Sunday, January 7th – 24: A Sermon on Mark 1:4-11

Mark 1:4-11
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

A few years ago, when our family lived in Owatonna, there was a child, about 5 or 6 years old, who lived across the street from us who….how shall I put this…she invaded our life.

With this incredible ability to sneak up on you, she was just around…all the time. You open your front door at 8am on a Saturday morning, and *bam*, there she is waiting on your front step. Staring at you. You go out to the mailbox, you turn around, and she’s there.

You go out into your garage, you put your shoes on, and suddenly, from behind the freezer in our garage… her little head pops out. Or you’re out mowing the lawn, and you can just feel these eyes on you. You glance down the street and there she is, behind a tree… staring at you. And you know it is only a matter of time before she comes over.

Now, it wasn’t so much her presence that was annoying, it was the intruding. Always coming around at the wrong time. Always in the way. Always lingering around with persistent questions: What are you doing? Can I do it? What is this? Can I have it? Do you have something to drink? I’m thirsty. I was wondering, do you have a popsicle?

Needless to say, she could feel like a pest, invading our space. But then, we learned something about her we didn’t know – she loved spending time with children younger than her. And not only that, she was really good at it.

It was a busy Saturday afternoon, early summer. I was in and out with errands. Lauren was desperately trying to plant her garden before the weekend was over. And you can image how it is trying to do anything productive with a 2-year old to constant monitor.

Well, just like every time we’re outside, our little intruder showed up. Only this time, she was not a pest. But more of a Godsend. She took Elliot off of Lauren’s hands and played with him. Soccer, tag, rolling around in the grass. And as they played, one thing became clear: Elliot. Loved. Her. Not in the boy meets girl, kind of way, but in that young kid looking up to the older kid who is willing to play with him.

Something happened to me that day that I can only describe as a heart transplant. Because ever since that day, the neighborhood girl has been an image of the Holy Spirit for me.

Don’t get me wrong – she was still annoyingly intrusive after that. But it felt more like a divine intrusion than anything else.

You see, sometimes God comes to us a compassionate and welcomed friend, offering words of comfort and grace. And other times? Other times, God comes to us as an intruder. Here to mess with our stuff. Here to disrupt our lives a bit. Our well-laid plans, our long-held beliefs, our self-righteous politics, our comfortable retirement. But God intrudes not to hurt us – but to heal us. To give us the heart transplants that we need.

We can see this in our gospel reading for today. Though we may have to squint a bit. Too often we, myself included, are blinded a bit by the niceties of baptism. I find myself thinking of wiggly babies, beautiful white gowns (worn by every child in the family for the past 6 generations), three handful of water, gently poured over the head. Candles and blessing and welcome and oil.

But because of that, we hear this story of Jesus’ baptism and our eyes are drawn to certain parts. The comfort of the heavens opening. The beauty of a white dove calmly floating down onto Jesus. And the sweetness of that divine Morgan Freeman like voice saying, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”

But all of these things obscure and domesticate what’s really going on – the divine intrusion that this moment really is.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart.

 Torn. The heavens were torn. Not opened. Not sliced cleanly with a scalpel. But torn. And to tear through something takes speed, passion, desire. Just look at children on Christmas morning – tearing through wrapping paper. Or consider a football team with paper wall bearing their team name and mascot , held up by cheerleaders, between them and the field.  Those players don’t calmly crawl under the paper wall to preserve it. They don’t take a sharp pair of scissors and cleanly cut the paper in two. No – they tear through it. To show their fans and their opponents that they are not entering the field, they are invading it.

The curtain, the veil between heaven and earth, between God and God’s people is torn. Meaning jagged edges and tatters. Meaning never to be closed again.

This is a divine break-in. Nothing will be the same.

And then there is the image of the dove.

And just as he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

 Isn’t that beautiful? Perfect material for a Hallmark Card on Confirmation Day.

Only that’s not what it really says. For whatever reason, this translation makes a critical error. The Greek says, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove into him.

The Spirit of God goes into Jesus. Which means this descending dove is probably less like a picturesque gliding down, and “more like a dive-bombing pigeon”[1] with quite an impact. This is divine intrusion. Jesus becomes invaded by the Spirit of God.

And then there are those words. Those precious, naming and claiming words, “You are my child – my beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” Words I believe belong to each one of us.

While I have often heard this as blessing. As gift. But this week I heard it as divine burden. You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you.” In other words, I choose you. God isn’t just claiming Jesus as God’s beloved son. God is endorsing Jesus as God’s transformative agent in the world. And I believe that means us too. You are my child. My beloved. I am pleased with you. So, I choose you. I choose to partner with you in blessing this world.

And that kind of calling, that kind of endorsement, that kind of challenge can really mess with your plans. Because to do that – to bless the world, to bless your community, your neighbor, it will demand that we have the courage to pull back the curtain and expose that which is not blessing this world, but in fact diminishing it.

Throughout the gospel of Mark, we will see that this incarnation of God in Jesus isn’t so much that Jesus has come to be with us, to hang out like a friend on a Friday night, but more like an annoying neighbor who invades your space, who asks for your help, and who just won’t leave you alone. We will see as Jesus intrudes on previously held boundaries between the clean and unclean, the worthy and the unworthy.  We will see the presence of God presented as a divine intrusion. Of a God breaking into a world to reclaim it from the false and fabricated powers built on fear and control. And those false powers and promises will try to hide and disguise themselves from this God who has come to steal them away. It will be a struggle.

