A Path In The Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6 (New Revised Standard Version)

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’’”

__________

John the Baptist might be someone whom we look at with an inquisitive look if we saw them sitting next to us in the pew on Sunday morning. In the Gospel According to Matthew, John is described as wearing clothes made out of camel hair and someone who ate locust and wild honey. However, unlike Matthew, Luke chooses to not focus on John’s appearance. Instead, the writer of the Gospel of Luke chooses to remind us of the time and place of John the Baptist’s ministry.

John wasn’t called to lead a congregation or a synagogue in a serene town somewhere in a far away place that wasn’t touch by the troubles of life. John was instead called to be a voice, a voice in a real and symbolic wilderness… A wilderness that bumped up and rubbed against the powers and principalities of the world and asked the hard questions of them… A wilderness that challenged those powers and principalities to rethink, reform, to reimagine who they were as people created in the image of God.

I don’t know if it was a conscious decision on the writer of Luke's part  to not include a description of John the Baptist’s appearance, but I do know that they wanted to make one thing very clear. That John the Baptist wasn’t preaching his message of salvation and repentance during some religious “Golden Era,” but instead preaching his message during a time of trial and tribulation. John was not only up against people like you and me who tend to get stuck in old ways of doing things, but John was also up against the people who made the rules and  had the power to silence him.

If the gospel writer were sitting with us this morning I believe that they would say that they chose to depict John the Baptist in the manner that they did, because they are asking us a question. They are asking us, “Are you going to do the work of God? Are you going to do the work of preparing the way of the Lord even if that means that you have to go against the powers of this world?” It’s work that isn’t popular… It’s work that occasionally makes you friends and work that drives friends away… It’s work that is hard because it asks that we smooth out the hills and straighten the crooked paths in our lives in order to make way for God to act in our lives.

While it feels like a long time ago, I remember the adventure my family took one summer as we traveled across the country. During the course of the trip we visited multiple National Parks, one of which was the Great Sand Dunes National Park located in Colorado. From a distance you can see the dunes that can reach up to 750 ft and beyond them you can see the 13,000 ft peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It’s a breathtaking sight, because while you are surrounded by the mountains of Colorado you find yourself in a desert setting with rolling dunes, flowing streams, and wind blowing against your face.  

The day that my family visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park things started out okay… It was a little overcast and windy, but nothing we couldn’t handle… Pretty soon however the winds started picking up and it felt like the 40 mph winds that occasionally blow through the National Park. Sand was blasting up against our faces and we were wrapping whatever pieces of clothing we could around us. And through it all we had to somehow find our way back to the entrance of the National Park. We were literally walking through the wilderness, zigging and zagging, trying to make a clear path to where it was we needed to go. It wasn’t an easy task.  

Making hills flat and crooked paths straight is not safe work, it isn’t easy work when you are trying to navigate the storms of life… If you come to church thinking that Jesus is only asking you to take the easy way then you might have some leveling out and straightening to do. John the Baptist’s work, the work that God called him to do, cost him his life. Discipleship, the heaven building work of leveling hills and straightening paths, has a cost that at times can seem demanding, and that’s because it is demanding. Our souls may be filled on Sunday morning, but God asks that our souls be filled and poured out in the days inbetween as well… Preparing the way of the Lord is not just about discovering how we can be satisfied, but how we can bind up the hurting world that exists around us as well.

The reshaping of the world around us and the reshaping our hearts is work that occurs not only during this Season of Advent, but throughout the entire year. We’ll soon remember a time that the little Christ child, would come to know what happens when you challenge the powers of this world. Because even as an infant Christ knew what it is like to have to flee and to be threatened by the forces of evil in this world that don’t like opposition… The forces that oppress people and put them into bondage. The forces that place selfish wants and needs above the well being of other people. The forces that tempt us to believe that earthly powers will fix both our bodies and souls, while neglecting to remind us that Christ sits as the king over all creation.

As we prepare the way of the Lord this Advent we look forward to the time where the words of the prophet Isaiah are made a reality and fulfilled and a time where “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Desert highways will be made straight, valleys will be filled, and great high mountains will be made low, and rough places smoothed, and obstacles will be removed from the face of the earth. As John the Baptist uses the words of the prophet Isaiah, we look to towards the future seeking peace and anticipating a time when no one will be left behind. We seek out peace and are filled with excitement as stumbling blocks are taken away, and the barriers we have erected, the barriers that keep others out are torn down, and the gift of salvation that flows from the throne of God becomes obtainable to all people who come and seek it out.

In our own community we look for the areas where God is calling us to act, to level out the playing field, to make straight the paths and smooth out rough terrain. Perhaps it’s making sure that children have fair access to quality education, perhaps it is making sure that thing such as housing and health care are treated as things that we should all have access to instead of a privilege or an amenity. Perhaps it's time that we start talking about what kind of church God is calling us to be… Perhaps now more than ever we need to start thinking about this new beginning, this new work, because our faith family has reached a point where it should be asking the kind of questions that will determine our future work and ministry together.

In our own lives, in my own life, I pray that God will make our hearts gentle, and that God will smooth out the rough edges of anger, frustration, self-centeredness, and greed. Our perception of ourselves often gets in the way of what God is calling us to do. Sometimes it’s not just our ego, but our ability to get caught up in our own thoughts, the wilderness that exists within our minds. Yet if we take time to stop, to listen, we might hear the voice of John the Baptist calling out to us to make straight a path in the wilderness. Are we willing to listen to the voice of John the Baptist? Are we willing to submit ourselves to God this Advent so that we may be refined and liberated from the things that hold us down? Have we prepared the way for the Lord to come into our hearts and offer that radical transformation that will fill us with peace and hope for the things to come?

This Sunday during the Season of Advent we remember peace. Now peace might not be an apparent theme in this mornings passage, but I believe it’s there waiting for us to discover it among the the rubble and weeds along the crooked paths that are becoming straight. And I believe that the  in this passage is the freedom that we obtain when we begin and continue the work of making mountains low and rough paths smooth. There is freedom to be found in that work, there is freedom to be found and peace that is waiting to be seized, when we don’t let the things that lead us astray take us captive and harden our hearts. There is peace to be found, peace to be had if we prepare the way of the Lord knowing that it is in God where we have freedom to be who we have been created to be.

So what hills are there in your life? What crooked paths need to be made straight in order for you to walk in the light of God?  The voice of John the Baptist still rings out to us today as we try to make our way through the wilderness, but will we hear and respond to what John the Baptist has to say? Who are the Pontius Pilates, the King Herods, who try to intimidate us and keep us down? Do you hear the voice of John the Baptist when you rub up or  bump up against them? Are you willing to confront them like John the Baptist did in order to make sure that all of the children of God are free to be who they were created to be?

These are questions we ask ourselves this Advent season. These are questions we need to be asking ourselves each and every day so that we don’t become complacent, so that the hills that we thought were lowered are actually mountains, that the places that we thought were smooth are actually jagged and rocky, and that the paths that we thought were straight and led to the throne of God are actually winding and complex and prohibitive. But Christ knows all of this already, and Christ waits with hope and with peace, just as we are this Advent season, for the time when we do the work we have been asked to do and submit ourselves to the refiner’s fire so that we may then come out from the wilderness to present our gifts to God and one another. Amen.



Alert & Ready

Luke 21:25-36 (New Revised Standard Version)

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

__________

It’s that time of year again… Though I’ll admit that each year it seems to begin earlier and earlier… Sometimes I forget that in between Halloween and Christmas there is another holiday. But now we’ve finally reached December and perhaps that holiday music they play on the radio feels a little more seasonally appropriate. You might know one of those songs which was written in 1950. Silver Bells, composed and written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, was released during the month of October. It’s a Christmas classic, one that you often hear in shopping malls during the holiday season. Silver Bells is one of those songs that puts you in the Christmas mood:

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks /

Dressed in holiday style /

In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas

Our scripture reading for this morning however sings a different tune, one of shaking ground and roaring seas. It’s quite distressing when compared to the lyrics of Silver Bells, which might make us stop and wonder why this passage is included as a reading for the Season of Advent. Isn’t Advent, the time that builds up to Christmas, supposed to be serene and peaceful? Well yes and no.  On this first Sunday of Advent we remember hope… the hope that God gives us, the hope that carries us forward, but hope that also comes at a price.

The people sitting in the crowds around Jesus must have have also been wondering what Jesus was talking about… And while there is no doubt in my mind that there were folks who were dumbfounded by Jesus’ words, I am just as sure that there were also people who also found comfort in what Jesus was saying. But in order to understand the comfort, the hope, that people found in what Jesus had to say I think we have to take a look at what was going on during the time that Jesus would have been preaching.

Jesus was preaching to an audience who were subjugated citizens, people who were living in a country that was  conquered by a foreign power. The Roman Empire stretched to the known ends of the earth and it seemed as though nothing could overcome their power. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a person who was living under the reign of a foreign power that was so oppressive. So if I heard Jesus’ words I might be caught off guard at first, but I would hear the words of hope, the voice of Jesus saying, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

There are people today who would hear these words of Jesus and resonate with them… They would resonate with them because they may still be living under the thumb of an oppressive nation or power… I think about the indigenous people who have come before us, I think about those whom we are bombarding with tear gas, I think about those who are killed for the color of their skin and their sexuality and all I can hear is the voice of of Jesus who says “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

To those who are oppressed, to us who are called stand up for the oppressed, these words of Jesus this morning should instill a sense of divine fear, awe, and hope. It should instill a sense of fear that we still have much work to do in this world and we have left much of it untouched… It should instill a sense of awe that we have the privilege to be caretakers and stewards of this world and hope in the sense that while God gives us hope for a brighter tomorrow, that hope cannot be obtained by ourselves no matter how hard we try.  

If you’re still caught up on the roaring seas, shaking ground, and people fainting, I admit that it can be hard to find the hope that exists within this passage. The beautiful part of this passage in my opinion is that Jesus acknowledges that there are trials, there are hardships, in this life that we have to overcome, but they are not overcome alone. The hope in the passage, the hope that carries forward, the hope that we are seeking out during the Season of Advent is reliant on whether or not we are willing to be participants in the heaven building work that God calls us to do.

In Korea there are two key elements you need to understand, these two things I think are appropriate for how we approach this first Sunday of Advent, which focuses on hope… First you have han and then second you have jeong. Han, is used to describe hardships, but hardships that run so deep they impact entire communities and groups of people. Jeong, is a term that is used to describe love, kinship, hope. Jeong is the relationships we have with one another. Jeong is being able to find pleasure and joy in not just the big life events, but also the mundane things that life has to offer. Jeong is when we find that there is hope in the community that we are continually building together.

The hope that Jesus is talking about in this morning’s passage is really only hopeful to those who have heard the message are are already participating in that heaven building work. Sure the world will shake and the seas will roar, but if you are steadfast, if you are alert and have been preparing the way of the Lord then you have nothing to fear. There is still time for us to go to our neighbors, strangers, enemies, those whom we have forgotten to care for and protect, those who transform us by showing us how expansive God’s world can be. There is time for us to go and welcome them, to let them in, to let them know there is still plenty of room in God’s story redemptive love. There is time, because God waits with the hope that we will one day be made whole, God waits with hope…

God waits, knowing that there are people whom we have left in the shadows, that there are people who we pushed out of our communities, and that there are those who were never invited to the table in the first place. God waits for the day with hope where we will no longer claim to belong to any nation, any state, or any group of people, but claim to be citizens in the kingdom of God. God waits for the day when we are able to stand with all our brothers and sisters in a way that reflects the love, the peace, and the justice of God. God waits with hope remembering the promises that were made to us, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  Perhaps then on that day we may find the peaceful setting of Silver Bells to ring a little truer than it did before…

We find ourselves starting another season of Advent, another season of waiting with hope . But we aren’t the only ones who are waiting. God is waiting as well, waiting for us to go out into the world to share this story of unimaginable love and hope and to care for those whom we have not always cared for in the past. This Advent may we use the time we have to tell those around us the story of God’s love. The story of this great love where God  stands on the side of the oppressed, and asks us to boldly confront the trials of this world with hope. The story where the only thing that does pass away, that does die, is the oppressive and darkened Empire of the days of old. Because it’s all about the people, God is waiting for all the children of the world to come. If it takes a day or another thousand years God can wait. Because that is how important we are in the eyes of God.

So be alert, be ready, because we are not sure when Christ will come again… Be alert, be ready, not in a state of fear, but of hope. Because if we are participating in heaven building work of God, then we may find that the hope we gain in this divine work overcomes the darkness of this world. It overcomes the darkness just as the expected Christ-child overcame darkness with hope when he was first born in Bethlehem. So how will you dare to hope this Season of Advent? How will you overcome the darkness of the world with hope? How will you add your light to the collective light of all who seek, work, and strive for the hope that calms roaring seas and shaking ground? Amen.



The New Jerusalem

Revelation 21:9-11, 22-26 (New Revised Standard Version)

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, and I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal…  I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day - and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

__________

“[And] I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” This reading from Revelation is one I could probably preach on multiple times, because there are so many ways in which we can apply this passage to our lives. The light of God, shining throughout the city, the nations that walk into it bringing their gifts and praise, and the people who come into it adding their own unique selves to this brightly shining multi-faceted gem.

The New Jerusalem, the city that came down from heaven is something that we strive for as a church and as individuals. The challenging part of this New Jerusalem is that the light of God touches everything that exists within the city, and that means that no matter how hard we try we will have to come face to face with the things that we refuse to surrender to God. It could be hurt, a sense of loss, it could be anger, it could be sorrow, it could be a wide array of things, but we find that when we are not able to turn them over to God it becomes hard to join a community that has done just that.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately… And I’ve been thinking that I’ve often talked about what it means to be a spiritually led church, a church that exists beyond its walls, a church that goes out into the community, but I haven’t spent much time addressing what lies at the heart of the church… Of course I’m talking about you, me, and the heart, the spirit, that provides us nourishment as we traverse roads that don’t resemble the serene and healing paths that lead us to the gates of the New Jerusalem. It might be hard to think about a “New Jerusalem” dwelling inside of us, but it begs the very important question of, “What are the things, or what aren’t the things, that we are willing to set down at the throne of God?”

