stars in the sky.  At its best, science and art and faith all involve wonder.  Science is about being open to new possibilities.  There was an article some time ago in the Des Moines Register about Parkinson’s Disease, which I took note of because of Elizabeth Stegemöller’s research.  It is especially timely as RAGBRAI starts today.  

Dr. Jay Alberts of the Cleveland Clinic was participating in RAGBRAI.  For anybody out of town on Zoom who may be unfamiliar with RAGBRAI, it involves riding your bike across Iowa for a week along with thousands of other people and eating lots of pie.  Alberts was on a tandem bike with Cathy, a Parkinson’s patient.  The ride was intended to bring attention to the need for more Parkinson’s research.  But Alberts and Cathy stumbled onto an important finding: Cathy’s physical abilities improved after a day of pedaling, and then improved more after another day.

Alberts knew exercise was important, but how important was driven home to him on RAGBRAI.  On a tandem, Cathy was forced to go at his speed, which was significantly faster than hers.  On the bike, Cathy didn’t feel as stiff.  She was pedaling faster, and her brain function was better.  As she wrote postcards and mailed them to her family from across Iowa, her handwriting became more legible.  “It was a serendipitous discovery,” Alberts said. “Science can happen anywhere, even in the cornfields of Iowa.”

Science is about trial and error, about experimentation and observation.  It is about paying attention.  And it involves being willing to change your assumptions.  Basically, if you are doing science right, you have to have humility.

There is something called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Heisenberg was a physicist looking at subatomic particles, and the Uncertainty Principle says that both the position and the velocity of an object cannot be measured at the same time.  You can know exactly where something is, or you can know how fast it is going, but you can’t know both exactly.

I think it is awesome that science has a principle about uncertainty.  Isn’t that beautiful?  And my goodness, that certainly translates to faith.  There is plenty that we don’t know.  There is plenty we are not quite certain about.  An approach of humility is essential in faith, as in science.  The notion that the way I interpret the Bible, the way I understand the world, the way I think about life and about God might need to change, that the spirit might speak to me, that God might lead me in a new way, is essential to faith.  

Our scripture this morning is the story of creation.  God painstakingly creates the world, working all day, calling it quits for the day, looking over what had been created and calling it good.  The light, the dark, the waters, the plants, the trees, the sun, the moon, the stars, fish and sea life, wild animals and cattle and creeping things of every kinds, and finally human beings.  Human beings, created in the image of God.  And then God said that it was very good.

It is a wonderful, powerful account of creation.  It is beautiful and poetic.  God takes great care with this creation and God regards it all as good.  It tells us that the universe and this planet and all that is in it is created by God and loved by God.  It gives us a sense of our place and our value in this world.

It would be ludicrous to read this and understand this as a 21st century science text.  Instead it inspires wonder and joy and gratitude and a sense of belonging in God’s world.

Science can answer the question of how, but we need faith to answer the question of why.  Science can collect data and tell us what is, but faith has something to say about what should be.  And so science and faith need one another.

Faith that ignores the world out there is shallow.  We need the very best scientific understanding, just as we need the guidance of spiritual understanding.  When faith tries to control what is true in the realm of science, it is never a good thing.  The earth is not flat and the sun does not revolve around the earth, but there were times when the Church condemned people who did not believe those things, based on its understanding of scripture.

The world of science also needs the influence of faith.  We need sensitivity and concern.  We need compassion and integrity toward the end of applying science to help build a better world.

I think about some of the issues this world is facing:
•    Clean water and equitable water distribution
•    Medicine and new therapies and bio-medical ethics
•    Artificial intelligience
•    Cybersecurity and information systems and privacy
•    Genetics
•    All kinds of public health issues
•    And looming over all of these, global climate change, which exacerbates other issues like extreme weather and habitat destruction and income inequality and so much more

In each instance, science and faith need one another to address difficult issues.  We don’t inhabit a world of the spirit, with another natural world out there.  It is all one world.  It is all God’s world.  And God said that it is good.

Too much religion is concerned solely with individual salvation.  Which is important - and very much a part of our Baptist tradition.  We need lives committed to Jesus Christ.  But when we are committed to the way of Jesus, we will be concerned about the world out there – the world that God loves.

The word religion literally means to bring back together – re–ligio (think ligaments).  Re-ligamentize.  Your religion is the way you make connections with God and people and the world out there – the way it all holds together.  At its best, our religion brings together scientific understanding and the power and understanding of our faith as we love God, love our neighbor, and love God’s world.  May it be so.  Amen.

Saturday, July 8, 2023

“Just a Little Talk with Jesus” - July 9, 2023

Text: Hebrews 4:14-16, Philippians 4:4-7

There were a lot of suggestions turned in for sermons for this summer, and the suggestion that I am following today was kind of a fun one, a little different one.  “I’d like you to use ‘Just a Little Talk with Jesus’ as the background for a sermon.”

I was familiar with “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.”  Our men’s group did a wonderful job singing that.  It is no doubt one of the funner gospel songs to sing, especially if you are a bass.  A lot of hymns, a lot of music period, has a pretty predictable and not overly exciting bass line.  Some of the choir anthems we sing – Mindy, I have to be honest - it’s like the composer didn’t trust the basses to do very much, but “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” is one where the basses actually get to shine.  

And the notion of the song – to have a little talk with Jesus – is very appealing.  It’s a great song.  So I decided to go with this suggestion – it seemed like a good idea with a lot of possibility.  And the fact that our beloved moderator suggested it didn’t hurt.

The first thing I did was to learn a bit about who wrote it and some of the history behind this song.  Interestingly, it is not in all that many hymnals.  I’m not sure why that is.  I’ve got 10 or 12 hymnals and this song wasn’t in any of them.  Maybe it’s because it really takes 4 parts to sing it as it should be sung and most of the music in hymnals is kind of just sing-a-long style – in most hymns, everybody at least sings the same words at the same time.  Just a Little Talk with Jesus tends to be found more in chorus-type books and in some African-American church hymnals, like the National Baptist hymnal and the AME hymnal.

Well, let me share some things I learned.  The song is written by Cleavant Derricks.  He was born in 1910 in Chattanooga.  He developed an early aptitude for music and took lessons at the Cadek Conservatory of Music, run by Joseph Cadek, a violinist.  He had two years of college at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College, a historically black college in Nashville that is now Tennessee State.  Some years later, he felt called to ministry and attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, another historically black institution.