But the promise of this gospel, the promise of Jesus’ story in Mark, is that there is no going back. The curtain is torn. It will not close again. God will not let this world go.

God is committed to this place. To reclaiming this world for God’s good purposes. And in baptism we lift up the promise that God will do this. God will live this out in the bodies and communities of real people.

Which means we need to ask, How is God invading our world now and today? How is God invading us, this community rooted in that promise of baptism? How is God invading your life?

I offer one example, among many.

God has intruded on my life recently with a number. 24.

24. That number. It just keeps showing up in my thoughts. Peeking around corners. Knocking on my door. Asking for help. It lingers. It bothers. It annoys. It haunts.

24. That’s the number of homeless youth on any given night in Northfield. Many of whom we cannot see because they are sleeping on couches. Some even exchanging sexual favors in order to do so.

A couple of weeks ago, I met with Scott Wapota, the director of the Key, the substance-free Youth Center here in town, who shared this haunting statistic. Because he knows. Because he sees it every day, as he encounters students from Northfield who don’t know where they are sleeping that night.

I often hear Northfield referred to as a quaint, cute town that is great to visit, great to move to, great to retire in. And I have to be honest, I wince when I hear that. While that may be true, it is not the whole truth. At best it is a half-truth, dare I even say a false truth. Why? Because 24. A number which God has come to expose.

That intrudes my life. And I do not want it there. And yet I believe the Holy Spirit is intruding into and baptizing the hearers of such news to do something about it.

And the Key is trying to do something about it. The Key has received a grant to start a program where members from the Northfield will be invited to open their doors to these youth as host homes. To take them in.

I hope you’ll hear more about that. But I share it today because I want to get the word out. I believe God wants to get the word out. And I wonder if any of us might be called and equipped for such ministry. Because Northfield isn’t a quaint, cute town to live in or a great place to retire because people will leave you alone – but rather I see Northfield as a brave and passionate town, full of people who love service and generosity and who step up when there is a need.

Well. Beloved people with whom God is well pleased. There is a need. 24.

God won’t let us forget it. Because the heavens are torn open. God has invaded the neighborhood. And not just the neighborhood, but your life and mine. God won’t leave us alone. Keep your eyes for that pesky little kid to show up. Again and again again.

And for that I hesitantly say…

thanks be to God.

Amen.

[1] Matt Skinner, Working Preacher Sermon Brainwave, 2018.

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Monday, December 25th, 2017 – Breaking the 4th Wall, a Christmas Sermon on John 1:1-14

John 1:1-14
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
—–
Merry Christmas!

It’s good to be with you all this morning. A time my friend likes to call “the moment after.” You know that moment, the moment after?

It’s the moment after you’ve opened all the presents and the wrapping paper litters the floor, and that moment of excitement and energy and anticipation has…passed. That’s the moment after.

It’s the ordinary morning the day after you’ve gotten married. That’s the moment after.

It’s the startlingly quiet moment when you arrive home from your husband’s funeral and there’s nothing to do anymore. That’s the moment after.

It’s the evening dishes after everyone’s gone home from Christmas dinner. That’s the moment after.

It’s not necessarily good or bad. It just is.

In many ways today feels like that. Like the moment after. We all are just a little quieter. Some of the excitement is gone. Some of the crowds have gone home. It’s not good or bad. It just is. And it’s good to be together.

Over the past couple of years, I have been watching the hit Netflix series House of Cards. And I’ve learned that people either love it or they hate it. There isn’t much in-between. But if you haven’t seen it, it is a show set in Washington, D.C., and it is all about politics. The show follows Congressman Frank Underwood and his thirst for political power. Now headed into its sixth and final season, this show is known for many things.

It is known for being one of the first hit online-only TV shows.
It is known for its political timeliness, in showing us a close up look at the dysfunction and manipulation and cruelty of politics.
And more recently, it is known for the necessary down fall of its lead actor, Kevin Spacey.

But before all that, House of Cards became known for something else – how it tells a story.

From the opening scene of the first episode, you hear the sound of screeching tires and *crash*. Frank Underwood comes out of his house to, sadly, find a dog that has been struck by the car.

As Frank kneels beside this wounded creature, he looks around and he begins to talk to himself. “There are two kinds of pain,” he says. “The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that is only suffering.”

And then, in a split second, he stops looking around and he turns his eyes directly into the camera, and with this overwhelming sense that he is speaking personally and directly to you – the one on the couch – he says with these evil eyes, “I have no patience for useless things.” And he hauntingly ends the dogs useless suffering.

In that one moment, we learn two things. One – how cruel, cold, and evil Frank Underwood can be. But also, that we the audience are a character in the show. In fact, as one TV critic said, we are the most interesting character in the show. We are the only one Frank can be honest with.

This technique in story-telling is called “breaking the fourth wall”, a moment when the audience is addressed directly. And it is often discouraged in acting.

Directors will say, “Don’t look at the camera.” A theater director will say to her actors, “Pay no attention to the audience. Act as if they are not there.”

As an actor on stage you are to pretend as if there is a fourth wall on stage, between you and the audience, so that you can focus entirely on the drama of the story. Which means you don’t stop singing when the fire alarm goes off during your opening song. You don’t turn and scowl at the person whose cell phone just went off during the first act. And you certainly don’t apologize to the audience when you forget your lines.

To do so can shatter the experience for the audience. The experience of watching a story unfold before your very eyes as if it were a real event.

Don’t break the fourth wall, they say.