I’ve found that even if we know that this New Jerusalem exists not only externally, in the world around us, but internally, in our hearts, as well, there are still places that we refuse to expose to the light that flows forth from God. There are hurts, pains… I’m talking about the things that we cling onto so tightly that we are the only ones who know what those things are. The quarantined corners of our lives that are shut off to the outside world, but are only accessible to you and God… And sometimes those places are so personal that we even try to keep them away from God for whatever reasons we might have…

Almost two months ago now… I realized that there were things in my life that I was clinging onto and not willing to expose to the light of God… Everything seemed fine until one day I realized that I was not myself… I give myself credit for realizing that something in me had changed, but they say that by the time you notice something is wrong it’s probably already reached a point that is unhealthy. For me that point was waking up one morning and thinking, “What’s the point? Why bother getting up? It would just be better if I didn’t get out of bed this morning…” Everything seemed dull, nothing seemed to bring me joy, the world seemed to have one giant rain cloud floating over its head.

Now I know we all have days where we are tempted to lazily stay in bed, but this was different… It didn’t come from a place of sloth, but a place of pain that had not been given a voice for so long it had no choice, but to manifest itself in a physical form. It was a horrible feeling, and as someone who is reserved the thought of not having control over these feeling scared me… It scared me, but it also set me on a path of spiritual and physical healing. It set me on a path that allowed me to re-discover that I didn’t have to be anxious about every little detail… That things would be okay, even if the way I planned something didn’t go as expected, the world would continue to turn. I learned with the help of my therapist that I needed to set realistic expectations, that failure was okay, and that sometimes things just don’t work out the way we would have hoped they would.

I’m someone who believes very strongly in therapy, I want to make that clear… But I take a holistic approach, I still pray, and I still read my Bible, but I realize that there are things in this life that I can’t get through alone, and there are some times in this life where I need someone else walking alongside me offering words of counsel, compassion, and empathy. I was reminded that in order to walk in the light of God, and to be who I was created to be, a child of God, I needed to be willing to do the hard work of discipleship that asks us to take a hard look at what lies deep inside our souls. For me and for many other this means seeing a therapist, for others it might be a hobby or spending time in nature, but whatever it is I sincerely encourage you to make more time for whatever it is that feeds your soul… That you make more time for the things that allow you lend a voice to the many facets of what makes you, you, even if that seems like a daunting or impossible task.

I mention my own experience this morning, because I realize that it’s a part of who I am… And if I’m going to ask you to do the hard work, then I wanna show that I’ve been doing the hard work as well… As the saying goes, “You gotta talk the talk, and walk the walk.” And just briefly, I wanna mention that I share this because I believe in the best of all of us, but I also know that rumors and gossip are juicy, they make for good stories, but often times they are just very distorted versions of the truth… Without digressing too much perhaps it's also fitting then how in the passage for this morning we remember the light of God, the truth of God, touches everything in the New Jerusalem… This light elevates the best of humanity and asks that we cast away the things that tears down instead of lifting up.

So what will we bring into the New Jerusalem that dwells inside our hearts? What are the things that we offer freely and what the things that we still refuse to let go of? It’s not an easy process, and it’s something that I still wrestle with to this day… There are moments when it is easy to let go and there are moments where I’ve changed my mind, and I’m sure that we all have experienced that feeling or something like it as well. As I’ve mentioned before in a previous sermon, the heaven building work of God asks us to give with both hands open… The heaven building work that God asks of us is not made whole if we only offer with one hand open and one hand that is clasped shut behind our backs. How can we better ourselves, and therefore better our communities, if we are not willing to shed off the things that we know weigh us down.

The New Jerusalem is made to shine like a rare jewel. It is made to shine like a bright jewel only because all those who come into it add what they have to glorify God. On this Christ the King Sunday what will your first step into the New Jerusalem look like? You as an individual who have been beautifully and wonderfully made, what is your first step into the New Jerusalem going to be like? When you make it to the gates and are greeted by Christ with open arms how will you respond? I guess it all depends really… It depends on whether the work that we have been doing in our hearts has been focused on what makes us feel good or the challenging work that God calls us to do.

So I’ll ask again, “What will we bring into the New Jerusalem that dwells inside our hearts?” I’ll give us a moment and I want you to think silently, contemplatively about what those things might be… They can joys, concerns, things that you are thankful for, and things that you know need work… They can be celebrations for good health, but they can also be laments and grief, but take a moment now, a sacred moment, to start or continue on in that heaven building journey of the soul that leads to the New Jerusalem…

[Moment of Silence]

“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day - and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” May we walk in the light of the glory of God together… Together may we look within ourselves and look out towards others, those whom God calls us to love and serve. And if we do that, then we may not only make the New Jerusalem a reality within our hearts, but a reality in the world around us as well. Amen.


Sailing Up My Dirty Stream

John 5:1-6 (The Message)

Soon another Feast came around and Jesus was back in Jerusalem. Near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there was a pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda, with five alcoves. Hundreds of sick people—blind, crippled, paralyzed—were in these alcoves. One man had been an invalid there for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him stretched out by the pool and knew how long he had been there, he said, “Do you want to get well?”

__________

We never really pay much attention to water… We bathe in it, we wash our clothes with it, we drink and cook with it… It’s not until something goes wrong with our water that we realize how much we take for granted, something so common. We’re quick to view dirty water as something that is lost, toxic, and something that isn’t worth our time, but if we turn back and remember what it says in Scripture, we might jumpstart our memory as to just how important water really is and how our Creator doesn’t give up on turning dirty water into life giving water… You know there’s a song written by Pete Seeger about the Hudson River that encapsulates this hope about dirty water becoming life giving water:

Sailing up my dirty stream

Still I love it and I'll keep the dream

That someday, though maybe not this year

My Hudson River will once again run clear

(My Dirty Stream ~Pete Seeger © The Bicycle Music Company)

The Hudson certainly is known for being a dirty river, yet Seeger still holds onto the beauty that lies within and around the Hudson River. “Sailing down my dirty stream, still I love and I’ll keep the dream.” Perhaps that is the mantra we find ourselves clinging to as we navigate the waters of life. Perhaps we feel that our river is overflowing with mounds of trash, but we find that we are holding out for something better that exists farther down the stream. That might have been what the man waiting by poolside for thirty-eight years was thinking, before Jesus appeared. Of course we’ll never know for sure… Do you think we can we imagine or think of  a time where we have found ourselves seeking out water that grants life instead of death.

Can you imagine what was going through the mind of the man who waited by the pool for thirty-eight years? Like many of us he must have thought that the water of life was found in an actual pool of water, but when Jesus came around his eyes were opened to the truth. Isn’t that the story of humanity? And I’m not just talking about our own stories of life and faith, but I’m also talking about the stories that we share together as well… “There’s a river of my people,” it says in another one of Seeger’s songs… And I believe it’s in that river where it’s together we find the living water that God has to offer… Not the water that lies stagnant in a pool or basin, or pools of water that are fed by the same foul sources, but the living water that flows from the throne of God.

There's a river of my people

And its flow is swift and strong,

Flowing to some mighty ocean,

Though its course is deep and long.

Flowing to some mighty ocean,

Though its course is deep and long.

(River of My People ~Pete Seeger © The Bicycle Music Company)

Of course that doesn't mean that there won’t be obstacles that get in our way… I imagine that the man who was waiting by the side of the pool had to overcome a number of different challenges before Jesus came to him. Perhaps the challenges that the man who had been waiting for thirty-eight years are still the same challenges we are still trying overcoming today… What might those obstacles be? What are the things that have tried to keep us away from seeking God’s life giving water? Perhaps it’s our wealth or other earthly treasures. Perhaps it's the illusion that things are fine when in reality they aren’t. Perhaps it’s our clinging onto things that we believe make the river clean, or make it great, but really end up polluting it. What are the ways that we have tried to keep others from obtaining God’s life giving water?

Many rocks and reefs and mountains

Seek to bar it from its way.

But relentlessly this river

Seeks its brothers in the sea.

But relentlessly this river

Seeks its brothers in the sea.

(River of My People ~Pete Seeger © The Bicycle Music Company)

Whether we are sailing up a dirty stream with the hope that one day it might become clear, or whether we are part of a river that overcomes various obstacles it all leads to one big ocean at some point or another. I find it interesting what Jesus says to the man, “Do you want to get well?” We know that Jesus often gives roundabout answers, and this morning is no exception. “Do you want to get well?” That seems like a silly question, because of course  the man by the pool of water would want to get well. Perhaps it’s in our collective struggles we will find the thing that gives us strength and courage, gives us the balm that soothes our souls.

For we have mapped this river

And we know its mighty force

And the courage that this gives us

Will hold us to our course

And the courage that this gives us

Will hold us to our course

(River of My People ~Pete Seeger © The Bicycle Music Company)

We will might all find ourselves at some point at the pool of Bethesda. We might all find ourselves at the pool of Bethesda wondering what it is we are supposed to do. Around the pool the people who had gathered may have shared stories… They may have shared laments, joys, hopes, or even dreams. But that’s all talk… It wasn’t until Jesus came into the picture that they were asked to do something, “Do you want to be HEALED?” Of course we want to be healed, but healing, healing of the body, healing of the soul isn’t done by talking about healing, or by forming another committee for people to serve on, but by doing. We’ve had a lot of time to sit around and talk and share stories, perhaps it's time we go out and actually do…

As I look out across the sea

A bright horizon beckons me

And I am called to do my best

And be the most that I can be

(Old Scottish Folk Tune)

Maybe then at the end of the day we will be able to sit down and see that the river we started sailing on  may be still be dirty, but a little less than when we started. And when we can take joy in that heaven building work of God we might be able to happily sing a song about sailing up a dirty river…

Sailing up my dirty stream

Still I love it and I'll keep the dream

That someday, though maybe not this year

My Hudson River will once again run clear

(My Dirty Stream ~Pete Seeger © The Bicycle Music Company)



An Old / New Story

Revelation 3:7-13 (The Message)

Write this to Philadelphia, to the Angel of the church. The Holy, the True—David’s key in his hand, opening doors no one can lock, locking doors no one can open—speaks: “I see what you’ve done. Now see what I’ve done. I’ve opened a door before you that no one can slam shut. You don’t have much strength, I know that; you used what you had to keep my Word. You didn’t deny me when times were rough. “And watch as I take those who call themselves true believers but are nothing of the kind, pretenders whose true membership is in the club of Satan—watch as I strip off their pretensions and they’re forced to acknowledge it’s you that I’ve loved. “Because you kept my Word in passionate patience, I’ll keep you safe in the time of testing that will be here soon, and all over the earth, every man, woman, and child put to the test. “I’m on my way; I’ll be there soon. Keep a tight grip on what you have so no one distracts you and steals your crown. “I’ll make each conqueror a pillar in the sanctuary of my God, a permanent position of honor. Then I’ll write names on you, the pillars: the Name of my God, the Name of God’s City—the new Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven—and my new Name. “Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches.”

__________

I’m always amazed at how the author of Revelation could have known that Christianity would make its way to North America, and  that it would be at a church in Philadelphia where an angel of God would carry a message containing words of encouragement and blessing. I’ll admit that I’m a little disappointed at the same time, because if the author had that much foresight I would imagine that they could have written the name of church in Philadelphia… Perhaps it was a Presbyterian church, but we’ll never know.

I don’t wanna get too carried away so I’ll let you know that I’m  having a little fun here this morning… I know that the Philadelphia named in this mornings reading is not referring to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but is instead referring to a city that is located in what is today known as Turkey. Perhaps though it is fitting  to mention that the name for both of these cities, Philadelphia, comes from the Greek language, which translates to English as, “The City of Brotherly Love.”

It’s important that  before we dive too deep into the passage that we acknowledge Philadelphia as, “The City of Brotherly Love,” because it sets the background for how we are to understand the “passionate patience” or the “steadfast love for God,” that the church in Philadelphia maintained through some pretty difficult and tough times. But what does it mean to live a life, to live in a community, that embodies a spirit of “brotherly love?” I doubt that we can all relate to what it means to possess and express brotherly love so let’s take a moment to unpack it.

The Greek language has many different words for love… You’ve probably heard agape before, which refers to one of the highest forms of love, which has sometimes been translated as meaning charity. You have eros, which is used to describe a love that is passionate or romantic. And then in today’s reading we find philos, which can mean love or friendship, paired with adelphos, which means brother.

We might be tempted to think that “brotherly love,” is less meaningful than that of agape or eros, and if we went down that path I would say that we are sorely mistaken. Because what we find is that it is in that community of friendship, or partnering with one another, that we come across the place where God calls us to be a part of and go. We are are reminded of this in other parts of Scripture as well such as, John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” Imagine having a love like that for everyone and for God?

The brotherly love that the church in Philadelphia had for God is one that reflects a story that is both old and new. Old in the sense that most stories about love have common themes to ones that we have today and new in the sense that the settings in which those stories take place has changed from the original stories. The church in Philadelphia had a “passionate patience,” a “steadfast love for God,” even when the world around them made it seem impossible to maintain such a faith. It makes me wonder how the church in Philadelphia remained faithful in their identity as being claimed by God. It makes me wonder how their story plays out in our world today.

I think the key lies in the phrase that I have mentioned already this morning… The author of this passage mentions the church in Philadelphia having a “passionate patience.” I’d note as well that some other translations include the phrase “steadfast love.” And these two things are important, because when we think about patience and about being steadfast, we don’t usually associate these words with action or intensity. It would probably  be fair to say that when we talk about patience and being steadfast we would relate them to words like: static, unchanging, or immovable.

But when we tie these words with the idea of “brotherly love,” we discover that the church in Philadelphia’s love for God was something that was patient and steadfast, because it was living, breathing, and changing. Their love of God didn’t change, but it was their expression of that love that changed. It was this evolving expression of love that drove their desire to be hold onto the promises of God and remain steadfast in a world that seemed very uncertain and chaotic. Just as there are many kinds of love so too are there many forms of expressing love.

The story of the church in Philadelphia and the story of our church today, is that we are meant to be connectional. We’re called to love our neighbor, regardless of whether those neighbors respond by coming to church on Sunday morning, because if that is how we judge ourselves then we’ve lost sight of what is important! Loving people is a messy, dirty endeavor! We live with people who struggle with  addiction, mental health issues, harmful relationships, and other deep pains that we might never know. We’re not called to judge people’s behavior; we’re called to simply love them as God loves us. And that can be difficult because it means that we have to allow our hearts to be vulnerable, trusting that God will lead us.

We don’t know much about the church in Philadelphia, besides what we find here in this passage this morning. But as I talked about how this story is one that is both old and new we can quickly identify the ways in which we have heard this passage speak in our own lives. Like the church in Philadelphia there are the voices that try to lead us astray or keep us down:

There are voices that say we aren’t good enough…

There are voices that say that our goals are foolish…

There are voices who say hateful things just because of our gender or skin color…

There are voices that echo with words of “What it?”