Cleavant Derricks was a Baptist pastor, choir director, musician, and composer with over 300 songs to his credit.  He served churches in Dayton, Knoxville, and Jackson, Tennessee; Beloit, Wisconsin; and Washington, D.C.  He was known to everyone simply as Rev.  He and his wife had twin sons who are both musicians and actors who appeared in movies and TV shows and on Broadway; one of his sons won a Tony award.  And in 1984 Cleavant was inducted posthumously into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

I could take most of my time to talk about Cleavant Derricks, but let me mention one more thing.  Rev. Cleavant Derricks himself did not record “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” until late in his life.  In 1975, he made a visit to Canaanland Music in Nashville and asked for the opportunity to publish some new songs and record some of his material, which they were happy to do. The head of Canaanland, Aaron Brown, learned how Derricks had never properly been paid for his work.  Brown explained the situation in an interview:

For the first time in his life, Rev. became a licensed songwriter.  What I’m trying to say is he has virtually never been paid for his songs or their performances.  If he had become affiliated with one of the three song licensing agencies, he would be a millionaire by now.  No doubt about it.  Instead, what Rev. did was to sell his songs to the Stamps-Baxter publishing company in Texas.  He would sell them for almost nothing.  In return the company would furnish him songbooks for his songs.  He would sell those to make some money.

It’s disheartening to realize he made $5 for “Just a little talk with Jesus.”  I would say every gospel singer and every gospel group in the country has recorded “Just a little talk with Jesus.”

He wasn’t kidding.  Elvis, Dolly Parton, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Statler Brothers and all kind of gospel quartets, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Andy Griffin, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson, Gladys Knight, Charlie Daniels, even Veggie Tales included it in their big hit  “O Veggie, Where art Thou,” and countless more.  

Derricks did not seem bitter about the fact that he had essentially given away the rights to what turned out to be an extremely valuable song.  But at the very end of his life, he recorded some of his music and received some of the recognition that had been lacking for so many years.

That is some of the background.  Now let’s think about the song itself, and its message.

For me, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” is powerful because it connects us with the love and the welcome and the compassion of Jesus.  “I once was lost in sin, but Jesus took me in.”  There are no hoops to jump through, there are no qualifications, we don’t have to get things cleaned up before we are acceptable.  “I once was lost in sin, but Jesus took me in.  And then a little light from heaven filled my soul.”

Now you can sing this song and feel the joy and the liveliness and think, wow, this is just the opposite of Psalm 88, our text from last week - a Psalm just filled with despair and crying out to God.  But I don’t think that is the case.  

Sometimes my path seems drear without a ray of cheer…
The mists of sin may rise and hide the starry skies…
I may have doubts and fears, my eyes be filled with tears…

One of the reasons this is such a beloved song is that it takes seriously the difficulties of life.  I mean, this was written during the depression.  There is confession of our own sinfulness, but also expression of just how hard life can be.  

And yet we can sing, “I go to him in prayer, he knows my every care.”  Again, the real power of this hymn is Jesus knows us and understands us and is there for us and with us through all the storms of life.

How does Jesus understand?  Because he has been there.

Have you been misunderstood?  Even by your own family?  Have friends let you down?  Even betrayed you?  Jesus experienced all of that.

Have you tried to do the right thing and got nothing but grief for it?  Have people ever questioned your choice of friends?  Have you ever felt unwelcome by people in the religious community?  Jesus experienced all of that.

Have you ever had to flee for your own safety?  Have you ever been wrongly accused?  Have you ever suffered unjustly?  Jesus did.

Have you ever had questions about your vocation?  Have you ever been the object of insults?  Has your family struggled financially?  Have you ever felt alone?  Have you ever worked hard and had seemingly little to show for it?

My point is, Jesus understands.    

One interesting thing about this song is that we repeatedly find the word “little.”  Did you notice that?  It’s all over the place.

“Then a little,” “just a little,” “have a little,” “feel a little,” “know a little.”  “You will find a little talk with Jesus makes it right.”

There is a way of expressing things with the word “little” to where everybody knows this is not a small thing at all – this is actually a big thing.  Calling something “little” is underselling it, maybe purposely downplaying things to call attention that this is actually a big deal.

Think of all the song titles or phrases that include the word “little.”

Crazy Little Thing Called Love
With a Little Help from My Friends
Put a Little Love in Your Heart
Try a Little Kindness
Give Me Just a Little More Time
With a Little Luck
Hey big spender, spend a little time with me.

(I was going to add Little Old Lady from Pasadena, but that doesn’t quite fit this motif.)

What I’m saying is that a little talk with Jesus is not a small thing at all.  This is important.  This is huge.

Now one part of the song that may raise a question: “When you feel a little prayer wheel turning.”  What is a prayer wheel?   Hymn scholar C. Michael Hawn notes:

A prayer wheel is a cylindrical container, perhaps made of wood, metal, or some other substance.  Inside are inscribed the words of a prayer; or prayers may be written on a piece of paper and placed inside.  Prayer wheels are commonly used in Tibetan Buddhism, and practitioners believe that as the prayer wheel is turned or spun around, each rotation results in the prayers inside being somehow prayed, even if not spoken.

But as it turns out, prayer wheels are not exclusive to Buddhism.  Hawn believed Cleavant Derricks encountered prayer wheels himself.  They have a history of being used by some charismatic and Pentecostal Christians, and they were used by some African American worshipers before and after the Civil War.  From the time and place that Derricks grew up, prayer wheels may have been used in his religious community.  The idea of a prayer wheel is of continuous prayer.

And that gets us to the message of this song, and the message of our scripture this morning, which Ann and Jim read so well all of the way from Keene, New Hampshire, about 1250 miles away:

“Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

“The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

These familiar scriptures are encouraging exactly what Rev. Derricks is encouraging in his hymn.  “Now let us have a little talk with Jesus, tell him all about our troubles.”  The take home message is: don’t hesitate.  Don’t make Jesus your last resort.  Jesus will listen. Jesus will understand.

Praying about everything, the idea of continuing in prayer, like a prayer wheel, or praying “without ceasing,” as Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians – how do we do that?  

For me, prayer is not just a “little talk” every now and then but more of an ongoing conversation.  And when we have a little talk with Jesus, that doesn’t mean that we are the ones doing all the talking.  

Taking time to be reflective, to listen, to be aware, taking time to just be with God, is a spiritual practice that can take discipline, and it won’t necessarily look the same for everybody.

I got an electric bike last summer and for me it has been great.  I have been riding my bike both to commute to church and just for fun, and one of the by-products of this is enjoying life at a slower pace.  Being out in nature, having time to enjoy the natural world, time to reflect a bit.  Riding out on an open stretch out by yourself can be a time to pray.  

Some people have that kind of experience when they walk or hike or walk the dog or maybe while they knit or crochet.  Maybe it can happen on your commute.  Or maybe you just take some time each day to be quiet, to reflect, to pray, to listen, to “be still and know that I am God.”  Maybe you take time at the end of each day to review the day and have a little talk with Jesus.

There isn’t one way and there certainly isn’t a particular technique to “Have a Little Talk with Jesus,” but the point of both our scriptures and this song is that it is so important to do that.  Jesus cares, Jesus understands, Jesus welcomes us and loves us.  Have a little talk with Jesus, and Jesus will make things right.

Now, Jesus doesn’t make things right in an automatic way.  It’s not we ask, we put in our order, and Jesus delivers.  And we don’t necessarily get the answer we want or in the way that we expect.

“He will hear our faintest cry and he will answer by and by.”