But other playwrights, directors, movie makers have learned to bend and break the fourth wall in their story-telling because it can actually add to the drama or create some much-needed comic relief or even draw the audience deeper into a story that had previous been at arm’s length.

A couple of years ago, on a Sunday morning, my son was sick and so I needed to stay home from worship. And so there we were eating breakfast in the kitchen, in our pajamas, listening to the 8:30am worship service, when right there over the radio Pastor Pam broke the fourth wall.

Good morning and welcome to worship here at St. John’s. Welcome to those of you visiting with us and those of you joining us on the radio. Especially, you, Pastor Jonathan, who is at home with a sick child.

I about spit out my coffee. And at the same time, I felt more welcomed, more drawn in to the story and drama of worship that morning in a way I never had before listening on the radio. Like I was still part of it – even from afar.

Breaking the fourth wall -this is not a new technique in story-telling. In fact, some say it can be seen in Shakespeare’s soliloquies. I think it might be a technique that is even older than that. As old as the gospel of John.

Did you catch it? The moment when the gospel broke the fourth wall? The moment it went from performance to personal? From the transcendent to the very close. The moment the gospel writer is gazing off into the clouds to the moment he’s looking directly into the camera and speaking…to you, the one listening?

[Up on stage, big lofty voice] 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 

[Down in the aisle, looking people in the eye] And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 

For the first 13 verses, the gospel writer speaks in the third person. He speaks of the Word, of God, of the beginning of all creation. He speaks of an eternal light shining in a deep darkness. He speaks of a man named John. A man who testified to this light coming into the world. He even speaks of the people who received this Word and who believed in his name.

But then. But then, in verse 14, he clips an anchor to his high and lofty thoughts and sends everything straight to the ground. The Word becomes flesh. And all the third person characters out there, become the first-person characters. Right here. The Word became flesh and lived among us. And we have seen his glory.

He addresses the audience in first person. He breaks the fourth wall. He looks up from his parchment paper and speaks directly to the audience, drawing his people into the story of God that has room for them.

And not only does the gospel writer break the fourth wall, but he breaks it because God was the first one break the fourth wall. When God stepped down from the stage of heaven to become fragile flesh and dwell with the people. To live among us in Jesus. Or as one translator puts it, “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”

God has broken the fourth wall. Addressing directly the people of God who are not passive observers of God’s story, but critical characters within it. Each one of you.

God has broken the fourth wall to be with us. The gospel writer has broken the fourth wall to tell us this good news. But if there is anything I’ve come to learn over the years, is that rarely do we break the fourth wall between ourselves. So often we are just actors on a stage. Trying to be believable. Protecting ourselves from vulnerable love.

And yet God becomes vulnerable love to break down the walls between us.

So maybe as an act of faith, on the Christmas morning, we can break the fourth wall a bit. To be personally drawn into this story of God that has room for us and to draw others into our story.

(With a person in the congregation) Hi, my name is Jonathan. And yours? What street do you live on?

Hear this as a word of promise for you. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and moved into your neighborhood.

Hi, my name is Jonathan. And yours? What street do you live on?

Hear this as a word of promise for you. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and moved into your.

So we’ve just broken the fourth wall between us a bit. Now, let’s break the fourth wall of the radio, like Pastor Pam did.

Dear people on the radio. I know you’re out there. And I know that some of you are at home with very young children because it makes for a saner morning. I know some of you are listening beside your friends in the nursing home. I know a man in his 90s named Walt who might be listening on his ipad. Hi Walt. I know there might be some of you who are listening to us in the car on the way to a Christmas holiday you are either very excited about or not excited about at all. And I know that one of you is a radio host sitting at a desk on Christmas morning so that this broadcast can be possible. Know that we here at St. John’s are thinking of you and sending our love out to you. And together, we want to wish you a Merry Christmas.

On Three. 1, 2, 3…..Merry Christmas!

We’ve broken down the fourth wall between us a bit. We’ve broken down the radio fourth wall a bit. And there is one more I want to address today.

A couple of days ago, I was picking up some groceries at Econo, and I was the guy on his cell phone while waiting in the check-out line. Every one’s favorite guy, I know. And then when it was almost my turn to check out, I finally (for once) had the good sense to tell my friend to hold on, while I check out. And I put my phone down and in my back pocket. And immediately, immediately, the person who was checking out my groceries stopped what she was doing, look at me straight on with these exhausted and honest eyes, and she said, “Thank you for putting your phone down.”

I had this overwhelming sense that people look past her, and any other check-out clerk, all day long. Such that a pretty benign act as not talking on the phone while you check out is felt as a significant act.

We have so many walls between us and people beyond these walls. And in the moment after this, some of us will step into St. John’s Hall to have a Christmas meal with a such wide cross section of our community, that I guarantee there will be walls. They will even taller and thicker. And for some those walls will feel insurmountable. But I wonder on this Christmas Day…in the moment after we celebrate God in Jesus Christ breaking down the fourth wall to be with us…. and in the moment after we heard The gospel of John break down the fourth wall to tell us this truth… in this moment after, As a Christmas gift to ourselves and to others, let’s break down the walls between us.

Be of good courage this season. Reach out a hand. Speak out with your voice. Meet a stranger. Greet a neighbor. Say I’m sorry. Forgive a friend. But in all of these things, pour out your love on the one’s your with, in the same way God has for us. For God has broken down the dividing wall. The Word became flesh and lives among us.

Amen.