What are those voices that attempt to bring us down? These are voices that still haunt us today. They were voices that the church in Philadelphia heard and they are voices that we hear today. Can you identify them? Can you name where you have heard them in your own life and where you have heard them here in this community of faith?

But there are another series of voices that push back against the negativity that we find ourselves being bombarded with. Voices that call out with power louder than hate, louder than bullets, louder than the unjust powers of this world… But we have to listen for them. We have to listen with passionate patience and steadfast love:

These are voices that remind us that we are beautifully and wonderfully made…

These are voices that bring light to the darkened corners of our lives…

These are voices that sings songs that pick up our weary and heavy laden souls…

These are voices that bring God’s peaceable kingdom into our midst…

Can you hear them? They’re the words of encouragement we offer to one another. They are the ways in which we show love and care that embodies Christ’s spirit. They are the ways in which we build ourselves, others, and the community around us up instead of tearing them down. Can you hear them? Or as the author of the passage would say, “Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches.” Just has we have heard and remembered stories of old, there are stories being re-written as well that point us in a new direction of hope when we think there is no hope, love when we think there is no love to be had, and courage when we feel as though our strength has been wiped away.

These past few days I was away on a retreat for young ministry leaders who are in the Synod of the Northeast. It was a wonderful time for pastors, elders, deacons, and non-ordained members to be together in fellowship and worship. One of the things we talked about was who we understood ourselves to be and who God understood us to be. I find it hard to show the kind of brotherly love that the Bible talks about when I’ve lost sight of who I am in relationship to God. We all have story like that, a story where we have lost sight of who we were in relationship to God. We all have a story that we can tell about ourselves and about the communities of which we are a part.   They are stories that challenge us to envision something that exists beyond ourselves.

Like all stories there was a time when they were still being written, and the same is true for the ongoing story of our lives and of our church. The door hasn’t been closed as we are reminded in the reading,“I see what you’ve done. Now see what I’ve done. I’ve opened a door before you that no one can slam shut.” The door is open, the opportunities are there before us. What will be our decision?… will we go out that door, will we dare or will we stay inside and fall back on what we think is safe, secure and end up losing the very thing we tried to hold onto? The church in Philadelphia didn’t have it easy… The church in Philadelphia embraced the opportunities it had and boldly went through the doors God opened because they had faith that they were called to something that went far beyond anything they could have imagined.

As we go forward we will have time to reimagine what our own love for God looks like. Perhaps we will rekindle the fire of our spirit to pursue the gifts and talents that God has given to us. Perhaps we will take risks and dare to dream big all for the sake of being faithful stewards and true believers of ourselves and of God. The church in Philadelphia didn’t remain faithful to God by playing it safe, they didn’t manage to persevere by taking the easy or familiar route. No instead the church of Philadelphia most likely had to adapt, had to change, and had to be creative in how they manifested their love for God.

Chapters are still being written… chapters about you, me, the Church, this church, Watertown, and all other things you could possibly name. The innumerable possibilities that wait for us are only limited by ourselves. Will we take “passionate patience” and “steadfast love” to mean that we are immovable? Or will we go boldly into the unknown with faith that our creativity and love will carry us through whatever lies ahead? Because that is an old / new story I would like to read. Amen.



Re-Imagining Church

Revelation 3:1-6 (New Revised Standard Version)

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and seven stars: ‘I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. Yet you still have a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot out your name in the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’”

__________

There’s a story about an eccentric pastor who one Sunday told the congregation, “Later today I want to invite everyone back, because we are going to be having a funeral service for the church.” Well you can imagine that everyone’s interest was piqued and so when evening came the church was full to the brim of both members  and of people who were from the community who had heard and were curious what a funeral service for the church would look like. As the pastor stepped up to the pulpit and began to lead the “funeral service,” he asked if people would be able to come up to the front of the church where there was a small wooden casket. Each individual made their forward from the pew that they were setting in and as they made their way to the front they looked inside and saw a little mirror inside the casket reflecting back an image of themselves.

The church in Sardis had a reputation for being great… The church in Sardis was established in a city that had accumulated a significant amount of wealth. The church in Sardis had in more ways than one become like the city itself, rich and powerful. Sardis was a place of trade and commerce. Merchants brought their goods into the city and the revenue generated from the sale of those items meant that Sardis had a pretty secure financial income. It appeared that the church in Sardis had everything that it needed to be successful in its ministry. But perhaps it was because the church in Sardis had everything that it needed that it eventually became “lukewarm” in following the teachings of Christ. Perhaps it was because the church in Sardis tried so hard to hold onto the things that made it great that it became a church that lost its way instead.

We are not immune to the struggles and the temptations that the church in Sardis faced. The temptation of looking in the mirror and seeing only the things that make us great, the things that remind us that we are a pillar of the community, the things that make us feel  impervious to the ongoing flow of time. But the church in Sardis, the church today is not immune to the false sense that everything is okay, the misbelief that the status quo is what is to be maintained at all cost, the desire to look longingly at the past as some ideal that needs to be reincarnated into today’s church. The identity of the church of Sardis had become so enmeshed, intertwined, with its wealth, history, and tradition, that the original mission of the church had become muddled and cloudy. The fire that had once kindled the church had become dim. No longer was there a priority to share this flame, the love of Christ, but instead the primary focus of the church had become to preserve this flame for posterity.

So what are we going to do and who are what are we going to become? Are we going to become the living church of Jesus Christ, the church that is being continually challenged to grow and change or are we going to place history and tradition over the gospel of Jesus Christ? Are we going to only write a check and give of our earthly treasures or are we going to give not only our earthly treasures but also give of our time, our talents, and our blood and sweat to the people that Jesus called us to serve? Are we going to be a church that wants to be served or are we going to throw open the doors of the church and take on the risks of what it means to be a church in the 21st century? Are we able to put down that crystal mirror long enough to see that outside our vaulted ceilings and rich history there is a community that is longing to be fed both in body and in spirit? Who are we going to become? Do you dare imagine?

At the beginning, I believe the church in Sardis must have had a passion for Christ, they must have had a passion to be the hands and feet of God in their community. I imagine that those who founded the church were like those who had come before us here in this place. I imagine that they were a small group of people, and dedicated themselves to doing the work that Christ had called them to do. I imagine that they could not have possibly dreamed of what the church would and could become when the laid the groundwork for the church in Sardis. But like all things in life things, things that started out in a simple manner don’t stay simple for very long, and instead of being focused on the mission of Jesus Christ they become a gathering place for those who want to be comfortable instead of being challenged.

There is a natural waxing and waning that occurs throughout the life of the church and throughout our own lives. We do not know where the Spirit of God will lead us. We do not know what lies around  the corner, we do not know what changes there will be, and we do not know whether or not God is calling us, here in this place, to be the same people we have always been or to become people who are always changing and being led by the Spirit of God. And while Christ is there with outstretched arms that offer us grace and forgiveness, Christ is also there with arms outstretched that push and prod us to go outside our comfort zone. Christ is there with outstretched arms to remind us that the church is not a place to be comfortable, but it is a place where we wrestle with all of life’s complexities, it is a place, a sacred place, a place that happens not only here and outside of these walls, where we give our all for the sake of having received all.

I’ve told this story before, but I think that it’s fitting to share it again.  I was leading a confirmation retreat for youth and their mentors. Besides leading plenary sessions for youth, I also led a small group for the adults who had come with them. While I try not to have favorites, there was one older man named Denny, who quickly jumped to the top of the list. During a discussion about how the church can be a better neighbor to those in the community Denny chimed in, “You know I’m really tired of some of the things my church does… All they do is debate and complain about how the church should be decorated. They’re concerned about the flowers and the building, but not about the people around us. When I walk outside of church on Sunday I see that there is so much more that we can and should be doing! Yet all people seem to ever talk about is keeping things the same!”

It is without a doubt that there will be a point in time where we, as a church, will encounter a moment that forces us to stop and think about what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. Perhaps that moment is today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow… But for today we pause as we break bread and pour out the cup in remembrance of the unity we share with all the saints in every time and place. In our partaking of the bread and drinking from the cup, perhaps we will once again find the spark that ignites our souls, similar to the spark that fueled Denny’s passion for the church. In our participating in this holy sacrament we are able to glimpse at what the church of Jesus Christ is really built on. This thing we call church isn’t meant to be easy. It isn’t meant to be a comfortable place. It is in a fact place where we hold a mirror up to ourselves, seek and ask for forgiveness, and then the most important part it is a place then where we then go out into the world as people who have been transformed by the love that we have received from God.

What is the Spirit of God saying to the church today? Where do we see the Spirit leading us today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow? We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we can take solace in the fact that those who have come before us have laid the foundation to discern where God is calling us to be. We always talk about what it means to be a church in the 21st century, but why don’t we act on it? I think that starting today would be better than starting tomorrow, and would be a great place for us to re-imagine what the church could and can be as we  join with other churches in same the process of re-imagining what it means to be the hand and feet of Christ in the world! So I’ll ask again, “What is the Spirit of God saying to the church today?” What is the Spirit of God saying we need to let go of and prune in order to bear fruit? What is the Spirit of God saying we need to embrace in order to become the full body of Christ? How is the Spirit of God calling you to serve? So let us rekindle that fire that dwells within our hearts! And if we are dare ask ourselves these questions we may find that there is something great waiting to be discovered! Amen.



Shall We Gather At The River?

Sermon

Kids help play “Shall We Gather At The River”

II Kings 5 (Selected Verses)  (The Message)

Naaman was a general of the army under the king of Aram. He was important to his master, who held him in the highest esteem because it was by him that God had given victory to Aram: a truly great man, but afflicted with a grievous skin disease… So Naaman with his horses and chariots arrived in style and stopped at Elisha’s door. Elisha sent out a servant to meet him with this message: “Go to the River Jordan and immerse yourself seven times… ” Naaman lost his temper. He turned on his heel saying, “I thought he’d personally come out and meet me, call on the name of God, wave his hand over the diseased spot, and get rid of the disease. The Damascus rivers, Abana and Pharpar, are cleaner by far than any of the rivers in Israel. Why not bathe in them? I’d at least get clean.” But his servants caught up with him and said, “Father, if the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not this simple task ‘wash and be clean?” So he did… Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel… But there’s one thing for which I need God’s pardon: When my master, leaning on my arm, enters the shrine of Rimmon and worships there, and I’m with him there, worshipping Rimmon, may you see to it that God forgive me for this.” Then Elisha said, “Everything will be alright. Go in peace.”

__________

This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture… And it reminds me a lot of a television show I had been watching recently called “The Good Place.” In case you haven’t seen this show before “The Good Place” tells the story of four individuals who end up in “the good place,” aka heaven. However, they soon discover that what they thought was “the good place” is actually the “bad place” and they try to better themselves in order to escape. Each person had to come to the realization that life is not as clear cut as we want it to be. Sometimes our morals, our ethics, our beliefs, conflict with the complex nature of life.

Now I’m not an all knowing judge who can make a declarative statement of who is in the  so I can’t say whether or not Naaman was a bad person, but I can imagine that he was probably carrying some baggage of his own. As a commander in the Syrian army Naaman received quite a lot of respect, and we actually discover that God, the same God who is the God of Israel, helped Naaman win a battle for Aram. God seems to works in mysterious ways, ways that go beyond our comprehension, that exceed logic and reason… Just imagine a scenario where God was helping one of your enemies, or that person who is a thorn in your side… I don’t think we would be thrilled at God helping that person out, but it highlights the truth that God proves that the world doesn’t revolve around us.

So we may assume Naaman is so “great” that no one, or nothing, can ever touch him. But we will discover that Naaman soon becomes a man who is “unclean,” an individual who no one will approach out of fear.. In Israel, it was common for people to be quarantined for a least seven days if they were found to have a disease that was not properly treated. What a surprise it must have been then to see someone like Naaman riding into Israel, a foreigner, a stranger, a sick man, Naaman did not fit the mold when it came to blending into as he tried to seek out help from the prophet Elisha.

At one point nearly all of of us has felt  leprous, marginalized from at least one group we would like to have desperately been a part of. So maybe we can begin to feel Naaman’s pain as we see him slowly being pushed out of his society to the margin… Maybe we can empathize with Naaman, maybe we can see how we ourselves have pushed others our in order to make ourselves “clean.” The pain, the conflict, the sense of loss that we all have experienced are important, but they should never take such a priority in our lives that those feelings then justify our need to keep people out who are so desperately looking for healing of both the body and the soul.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have been in Naaman’s situation. The kind of situation where desperation hits so hard that it pushes you to look for answers in unconventional places. When I look back at my father who was diagnosed with cancer I remember how many people gave advice on how it should be treated and how he should change his lifestyle during the process… And in that moment where we realize we have no control over the outcome, I imagine that is the kind of desperation that Naaman was feeling. It is the desperation that drives some people onto the black market in search of medicines our society doesn’t sanction. It’s the kind of desperation that sometimes drives lonely people to marry abusers and materially poor people to take out rash loans and then become victims of an oppressive system.

Naaman is at his wits end! He has tried to find healing and a solution to his problems, but has come up empty handed. In an act of desperation Naaman succumbs to following the advice of his wife’s slave who told him that there was a man in Israel who could relieve him of all his afflictions. Naaman must have been in a pretty bad place… Maybe we’ve been in a place like that as well, a place where we have tried all of the options that we could find, but ended up having to seek answers from an unlikely source. That takes a heart that humble and willing to admit that they aren’t always right.

We find out that humility takes more than just asking for help… It takes a solid action, a step that truly shatters our sense of importance. Naaman was a military commander, a high ranking official, a pseudo-celebrity… So when he came seeking help from Elisha he was expecting to be healed in a way that suited a person of his stature… It must have been humiliating then to hear that Elisha’s only prescription for his situation, his disease, was to go and wash in the Jordan River! There were so many other options that would have been suited for a man of Naamans stature, but this simple task of bathing in order to be clean almost tripped up Naaman… I think that when we think about the work Christ has given us we often get tripped up on the very simple tasks of what it means to be disciples (i.e. love one another and be humble).

The Jordan River would be comparable to the Hudson River in New York City… I’ll admit that I wouldn’t dare swim in the Hudson, and the Jordan River was just as bad. The Jordan River wasn’t even suitable to cleaning if you are trying to imagine just how dirty the Jordan River really was. But it’s down at that riverside, its when we gather at the river that we discover that the waters of the Jordan River represent more than just a dirty river. It’s when we gather at the river, we come to understand that God does not care about our social status, our wealth, our education, and our accomplishments,  but instead cares about whether we are going to take a leap of faith and surrender all of those things in order to pursue a new purpose that is not centered on the things of this earth.