Sometimes it seems more like by and by and by and by.  The answer we want, the resolution we want, doesn’t always come quickly and it may never come at all.  But pouring our hearts out to God, telling Jesus all about our troubles – that in itself makes a difference, and we can give our burdens to Jesus.  And in God’s time there may come peace and wisdom and strength and even joy we would not have expected.

And we find a little talk with Jesus makes it right.  It makes it right.  Amen.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

“Christian Faith and Mental Health” - July 2, 2023

Text: Psalm 88

One of our sermon suggestions for this summer was on the topic of Christian Faith and Mental Illness.  It would be hard to think of a more timely issue.  We have all heard that there is a mental health crisis in our country.  Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a health advisory in 2021 regarding youth mental health.  He noted that one in three high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009.  And this was before COVID.

It is not just an issue for young people.  The CDC reports that almost 20% of American of all ages have been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives.  In a separate Gallup poll just released a month ago, 18% of adults said they were depressed.  This was 7 points higher than in 2015.  The Surgeon General has also talked about an “epidemic of loneliness” in our country.  

The statistics are daunting, but if you are the one experiencing mental health concerns, it is not about statistics.  It is personal.  I would guess it may be the case that everybody here this morning has been touched by mental illness – whether it is themselves or a family member or a close friend.  It’s true for my family.  

I had a friend in college named Lynnelle.  I was the lab assistant in her chemistry lab.  She was smart, she was popular, she was a leader in her sorority, she was a person of faith.  She seemed happy but hardly anyone knew what anguish she was going through.  And one night she took her own life.  I still think about Lynnelle from time to time, thinking about what great promise she had.

The statistics are stark, but it is the Lynnelles we know that bring this home for us.  Mental health is too important for us not to talk about it.

The question before us this morning is what role does our faith play when it comes to mental health?  If our faith affects all of life then surely it has something to say here.

There are a number of scriptures that came to mind.  For some kinds of mental illness, people in the ancient world had no way to describe it other than to say that they were possessed by an outside force.  King Solomon was said to be distressed by an evil spirit.  David was called in to play his harp and to soothe King Solomon’s mind until the spirit passed.  Essentially David was doing music therapy to alleviate symptoms of mental illness.  

And then we read about Jesus driving out demons from individuals who would then be restored to their right mind.  This was the way the ancient world understood serious mental illness.

But a good place to look as we consider mental health is the Psalms.  The Psalms speak to the whole range of human emotions.  I love that the Psalms don’t mess around – they tell it exactly the way it is.  They do not put on a happy face and act like everything is hunky dory.  So when there is soaring praise and joy, you know it is real, just as when the Psalmist’s heart is poured out to God, you know that is real too.

More than a third of the Psalms are Psalms of lament, crying out to God.  They are powerful expressions of pain and grief and regret.  They express frustration and anger - with others, with themselves, with God.  

The Psalms of Lament always end with hope – hope that God had had heard their cries, hope that God will answer, hope that God will step in on their behalf.  These Psalms all end with at least a glimpse of hope.  All of them but one.  All of them except Psalm 88.

This Psalm, our text for today, ends by saying “My only friend is darkness.”  That’s the take home message.  Wow.  

Where is the Good News?  Where is the hope?  Where is God?

You know, that is exactly what the Psalmist was asking.  And for a lot of people struggling with depression and anxiety, these are real questions.

Initially, a person might read this Psalm and ask, “Why is this even in the Bible?”  But I think a better response is, “Praise the Lord there is a Psalm like this in the Bible.”

Being a person of faith does not insulate us from the difficulties of life.  It does not mean that life will always be easy and fun and joyful.  

Struggles with mental illness are not because of a lack of faith.  This Psalm is written by a person of deep faith.  Throughout the Psalm, the cries of lament are addressed to God.  The Psalmist never stops crying out to God.  Rather than a lack of faith, this Psalm is a statement of profound faith.

Through the ages, some of the most faithful and dedicated people of faith have struggled with anxiety or depression or other kinds of mental illness.  Not to try and diagnose people who lived 2 or 3000 years ago, but David, Job, Elijah, Naomi, Jeremiah and others seem to suffer from depression.  And there are those faithful Christians down through the years who faced mental illness.  In more recent years people like C.S. Lewis and Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about their struggles with mental health.

Mental illness says nothing about the person’s faith or character; it just happens.  

Our mental health is shaped by a variety of factors, from our our brain chemistry to our relationships with family and friends.  The place we live, conditions in our neighborhood and school and workplace, and all kinds of social forces out there can affect our mental health.  Those who have served in war or other through some other traumatic experience, for example, can be deeply affected by it.

And for young people in particular, it is a different world from when I was in high school.  I mean it was tough enough then, but social media has brought about all kinds of messages about self-worth – that we are not popular enough or good-looking enough or smart enough or rich enough.  Online bullying and the pressure to measure up and to fit in can feel like a 24/7 thing.  Add to this very real concerns that all people and maybe especially young people may have about things like climate change and gun violence and inequality and injustice, and it can be a tough world.

Being a Christian does not insulate us from that.  And if our faith leads us to care more about the world out there with all of its problems and concerns, being a Christian might make things even more difficult.

You may hear some Christians say things like, if you just pray more or have more faith or just be positive and optimistic, you will get over this.  Or if you were really a good Christian, you wouldn’t be like this.

Friends, that is not helpful.

The first thing we need to know is that this affects all of us.  If there is a scale of mental health and a 100 means you are in 100% perfect health, none of us is a 100 and all of us are fluctuating somewhere on that scale.  At times, we have all felt anxious, we have all felt down, we have all felt the weight of worry, we have all been affected by adverse events in life.  Some may be especially struggling, but we are all in this life together.  

Mental illness is just that – it’s an illness.  We wouldn’t tell somebody with the flu, or a broken arm, or cancer, to just get over it, or look at them as though their faith is lacking.

We wouldn’t tell a faithful Christian that they shouldn’t have asthma or shingles or an ear infection any more than we should tell a faithful person that they shouldn’t be depressed or have an eating disorder or suffer from an addiction.

So let’s be very clear: mental illness is not a faith issue.  It is a medical issue.  And just as we seek the help of professionals when we have concerns about our physical health, I am grateful for professionals who serve in the field of mental health, including counselors and therapists and psychologists in our church like Joyce Davidson and Dawn Doerr-Johnson and Fred Borgen whose work is so important and a real ministry.  

Just as there are medications that we use to treat other illnesses, I am thankful that there are medications that can treat mental illness and for researchers who develop those treatments and psychiatrists who prescribe and oversee these treatments.  

And just as we act with care and compassion toward those with physical illnesses and ailments, we are called to act with care and compassion for those facing mental illnesses – which could be any of us and based strictly on statistics is certainly a good number of us.

Our Psalm is written by someone well acquainted with depression.  The feelings are spot on.  The writer is in a bleak place.  The Psalm ends, “My only friend is darkness.”  It doesn’t get a lot bleaker than that.  But the thing is, depression can keep us from seeing clearly – telling us that we have no friends, that no one cares about us, that we are not worth caring about.  That is not true.  