Sunday, December 10th, 2017 – What Should I Preach?! A Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

Audio will be added shortly.

Isaiah 40:1-11
1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Over the past 48 hours, I have been drawn to the words in verse 6 from our Isaiah reading. There is a conversation happening here. There a voice – maybe it is the voice of God, or an angel – speaking with the prophet Isaiah.

A voice says, “Cry out!”

Or a better translation is, “Preach!”

And Isaiah said, “What should I preach?”

I can relate with this.

That’s the same conversation I’ve been having with God the past few days.

God says, “Preach!”

And I said, “What should I preach?”

God says, “Preach!”

And I said, “Yeah, I know, but what should I preach?”

And God says, “Preach!”

And I said, “No seriously, it’s Saturday…what should I preach!??”

I’ll just come out with it – this was a hard one folks.

There are strange days. It’s hard to know what to say. Hard to know what to preach. The goal is always good news, but it can be hard to know which direction to turn to find it.

First and foremost, there is simply the state of the nation and this sense that something really important is happening. On NPR on Thursday, there was a debate about whether this time we are living in is just a moment or is it a movement. Is what’s happening just fleeting or will it actually enact some real change? Three congressmen resigned this week. And a little notification popped up on my phone this weekend that said the last time this happened, it was over slavery. Something really important is happening right now.

Maybe I should preach about that?

As Pastor Pam said last week, things are being revealed. Which is both terrifying but also exciting because maybe these are the beginning of the birth pangs. It’s painful, it’s hard, but perhaps it leads to new life.

To put it in the words from Isaiah this morning, perhaps all of this is preparing a way for the Lord to come to us. As we heard in Isaiah, when the Lord comes, every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain will be made low. Which for so long has sounded like a beautiful balancing of the scales. That the lowly would be lifted up out of their valley, and the mighty would be brought down from their mountainous thrones. Surely pointing to the marvelous song we will hear from Mary in just a few weeks.

But there is another understanding I’ve been thinking about – you see when valleys are filled in and mountains are brought down, there is nowhere to hide anymore. When the Lord arrives there is nowhere to hide. Which is both good news and bad news. We all long to be found. We just don’t want to be found out.

Remember in the garden of Eden, one of the first things Adam and Eve do after they eat the fruit from the tree – is they start to hide themselves from each other and from God. And when God comes into the garden, God’s first words are, “Where are you?” This is a question of judgement, it is a question of location. Where are you? When we hide ourselves, our truth, God comes to find us.

I’m not sure how to make sense of what is happening these days but I pray that it will lead to a future that is more honest, more transparent, more loving.

My wife said that one of the most profound things about giving birth is that there comes a moment when you feel like you are dying. Perhaps this movement in time, is the movement of the Spirit finding us as we really are and it is terrifying and in many ways it can feel like things are dying but it just might be the very contractions for life.

God said, “Preach!”

And I said, “What should I preach?”

Do I preach that – about the politics of our time? About how the grass beneath our feet, our very foundation feeling like it is withering and what all of this could mean? I don’t know.

Because at the same time I know that for so many of us, there is simply the day to day stuff that brings plenty of worry for one day. Who needs another liberal rant about politics when you can barely see past your family and your front yard.

Some of us are wondering simply how to be faithful children to our parents as they age. Some of us wonder how to be a good spouse or a good parent. We carry grief that is fresh and grief made of scars and we long to have God speak tenderly to those places of our soul.

Yet we live in a time when our ability and willingness to be publicly vulnerable is so unencouraged, it can lead to silent suffering and isolation. And I think that is really important too.

Maybe I should preach about that.

The Bible has a word for times like these – wilderness. A time when you look around and nothing looks familiar and there are no well-worn paths that lead to a clear way out.

The Israelites in the book of Isaiah knew what it was like to live in the wilderness.

When Isaiah 40 was written down, the Israelites had been taken into exile by the Babylonians. Meaning taken from their homes, from their families with nothing but a burning Jerusalem and a destroyed temple – the place where God could be found – in their rearview mirror. In fact they had everything taken away from them they didn’t even have a song to sing. We hear in Psalm 137 these words, “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and there we wept….we hung up our harps on the willow trees. How could we sing the Lord’s song in this land…this exile…this wilderness?”

Now the Israelites are no strangers to exile. They’ve lived in the wilderness land of loss before – when they were taken into slavery in Egypt. But this time it was different.

This time – they had it coming to them. They had broken the covenant with God. They had mistreated those who were in need. They had turned their backs on the way of God that leads to life. In short, they had just made a mess of everything.

Have you ever made a mess of everything? And caused damage in someone’s life?

They knew that God was faithful to them when exile wasn’t their fault. But would God be faithful to them when it was? Would God rescue them from this wilderness? Or would God desert them in the desert of Babylon?

And then like a thief in the night, God speaks to them. Nothing in the previous 39 chapters prepares these despairing ones for the words that arrive in verse one. “Comfort, comfort my people…tell them they’ve done their time. In the wilderness prepare a way, for I the Lord am coming to them. The mountains will come down, the valleys will come up…nothing will get in the way of me reaching them.”

Can you imagine how those words would’ve sounded to people who had really made a mess of things? To hear that God is faithful. Even when we are not. To hear that God would do what they thought was impossible – that God would come to find them in this place – this place of wilderness.

Whether it’s our fault or not, God makes a way in the wilderness. Not a way for you to come to God. A way for God to come to you. And be with you there. In the very place of your fear and your pain and your despair.