Part of this story about Naaman that wasn’t included in this morning's reading is that Naaman bottles up soil from Israel in order to bring it back to Aram. It might sound strange for us today, but back then gods and other deities were viewed as local beings… Each god, each sacred power, had its own territory. So in collecting soil from Israel Naaman was making a statement and a rather profound statement. After being healed Naaman had a radical shift in his religious values, one that takes him from believing in a pantheon of gods to just believe that there is the only one true God of Israel… It is what allows Naaman to say, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” Have you ever had a moment of clarity like Naaman? Perhaps it doesn’t have to be that profound, but perhaps you’ve had a time where something just clicked into place and things began to make sense.

At the end of the day who here doesn’t feel a sense of conflict between their life and their faith?!? Naaman knows this feeling and openly admits it to Elisha and asks, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel… But there’s one thing for which I need God’s pardon: When my master, leaning on my arm, enters the shrine of Rimmon and worships there, and I’m with him there, worshipping Rimmon, may you see to it that God forgive me for this.”

Now Elisha could have taken the hardliner position when it came to Naaman’s request… Elisha was under no obligation to pardon Naaman or anything like that, and it would have been easy for Elisha to say, “You know what Naaman? You are either for us or against us.” But Elisha doesn’t say any of those things… And instead Elisha turns to Naaman and says, “Everything will be alright. Go in peace.” “Go in peace, shalom, be whole, be still, and know that God is with you.” If we were in Elisha’s place would we have offered such words of love and grace to Naaman? Or would we have taken that hardliner position? I would hope that we would realize that our lives have not always been perfect, that there have been times when our faith and our lives were at such conflict with one another we have had to compromise on certain things. But at the end of the day we still know that God is waiting for us with an understanding heart.

I find that we often get hung up on “the good place” and “the bad place,” and as a result we end up with some convoluted point system that we constantly runs through our heads. What we find this morning is that our actions, while they are important, are not the only thing God cares about… I believe that we find that God cares more about why we do things and what exists and the heart of our very being. We may not have leprosy, we may not have find that we have been marginalized or excluded, but we find that we treat others as though they have leprosy. And it’s at the Jordan River, that good ol’ dirty river, where we gather together to experience the healing grace that only God can provide.

So shall we gather at the river? So that, “On the margin of the river, Washing up its silver spray, We will walk and worship ever, All the happy golden day.” Amen.





What Good Comes From Troas?

Acts 16:1-10 (The Message)
Paul came first to Derbe, then Lystra. He found a disciple there by the name of Timothy, son of a devout Jewish mother and Greek Father. Friends in Lystra and Iconium all said what a fine young man he was. Paul wanted to recruit him for their mission, but first took him aside and made him in a fashion that would be more acceptable to the Jews. For they knew that his father was Greek. As they traveled from town to town, they presented the simple guidelines the Jerusalem apostles and leaders had come up with. That turned out to be most helpful. Day after day the congregations became stronger in faith and larger in size. They went to Phrygia, and then on through the region of Galatia. Their plan was to turn west into Asia province, but the Holy Spirit blocked that route. So they went to Mysia and tried to go north to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them go there either. Proceeding on through Mysia, they went down to the seaport of Troas. That night Paul had a dream: A Macedonian stood on the far shore and called across the sea, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” The dream gave Paul his map. We went to work at once getting things ready to cross over to Macedonia. All the pieces had come together. We knew now for sure that God had called us to preach the good news to the Europeans. 

__________

The Apostle Paul must have been near the end of his patience this morning as he tried to discern which way God wanted him and his companions to go. Luke tells us that as Paul traveled with Timothy they tried to head west into Asia, but the Spirit of God prevented them. So then we find that they tried to north to some other regions as well, but each time the Spirit of God blocked their path. Who knows what happened… Perhaps the roads were washed away during a flood or a massive conflict broke out between warring tribes; all we know is that by the time we find Paul and those traveling with him, they had found their way to the port city of Troas.

I wonder what was going through Paul’s mind as they began to settle in for the night once they reached the little town of Troas. Maybe Paul began to question his calling… Wouldn’t you if you were Paul? Doubt would probably be inevitables, especially if we were the ones who had just invested a large amount of time and energy into something that looked like it was going to end in an ugly mess. There’s actually a mosaic that can be found in Macedonia today that depicts Paul’s time in Troas. It shows Paul on the outskirts of the city in what looks to be a cave, and Paul is leaning against a hard uncomfortable looking rock. You can see the bags under Paul’s eyes alluding to how tired he was from having journeyed such a great distance for what must have felt like a waste of time and resources. You can just imagine Paul looking up towards the heavens asking, “Why would you send me here God?”

Who here has ever found themselves ending up in Troas? You see Troas is the last place we ever thought we would end up, it is the place that we associate with failure and disbelief. It is in the town of Troas that we grapple with the hardships of life… Perhaps Troas is the place that reminds you that you didn’t get the job or get into the school that you wanted… Perhaps Troas is the place that reminds you of a broken relationship or a past hurt that you can’t let go. Perhaps Troas is the place where you lay awake at night wondering what good, what meaning, can come out of a place that reeks of such unpleasantness. How do we end up in a place like Troas? What good can come out of a place like Troas? And where is God’s Holy Spirit taking us when we think that Troas is all that we can look forward to at the end of our long and hard fought journey.

We have an advantage this morning, which is that we know that it was the Spirit of God that prevented Paul and those traveling with him from entering the into places like Asia and Bithynia. But in the moment I would bet that Paul wasn’t feeling very confident when they were turned away time and time again. And for us in the here and now we might also succumb to the same feelings of dread and fear when we find that we may not be going in the direction that God wants us to… And therefore it would be easier to just give up, to throw in the towel and go back home where we know what to expect and where we know we will feel secure and insulated against a chaotic world.

There are a lot of things that can throw us for a loop when we’re trying to figure out what God wants us to do… And believe me this happens to pastors just as much as it happens to any other person who comes to church on Sunday morning. There are a number of different things in life that vie for our attention and at the end of the day we quickly find that we have devoted little of that time to God and we are just as confused as we were at the start of the day when we try and figure out where God is calling us. It’s no wonder then that we find that there are so many people who are lost in terms of trying to figure out and make sense of the larger questions that life often presents to us. How can we be prepared for a journey that requires us to be present in both body and soul if we have neglected to attend to the needs of our spiritual selves?

And while we may spend a lot of time worrying which path we will take in life know that God is with us every step of the way. And it’s not our job to get everything right… We shouldn’t be dedicating our time and energy to making sure that everything is “just right,” because that is God’s job not ours. And if we look at Paul’s journey we discover that if along the way we became closer to God or discovered something new about ourselves than the journey could never have been considered a failure in the first place. That is because the Spirit of God knows all the roads on which we travel. As C.S Lewis once wrote, “God can use all the wrong roads to get you to the right place.” If we are just willing to take a risk, to occasionally mix things up, then we might not only nurture our souls, but grow individually and corporately as well.

With things appearing to be bleak in our passage for today, Paul must have been caught off guard when he received a vision from God in a dream. Worrying about what they would do next Paul probably felt the weight taken off his chest when he saw the man from Macedonia calling out to them, yearning to hear the good news of the gospel. And sometimes we too find that we will be caught off guard when the life giving, life changing, work of the Spirit breaks into our world to use what gifts we have to offer to carve out an unexpected path… This means that as individuals and as a church we have to be open to the mindset that continually seeks to experiment with how we can truly be God’s hands and feet in the world.  Unfortunately this means that there will be a lot of failure, but the good news is that if we go forward with courage we will find that God can take one of those failures and show us a new path forward. 

We find that lesson being taught in this morning’s passage as Paul receives a vision in a dream from a man in Macedonia. I don’t think that Paul could have possibly imagined that their endless journeying would have led them across the sea to the European continent. What must have appeared to be a failure was redeemed and turned into an opening that would eventually lead to the gospel being spread throughout the rest of Europe. Could you imagine what impact that we as the First Presbyterian Church of Watertown could have if we were open to taking a leap of faith believing that the Spirit will lead us in our mission? While we may not think in the moment the work we are doing has much of an impact we are never fully aware of how our witness touches the lives of those who are around us. 

This narrative is one that has been told countless number of times… We find that in the Hebrew scriptures that Moses thought his life was over until God called him to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. We find Simon and Andrew thought that they would be fishermen for the rest of their lives until Jesus called them one day to follow him in order to become fishers of men. We find that Mary originally planned to have an ordinary life with Joseph until an angel of the Lord turned her life upside down. And we find that each and everyone of us here this morning has a story to tell… And while we may not be able to see how our lives have been used for the greater good that God envisions for us, we can probably look around to the various ways that we have had an impact on the lives of others who are both near and far away. 

That is why it is so important to recognize that this thing we call ministry is not limited to pastors… It is not limited to elders or deacons, but it is an endeavor that we all partake in… If we try to put the work on one person or a group of people then is the vision we are trying to maintain one that is truly open to the Spirit of God? We have an opportunity… A rich opportunity to be a living witness to what it means to be led by the love and light of God. We have an opportunity to show what it means to care not only about our own wellbeing, but the wellbeing and growth of others who live around us as well. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how young you are, or where you are in terms of your walk with God…

I don’t know how many times I have to say this, but the Holy Spirit is what should fuel us, should guide us, as we traverse the waters of life and faith. As the Spirit of God hovered over the chaotic waters that existed at the start of creation, here too the Spirit of God is present as we discern what it means to be the church in the 21st century. How will we be the church that is led by the Spirit of God? How will be a church that doesn’t get caught up on it’s failures, but asks, “What’s next? What else can we try?” In our attempts to be a church that meets people where they are we will certainly end up in Troas. But it is in Troas that we will inspired by the Spirit to pursue feats that go beyond anything we could have possibly imagined if we are willing to trust that our work is part of God’s larger tapestry. 

So as we finish this series on what it means to be a Spirit led church I have some final questions that I’d like you to consider: 

  • Where do you see the Spirit of God moving in your life? 

  • What are you doing to nurture and grow your own spiritual well being and the well being of others?

  • And how can we as a church be faithful in our witness to a God who asks us to take risks and dare to dream what lies beyond the other side of the ocean? 

Amen.

Remember Your Baptism

Acts 10:34-48 (The Message)
Peter fairly exploded with his good news: “It’s God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from – if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open. The Message he sent to the children of Israel – that through Jesus Christ everything is being put together again – well, he’s doing it everywhere, among everyone. “You know the story of what happened in Judea. It began in Galilee after John preached a total life-change. Then Jesus arrived from Nazareth, anointed by God with the Holy Spirit, ready for action. He went through the country helping people and healing everyone who was beaten down by the Devil. He was able to do all this because God was with him. And we saw it, saw it all, everything he did in the land of the Jews in Jerusalem where they killed him, hung him from a cross. But in three days God had him up, alive, and out where he could be seen. Not everyone saw him – he wasn’t put on public display. Witnesses had been carefully handpicked by God beforehand – us! We were the ones, there to eat and drink with him after he came back from the dead. He commissioned us to announce this in public, to bear solemn witness that he is in fact the One whom God destined as Judge of the living and the dead. But we’re not alone in this. Our witness that he is the means to forgiveness of sins is backed up by the witness of all the prophets.” No sooner were these words out of Peter’s mouth than the Holy Spirit came on the listeners. The believing Jews who had come with Peter couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on “outsiders” non-Jews, but there it was – they heard them speaking in tongues, heard them praising God. Then Peter said, “Do I hear any objections to baptizing these friends with water? They’ve received the Holy Spirit exactly as we did.” Hearing no objections, he ordered they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay on for a few days. 

__________

Here these words from our liturgy for the Sacrament of Baptism: 

Send your Spirit to move over this water that it may be a fountain of deliverance and rebirth. Wash away the sin of all who are cleansed by it. Raise them to new life, and graft them to the body of Christ. Pour out your Holy Spirit upon [your people] that they may have power to do your will, and continue forever in the risen life of Christ. To you be all praise, honor, and glory; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who, with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns forever. Amen.
(Book of Common Worship, 2018)

Do you remember your baptism? Perhaps you don’t remember the exact moment, but maybe you’ve been told stories about your baptism. Many of us who grew up Presbyterian, or in a similar tradition, were most likely baptized as infants. Though I imagine that there are some here this morning who haven’t yet been baptized or gone through the renewal of those vows in their confirmation, or I am sure that there are also those who aren’t sure what is so significant about the Sacrament of Baptism… 

In the Sacrament of Baptism we are told and reminded that God claims us and seals us to show that we belong to God. In the Sacrament of Baptism we are made members of the of the Church, the body of Christ, and in the Sacrament of Baptism we cast off the ways of sins, evil and death and are commissioned to live life in anew in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. And as those who have been charged to live life anew in the Holy Spirit, and as those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, we are given the great responsibility to be active and full participants in Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice in the world. 

We find this morning that there were those in the early church who couldn’t believe that this sacred sign could be passed onto those who were not like them. But the Spirit of God, the Spirit that surpasses all human understanding, was present and bestowed the gifts of God upon them. God cannot be contained within the boundaries of a church building, a tradition, or a group of people, but that didn’t stop the early church from trying… You may ask yourselves, “Wasn’t the church supposed to be a blessed and open community, “Didn’t they know that Christ came for all people, “Could they not see how the Holy Spirit touched the lives of those who were thought to be ‘outsiders’”? These are all legitimate questions, yet they are also questions we still wrestle with today. 

How do you live into the promises, the vows that were made at your baptism? How do you live into the promises and the vows that you make when we welcome the newly baptized into the church? These are questions we should be asking ourselves on a daily basis, because at the moment of our baptism, and at the moment we decided we wanted to be a part of this thing we call the church, we should have realized that our faith is something that takes place not only on Sunday, but wherever we go… But we haven’t always done that as a church… We haven’t always lived out our baptismal vows… Sometimes we’ve failed to connect our faith in God with Christ’s ongoing ministry of love, peace, and justice. Simply put these vows, these holy vows have been broken on more than one occasion. 

I want to share a few short stories with you this morning… I believe that these stories capture the urgent need for Christians to live out the charge we were given in our baptism… Because what we will find is that this symbol, this sacred sign of God’s love, has been defiled by the Church in the past and in the present,  and by the world in ways that are truly horrendous. And if we as a church are not willing to wear our faith on our sleeves wherever we go then maybe we need to ask ourselves who the church is really for? Is it for ourselves and our own comfort? Or is it for God and the life giving work that we participate in? A God who asks us to live out a risky faith?!? 