As a community of faith, we are called to be there for one another, to support one another, to remind each other of God’s love and presence and indeed to be God’s love and presence for one another.  Rather than telling somebody to cheer up, we need to listen and acknowledge their pain.

And we need to work to erase the stigma that can be associated with mental illness.  When we somehow send the message that Christians should not have struggles, or this is something we shouldn’t talk about, we can add guilt onto folks who are already having a tough time.  

The Psalms certainly did not hesitate to speak about all kinds of struggles.  And a part of erasing that stigma surrounding mental illness is for all of us to be a little more real.  We don’t have to put on a fake smile and sunny disposition when we come to worship and act like we are 100% OK.  And we shouldn’t expect others to.

When we are a little more open about sharing our pain and our vulnerability and our struggles, it encourages others to be more open.  And we might find that instead of a community where everybody acts like they have everything together but doesn’t really share with a lot of depth, the church can be a community where everybody is accepted just as they are, and we are able to build deeper bonds of community, and we really are fellow travelers helping one another on the way.

I do not offer any of this as a mental health expert – there are folks in our church and in our community who are far more qualified.  But I offer this as a way of saying that when we face struggles, we are not alone.  And we can always share our pain, our frustration, our anger, our anxiety with God.  The Psalms certainly do that.

I read a story last week about Grandma Joy.  At age 93, Joy Ryan became the oldest woman to visit every national park when she and her 42 year old grandson Brad visited the National Park of American Samoa, 6700 miles from her home in Ohio.  For Joy and her grandson, it was the last of the 63 national parks for them to visit.

Several years ago, Ryan was in veterinary school and found himself in a dark place.  “It’s so hyper-competitive,” he said.  “I had boards and then this young man committed suicide.  I knew where he had been and it scared me how close I had come to that.”

Since his parents’ divorce a number of years before, Ryan had had limited contact with his grandmother.  But somehow in the midst of that dark time in vet school, he mustered up the courage to call her.  He asked Grandma Joy if she wanted to go camping in the Smoky Mountains with him.  

She was 85 and she had never slept in a tent.  In fact, she had never seen a mountain before.  But she said, “Why not!”  She would give it a try.  She struggled as they hiked up a mountain peak in the park, Ryan helping her.  When they made it to the top, she said there were some college kids at the summit who were cheering for her and celebrating.  And she was hooked.

So over the next several years they ticked off national parks one by one.  As they visited the various parks, Joy became stronger and Ryan seemed to be healing in his own way.  When they  hiked amongst the redwoods in Redwood National Park in California, Joy says those towering trees made her feel about two inches tall.  It was when she looked up that she noticed something.

“They’ve been struck by lightning,” she recalled.  “And you think: that takes courage, after you’ve been struck by lightning to say, 'I’m gonna keep on growing.'”

Mental illness can be like getting struck by lightning.  It takes courage to keep going.  It takes courage to keep growing.  And it takes courage to seek help.  

In the midst of our struggles, darkness is not our only friend.  God is there.  We are called to be there for one another.  And there is hope.  Amen.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

“God in Community” - June 4, 2023

Texts: Matthew 28:16-20, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Trinity Sunday

Phyllis Schrag will be preaching next Sunday, and we then two Sundays from today I will start a sermon series based on questions and suggestions that come from the congregation.

And so today, I thought we might look at something that probably nobody would request.    

On the liturgical calendar, the Sunday following Pentecost – that would be today - is celebrated as Trinity Sunday.  Although most years we kind of skip over it other than to maybe see it at the top of the bulletin, or possibly sing Holy, Holy, Holy.  

In certain circles, if you asked about the Holy Trinity, they would tell you that it is onions, celery, and green pepper.  These are the basic ingredients of a lot of Cajun cooking, although if you want to make chicken soup you should swap out the bell pepper for carrots.

And then I think of an old Kudzu cartoon – does anybody remember the comic strip Kudzu?  Rev. Will B. Dunn is yelling “Holy Trinity!  Go for the Holy Trinity!”  Then he smiles and kind of looks at the reader and says, “In church league, the holy trinity is a 3 point shot!)

The trinity is not a hot topic of discussion for most of us, and it is possible that we might actually talk more about the Holy Trinity in terms of Cajun cooking or basketball, but this morning we are going to think about the trinity as a way of describing God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It is difficult to understand the idea that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; or Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, and yet at the same time God is one.  And to be honest, this mystery is not really spelled out for us in scripture.  

Our reading from Matthew is a very familiar one – we  actually looked at this passage a few weeks ago.  “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit...”  This formula “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is about as close as the Bible gets to any kind of developed doctrine of the Trinity – and it’s not much.  It is more understood or maybe implied.

Despite the difficulties in it and despite the fact that the Trinity is really not a central concern of the scriptures, we’re going to go ahead and think about it this morning because since we gather and worship God week after week, since we offer prayers and raise our voices in praise to God each Sunday morning, it is worth considering just who this God is.  And as a church that likes to say that faith is a matter of both heart and mind and that you don’t have to check your brain at the door here, it is important for us to think and reflect on the nature of the God we worship.

Who is God?  What is God like?  Does God care for me?  What is my place in relationship to God?  We naturally have a need and desire to describe the Almighty.

In the book of Exodus, God spoke to Moses in the burning bush and told Moses that he was to lead the people out of Egypt.  Moses said to God, “When I go and tell Pharaoh to let my people go, who should I say sent me?”  God simply said, “I am who I am.”  Not, “I am the eternal three-in-one Godhead,” but “I am who I am.”

When you get right down to it, God is a mystery, a reality that we cannot fully fathom or explain.  Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was interviewed in Christian Century.  He said, “The doctrine of the Trinity is… not a tidy description; it’s just the “least worst” way we’ve found of talking about something very disturbing and inexhaustible.  And I suppose that’s why I’ve been trying for many years to write a book on the Trinity.”

The hymn we sang says, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”  What does this mean?

Among other things, the word “persons” trips us up.  The Greek word is persona, and it referred to masks that actors wore in Greek drama – they might play different parts, but it was the same actor.

The doctrine of the Trinity says something about the way we experience God.  It says that the God who created us, the God who saves us, and the God who gives us power and strength each day is the same God.  As Frederick Buechner puts it, “the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery.”

A lot of things might be said about the Trinity, but what speaks to me most is that the doctrine of the Trinity says that at the heart of God’s being is relationship.  Even God needs community, and within the heart of God is community.

To be created in God’s image means that we are created for community.  Our own identity is found in relationships.  I might describe myself as a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend, a pastor, a teacher, a learner.  I am a follower of Jesus and a child of God.  Each of these ways of defining myself, each of these parts of my identity has to do with relationships.  I understand myself in relationship to others.  God’s own self involves relationship, and created in God’s image, we are created for relationships, created for community.