God said to me, “Preach!”

And I said, “What should I preach?”

Do I preach that – about the wildernesses of this life. The places where it feels like the flowers that give color and beauty and aroma to this life fade away, leaving us cold and alone, and what could that mean? I don’t know.

And then I finally saw it. There in verse 8 and 9.

That voice. It finally gets fed up with Isaiah. It gets tired of his late-Saturday night delaying that the voice finally just gives Isaiah the sermon.

It says, “Yes, the grass withers, and the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah,….(wait for it)…… “Here is your God!”

That’s the sermon. Here is your God.

Here is your God. Here is your God….Just tell them that their God is here.

Here.

A God who comes with might – because somethings need to change. Mountains needs to come down; valleys need to come up. But a God who also gathers into Her chest the lambs for whom She has searched.

One of the greatest moments of watching Lauren be a mom is seeing how she so naturally cares for our boys whenever they are hurt or despairing. She just holds them. Close to her chest. Sometimes they bury their face in her out of embarrassment for something they’ve done. And she just holds them. And leans over and whispers in their ear, “I got you. I got you. I got you.”

I don’t know where each of you are on this second Sunday in Advent. I’m not sure what’s happening in your life but this season points to one promise. One thing for all of us to preach – here is your God. Your God is here. It is the fulfillment of God’s deepest need, God’s deepest desire: To be with us. The promise that God would go the farthest distance to find you – God becomes a human being. To be with you. To speak tenderly to you. To hold you close to the chest and say, “I got you. I got you. I got you.”

Amen.

Sunday, November 26th, 2017 – Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31-46
31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 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.’ 41 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; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 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?’ 45 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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

In her book, Waking Up White, Debby Irving shares about her struggle with understanding race and racism and where she fits into it all, as a white woman. For years, she could feel this sense of racial tension in her life.  “As a colleague and neighbor, she worried about offending people she dearly wanted to befriend. As an arts administrator, she didn’t understand why her diversity efforts lacked traction. As a teacher, she found her best efforts to reach out to students and families of color left her wondering what she was missing.”[1] As a result, she wanted to develop her own diversity skills. But to do so, the first, but necessary, development was a painful one.

Debby had to realize that her approach to this whole topic was problematic. She says this, “What drove my pursuit was a desire to learn how not to screw up and embarrass myself so I could preserve my good-person image…(D)esperate to be a good white person and not say something embarrassing, I started seeking out diversity workshops.”[2]

She was caught up in the sin Martin Luther calls being curved in on one’s self. In her own learning, her efforts to become more racially and socially aware were fueled not by her desire to learn about systemic racism and the way her neighbors suffer because of it, but by the desire to keep herself looking squeaky clean. And as a result, she says, her “mind was trained away from what I really needed to learn…I know understand that fear of doing or saying something offensive perpetuated my cultural incompetence.”[3]

Debbie isn’t alone. Dare I say, all of us have some of this same sin within us. Especially around conversations of race. The sin of being  curved in on one’s self – more concerned about our own self-preservation in the face of great suffering and great responsibility.

And if you ask me, it is that very same curved in on one’s self, self-concern that creeps up in us in Jesus’ teaching this morning.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last week in this liturgical year. Next week? Christian new year – the start of Advent. Today, we hear Jesus’ final teaching in the gospel of Matthew – the parable of the sheep and the goats.

When the Son of Man comes, all the nations – all the people – will stand before him and he will begin to separate them, like shepherd separates sheep from goats. The sheep – those who fed him when he was hungry, gave him something to drink when he was thirsty. And the goats – those who didn’t.

And what’s our first inclination? To figure out where we are in the herd! Am I a sheep or am I goat? What sort of eternal report card do I have with the Lord at 8:54am on Sunday November 26th, 2017?

In fact, I thought briefly about putting out signs on the pews this morning – a section for goats and a section for sheep, just to see how you would sort yourselves out.

But that would only reinforce the curved-in problem that Debby Irving had– the assumption that this is about you and your good (or not-so-good) image. That this story is about you finding yourself so as to either congratulate yourself for being a well-behaved sheep, or redeem yourself from being an indifferent goat. An assumption that, I think, trains us away from what we really need to learn from Jesus today.

Because let’s be honest – we already know who we are in the herd. There is no debate. We are both.

I doubt that I need to tell you that there are times when you have cared for those in need. And I doubt that I need to tell you that there are times when you haven’t.

The question isn’t “Where are we?”, it’s “Where is Jesus?”

Because nobody can see him. Did you catch that?

All the nations have gathered before Jesus and he separates them depending on how they did or did not treat him in his time of need, and they all ask the same question, “Lord, when did we see you…?”

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38….Lord, when was it that we saw you a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?

Lord, when did we see you? That’s the question both groups ask. Before we praise the sheep and condemn the goats, let’s at least recognize that both failed to recognize Jesus.

And Jesus tells them, “Whatever you have done to the least of these – the hungry, the sick, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner, you have done to me.”

Ten years ago, a dear family to me went through an unspeakable tragedy. The entire family was involved in a car accident on the way home from vacation, and as a result, the father and husband, David, died.

In the following months and years, the matriarch of the family, Karen, said some insightful things that I’ll never forget, but this one stands out.

She said, “You know, I barely heard a word that was said at Dave’s funeral. But I’ve listen very closely at every funeral I’ve been to since.” Because she knew the grief and the loss as if it were her own. She could feel it.