  • Down at the border, there is a great tragedy where thousands of children are being separated from their families. Regardless of where you place yourself on the political spectrum I would hope that we would be able to see how atrocious this is and how devastating and life-threatening it is to thousands of innocent children. The stories that get me the most are the ones where border agents tell mothers, tell fathers, that they are taking their children away to bathe them with water… Can you imagine how heart wrenching it is when an act that should be pure and sacred turns into a moment of fear and dread? It should make us angry! How can we as baptized people, and as people who follow a Lord and savior who said, “Let the little children come to me” let acts such as this occur? Are we living out the promises of baptism in those moments? 

  • There was a young adult who was a part of worship group I led at previous church. This individual was phenomenal. They played an instrument for the worship group, they were active in their small group, and they were mindful of the needs of the elderly members who attended the main worship service. But one day they pulled me aside and asked if we could talk outside of church. So we went to get some coffee and as we talked about life they told me that they gay, and that they were worried about people in the church finding out, because they didn’t think they would be accepted or welcomed. This was a weight, an unfathomable weight, that had loomed over them… It was hard to think that the church wouldn’t accept them for who they were… I mean this church had baptized them, had walked alongside them through thick and thin… But the sad thing, the thing that broke our hearts, was that I couldn’t give a reassuring answer… I couldn’t tell them that everything would be okay, because I knew there would be people who would try and force them out of the church. Are we as a church being faithful to the promises we make when we baptize children and bring them into the family of Christ?

  • At a Presbyterian Church there was an infant baptism… And as the baptized person grew the church walked alongside them. This church didn’t have all the answers, and they weren’t perfect, but nevertheless they walked with this baptized person. There weren’t many people who were like them, but that didn’t stop the church from finding ways that they could be active in worship… They invited them to join the choir and even asked them to be a member of session. Throughout their life this church walked with them up until the day they went to college. While the baptized person was still forming their beliefs they could always look back at the community of faith that nurtured them and loved them… They could see how they wore their faith on their sleeves, how their faith pushed them to go out into the community to be God’s hands and feet, and how it was okay to not always have the answers to the tough questions that life often presented. 

We find that in the passage this morning is that faith is something all encompassing, it permeates and works itself into all areas of our lives. That is why the vows we make in the Sacrament of Baptism, and the promises we make to God to follow Jesus Christ, are so important! Because these things are not some abstract confession to a far off cosmic entity. These things are important because they remind us that our faith is reflective of a God who came down to earth, who took on human flesh, and walked around the earth to be with those who are hurting and to put his teachings into action. 

Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations in order to boast that their church had the most people sitting in the pews… Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations in order to make the church a place for people who were just like them… Jesus asked the disciples to go out and make disciples of all nations so that all people could see how this gospel message that Christ brought to us is life-changing. And if it isn’t life changing then the faith we’ve cultivated for ourselves is founded on self-pleasure rather than an eagerness to have the Holy Spirit be the flame that fuels our work in the world! I don’t get flustered about many things in life, but I get do get flustered when people say the church is irrelevant, mostly because the church isn’t irrelevant, but the passion to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world has been extinguished within the church. Will we let the Spirit ignite that passion within our hearts?  

So how am I, how are you, how are we, living into our baptismal vows and the promises that we make to God when we choose to follow Jesus Christ? How are you nurturing your soul? And I know that I’ve said this before, but spiritual endeavor is not done alone. Peter even says in this mornings text, “ But we’re not alone in this.” We are not alone… Out of the three true stories and experiences that I mentioned before I hope you have a sense that the final one is where we should be seeing ourselves going as a church. We may not be perfect, we may not have all the answers, but Jesus is there! Jesus is there… And if we are willing to take a risk, a risk that dares us to expand our vision of the church really is then we might find some unexpected friends along the way. And while they may not be like us, we can be united in the Holy Spirit as we together follow the will that God has for us.  It is then that we will be living out the promises and the vows that we say during the Sacrament of Baptism. It is then that we will laugh, cry, and grow together as we journey along life and faith together. It is then that we may truly remember our baptism. Amen.

What If?

Acts 5:1-11 (The Message)
But a man named Ananias – his wife, Sapphira, conniving in this with him – sold a piece of land, secretly kept a part of the price for himself, and then brought the rest to the apostles and made an offering of it. Peter said, “Ananias, how did Satan get you to lie to the Holy Spirit and secretly keep back part of the price of the field? Before you sold it, it was all yours, and after you sold it, the money was yours to do with as you wished. So what got into you to pull a trick like this? You didn’t lie to men, but to God.” Ananias, when we heard those words, fell down dead. That put the fear of God into everyone who heard it. The younger men went right to work and wrapped him up, then carried him out and buried him. Not more than three hours later, his wife, knowing nothing of what had happened came in. Peter said, “Tell me, were you given this price for your field?” “Yes,” she said, “that price.” Peter responded, “What’s going on here that you connived to conspire against the Spirit of the Master? The men who buried your husband are at the door, and you’re next.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than she also fell down, dead. When the younger men returned they found her body. They carried her out and buried her alongside her husband. By this time the whole church, and in fact, everyone who heard of these things had a healthy respect for God. They knew God was not to be trifled with.

__________

The passage this morning from the Book of Acts should have caught your attention… It’s not a passage that is commonly preached from in churches probably because of its graphic nature. If this passage doesn’t scare you then I don’t know what will, because what we will discover is that the story of Ananias and Sapphira is a tale that still lives on in our lives today. I could try and settle any fears about this passage by telling you that the writer was only trying to convey a message through the use of gallows humor, dark humor, or that the reading shares similarities with epics that could have been found in surrounding cultures. But let’s stick to what we are told this morning with the hope that we will gain a new perspective and a renewed sense of where the Spirit of God is calling us to go.

So what are the told this morning? What are the facts? We know that at this time there is a spirit of giving, a spirit of generosity that had worked its way into the early church…  Previously in the Book of Acts we find that, “Everyone around was in awe – all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all believers lived in harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.” (Acts 2:43-45) Those initial believers came together to live in community with one another, a community that sought to utilize the collective good of all it’s members in order to care for those in the church and to even care for those who lived around them.

This spirit of pouring blessings upon one another had spread throughout, and apparently had made its way to Ananias and Sapphira who sold a piece of property with the intention of giving all of the proceeds to the apostles. But something happened and we find that as a result Ananias and Sapphira withheld a portion of the of the profits instead of fulfilling their word to give it to God. The writer of the Book of Acts said that Ananias and Sapphira were “conniving,” scheming, with one another. However, I think there was some editorial work done… I don’t think Ananias and Sapphira sat the money down on a table, looked at one another, and said, “Hey, I have a good idea… Why don’t we lie to God?” No… I think the conversation that occured was similar to ones that happen in our own lives and is a honest reflection of what we wrestle with, “You know we have taxes to pay to the Romans?… We still have other expenses that might come up… What if something were to happen?” 

Like I said I don’t think that Ananias and Sapphira set out with the intention to sell property in order to lie to God, because no one sets out with that goal in mind. It might be anachronistic, but I imagine that if Ananias and Sapphira were alive today they might have added, “You know the costs of your last treatment were more expensive than what we were thinking… The kids have school supplies they need… And your parents are looking to retire and I don’t know if we can afford to give them the care that they need…” Ananias and Sapphira probably felt pressure to act in the same spirit of generosity that had swept the church, but like us they probably told themselves, “Let’s keep some to ourselves just in case… God wants me, wants us to take care of ourselves.”

The irony is that there is no passage of Scripture that talks about God helping those who help themselves, or God only caring about those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps… These are sayings that have become so ingrained in our way of life, but the Gospel actually turns it on it’s head, for wasn’t it Jesus who said to the disciples and the multitude of others who were present, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  (Matthew 11:28-29) We hear these words, the words that Jesus himself spoke, but we resist them because they challenge us to live into a way of life that takes us outside the universe we have tried to create for ourselves. In the moments that we hold back from others, we are really holding back from God.

What should have us worried this morning is that Ananias didn’t lose his life because he held back some of the money from the property that he sold, the disciples acknowledged that the money was Anania’s and that he had full control over how it was spent… Ananias lost his life because he lied to God. You can’t lie to a church, a community, that is filled with the Spirit of God, because you are lying to God. The discomfort that we feel from this passage stems from the fact that we too lie to God whenever we say that we are dedicated to following  Jesus, but try keep some of the gifts for ourselves… How many times have we heard that we want the church to change, to be a place for all people and not just for us? How many times have we refused to share our time, talents, our faith, or abilities with those in need because they didn’t fit our mold for who was deserving of God’s grace, as if we have the right to pass such a judgement on others? But that is the kind of self-less outpouring of love that the Spirit demands, not requests, of us!

We as disciples of Christ, we as the body of Christ, the Church, cannot maintain an iron grasp on the gifts and talents that have been given to us by God… And I’m not just talking about money… Money is the obvious illustration that is used in this passage, and in my opinion an easy way out… I’m also talking about our time, our skills, our abilities to sing, speak, and act, in addition to the multiple ways in which we can be a community that supports one other. In what ways have we held onto certain aspects of our lives, of our church, in order to save it for that “what if” occasion? How many times have we missed opportunities to build relationships with those around us because we selfishly thought that the gifts God gave us were for us and us alone? What I’m essentially asking myself and all of you this morning, “Is when have we given to God with one hand open and the other hand clenched shut like an ironclad trap  trying to preserve those things we think belong only to ourselves?”

Maybe it’s time that we shift gears and take a look at where the Spirit is calling us to go in the future with a model of giving that reflects two open hands; instead of one hand open and one hand closed. To look forward maybe all we have to do is look back to see how that spirit of generosity, that spirit of giving, that spirit of care, thrived within the the early days of the founding members of the First Presbyterian Church of Watertown. On June 3, 1803, thirteen men and women assembled in Mr. Burnham’s barn to found a church under the leadership of the Rev. Lazelle. It was determined that all those who were communicants of the church would offer six cents to help defray the cost of a communion table. Six cents may not seem like a lot, but we’re talking about a large percentage when we look at the inflation between 1803 and today. 

Those who have come before us did not have much… They were pioneers of Northern New York, trailblazers who established a community of faith to serve those who were around them. Now I can’t say that I finished reading the book that chronicles the history of this church, but I imagine that there were times where things weren’t good… I imagine there were times when people were exclude, where money became more important than people, and times where going to church might have been more for gaining social capital than for actually worshipping God… Yet through all of those times I bet that there were those who still made an offering to God, the kind of offering that Ananias and Sapphira wanted to make… Those who never stopped living life with two hands open instead of one knowing that God would be there with them. 

The passage this morning is tough… But sometimes we need a tough passage to shake things up, to break us from lives that are either complacent or stagnant. Now I’m not advocating that you go out and sell your land or other goods, because I think we might come close to being a borderline cult…  However, the simple truth is that we cannot go about our lives saying that we offer what we have to God when we have one hand behind us clenched shut. So what are we going to do? It’s one thing to say that we will offer what we have to God and that we will be a community of faith for all people, but it’s another things to then follow up putting our words into actions. God knows all about the “what ifs” of life, and hurdles that are associated with them… That is why we have this thing called the church…  So how will we let the Spirit of God use what we have to better those who are our neighbors and ourselves? Will we strain to preserve them for ourselves? Or will we trust that God will work for the greater good that purifies our selfish desires and turns them into oceans of unending love? Amen.

A Holy Disturbance

Acts 2:1-12 (The Message)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

_________

Once again we find the disciples had gathered together in a secluded, private,  room… It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone at this point, because this is a scene that we have witnessed before  in previous texts. We only have to look back at the Easter story, in which the disciples fled and hid after the crucifixion of Jesus. They were afraid of the teachers of the law, the Roman Empire, and the people who shouted out to Pontius Pilate, “Crucify him, crucify him!” But this morning Luke doesn’t tell us why the disciples had come together in Jerusalem…  All we are told is that it was the day of Pentecost, which was a time of feasting and celebration for the Jewish people, and that the disciples were present with each other in one place.

With everything that was going on, it must have been noisy… Imagine the streets of Jerusalem being filled with people from all different places, conversations could probably be heard through the windows, which must have made it all the more terrifying when that sound of a rushing, violent, wind filled the place where the disciples were staying. However, the sound of the wind that flooded the place they were staying, must have seemed pretty minor in comparison when they saw the tongues of fire descending upon their heads, it was certainly a “holy disturbance.” This disturbance wasn’t planned, the disciples probably weren’t ready, but one way or another they went out being filled with the Holy Spirit. The question for us this morning is how will we react to this holy disturbance when the Holy Spirit comes into our presence and says, “Come, follow me, be inspired, be challenged, and know that I am here with you.”

We aren’t always good with disturbances or maybe I should say we aren’t always good at dealing with change that pushes us to go beyond what we have come to know and find comforting and reassuring. Yet we see this recurring throughout Scripture… God reached out to Moses from the burning bush calling Moses to leave behind the life he had made for himself… God asked Jonah to go and proclaim the good news to the people of Nineveh whom Jonah had despised… God asked Mary to take on the task of conceiving a son that would be named Emmanuel, God with us… God asked the disciples if they would drop what they were doing and come follow him… And God asks the same life disturbing question to us today. But it’s hard to answer the call, to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit kindling a fire inside us, when we erect a sanctuary, a safe haven, a refuge for ourselves in order to keep the world out of the space we have created for our own pleasure.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if the church, this church, didn’t have any walls or ceilings… What would it be like for us to worship in a space where we were completely exposed to those around us? How would we handle ourselves in a situation where we could would look out to see our neighbors passing by on the sidewalk or strangers driving down Washington Street? Would we welcome them? Would let them in? Would we let them into the “one place” where we gathered to seek God, or does the Holy Spirit need to descend and push out into our community like it pushed the disciples out into the streets of Jerusalem?  Now Mary Sanford, our church historian, might have some words for me if I started taking a sledgehammer to the outside of the church, but I want us to really think about what it would look like, what it would mean for us and others, if we acted, lived, and worshipped like the church was not a building, but a way of life.

Recently I attended the changing of command ceremony for Lt. Col. Jeremy Gwinn up at Ft. Drum. I don’t come from a military background, so my volunteer work with the USO and going to events such as this has been a great learning experience… I’ll say that I thought Presbyterians used a lot of acronyms, but we fall so short in terms of the number of acronyms our armed forces use… Getting back on track, each time I go to Ft. Drum I’m greeted with the 10th Mountain Divisions motto “Climb to Glory.” I think this is a fitting phrase for us today as we gather during this season of Pentecost. As the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, we are reminded of how God continually meets us where we are, and in response we take the gifts that we have received and “climb to glory” by being faithful in our words, deeds, and actions… It’s a holistic perspective. One that reminds us that while we should use our brains we need to use our hearts and hands as well.