Part of being created in God’s image is this need to be in community.  But the trends around community are not looking so good.  About 20 years ago, Robert Putnam wrote the book, Bowling Alone, describing the decline of social capital in America – the decline of networks of connection and community.  Compared to previous years, he found that fewer American were involved in civic groups like Rotary or the Lions or Kiwanis, fewer young people are in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, fewer are involved in PTA, fewer participate in community organizations of all sorts.

And not only that, people get together less with friends to play cards or share a meal.  While there had been an overall increase in bowling, there has been a big decrease in bowling leagues, hence the title of the book – Bowling Alone.  

Beyond that, people report fewer close friends or confidants than they did in the past and less trust of others in general.

Putnam found that this trend also held true for churches and about 10 years ago wrote a book focused more specifically on religion.  The number of active church members has decreased, and those who participate in congregations spend less time involved in church activities.  Today number of Americans with no religious affiliation is at an all-time high.

The dramatic downturn in community participation in recent years has had an effect.  There are fewer people to turn to for help in a crisis, fewer watchdogs to deter neighborhood crime, fewer visitors for hospital patients, fewer participants in community groups.

Researchers have attributed such findings to things like the mobility of society, in which people move often and don’t establish deep friendships; to an increase in TV watching and video games and especially computer and smartphone use, which keep people occupied without relating to others; and to the increasing number of people who work long hours, sometimes even 2 or 3 jobs, and simply don’t have the time to build meaningful relationships.

The problem is, we are not created for TV or the internet, or work without rest, or living in isolation.  We are created for community – community with God and with others.

Johann Christoph Arnold related a Hasidic parable.  A rabbi asked his students, “When is it at dawn that one can tell the light from the darkness?”

One student replied, “When I can tell a goat from a donkey.” “No,” answered the rabbi.  Another said, “When I can tell a palm tree from a fig.”  “No,” answered the rabbi again. “Well, then, what is the answer?” his students pressed him.

“Only when you look into the face of every man and every woman and see your brother and your sister,” said the rabbi. “Only then have you seen the light.  All else is still darkness.”

In the end, God is a mystery.  We cannot fully know God.  And yet God has revealed God’s own self to us as Creator - the maker of all that exists, the one who brought this beautiful world and this whole universe into being and gave the care of this world to us.  God has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who showed us that God is a God of grace and love and justice and forgiveness and peace, a God who will go to any length to be reconciled with us.   And we have experienced God as Spirit, a power ever present to us that strengthens and energizes and convicts and leads and sustains us right here and now.  

As an academic venture, I have to admit that the doctrine of the Trinity leaves me kind of cold.  But in a more down-to-earth way, the Trinity is helpful for me as a way of thinking about God because it says that God is a mystery, that we experience God in different ways, and that God is about community.  We worship a God who seeks us, who wants a relationship with us, and we come together as a community in relationship with one another and with God.  When we are truly living this way, living in community, we look in the face of every man and woman, every boy and girl, and we see the face of a brother or sister.

We speak of God in various ways, all of which are attempts to describe a mystery greater than we are.  We may describe God as Father, Friend, Rock, Protector, Judge, Help, Mother, Lord, Savior, Shield, the Ground of our being, and this is just a start.  All of these various ways of thinking about God have to do with God’s relationship to us.  One of the simplest descriptions of God we find is in 1 John, “God is love.”  And we experience that love in community with one another.  

For me, the doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt, however imperfect, to draw us closer to the truth that God is Love.  Not a hypothesis, not a research project, not a theological puzzle, but Love.

When we say that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or that God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, we are trying to express something of what God is like.  But any of the words we use to describe God are inadequate.  Even all of these thoughts and metaphors about God, all taken together, fall far short of describing the fullness of God.  

A few moments ago we sang Brian Wren’s hymn, “Bring Many Names.”  It shares a variety of ways of thinking about God.  For me, the last verse is especially powerful: “Great living God, never fully known, joyful darkness far beyond our seeing, closer yet than breathing, everlasting home, hail and hosanna, great, living God.”

Our God is a great, living God.  And while God is never fully known, God is closer than our breathing.  That is relationship.  At the heart of God is relationship, even within God there is community, and we are invited into relationship with God and with each other.

Our second reading was Paul’s closing words to the Corinthian Christians.  This was a church that had its problems, to say the least.  There was fighting, back-biting, people taken in by the latest scam-apostle showing up in town, and generally exasperating behavior.  Paul had sent two different letters filled with teaching and encouragement and admonishments.  These final words read like a parent dropping off a kid at summer camp.  Remember what we talked about!  Make good choices!  Remember that I love you!  

And then he concludes with a benediction that I have frequently used here in our church: “May the love of God and the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Crist, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you and abide with you, now and always.”  

To a community facing all kinds of problems, Paul offers the Corinthian church – and us - this trifecta: Filled with love, God created us; Filled with grace, God saves us; and longing for community, God dwells with us.  

To be a community of faith means that we are a family, that we look into each face and see a brother or sister.  And it means that the God whose very nature is community is here in our midst.  Amen.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

“Commission and Promise” - April 16, 2023

Text: Matthew 28:16-20

Since January 8, we have been in the gospel of Matthew.  That is 98 days, for those who have been counting.  It’s like binge-watching a series except this isn’t exactly a binge – it has been a 15 Sunday, slow motion binge, with those extra scenes and bonus episodes on Wednesday nights during our Lenten Study and then on Maundy Thursday.

We have not read every verse of Matthew, but we have covered a lot of this gospel.  

  • Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist
  • the temptation in the wilderness
  • the Sermon on the Mount, with the Beatitudes and the Lord’s prayer and Jesus saying that we are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  

Jesus talked about the wise person building on the rock and about carrying our own cross.  And there were so many parables:

  • the laborers in the vineyard
  • the weeds and the wheat
  • the unforgiving servant
  • the wedding banquet where everybody gets invited
  • the wise and foolish bridesmaids
  • the sheep and the goats.  

There was Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and shortly after he drove out the moneychangers.  There was the Last Supper, his betrayal and arrest and finally his crucifixion.  And then last Sunday we celebrated resurrection.  Jesus is alive!

We have explored the life of Jesus through the gospel of Matthew for these last 98 days.  And this morning, finally, we come to the conclusion.  

After the resurrection, Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.  He had told them to tell the other disciples to go to Galilee where he would meet them.  And the disciples had made that long journey.

I wonder what that was like.  The women’s story was a little hard to believe, you have to admit.  Despite dying on the cross and being placed in a tomb, Jesus was actually alive and had gave them instructions to go to Galilee where they would see him.  And oh yeah, an angel had told them the same thing before they actually saw Jesus.

But the women were so sure of it.  Clearly something had happened.  And what were they going to do now anyway?  There was nothing to do but go back home, back home to Galilee.  And so they did.  They went to the place that they had been directed – and amazingly, Jesus was there!

The text is poignant and very honest.  When they saw Jesus, “They worshiped him, but some doubted.”  It is even more interesting when you consider the Greek, which does not actually have the modifying word “some” in there.  They worshiped and doubted.  Translators understood that it has to mean “some” doubted, but it does not literally say that.  They fell down in homage to Jesus – and they doubted.  At least some of them and perhaps all of them.