I’ve come to learn that whenever I’m preaching at a funeral, I’m never preaching at just one funeral. I’m preaching at the funeral for every lost loved one in the room.

Because the people in the room – they get it. They get what it is like to lose a father, or a grandmother, or a child, or an aunt, or a friend. And so whatever the preacher says to this grieving family, it’s as if it is being said to all people who grieve and their hurt. And it is a remarkably intimate connection to have with someone. To feel what they feel. As if it is happening to you.

Have you ever felt that? Have you ever watched someone go through something, and you can feel it so closely as if it is happening to you? And maybe you even see how that person is being treated in that moment – whether kindly or unkindly – and you can feel it in your body as if it is happening to you. Maybe you’ve been that kid who struggled in sports and you watch how coaches – kindly or unkindly – treat a struggling player. Or you’ve been that person drowning in debt and now you see someone’s credit card rejected at the grocery store and you feel that ache that is all too familiar. Or maybe you’ve been the new family in town and you know how hard it can be to break in to the social circles that are so well established and how lonely and isolating it can be and now you see a new family in town with that same look in their eyes that you had back then. And you get it. Immediately and intimately.

And that’s what Jesus is teaching us about God today. That every time God sees the hungry, and the naked, and the sick and imprisoned, God gets it. God feels it – closely. God is with them in a way that however they are treated is how God is treated.

Whenever you feel your heart beat in sync with the heart of another in need, you can be sure that that’s where God is. Right there in that moment.

People ask all the time, where is God? Where is Jesus? And today Jesus says, “I’m here already. I’ve come to you hidden in the hurting human. And I’m waiting for you to see me.”

So often we’ve been taught that Jesus shows up in those who help. In those who care for the needy. But today Jesus says, I am the need. I am the heartache, the weakness, the cold and abandoned. There you will see me. You don’t need to hike some mountain or go on some Zen meditation retreat. You do not need to spend hours in prayer or travel halfway around the world to what they call a “thin place” to meet God. According to today’s gospel, the farthest distance you have to travel to see God is the distance from your heart to the ache in the heart beating closest to you. That’s where you will see God.

Lord, when did we see you? I’ve said this before but in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is really concerned with the health of your eye.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your body will be full of light.

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own?

 Lord, when did we see you? They all ask. He wants to correct our vision. He wants us to see with kingdom-of-God eyes.

Some of you may know this, but my son Elliot has to wear an eye patch for about three hours everyday. He has what’s called amblyopia – decreased eyesight due to abnormal vision development. Thanks to pre-kindergarten screening, we were able to learn early on that for most of his life, Elliot has favored his right eye and as a result he was virtually blind in his left.

And get this: we had no clue. None. You see, sometimes it’s easy to hide our vision problems, and those around us have no clue.

And so in order to strengthen the muscles around Elliot’s left eye and to strengthen the brain to eye connection, what do we have to do? We have to block out his dominant way of seeing the world. He has to try seeing the world through his weakness, through a way that is a little awkward and doesn’t make sense, where everything is out of focus, and it’s even a little scary because you might bump into something you didn’t see. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. And the more and more dominant this new way of seeing becomes.

Friends, I’m afraid we all have decreased eyesight due to abnormal vision development. What would happen if we practiced seeing the face of Christ in everyone we meet? If we covered up our dominant way of seeing the world – a world where weakness and need are seen as failure, and power and domination are seen as success – to try seeing the world as the kingdom of God filled with the people of God that it already is.

Would we experience the presence of God more fully? Would we no longer have to ask, “Lord, when did we see you?” If we just risk it, I think we’ll see that it’s true.

This past summer, some of our high school youth went to Nashville for a mission trip. And one of the assignments they were given was to split into groups to feed a hungry person on the streets. To give them a bag lunch and talk to them for a little while.

And do you know what they said it felt like? Awkward. Out of their comfort zone.

Yup. Learning to see again with new eyes is awkward.

But then our youth also said that after awhile, there was something more that developed. Something beyond the awkwardness. There was something deeper – some connection shared between human beings that was humbling.

If you ask me, it was the presence of Christ. It’s like their eye was adjusting to the light of Christ they could see in this fellow human being and they could see more clearly.

People of God, the surprise of this teaching is not where you or anyone else will end up, it is where Christ will meet us – over and over again. In the broken places of this world. In the places of great need, but also in the small places where we hunger and thirst for new life to grow in our own lives.

What would happen if we practiced seeing the face of Christ in everyone we meet? Perhaps the greatest hurdle in that is seeing the face of Christ in the person you meet in the mirror each day. Are you willing to see yourself and your hurt, your ache as a place where God would choose to dwell? I wonder how Christ is longing to be revealed there.

Today isn’t about where you do or don’t measure up. It’s about showing us the heart of God. A heart that beats in sync with those in any need.

May we have eyes to see this king we have in Jesus. Amen.

[1] Debby Irving, Waking Up White, back cover of paperback edition.

[2] Ibid. 126

[3] Ibid. 129

Sunday, November 12, 2017 – Sermon on Amos 5 (18-24) and Matthew 25 (1-17)

Amos 5:18-24
18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; 19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? 21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

 Matthew 25:1-13
1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. 

Something has to change.

Something. Has. To. Change.

Have you ever thought that? Have you ever felt that in your life?

That how things are is not working anymore. Or perhaps it never worked, but now you can see it. Or now you have the courage to speak to it.

Maybe it’s that the pulse of your marriage is weak and you are terrified you’re about to lose it.