God didn’t call the disciples to go to the places that they thought were comfortable. God didn’t call the disciples to be arrogant or indignant. God didn’t call the disciples to only care for those people who were like them. No… God called them to go to places where God’s own heart hurts the most. God called them to go and to be with the widows and the orphans, to go and welcome the stranger who came from a foreign land, and to go and to be in the places where there is so much hurt and pain that those who live there are either forgotten about or pushed far off into the extreme margins of our society. It’s not here where God calls us to be… It may be a part of what it means to be the church, but it’s out there where God truly calls us to be… That is where we are supposed to be the church. Church isn’t a place where you gather on Sunday morning, but it is found in the divine interactions, the moments of grace, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation, that we have with one another.

So where is God’s heart hurting the most today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow? Where is God’s heart hurting in your own life and in the lives of those who live around us? Where is God’s hurting heart calling us to be? We do a lot of great mission work… We’ve established sustainable and healthy programs in Malawi, we’ve gone down to Mexico to work with bricks and mortar, and we’ve gone to Europe and the Middle East to cultivate our spiritual lives, so we’re already taking a step in the right direction. Though I’ll that  it’s easy to find the places where God’s heart is hurting if they are far away, but it’s more difficult to answer the question of where God’s heart hurts when we have to look around our own community. Yet that is also where the Spirit of God is calling us to be… It’s more than just writing a check, it’s more than wishing people luck in their endeavors, it requires blood, sweat, tears, and experimentation to cultivate the lasting relationships that make a healthy community of faith, a community that fully embraces the idea that each and everyone of us are created in the image of God.

If we dare to let the Holy Spirit be our guide we will be led by love, we will be led by grace, and we will be led by a God who has walked in our footsteps… If we dare to let the Holy Spirit be our guide we might find that our swords may truly be beaten into plowshares one day… If we dare to let the Holy Spirit be our guide then our actions, and our passions, will speak in sweet harmony with the Gospel that Christ has given us. If we dare to let the Holy Spirit be our guide, we will then be fully aware that as soon as our feet hit the ground in the morning that what we are doing is church, that in the conversations we have with one another we are praising God, that in the moments of grief that we share we are turning to a Savior who has also  grieved and died, and in the moments we go and care for our neighbors, loving them and letting them love us, that the words of the Jesus are being fulfilled in that moment… If we dare to allow the Spirit to guide us perhaps we will rekindle the flame that already exists with our souls, perhaps then we will rekindle our love for one another, our love for God, our love for true justice and peace, and our rediscover the beauty that comes from unexpected places. But that is only if we dare to let the Spirit be our guide and disturb and disrupt us. Are we will willing to trust the Spirit of God to lead us into the unknown, into such a challenging place?

Following the Holy Spirit does not mean everything will go our way… There will be a lot of failures… Just look at Scripture! The New Testament recounts the numerous failures of the disciples as they went out on their missionary journeys throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. In our following of the Holy Spirit, we won’t get everything right. Ministry is messy, life is messy, this thing we call the church is messy, but the beautiful part is that God loves every last bit of what we have to offer. In the spills and mishaps that life brings God is co-laboring with us, encouraging us, sharing in our joys and sorrows… Are we ready for the chaos and messiness that the Holy Spirit brings? I don’t know… I don’t have the silver bullet that provides a reassuring answer… But I do know this, that in our striving to be active and faithful followers of Christ the fears of what the future will be are soothed by the knowledge that there is a community, a family of individuals, who are wrestling with the struggles of life as well.

At the end of our passage from the Book of Acts we find the those who bore witness to the disciples speaking in different tongues were left in a state of amazement, and that they asked one another, “What does this mean?” This summer we’ll be exploring select passages from the Acts as we ask a similar question, “What does it mean for us to be a spiritual led, spiritually transformed, church?” There’s no one answer, which may be hard for some folks, but that’s only because the Spirit of God cannot be contained by a single dogma, a single religious practice, or church building… The Spirit of God has to be let free… It has to be allowed to work in ways that surprise us, that bring us to the darkened corners of our communities, and show us how in our loving of others we too are loved.  Get ready… Because I hope that we can go on a journey together… A journey that invites the Holy Spirit to be present in a way that is familiar yet challenging. May we welcome the holy disturbances that can be found in Pentecost. Allow yourselves to get caught off guard… Because you may be surprised at what the Holy Spirit allows us to uncover. Amen.

Faith, The Final Frontier

John 20:19-31 (The Message)
Later on that day, the disciples had gathered together, but, fearful of the Jews, had locked all the doors in the house. Jesus entered, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he showed them his hands and side. The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: “Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.” Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.” But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.” Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.” Thomas said, “My Master! My God!” Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.” Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.

__________

“Space, the final frontier… These are the voyages of the starship…” I’m sorry… That’s the opening for something else, but it’s still relevant to what we are talking about today, which is faith. Faith in both things that we can see and cannot see. Maybe we don’t have a starship to chart undiscovered star systems, but I think it might be an appropriate metaphor for us as we navigate today’s passage from the Gospel According to John. 

But since I mentioned it it was in 1966 that the first episode of Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry aired on televisions across America. Star Trek, which first began with the adventures of Captain Kirk and the starship Enterprise soon evolved out of the realm of science fiction… Over the years, it addressed issues that were relevant to its viewers, pushed the boundaries of what was and wasn’t acceptable to broadcast, and inspired generations to imagine what lies beyond our own solar system. While Gene Roddenberry had distanced himself from his Christian upbringing, his series would still occasionally ask questions pertaining to faith, “What does it mean when we can’t observe something or hold it in our hands?” “What does it look like to believe in the spiritual when it seems like everything can be explained  using the scientific method?” “ Is there still room for faith and a belief in things that aren’t able to be quantified or studied?”

Perhaps then faith really is the final frontier… There are no scans, no notes that can be made, and no way to hold faith in our hands. It’s a little disconcerting when you think about it. We trust in our senses… We put stock into the things that we can see, touch, smell, hear, and taste, but faith doesn’t lend itself to any of those and as a result faith has become shrouded in mystery, which makes it hard to talk about. I admit that as Presbyterians we are not always great when it comes to talking about our faith. We’d much rather talk about sports, things that are going on in the community, friends, family, and dare I say even the tumultuous realm of politics, anything else, but faith.  So let’s try and demystify faith for the sake of exploring that final frontier. 

I think it would be helpful to take a look at what faith is not before we look at what faith is…  If faith is the final frontier, then that means we have to dive in and explore what faith is, taking in all of its complexities, faults, triumphs, joys, and sorrows. Because if we aren’t willing to confront the mysteries of faith, how can we hope to know not only ourselves, but this God whom we profess to worship and serve each and every week? 

Well, for starters, faith isn’t a litmus test… There’s the tendency to view faith as being something that indicates whether or not someone is truly a follower of Christ, but let me tell you that we have no way of knowing what goes on deep within the human soul. If Thomas, a disciple a Jesus Christ, a witness to countless miracles and signs still had questions and doubts where does that leave us? This is the whole point of the Easter story! It’s the reason why God came down to earth and took on human flesh because God wanted to know what it meant for us to live in a world that wrestled with both tremendous joy and unspeakable suffering. There is no definitive answer when we talk about having faith.  It’s something that is always changing. 

Whether we are new to the faith or have been going to church for decades, faith is something that does not lend itself to a clear-cut answer to whether or not someone is “in” or “out.” There is no decoder ring to determine who belongs and who doesn’t. We as Christians have tried this before and each time we have failed miserably. You look back to periods in history such as the Spanish Inquisition, the fighting between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, and the segregation of churches here in America. When you process these things you begin to realize that all of our attempts to section off parts of the body of Christ have been futile. If we do not live with the hope that is found in the resurrection then what are we doing? How can we possibly expect to better understand ourselves in relationship to God, if we exert so much energy into creating an exclusive club? 

So what else is not a part of faith… Well, faith isn’t an excuse to be ignorant of reality or the struggles in which we all encounter at some point or another… Maybe I’m not phrasing this in a way that really makes sense, so let me try and unpack it. We’ve all heard and used phrases like, “I’ll pray for you,” “I’m thinking of you,” “I’ll send you my thoughts and prayers.” They’re pretty common phrases that we use on a semi-regular basis, but there are some sayings that we probably shouldn’t use in certain situations depending on what is going on in somebody else’s life. While faith is a balm that can soothe both our body and soul, it doesn’t ask that we turn a blind eye to the fact that there are many things in life that can’t be assigned a rational reason or purpose. 

I remember my time as a hospital chaplain and a family member told a patient, “If you have faith that God will heal you, then God will.” Really? Are you sure that we’re looking at the same person? They’re on their deathbed… How can you tell them that if they have faith God will heal them? When we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death, both literally and figuratively, I don’t imagine that someone telling you to have faith would be much of a comfort. It wasn’t too long ago that we found Jesus hanging on a cross… That was real… There was real flesh, real blood, that was convicted of a crime that was not justified… On the cross, Christ looked down to find Mary weeping with a multitude of others… Jesus didn’t tell her to have faith that everything would be okay. Instead, we found a Jesus who cared about who would welcome her into their community once he was gone. Faith doesn’t give us a way to ignore these realities, but asks us instead go around and seek out those who are hurting so that we can offer not only words but the physical sign of God’s presence as well. 

So we have a better understanding of the things that do not make up faith. So what fills in those gaps? What are the things that make up faith and what is at the core of the faith that Jesus presents in this morning’s Scripture reading? Perhaps we’ll find that once again, Jesus breaks our expectations, our standards of ourselves and others, and comes to bring us into a deeper relationship that sustains and nurtures us, because we have a living a faith, a faith that calls us to action, to get up and go out from our pews into the world that God created, leaving behind our prejudices, fears, and hate.

Faith is a journey… Faith is something that should not remain static. It’s not a precious family heirloom that is meant to be shrouded in time-honored tradition and gathers dust and cobwebs. On the contrary, our faith should almost be like a quilt that is assembled by many different people. There are pieces that make it unique, make it ours, but there are pieces that demonstrate how our faith has been impacted by those whom we have met and by the events in our life. If my faith today was the same as it was 10 years ago, I should be concerned… Because that means that nothing has happened. Nothing has challenged me to ask where God is calling me in the midst of everything else that is going on in my life. If our faith, if our identity as a church has not changed in the past 10 years maybe we need to ask ourselves where God is truly leading us. We can’t just sit in “friendly territory,” at some point we have to move into the unexplored realms of life and faith in order to continually discover what God is asking us to do. 

Faith is meant to root us in reality when the world is so chaotic… Sometimes we will falter, and that’s okay. Doubts, questions, they are an essential part of what it means to have a healthy faith. Thomas often gets a hard time for having doubted that Jesus rose from dead. There are some valid points to be made for why Thomas shouldn’t have doubted the others, but Thomas accurately reflects our lives in the here and now. We have doubts, we have questions, we wonder why there is so much death in the world, we question why evil actions are so prevalent, and we long for the days when our soul can find refuge from the darkness and chaos of the world. There may be reasons for us to critique, Thomas, but there are even more reasons why we should look towards Thomas as an example of what it means to have faith in an uncertain world. 

And do you know what the best part about all of this is? It’s that Jesus is there… Jesus is there offering an abundance of grace and forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t berate Thomas, Jesus doesn’t chastise him, because he knows what it is like to live with the tensions of having faith in the divine, the unseen, and the real-life problems that we encounter in our everyday lives. The story of Easter is not just a story, it’s a way of life… This Easter season we are asked whether or not we will journey on with a faith that asks questions, looks out for our neighbors, and seeks to embody the love and grace of God. It means that we’ll change, we’ll grow, we won’t just stagnate in our relationship to God, clinging to traditions that are no longer relevant, but flourish as we continue on with faith that God will lead us, both in our own lives and in our various communities. Amen.

Palms, Praises, and People

Text: Mark 11:1-11
When they were nearing Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany on Mount Olives, he sent off two of the disciples with instructions: “Go to the village across from you. As soon as you enter, you’ll find a colt tethered, one that has never yet been ridden. Untie it and bring it. If anyone asks you, ‘What are you doing?’ say, ‘The Master needs him, and will return him right away.’” They went and found a colt tied to a door at the street corner and untied it. Some of those standing there said, “What are you doing untying that colt?” The disciples replied exactly as Jesus had instructed them, and the people let them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus, spread their coats on it, and he mounted it. The people gave him a wonderful welcome, some throwing their coats on the street, other spreading out rushes they had cut in the fields. Running ahead and following after, they were calling out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Blessed the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” He entered Jerusalem, then entered the Temple. He looked around, taking it all in. But by now it was late, so he went back to Bethany with the Twelve.

__________

The Son of God, the Messiah, the one who would restore Israel, the King of Kings, rode into Jerusalem on the back of a colt that had never been ridden. Can you imagine it? What must it have been like to stand there in the crowd as Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem. The people were so excited that some placed palm branches that they had cut from nearby fields while others took their cloaks and placed them on the ground in front of Jesus, all while a great number of others gathered to greet him. With all  the pomp and circumstance surrounding Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem it raises the question, “Why did they do that,” Why are we continuing to do it?”…

These questions are why I love the Gospel of Mark. There is an “earthiness” that brings the cosmic down to our own plane of existence. The people who appear in Mark’s narrative are not that much different than ourselves… They asked questions of one another and of God. And this God who they asked questions of turned the world upside down and continues to turn the world on its head. When the people in the city placed palm branches and their coats on the ground I wonder if they really knew what they were getting themselves into. Each of them had their expectations and their own hopes for what they wanted Jesus to do, but Jesus never really seemed to fit into any of their boxes.

This morning as we wave our palm branches and sing songs of admiration and joy, do we know what we are getting ourselves into when we place our palm branches at the feet of Jesus? Are we willing to follow Christ, even if that means we are being led in a direction that goes against our preconceived notions of others, our biases, and our fears? Perhaps that is why we wave palm branches… Perhaps that is why we come to offer what we have to God with the faith that what we offer will be used to transform the communities in which we live. But we better be ready, because if we are going to welcome Jesus into our presence, we should realize that things probably won’t go the way we want them to, because Jesus rarely does what we expect of him.