In the Gospel of John, Thomas doubts and gets this bad rap as Doubting Thomas, but we read in Matthew that “they worshiped, but some doubted.”  And the some is perhaps questionable.  

We really shouldn’t be surprised.  If we are honest, even on our best days we wonder a bit – about God, about life, about mystery, about the universe.  It means we are alive.  It means we are honest.  It means we are sentient beings.  

Every once in a while, I wonder how there can possibly be something instead of nothing.  How is it even possible?  How can there be a world and a universe and life?  How could there be anything?  And if God created all of this, where did God come from?  Not every day, but I wonder.  This kind of contemplation, which is close to doubt, is also close to wonder – which is close to amazement – which is close to awe – to reverence - to worship.  

The disciples worshiped, and some – at least some - doubted.  It may be possible to do both.  

Jesus’ disciples go to Galilee as they have been instructed, and they see Jesus there.  Our text includes Jesus’ last words to his followers.  These are his parting instructions for those  who were closest to him, those who have followed him.

A few weeks ago, we looked at a passage from Matthew 25 called The Great Judgment.  Do you remember that?  The sheep are separated from the goats, and Jesus says that in the end, the big question will be, did you care for those in need?  When you saw others hungry or thirsty or sick or naked or in prison and you cared for them, you cared for Jesus.  You did it unto Jesus.

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

Now if you think about this for a minute, this is really stunning.  These disciples do not have a great track record.  Before he was crucified, they had all abandoned him, some had denied him, and they had gone into hiding.  They had just worshiped but also doubted.  Jesus is leaving it up to them to continue his work.

Just to reiterate here, Jesus is depending on people who are not completely sure.  This is who he is sending out.

Often, we may feel like we are not spiritual enough, not polished enough, that we don’t have special gifts or training or abilities.  You know what?  Jesus depends completely on people just like us.  

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

Jesus’ mission is largely to his own people, to the Jewish nation, but all along we continue to have these inklings, and sometimes more than inklings, that the gospel is not just for insiders, but those on the margins – children, lepers, tax collectors like Matthew.  And not only for Israelites, but for all the nations.  Jesus heals the Roman centurion’s servant and the Canaanite woman’s daughter.  In other gospels we have the Syrophoenician woman who comes to Jesus for healing.  The Good Samaritan.  The Samaritan woman at the well.  And all along, Israel was called to be a light to the nations.

So Jesus’ parting words are that his followers are to go to all nations and make disciples.  Now, a couple of things about this.  First, we tend to think that this is for missionaries, right?  It’s for special people, super-spiritual people.  Well, think again.  Remember, these words were spoken to people who had questions, people who weren’t even sure.

But on the other hand, we can read this as though it is totally written to us – as though we are the ones on whom Jesus’ mission depends.  And by us, I mean us Americans.
The missionary impulse runs deep in American life.  And as an organized denomination – if that isn’t an oxymoron – Baptists first organized to do mission work.  We came together as a national denomination in 1814 in order to send our first missionaries, Ann and Adoniram Judson, to Burma.

Our church has a long and proud history of sending missionaries.  There is a framed list in the narthex of those whom First Baptist has sent out.  Among them is Lydia Brown Hipps, who died while teaching women in China.  There are Charles and Viola Smith.  Charles was our college student minister more than a hundred years ago.  He and Viola went to the Congo and helped to establish our Baptist medical and agricultural mission that continues to this day.  Over the years we have sent missionaries from this church to India and Albania and Hong Kong and Nigeria and South Africa and the Philippines and Poland and more.  This is in addition to those serving in the U.S.

And not only that, we have had numerous groups and individuals, including many of you, go to serve in short-term missions.  Some of you have gone to Nicaragua and Puerto Rico and Oklahoma and Mississippi and Tennessee and Kansas City and to Green Lake, Wisconsin and more on mission trips.

It is easy to have a paternalistic attitude when going out on mission, as though we have the truth and we have the answers and we are going to bring it to you.  But you know, there are groups in other countries who send missionaries to the U.S.  We have been a recipient of that – some of you remember Saboi Jum who was here in Ames a couple of years from Burma,  And it is not just missionaries who come to share the gospel.  

Some of us have gone on mission trips to Murrow Indian Children’s Home in Muskogee, Oklahoma.  It is located on the grounds of Bacone College, a historically Native American college affiliated with the ABC.  Today at Bacone, about 1/3 of the students are Native American.  Roughly another third are students who came to the U.S. as refugees from Myanmar.  They are ethnic Chin and Kachin and Karen.  Their families came here from refugee camps in Thailand.  They came to this country as Christians and as Baptists.  And they are bringing the message of Jesus to our country.  

People like students we met at Bacone are coming here, starting new churches, and transforming long-existing churches. Out of new church starts in our region, I would say that at least half are Chin and Karen congregations.

The world is getting a lot smaller, and we don’t have to go anywhere to be in conversation with folks from other nations.  Living in a university community, we know this well.  We are all blessed by a rich diversity of folks from many places.  Just this school year, we have had folks from Cameroon and Ghana and Brazil and Puerto Rico, not to mention places like Texas and Florida.  So, you can go and make disciples of all nations, or you can actually stay and make disciples of all nations.  And to top it off, some of those who go will wind up in places like Ames, Iowa and will help us as we become disciples.

All of this is great, but going is not really the main point of what Jesus is saying.  The verb here really has more of the sense of “as you go.”  As you go, make disciples.  As you go about living your life, make disciples.  This is really is about being a faithful person and sharing the Good news wherever you are and with whatever people you encounter.

A disciple is basically a learner who follows in the steps of the teacher.  A disciple of Jesus seeks to become more like Jesus.  And so making disciples is about teaching.  Mentoring.  Helping.  Providing an example.  Building a relationship.   Which includes listening and being willing to learn from the other.  Becoming a disciple of Jesus is a lifelong adventure.

Go, make disciples, baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Help others come to faith and grow in faith.  And then, “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

The obeying part is kind of a downer, right?  We are not really up for a heavy rules-based kind of religion, where obeying every little thing is what it’s all about.  And we especially don’t want to try and teach a bunch of rules to others as being the way that you follow Jesus, the way that you serve God.

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

  • Love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and mind and soul and strength.
  • Love one another as I have loved you.  
  • Love your enemies.
  • And then on Maundy Thursday, we read this verse: I give you a new commandment: love one another.

Do you see a pattern here?  The command is to love.  When you get down to it, what Jesus is asking us to do is to love others.  That is what we are called to do and that is what we are called to teach – by word and example.

Now here is the last part.  Just as important as anything else Jesus says to his followers.  This is his very last word for us: “I am with you always.”  Whatever happens, wherever we go, whatever we do, Jesus says, “I am with you always.”