Maybe it’s that you rush to get your kids up for school, and rush to make them breakfast, and rush them to the bus. And then rush them to hockey practice. And rush to make dinner. And rush them to bed.

Maybe it’s that the big paycheck you get for working long and hard hours is no longer as valuable as time with your family and friends.

Maybe it’s that retirement is more boring and meaningless than you thought it would be.

Something has to change.

Surely we can see the need for things to change on a national level.

Now that a sanctuary, a word that means “safe place”, no longer entirely feels that way in light of recent gun violence.

Now that powerful men are dropping like flies under sexual harassment and sexual assault accusations. And women everywhere are saying, “Men…wake up! This is not new. This is how it has always been.”

Something has to change.

That’s what I hear in our readings for this morning – from Amos and Matthew.

But I couldn’t hear that at first. Because there is anger in these texts and it distracted me. I wanted to close the book on these texts because I could sense the anger and it disturbed me. You see, some how I got it in my mind that being angry was a bad thing. Like the worst thing in the world was for someone to be angry. And that somehow being angry was not being a good Christian.

I remember years ago I thought that Jesus was love and therefore Jesus can never be angry. I hated the gospel story about Jesus turning the tables over in the temple. I didn’t think God could be like that.

But now I get it. God gets angry. And thank God for that. Because it means that God is alive and that God cares and that God cares about what happens here in this world. And that what we do – our daily lives – matter to God.

And maybe there is anger in these texts because no one was listening to them. My son Henry is two years old and he is teaching me something these days. When I ignore him, when I do not listen to him, his frustration and his anger escalates.

 Daddy?

Just a second, Henry.

Daddy, daddy. (He pulls on my pant leg.)

Just a second, Henry.

Daddy! (He grabs my face)

Just a second, Henry.

Daddy, Daddy! – smack.

He gets me right on the cheek.

Too often my first reaction is to correct his anger. Rather than recognizing his anger as a symptom of not being listened to.

And now sometimes, I say, “Hey, Henry.” And what does he say?

Just a second, Daddy.

I don’t need to correct anger. I need to listen to anger.

And so when you come across a passage in the bible where God sounds angry, don’t immediately disregard it. Just slow down. Slow down. And listen.

God through the prophet Amos is angry. I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.

Which isn’t the most helpful text on Stewardship Sunday. God may not want your offerings, but we will surely take them!

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Of course God is angry – The people come to worship – they sing songs, they make music, they present an offering to God, but justice and righteousness are not happening in the life around them. “The people do all of the right things in worship, but their daily lives are not characterized by justice and righteousness.”[1]

To quote my friend, Pastor Laura Aase, “What good is worship, Amos is asking, if it’s not gonna change your life? What good is worship, Amos is asking, if it’s not gonna change your neighbor’s life? What good is worship, Amos is asking, if it does not involve God’s justice and righteousness?…Worship, Amos would say, is not worship if it doesn’t change you, spur you into action, make you just uncomfortable enough to do something.”

Something has to change.

We are not treating others as we ought. We are not treating ourselves as we ought. A couple of weeks ago, Cornel West spoke at St. Olaf and he said, “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” Truth can only be known when we listen to those who are suffering.

Are we listening to the ways others are suffering? Don’t dismiss it. It matters to God.

Are you listening to the ways you are suffering? Do not dismiss it. It matters to God.

Something has to change.

And then there is that parable.

Where the 10 bridesmaids take their lamps to meet the bridegroom. But five of them were wise and five of them were foolish. Five took extra oil with them. The other five didn’t. But the bridegroom was late. And it got late. And exhausting to wait. So the 10 (all of them) fell asleep. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re tired. But then at midnight someone starts shouting that the bridegroom is arriving and so every hurries to get their lamps ready. But what do you know, five of them are out of oil and five of them aren’t. They asked to share but the wise one’s don’t share. Instead they send the foolish ones out to some 24 hour 7-11 that just might sell them oil. But the bridegroom arrives while they are gone. When they return, they knock and say, “Lord, Lord, open the door.” But the bridegroom says to them, “I do not know you.“

So the lesson of the day, Church, is this: if you want to see Jesus, hoard as much as you can and don’t share.

I had to resist my immediate desire to dismiss this parable because of how uncomfortable I felt with it. Because it doesn’t sound like Jesus – to be slamming doors in people’s faces who don’t’ have enough. Doesn’t scripture tell us to knock and the door will be opened. Ask and you shall receive. Those who are first will be last and the last shall be first.

There are so many questions to ask. We could spend all day unpacking this parable.

The question I really want to ask is: Whoever said the bridegroom wouldn’t let you in if you ran out of oil?

All of the bridesmaids were concerned about oil. Even the wise ones. They were worried that if they shared, all of them would run out of oil, and all of them would then be rejected by the bridegroom.

All of them are operating out of model of fear and scarcity. That tere is not enough to go around, I need to have enough to be enough and so I better get mine while the getting is good. “Neither trusts the love the bridegroom has for his friends. Neither trusts that the bridegroom will embrace all regardless of whether they walk in light or walk in darkness.[2]

And because they cannot trust the bridegroom with who they really are, they run off to get more oil so that they can act like people who had enough oil all along. And when they get back, what does the bridegroom say?

Does he say, “Oh, cool, you’ve got oil – the secret wedding gift that gets you in. C’mon.”?

No.

Does he say, “Oh, I’m sorry, you didn’t have any oil earlier. Maybe next time.”

No.

He says, “Who are you? I don’t know you.”