When we welcome in this Messiah, this King of Kings, we welcome in the unknown, which can be quite a frightening thing. This unknown factor, this fear of where Jesus will lead us is not something new or strange. It’s a tale as old as time and a story that has been repeated throughout  history. If we were to follow the crowd in their praise of Jesus, would we embrace the fact that Jesus challenges us to grow as individuals and as a community? This reminds me of a conversation I had recently:

Not too long ago I was leading a confirmation retreat for youth and their mentors. Besides leading plenary sessions for youth, I also led a small group for the adults who had come with them. While I try not to have favorites, there was one older man named Denny, who quickly jumped to the top of the list. During a discussion about how the church can be a better neighbor to those in the community Denny chimed in, “You know I’m really tired of some of the things my church does… All they do is debate and complain about how the church should be decorated. They’re concerned about the flowers and the building, but not about the people around us. When I walk outside of church on Sunday I see that there is so much more that we can and should be doing! Yet all people seem to ever talk about is keeping things the same!” 

I took the liberty of editing some of what Denny said for the sake of this being a church, but the sentiment is still the same. It asks the important question, “Are you, are we, willing to follow Jesus if that means giving up things that are no longer part of God’s calling for us?” We know what is comfortable and we know what makes us feel safe… For the people in Jerusalem this feeling of security was founded in their belief that Jesus would be an earthly liberator. With a sword in his hand, Jesus would free the people from their oppression and would restore the kingdom that they had yearned for for centuries. For us, here and now, we often cling to what we know, to what is familiar, and we become uneasy thinking about what it means for us to become the community of faith for the second, third, and fourth generations to come.

Life isn’t easy… When you’re laying in bed late at night thinking about the troubles of the world, it feels like the last thing you want to worry about is the mission that is given to us by Jesus Christ. I mean there are bills that have to be paid, loved ones who are sick or dying, stress about employment, struggles with addiction, and relationships that are fracturing or just starting anew… At the end of the day when we are most vulnerable it isn’t too hard to wonder, “How in the world am I supposed to add one more thing? Discipleship? Stewardship? Fellowship? Jesus can’t expect me to do it all!” To some extent that’s a fair question and a feeling that we have probably all experienced or will experience. Turning to our reading this morning we find that the people in Mark’s Gospel wrestled with similar questions and feelings as well.

As the people followed Jesus through the city they were shouting and calling out to Jesus, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Blessed the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Hosanna… It’s a word that we have come to associate with praise, with jubilation, with celebration. But hosanna is actually much more nuanced than that… It can also mean, “Save us now, we pray.” Save us from what? I would imagine that if the people found out what Jesus’ intent was they wouldn’t be so eager to follow him. The same might be true for us… When we’ve become so concerned about ourselves and our traditions, thinking about what lies beyond the walls we have erected for ourselves can sometimes seem like an impossible task, but that is what we are supposed to be doing if we decided to follow Christ.

Marching behind and in front of Jesus the people believed that he would liberate them from their earthly oppressors. I think it might be fair to say that as Jesus rode into town the people were hoping that this would be the moment that he would establish his earthly kingdom. But like I said before, Jesus isn’t about these things… Those gathered were following him for the wrong reasons. Jesus didn’t care about the Romans or their swords and collection of weapons. Jesus didn’t care about borders or nations, powers or principalities… Jesus would have probably preferred the people to march with him in order to demonstrate the restorative power that only God can give. The restorative power that emphasizes empathy, love, and compassion, and therefore brings about reconciliation beyond comprehension. The power that calls us to cherish human life, instead of the things that extinguish the precious image of God that dwells inside each and everyone of us.”

Jesus asks us if we will follow him on that path he has laid out for us… If we are really willing to place our palm branches and cloaks in front of Jesus are we willing to beat our swords into plowshares? The weapons of our speech, our emotions, and material goods? Will we surrender our hostile attitudes for one another in order to recognize not Caesar’s reign, but the reign of Christ. The palm branches that we carry are much more than signs of our praise… They are a sign of our humanity, our purpose, and our desire to follow Christ who continually surprises us and challenges us to grow.

I’m not sure how many people would be left in the crowd if they knew that is what Jesus was really asking them. I’m not sure how many of us would be left if we could look ahead and see where Jesus is leading us. Because our faith asks us to do more than think… Here in the Western hemisphere we’ve done a lot of thinking… But maybe it’s time for a change, time for action, time to put those years of thinking about our faith into action. That way we can become the better community of faith God calls us to be, we can become the better neighbor, and we can become better stewards of this great and beautifully created world and caretakers of one another. Perhaps then we will be able to lay down not only our palm branches, but our pride and stubbornness as well.

We’re stubborn though, you can ask anyone in my family and they would verify that I can be quite thick headed… In our resistance to change, in our fear of the unknown, we grasp to the things that give us a sense, a false sense, of security… Yet time and time again we find that Jesus is there patiently waiting. And not only is Jesus waiting, but he is willing to accept that we will often go kicking and screaming and wait for us to return with open arms in order to put us back on the right path. This Palm Sunday isn’t just about celebrating Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. It sets the stage for a series of events that ends with Jesus hanging on the cross… There was no victory over the Romans, there was no re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, there was only death… But a death that radically changed the world as we know it, and continues to ask the hard questions, and pushes us into a direction where we are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

As we go into this Holy Week let us continue to ask the questions that the people in Mark’s Gospel asked. Why do we follow Jesus? Why do we do the things that we do? Instead of leaving them on the ground, why don’t we pick up our palm branches and our cloaks and continue to follow Jesus. Who leads us on a forward march that asks us to leave behind the things that builds walls, creates division, and silences life rather than nurtures it… Where is Jesus calling you to go? And are you, are well, willing to invest the energy and effort needed to be faithful to that calling? I don’t have the answers, so I can’t say what lies ahead… That’s why we do this thing called faith together… That’s why as a community of faith we wave palm branches… It’s why we come together to offer our praise to God… It’s why we come together with one another, people who were created in the image of God. Amen.

A Christmas Miracle

Text: Galatians 4:4-7
My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying,  Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. 

_____

On Christmas morning as a child my parents would make my sister and me stay in our rooms as they set up for our families annual Christmas ritual. My mother would put on Christmas music, the “classics” as she would say,  and put some cinnamon rolls in the oven. And my father would make a cup of coffee and make sure that the video camera was ready to go to capture everything on tape. After all the necessary steps were taken they would tell us that they were ready, and my sister and I would come running out of our rooms to see what “Santa” had brought us for Christmas.

There was certainly a sense of childlike curiosity and amazement… How could Santa possibly bring all these gifts to people in one night? It’s still a question that I’m trying to understand today, so if you have the answer please let me know… Maybe my math skills aren’t high enough to comprehend all the theoretical physics for such a trip. Nevertheless Christmas as a child was something that was filled with wonderment and awe. Of course I still feel such things today, but nothing can compare when I think back to my sisters childhood experience with Christmas.

You see, when my sister was young, there was one Christmas where she didn’t open any of her gifts… My mother told me that my sister would go on to play with the beautifully wrapped boxes for at least a week after Christmas had come and gone. She didn’t grasp that the there was something underneath the shiny paper, and there could be something better than what was on the outside. To her the boxes wrapped in colorful paper were the gifts, and she honestly enjoyed playing with them. So you can imagine her surprise when my parents finally had to show her that there was something underneath all that wrapping paper… It was certainly a Christmas miracle.

But coming back to the present for a moment, the gifts we gotten for one another have been exchanged, crumpled wrapping paper and sparkling bows have been torn off in anticipation,  and as we come to this New Years Eve many people think Christmas as something that has come and gone. So then why is it that we still often live our lives in a way that reflects an unopened Christmas present? We have received the greatest gift of all, the love and grace of God… But when we look around we find that there aren’t many people who are “wearing” or “showing off” this gift. It is tempting to just keep it to ourselves and imagine what is inside, but that isn’t enough. We have to unwrap this gift so that it can challenge us, shape us, push us to go outside our comfort zone in order to share it with all people, to let the shining light of this Christmas miracle speak the love, peace, joy, and hope that was meant for all times and all places.

Perhaps one day we can work towards re-obtaining such a sense of childlike excitement… But then time appears to be our greatest enemy, the adversary that prevents us from holding onto the innocence that we once possessed. The world that once looked inviting, charming, and wide open, turned out to be more oppressive than we thought. There were hurts, there pains, there were lost and shattered dreams that made it feel like there was nothing left. So then it becomes only natural to hold onto something that gives us hope, that gives us strength, that provides the light for us during the darkest of days and gives anticipation for the coming glory of God. The key thing to remember is that we can’t keep it for ourselves…

Can we bring back a sense of childlike awe and wonder that empowers us to share this Christmas miracle with others? Are we able to find it within ourselves to bring this healing light to a world that is in need of light? Childlike doesn’t mean powerless… Childlike doesn’t mean we ignore opportunities to grow in our faith, but instead embrace opportunities that allow us to study the Word of God… Childlike, childlike means that we empty ourselves and take on a spirit of humility that allows God to work in us, to enables us to participate in this narrative of salvation that all started with the miraculous birth of Christ.

And so we find ways to rediscover this Christmas miracle in ways that are new and refreshing as Christ came into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world, or as Paul states, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” Christ was born under the law, to a woman who was deemed to be a lawbreaker by her those around her, yet it was by such means, by the power of Mary and Holy Spirit,  that God frees us from the shackles of sin and death in order that we may be called the children of God. And when we find ourselves in situations where the darkness surrounds us or where the struggles of life begin to overwhelm us we are able to cry out to God saying, “Abba! Father!”

What does it mean for us to cry out to God? For the Reformer John Calvin, “crying” in this case is an expression of firmness and unwavering confidence.” When we cry out to God we do so remember the words of Paul in Romans, “For we have not received a spirit of bondage to fall back into fear, but a spirit of freedom to full confidence.” Will we lift our voices with the multitudes of people around the world? Will we join with our sisters and brothers in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia who face persecution for their faith, and will we lift our voices up to protect the rights of all people? Will we join with those who are oppressed? Will we summon the courage and strength to offer praise so that we are not held by a spirit of fear, fear of the “other,” fear of the foreigner, fear of those who are not like us? Will we cry out as children of the living God, embracing the spirit of light that we have carried with us throughout this season of Christmas? This is quite a challenge, I would say it should be on the top of the list of anyone who is in the practice of making a New Year’s resolution…

We are children of a living God… We are sealed in the love and grace of a God who offers more than any earthly parent or guardian… We are not only held in such high regard, but also trusted with the task to live out this grace and love in our daily lives so that all may bear witness to the Spirit of God that resides in each and everyone of us. Dare we be faithful witnesses to this love and grace? Do we have what it takes to unwrap the divine gift we have received so that we may go out and help others discover the majesty that awaits them as well? It’s a Christmas miracle that can journey with us into the new year as we go forth discovering ways that we can better connect with God and one other so that we can speak truth to power, find freedom in the midst of cell blocks and iron bars, and live boldly into the identities that have been given to us from God.

As the children of a living God how will we carry this spirit of Christmas throughout the rest of the year? As children of a living God will we continue to live as ones who are satisfied with wrapped gifts, not wanting them to be tarnished by the world? Or will we live as ones who bring the light of the greatest Christmas gift to all people, to those who live in darkness, to those who live under oppression, to those who face injustice, and to those who are in need of a companion, a friend? It means that we have to take a risk… This Christmas miracle can’t stay in a box forever… It has to come out, it has to be shared, and we are the ones who are meant to live it out in our lives, speak it boldly yet lovingly with our words, and go out and be with the ones Christ called us to care for… Christmas day may come once a year, but the spirit of Christmas, the implications of this miraculous gift, are meant to be carried with us now and forever.

Let us pray… Holy God, Lord of this Christmas season and Lord of all times and all places. Renew in us a spirit of anticipation and hope. Kindle in us a fire that shines forth you love wherever we go. May we come to you with a spirit of humility and eagerness so that we may go out proclaiming this Christmas miracle we have received. As we prepare ourselves for another year may your Spirit be our guide and may we strive to have our hearts be attune to your will. Amen.

The Story of Joseph & Mary

*Reflection on Mary is offered by Zoë Garry.

Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

_____

How many of us can relate to Joseph? I don’t imagine that many of us could see ourselves in the place of someone who lived over 2,000 years ago, but how many of us can connect to the situation that Joseph finds himself in this morning? How many of us could resonate with the fears and feelings of distrust that Joseph probably wrestled with before an angel of God spoke to him in a dream? Did Joseph really know what was going on and how this fit into God’s larger narrative? Maybe the title of my reflection is a little misleading, because Joseph didn’t know… But then maybe it’s appropriate, because it reflects our journey of life and faith as well. 

The Scripture passage tells us this morning that Joseph was a “just” man… Some translations of this text say that Joseph was a “righteous” man, but I think in this situation there isn’t enough of a distinction to make a difference. And Joseph was a just man, not wanting Mary to suffer any kind of public indignation or persecution, but the justice Joseph demonstrated may not be worthy of our admiration and praise… at least not quite yet… 

Justice is one of those funny words and becomes increasingly complex, especially when you throw in the element of faith. Because when you throw faith into the mix what you find is that there is a division between the divine justice of God and our human sense of justice… We find such an act of human justice in Joseph’s decision to break off his relationship with Mary … Joseph was probably afraid, was probably angry, and probably suspicious of Mary. As a result, Joseph did what many of us would have done, which is to fall back on a old coping mechanism that makes us feel like we have some control over the world around us. 

Recently I was reminded that Christmas can often feel like one big paradox… We dedicate a time of the year to celebrating peace, love, and joy, but are often swept up in a sea of chaos that comes with juggling work and family, finances and generosity, and enjoying the company of some, but remembering that there’s that “one” person you hope not to run into at a Christmas party… With everything that goes on in our lives it can feel as though there isn’t enough left to give to those who has something to share. But instead of withdrawing from those who need to be heard we should don a spirit of humility and allow ourselves to be challenged and empathic to those who are hurting as well. 

This isn’t included in this familiar Bible story, but I would imagine that Mary tried to tell Joseph what had happened to her. Apparently that wasn’t enough for Joseph, because as we see in the unfolding of this text Joseph was ready to quitely “dismiss” her. There are a lot of stories out there that have not been heard, there are a lot of stories that have been dismissed. There are a myriad of stories from women and the oppressed that have not been heard… They haven’t been heard not because of a shortage of ears to hear, but because of a shortage of grace, compassion, and justice that searches for truth rather than preserving the status quo, which we seek out during this season of Christmas. 

Could Joseph have really known what was going on around him? I don’t think Joseph could have imagined fleeing to Egypt as a refugee with his future family in order to escape unjust systematic oppression. I don’t think that Joseph fully understood the words of God who told him that this child inside of Mary would become the savior for all peoples, all nations, all classes, and all races… I don’t think that Joseph could have fully understood what was going on, and to be honest I don’t think we always no what is going on as well. 