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

Jesus knew it would not always be easy.  And so he gives this wonderful promise: I am with you always.”  That is the last word.  Amen.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

“Jesus is Going Where?” - Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023

 Text: Matthew 28:1-10

It is wonderful to be together on Easter morning!  It is such a joyful occasion, with familiar and much-loved traditions.  There have been Easter egg hunts and a lot of folks have made plans for Easter dinner with family and friends.  We enjoyed the Easter breakfast this morning and the wonderful music and all the bright outfits.  And we are all gathered here together, both in the sanctuary and on Zoom, to celebrate resurrection.

It may be familiar and filled with tradition.  And it may be joyful and comforting for us.  But that first Easter – that first Easter was anything but.

Last week we celebrated Palm Sunday.  Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to palm branches and shouts of Hosanna.  There was great enthusiasm and anticipation – there was electricity in the air.  It created a huge stir.  Matthew describes it with a word that could literally be translated as seismic.  It was an earthquake just waiting to happen.

And then it did happen.  

Jesus entered the city and it wasn’t long before he was throwing the sellers and money changers out of the temple.  And it was all downhill from there.  After sharing the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus was arrested.  And on Friday, he was crucified.  From great expectations to crucifixion in less than a week.  On Sunday, Jesus is hailed as the great hope of the nation, and by Friday he is dead.

Everything had gone so badly so quickly.  His followers were stunned, just numb with grief.  
As Matthew reports it, after the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb.  “The other Mary” is apparently Jesus’ mother, who is mentioned in the previous chapter.  The women do not have an agenda.  They are just going to see the tomb, which makes perfect sense.  We may go to the cemetery after the funeral of a loved one.  The women went to remember and grieve and to be physically near Jesus, at least near his body.

But they did not find what they expected.  When they arrive at the tomb, there is a great earthquake.  An angel descends from heaven.  An earthquake and descending angels.  That will absolutely get your attention.  The angel rolls back the stone from the entrance to the tomb and sits on it.  Guards posted at the tomb are so terrified that they pass out like dead men.  And the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.”  Angels just live to make announcements.  That is literally what an angel is: one who makes announcements for God.  Before anything else, the angel announces, “Do not be afraid.”  

This was necessary not only because of the display the women had just seen – the earthquake, the angels, the stone rolled away, the guards dropping like flies.  That would be scary enough, but the two Marys had been fearful long before this.  They had been absolutely running on fear which had grown through Jesus’ arrest and trial and crucifixion and hardly lessened since his burial.

The first thing the angel said was, “Do not be afraid.”  And then the news: Jesus is not here; he has been raised from the dead.  Stunning, unfathomable news.  Jesus was alive!  And finally the commission: “Go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”

When you have just been through an earthquake and see an angel descend from heaven, and then watch the angel roll away a great stone sealing a tomb, you do what the angel tells you to do.  Not that they really needed encouragement.  They ran to tell the other disciples.  This was beyond belief.  This was utterly amazing and at the same time just incomprehensible.  This was an earthquake.

Easter is like an earthquake, only we have been through the routine so many times, we have grown kind of nonchalant about it.  The power of Easer doesn’t really grab us.  We’ve heard it before and the surprise and the joy just isn’t so strong when you are expecting it.  This is an earthquake of joy beyond anything that can be imagined – except that we have heard it all before, and so we can imagine it.

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

Willimon ended his sermon immediately.  He was shaken both by the earthquake and by those nonchalant worshipers.  

Our reaction to Easter is not exactly that of the two Marys.  It is more like those Alaskan Methodists.  We have heard this story before.

But how did it affect these women?  We are told that their reaction to the news that Jesus was alive was fear and joy.  Fear and joy.  They are an unlikely pair.  

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

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

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

We have all had experiences of both fear and joy, but what the two Marys experienced went far beyond this.

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

As they ran to tell the others, suddenly, Jesus is there with them.  I love what he says.  “Greetings.”  He has been dead in the tomb for 3 days.  He appears before Mary Magdalene and his mother, and he says, “Yo.  Greetings.”  They took hold of him and worshiped.

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

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

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

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

 - We really like a Jesus who taught about love, but not so much a Lord who commands us to love our enemies.

 - We really like a Jesus who helped the unfortunate, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to sell what we own and give the money to the poor.

 - We really like a Jesus who threw the moneychangers out of the temple, but not so much a Lord who calls us to reform our practices of worship.

 - We really like a Jesus who includes everybody, who was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, but not so much a Lord who encourages us to embrace people we feel are – well, not quite on our level.

 - We really like a Jesus who accepted people as his disciples, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to take up our own cross, to lose our lives for his sake, and to find new life through sacrifice.

Resurrection can be threatening.  New life can be a bit scary, because we prefer the certainty of the way things are, even when the way things are isn’t all that great.

Mary and Mary see Jesus.  His message is the same as the message of the angels.  “Tell everybody to go to Galilee and they will see me there.”

I had never given this a lot of thought – that the message was, “Jesus will be in Galilee.”  Had you ever noticed that?

Why Galilee?  Of course Jesus and his disciples were from Galilee.  But it was not a very exciting place.  Galilee was a kind of backwater province with not a lot going for it.  As an outlying northern province, it had far more Gentile influence than areas closer to Jerusalem.  The saying was, “Can anything good come out of Galilee?”  

Jesus had been teaching his disciples and preparing them for bigger things.  His plan did not seem centered on Galilee but on Jerusalem, the capital and center of power and culture.  Jesus had traveled to Jerusalem, the Holy City.  That is where things happened.  The temple was there.  The crowds were there.  The power players were there.

Expectations were that the Messiah would come and transform Jerusalem into the center of power and faith that it deserved to be.  The Messiah would restore Jerusalem.

One might expect that the Risen Christ would give the Romans what for.  Jesus could have gone to the chief priests and said, “I’m Back!”  He could have gone straight to the Roman palace and said to Pilate, “You made a big mistake.”

But he didn’t.  Jesus did not go to the power centers.  He did not go to the White House or Pentagon or Wall Street or Hollywood.  He did not go to the United Nations or the Vatican or the National Council of Churches.  Jesus did not go to London or Zurich or Tokyo.

On his first day of resurrected life, Jesus did not go to the powerful or influential.  He did not go to the newsmakers or the movers and shakers.

Jesus went back to Galilee.  Back to that out of the way place that folks paid little attention to.  There wasn’t much in Galilee, to be honest.  Nobody special lived there.  Nobody except the followers of Jesus.  That is to say, nobody but us.

Jesus returns and appears before those same dense people who misunderstood him and disappointed him.  He returns to those who had failed him and fled and betrayed him.  He returned to those trying to make sense of it all and trying to do their best.  He returns to us.

Jesus comes to us, and resurrection is not just a long ago historical happening, it is a right now reality.  The Risen Christ gives us hope not only for life past the grave, but for life here and now, for all of us living in Galilee.  Jesus gives us the promise that he will be with us, he is with us, and that in the aftermath of all the pain and all the losses of this life we can know resurrection.