I don’t mean to give Joseph a hard time or make it seem like Joseph was a bad person, but I bring up these things, because I think this is a story we need to hear. And the stories that we need to hear are often the ones that we don’t want to listen to the most. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any hope or grace left for us… What this means is that there are multiple opportunities for us to try and try again until we perfect this spiritual gift of Christmas listening… 

Here is where the divine grace of God enters into the picture… While Joseph, while we ourselves, are left with many questions and doubts, God speaks to us and tells us what we need to hear… For Joseph, it was that Mary was telling the truth… And that Joseph needed to set aside his fears in order to take on the responsibilities that God gave him. For us, it was and is and always shall be God reminding us to hear and actively listen to those who tell us their stories… That while it may be difficult, we are to uphold one another to a standard where compassion, empathy, and love rules our lives instead of fear, mismanaged power, and distrust. 

Maybe God was talking directly to Joseph when the angel of the Lord said, “And he will save the people from their sins.” We all are in need of salvation… Salvation that liberates us from the bondage of sin and death and brings us into the one community, the one body of Jesus Christ. There will be many times where we will find ourselves unable to believe. Maybe it’s because we are unwilling or maybe it’s because we are recovering from our own hurts. But that is why Christ came into the world in the form of a humble child… Joseph needed salvation from his doubt, his anger, and his fear, and we need the salvation that is offered so freely from the Christ Child in order that we might one day come together and dwell in unison in the Kingdom of God listening to the stories that have long been silenced. 

Can we use this Christmas time to cultivate a level of belief that takes us outside our fears, our distrust, and our own biases? Are we willing to let the Christ Child, the one who shall be called Emmanuel, enter our hearts so that the voices of those who have been silenced and marginalized can be heard? It takes faith… It takes courage… It took the coming of God to Joseph in a dream to believe the story of Mary… But we don’t have any excuse not to believe, because Christ himself came into the world to open our hearts, to open our ears, to open our eyes… There are no more excuses left… All that there is is to accept this Christmas miracle, this great gift that bears a great deal of responsibility, and go out into the world believing and seeking true justice in love, faith, and Christian fellowship. Amen. 

When Lord?

Text: Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

__________

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday! Christ is King, but when have we saw God in need of food, shelter, companionship, the essentials of life, and healing? Christ is King, but not the kind of king that we often imagine. It’s not a very pleasant thought for us to think about, but one that is ever present as we confront the reality in which we live…

Did you know that here in Watertown, NY, there are a number of individuals who are without a place to live. And unlike other metropolitan or urban areas, those who don’t have a home are often forced to sleep in their car, making their need invisible to our sight and creating a false sense that everything is fine when it really isn’t.

Did you know that not too far away there are women and men at Fort Drum who come from all different parts of the world. There are those who come from Africa, from Asia, from Europe, from South America, and from all different parts of the United States.

Did you know that the North Country is facing an opioid epidemic that has impacted thousands upon thousands of individuals and families. And our traditional technique of preventing drug usage has not had any positive effect. Locking men and women behind bars without any means of rehabilitation or social safety nets means that a large number of those incarcerated will be disproportionately Black and Brown along with those who find themselves in situations where they are unable to pay their way out of the current correctional system we have in place.

Did you know that in Watertown, 30-40% of the population is on Medicaid. And the truth is that there are probably a good number more who are sick and in need of medical assistance, but do not have the means to acquire the treatments that could potentially make them better. Are we willing to pool together our resources in order to make sure that those are vulnerable are cared for, or will we neglect the call to be the Good Samaritan?

If we are to take seriously the belief that each and everyone of us is created in the image of God, then we better take seriously the question of where we find God in the situations named above, and what that means for us as people who hear God’s voice saying, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

How did we get to where we are today? What forces have driven us to become so polarized that we are unable to come together to address the needs of the communities in which we live? Why is it that we label one another ways that are destructive and divisive? When the time comes for us to stand before the throne of God who reigns over the heavens and the earth, what will we say when we are asked to present an account of the things we have done?

The text for this morning pushes us to think about the kind of King Christ is, and also asks us whether or not we are living under the sovereignty of God or following our own ways.

There are so many needs in the world that it sometimes feels like the work we do will never be enough to solve all the problems that are at hand. It may surprise you, but psychologist actually have a name for this feeling and they call it “compassion fatigue.” I’ve always been on the fence when it comes to compassion fatigue, because on the one hand I believe in the importance of self-care, but on the other hand I believe that each and everyone of us is called to participate in a work that goes way beyond ourselves.

For those of you who don’t know I’ve spend the last two weeks on a whirlwind tour of the Adirondacks and New Jersey. At Lake Clear I got to hear about the wonderful work that is being done by communities of faith in the Presbytery of Northern New York, and in New Jersey I had the opportunity to meet future faith leaders as they got to hear about the summer internship program offered by our church and the presbytery. In addition, I also got to spend time at Johnsonburg Camp and Retreat Center learn about the continued work that they are doing in order to provide spiritual opportunities for youth, young adults, and people of all walks of life.

It’s really a beautiful thing… to hear about the magnificent work that is being done in communities both near and far. And it’s a shame, because the news tends to report on the bad things that go on rather than all the good that is being done. Maybe if we took the time to see the good that is going on around us we wouldn’t be as divided as we are today and maybe would then be able to come together as one body to care and love for one another in a way that reflects the character of Jesus Christ. The work that we are called to do is not easy… Breaking down the walls of division that we have erected for ourselves is not something that happens overnight. But as we begin to deconstruct the labels and preconceived notions we have given one another, the work of healing and reconciliation may begin to take place.

Our spiritual identity, our worldly identity, is founded on whether or not we are living into the lives that God has set before us. The core of our very being is dependent on whether or not we are willing to let the sovereign grace of God govern our lives, or if we are going to rely on methods that have caused such schism in our human family and created world. While we may be concerned with the labels or titles that the world offers, God is more concerned about a different kind of “labeling,” a labeling that identifies whether or not we have been faithful stewards of the gifts we have been given and whether or not we have used what we have to care for the least of these.

Rich, poor, right, wrong, liberal, conservative, refugee, citizen, patriot, unpatriotic, Jews, Greeks, male, female, slaves, and free – the labels that we place on one another are endless. But in the end our attempt to categorize individuals based on their traits are futile. As we’ve seen in the passage for this morning God isn’t concerned about the labels or categories that world assigns to us… Instead, God is concerned with whether or not we have fed, clothed, cared, and visited those individuals whom we are called to love and serve.

Having finished a time of thanksgiving and feasting with friends and family, we know what it is like to give, we know what it is like to share and care for those whom we cherish and adore. But those aren’t the people God is concerned about. As we have seen time and time again in the New Testament Jesus continually challenges us to be with those whom we would never normally associate ourselves with. And while we may think that this is a hard task to accomplish, we will soon bear witness and celebrate a God who did that very thing… Coming down to earth in the form of an infant God came to be with those who needed a savior the most…

Have we responded  with compassion to “the least of these”? Have we seen the face of Christ in those in prison, the hungry and the sick, and treat them as we’d treated our Lord, our Savior, our King, Jesus Christ, or did we continue to follow in the ways of sin and let their cries fall on deaf ears? We know what Jesus would have done… We proclaim that truth every Sunday we gather to worship… But the true test for us will rest on whether or not we will allow the Spirit of Christ to challenge us by encouraging us to connect with our neighbors in new ways, discovering opportunities that allow for spiritual growth, and understanding what it really means to worship Christ as King.

Give to God the Things That Are God’s

Text: Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

_____

This morning we find that the Pharisees were at it again, but this time with the Herodians and their disciples as well. How many times have we run across these encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders and the teachers of the law? We shouldn’t be surprised, then when we discover their latest plot to try and put Jesus into a precarious position. I’m sure that they waited for Jesus to be in a crowded place before swooping in to pose this question to him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” Saying “no” would be an act of sedition… It would be an act of treason against Caesar and the Roman empire. Saying “yes” would imply that the people were to submit themselves solely to the earthly powers and principalities that be, which would be a grave sin… But Jesus didn’t fall into their trap. Instead, Jesus turned and answered the in a way that challenged those in the crowd and us today to think about what it means to be people who claim to be the hands and feet of God in the world. 

Before Jesus answered the question crafted by the Pharisees and the Herodians, I bet they were feeling pretty good about themselves… Jesus may have evaded them  before, but this time they had him in their sights, there was no way that Jesus was going to come out unscathed. So I imagine it must have been all the more disappointing then when Jesus turned the tables on them. Having been given a coin that is used to pay taxes, Jesus showed it to them and asked whose image was on the coin. When they replied that it was a picture of the emperor, Jesus then gave one of the most recognizable quotes from the New Testament, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” What makes this so remarkable is that Jesus gave a subversive answer without actually being subversive… Jesus essentially says, “Give to earthly rulers the things that are theirs, because in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter since everything belongs to God and to God alone. Give therefore to God the things that are God’s because we all belong to God, who created each and every one of us.”

And this is where things become a little challenging… It was certainly challenging for the Pharisees and the Herodians as they eventually dispersed in disbelief, and it continues to be challenging for us as modern day readers of this passage. Because if we are honest with ourselves we would see that there is an underlying struggle for us as citizens of an earthly power, and as Christians who profess a faith God and membership in the Kingdom of God. But what’s important for us to realize is that this conflict isn’t always apparent to us, it isn’t always obvious. And so therefore it is also important for us to realize is that this clash of two realities also has moments that are real, that are observable, that sometimes have a negative impact on those whom we also live in community with, such when we act like Cain who out of selfishness and malice asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) We know the truth, the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ… But when it comes to doing the things we are supposed to do, we sometimes, like the Pharisees and the Herodians, try to place God in a situation that would meet our own needs. 

We see this tension between the mortal and cosmic realms in our everyday lives. I remember that there was a time when I was taking a train from New York City back to Princeton. While I was reading a book, someone who appeared to be in need help, someone who appeared to be homeless, came into our passenger car asking for some money. I had some change in my pocket and offered it to them as well as a few other passengers, but soon after this person left someone said, “That person is always asking for money. They’re just a bum who can’t be bothered to get a real job.” Look… I don’t profess to know everything about the homeless person’s life. They might have well been looking for a few quick bucks, but if anything, I walked away knowing more about the character of the person who spoke out against those who had offered what change they had, than the homeless person who was looking for some help. We’ve been raised to look out for ourselves… We’ve been so immersed in a way of thinking that focuses on protecting our own prosperity we have forgotten what it is like to look out for others. We have forgotten about the very people Jesus called and still calls us to care for and love. 

This might be hard to hear, but there’s a little bit of Pharisee in each and every one of us… This isn’t a bad thing, let’s be clear about that. The Pharisee’s were people who were trying their best to live out the teachings of the religious law, but often they fell on the wrong side of the Gospel message. We too have tried our best to live by the moral and ethical codes that have been passed onto us. But where did these teachings come from? While I’m sure that some of them came from Sunday school lessons and sermons, I would imagine that the majority of what we learned came from our parents, our teachers, and our communities, essentially the society and culture in which we were raised. There is nothing wrong with following the rules or trying to stick to the teachings that we had given from those who had come before us. But problem is when these principles become a barricade that prevent us from offering all that we have to the mission that God has given us. We know what it means to give to Caesar and to the empire, but do we really know what it means to give what we have to God, a God who is not limited by human powers or borders?

We know what it is like to live in a world where the tensions of our civic life clashes with the realities of our religious life. From the moment that we wake up there is a whirlwind of things that vye for our attention… There are the numerous texts from work or friends that we didn’t answer,  a large sale at either a department store or online, numerous sporting events, the latest Netflix or TV series catch up on, and by the end of the day we realize that we have dedicated very little time to the thing that we proclaim to be most important in our lives… By the end of the day we realize that what we have given to God is very little compared with what we have given to the demanding voices and pressures that seem to have control over our lives. It’s difficult when there are so many things that pull us away and distract us from what it means to live into the identities that God has envisioned for us. But knowing the pains and joys of human life, God does not condemn us for withholding what we have or giving what we have to Caesar, but instead abundantly counter intuitively offers grace that allows us to grow in faith and love.

And herein lies the good news of the Gospel. Because when we stop and think for a moment we remember that Jesus has already modeled what it means to live a selfless life that is dedicated to God. Having been raised and trained as a carpenter, I’m sure that Jesus kept some of the trade skills that he had learned from Joseph all those years ago. And while the Bible doesn’t record any stories of Jesus using his craft, I would imagine that there were times when Jesus would use what he had to help those around him. Jesus’ life and work were meant to inspire us to look past our obligations to the Roman Empire, our own modern day allegiances, and to look towards our ultimate responsibility of taking care of God’s created world… Giving what is due to Caesar may be a part of God’s plan, but it certainly isn’t what God is primarily focused on. Because there is so much more at stake than whether or not we are citizens who carry out our civic responsibilities… Not because these civic responsibilities don’t matter, but because they are a  given. What Jesus is more concerned about is whether or not we will one day be able to view them in the larger picture that God has painted, that includes the community of saints in the Kingdom of God who come from North, South, East, and West… All that is required of us is that we give to God the things that are God’s.

And let me say that giving to God the things that are God’s isn’t an easy task. Sure, we can give up things like chocolate when the season of Lent rolls around, but that’s not really something that God cares a whole lot about… I’m sorry if that’s a surprise to you, because while may be a healthy practice it doesn’t do a whole lot for spiritual growth.  So what’s next? What is our response after hearing and witnessing the good news? We know that we can find reassurance in the fact that in God, there is an abundance of grace, but how can we live lives that respond to Jesus’ call to, ‘Give to God what is God’s”? I’m not sure that I can give an answer that encompasses the many complexities of life and faith, but I’ll leave you with two closing thoughts: 

1) Giving to God the things that are God’s goes way beyond the surface belief that God only cares about what goes into the offering place on Sunday morning… It’s about not only finding ways to give our treasures, but also finding ways to give our time and our talents as well so that we can bear witness to God and in humility serve the church and our surrounding communities. So how do we hear God’s voice calling us to serve?

2) Giving to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s means that our relationship to Caesar is pretty one-sided, meaning that we offer what we have and it is only by Caesar’s will and charity that we receive anything in return. But God doesn’t work that way… God calls us into a deep relationship that is not founded on indebtedness, but founded on salvation and hope that is found in Jesus Christ. So looking at our relationships how do we make people indebted to us, and how do we then create relationships and communities that model our connection to a God who gives freely?

May we turn from Caesar’s grasp in order to serve our living God, who calls us into a relationship that empowers us, so that we may remember that we belong to a God who created all things, who sustains all things, and rules over the heavens and the earth. Amen.