I think it was Bishop John Spong, a well-known liberal, who was asked if he believed in the resurrection.  “Of course,” he said.  “I’ve seen it too many times not to.”

Jesus will go ahead of you to that backwater place called Galilee.  Jesus will go ahead of you to that flyover place called Iowa.  Jesus will go ahead of you to work, to school, to your neighborhood.

The Psalm says, “Where can I go from your Spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”

Jesus goes to wherever we are and offers us new life.  When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the Risen Christ is there with us.  When we are overcome with hurt or pain or anxiety or exhaustion, we can be amazed to find that Jesus is there with us, and we can find a way forward.  When we feel like we have failed completely, Jesus is there, bringing hope and another chance.  Jesus come to us and we find new life, or to be more accurate, Christ – and new life – finds us.

The angel announced, “Jesus is alive!  He has been raised!  Now you need to get yourselves up to Galilee and you will see him there.”

Jesus’ work is not done.  He is not only alive; he has gone to Galilee.  Jesus has gone to be with us, and to all of those places in need of hope and joy and new life.

Christ Is Risen!  Christ is Risen indeed and has moved on to Galilee.  Christ has risen and is now with us, bringing new life.  Alleluia!  Amen!

Saturday, March 25, 2023

“Sheep and Goats” - March 26, 2023

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

Have all of you all done your taxes?  Have you even started on your taxes?  I’m offering this as a public service announcement: if you haven’t already, you might want to think about your tax return.

In other news, students may way want to keep in mind that we are now 2/3 of the way through the semester.  Can you believe that?  Papers and reports and projects are going to be due, and final exams will follow.  If you haven’t started on those projects or if you haven’t yet opened the textbook this semester, you might want to think about getting started.

Following an NCAA tournament game, a player was interviewed and I heard him talking about all of the running and drills and conditioning work they did before the season started.  Everybody hated it, but when they were really put to the test in this physically and emotionally draining tournament game, all of that hard work had paid off.

One way or another, we are going to be audited.  We are going to be tested.  And not just on the court or in the classroom or by the Internal Revenue Service.  Our scripture this morning, another parable that Jesus tells in the gospel of Matthew, speaks of a spiritual audit of sorts.

This is almost the last teaching that Jesus gives to his disciples before he is arrested and before his death.  He could have shared with them on any number of subjects, but this is what he chose to say to them.  So we can assume it is important.

Later in Matthew, we have what is known as the Great Commission, in Matthew 28.  “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations...”  That is the Great Commission.  And then we have this morning’s passage, which is known as the Great Judgment.

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

Now, you might not be familiar with a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats - I’m certainly not - but this was not uncommon in that day.  Goats and sheep were often herded together.  They would go out and graze together during the day, but when they got back home in the evening, they would be separated.  Sheep were wooly and they didn’t get cold.  They were also more valuable than goats.  On a cold night, goats might congregate near a fire or huddle a bit more for warmth.  The needs and care of sheep and goats were a bit different, and so they would be separated.  There was nothing especially profound about this, but it was a common and familiar practice.    

If you have been with us these past Sundays, we have had some really tough parables of Jesus.  And many have to do with things mixed together.  There are the wheat and the weeds, growing together.  Sometimes it’s a little hard to tell which is which.  There are the wedding guests with their fancy robes, but one among them is not dressed appropriately.

Then there are the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  Ten of them, five who planned ahead and brought extra oil and five who did not.  They are all together, waiting for the bridegroom.  And now we have the sheep and the goats, all together in one herd or flock or group or gaggle or whatever you call it - until they are separated.

In each of these parables, there is a mix of similar plants or people or animals, and there is a separation.  There is an audit, if you will, or a test or a differentiation, and one group does well and the other – not so well.

We read this story about the sheep and the goats and we might ask, “What is the deal with the anti-goat sentiment?”  What’s so bad about goats?  Why are they the bad guys?

I have no idea.  This just an illustration, nothing against goats.  But I have heard of cultures in which goats are so important that this passage is translated differently, to where the goats are the chosen group and some other livestock are the ones on the outs.  

What we might take note of is that with some of the species of goats and sheep raised at that time in the Middle East, the casual observer could not necessarily tell just to look at them, without a little closer inspection, which were sheep and which were goats.  
That is the situation at this Final Judgment.  You cannot tell who is who.  Even the so-called sheep and goats don’t know.  When they are separated, it is a surprise to them.

Appearance and reality cannot always be clearly distinguished.  The story is told that Charlie Chaplin once came in fourth place in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest.  I love that.  Here, nobody really knows who are the sheep and who are the goats – not even members of the flock.  Or herd.

These two groups, these two indistinguishable groups who are mixed together, are separated based on one criteria.  One distinguishing characteristic.

In a faith filled with so much teaching, so many emphases, with so many examples in scripture, what is this criteria?

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

How is the true flock determined?  Does it have to do with the way we worship?  With the amount of water used in baptism?  Or is it about a theological checklist?  Maybe the nature of salvation?

The question might have been about our understanding of atonement and Jesus’ sacrificial death.  But it wasn’t.

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

The criteria for determining the true flock is not your church’s musical style or its vision statement.  It is not about how closely you have followed rules of ritual practice.

The big question is: How have you treated people in need?  That’s it.  How do you respond to human need?

This comes as a big surprise.  It is not a theology test and it isn’t really about believing the right thing.  But at the same time, it has a great deal to do with Jesus.

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  

In Matthew, this is Jesus’ last extended teaching to his disciples before his betrayal and arrest and trial and execution.  And what happened after this?  In the garden, he said, “I am sick with grief.”  He was arrested - a prisoner.  He was stripped – he was naked.  He was in the company of strangers.  On the cross he said, “I am thirsty.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

The amazing thing about this parable is that the sheep don’t even know they are sheep.  They almost dispute Jesus’ characterization.  When did we ever do these things?

They are not calculating about it.  They have not acted in this way so that they would get on Jesus’ good side.  I mean, they didn’t even know what they had done.  

This is just who they are.  They have treated their neighbors as – neighbors.  As human beings.

They did not ask themselves, “What should I do if I want to live in eternity in a good place?”  They were just living their lives in relationship with their neighbors.  

It may have come to your attention that society really doesn’t work as it should.  Has anybody noticed that?  The basic issue, I think, is that we do not recognize each other as neighbors or just treat each other as human beings.

Now it helps to give money so that organizations will care for people in need.  That is absolutely necessary.  And this has been important to our church.  We are one of the leading churches in our region in giving to mission causes.  Last year, 14% of our expenditures were to help care for people beyond our church.  I am really proud of our church for that.

That is important, and that is maybe a sign of our collective hearts, but Jesus is saying that what matters is basic person-to-person neighborliness.  In a sense, he is reiterating what he had said when asked what was the most important commandment.  He is saying that we are called to love our neighbors.  That is what this is.  All of our neighbors.

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

When you see your neighbors in need – do you care?  Do you respond in love?  What is your spiritual audit looking like?

Now that we know what matters most, we can act accordingly.  Amen.