You see, I don’t think this is about oil. I think it’s about trusting the bridegroom. Trusting the bridegroom with the truth about your life. Trusting that the bridegroom will have enough light and oil to spare, even when others do not. Jesus is the light of the world and so are you, he says. But when your light grows dim and tired and exhausted and weary and you cannot see the road ahead, his light will guide the way. It will shine in the darkness. The bridegroom comes at night! In the dark. Into the darkness. And he goes to meet you there. But if you run off thinking you need to be someone else for him – that he will not accept you as you are – then the real you will miss the love that Jesus has for you. You will not, you cannot experience the kingdom of God here and now while trying to be someone else.

Something has to change in us– and as AA has magnificently taught us, it begins by being truthful about your life. Hi, my name is Jonathan. And I am out of oil. I didn’t bring enough with me.

 None of the bridesmaids believed that they could trust the bridegroom with that kind of truth. But in a little while oil will be placed on Quinn Irene’s forehead. You have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever. It is not oil that she brought. It is not oil that she bought. It is given to her. And it will be enough. So that she can trust the bridegroom. So that she can trust Jesus with her whole life.

 Jesus came to bring life and life abundant. But it is resurrected life. Life out of death. And you have to name and not hide the dead parts in order for life to grow again.

Some of us are desperate for change – something has to change. Change in your life. Change in the nation. Let’s be honest about it. Let’s trust that God can be at work in that need. Let’s not fall into the fearful thinking that things are getting worse and that God is not here. But rather that the truth about us is being revealed and God is present in it, bringing about change for the sake of healing, painful though it maybe.

In closing, I leave you with these helpful words from David Henson.

“If you find yourself feeling like the (one whose life has run out of oil), remember to wait in the darkness. Don’t run from it. It is a holy place and God will meet you there.

If you find yourself feeling like (you have more oil than those around you), remember to share what you have, even if it scares you. Don’t trade temporary comfort for lasting and beloved community. The chance to give of yourself and is a holy place and God will meet you there.”[3]

Something has to change. May God give us the wisdom and the courage and the light to be the first to start.

Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1949

[2] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2014/11/the-breaking-of-the-bridesmaids-how-scripture-undermines-a-parable/#52w5aHo1oAOS0PHm.99

[3] Ibid.

Sunday, October 15th, 2017 – Confirmation Sunday, Legos, Hospital Gowns, and the Worst Parable, a sermon on Matthew 22:1-14

You can listen to this sermon here.

Matthew 22:1-14
1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

So, that was a horrible gospel reading, yeah?

Preacher everywhere have been performing CPR on this text all week, just to see if there is any life that can come out of this horror movie that Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven.

Let me say very clearly, if not only for our confirmands, but for you too, I do not know what this parable means. I don’t. And I know that for some of you that’s disappointing and disheartening to hear. But I firmly believe that a faith community is not a place that has all the answers. It’s a place that holds all the questions. Together. So to be part of this community, to be people of faith isn’t to understand and know everything for certain. This is why a little later, as we profess our faith with the Apostles’ Creed, after each article, we will say, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Because we don’t have all the answer, but rather to say we are willing to strive to live our life trusting the promises of God are true and at times that will mean significant wrestling and struggle with God and the Scriptures as to what that means for me.

Now, with that said, before we dive into this parable, there have been a handful of things this past week that have given me some perspective on Jesus’ parable and thus helped me sit with this difficult reading, rather than ditch it for the comfort of Psalm 23.

The first realization came from a children’s toy. Raise your hand if you have ever played with Legos in your life?

We are in Lego fever at our house. The Star Wars variety, if you’re curious. And for better or worse, many of the Legos these days come in prepackaged, pre-planned designs with instructions. And they are so frustratingly detailed, so precise that they make you search and search through the pile of 892 pieces on your carpet for the tiniest little accent piece. And then you find out that the piece belongs on the inside of the ship that no one will see anyways. But then when the whole thing is finished, you’re grateful for all the little accents and the detail.

The spaceship – it doesn’t need that little accent piece, but if you lose one piece you feel like something crucial is missing.

I guess that’s how I feel about that the parable this morning. If you could build an image of the kingdom of heaven out of Legos, this parable would be just one block of it. Preferably on the inside where no one will see it. You see, according to Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is not like one thing. It’s not just like this wedding banquet. But many things. Because there are just some things in the world that you cannot fully describe with words – like love or grief or the kingdom of heaven. And so we use stories and images as best we can. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. It’s like yeast. It’s like a sower who scatters seed everywhere. It’s like treasure hidden in a field. Therefore, hear this: today’s parable doesn’t get to have the final word on God and Jesus. It is just one part of it. A part that I wish we could lose in the shag carpet of history. But I also believe that to do so, we’d be missing a little texture, a little shading that is actually meant to contribute something to the image of the unimaginable kingdom of heaven.

Another helpful reminder this week was that any time Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, I have to remember to unhook my assumption that this is about the afterlife. That it’s about what happens when we die. This is about the kingdom of heaven that is drawing near. It’s about what the kingdom of God on earth looks like…because that’s what we pray for every single week. Lord, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it already is in heaven. We pray that it would come and replace all the other kingdoms of this world. The kingdoms of oppressive governments, the kingdoms of wealth inequality, the kingdoms of powerful white men. Please, Lord, teach us about your kingdom here on earth. Teach us your ways. So, it’s not about the dress code to get into heaven. It’s deeper, and more necessary, and more immediate than that. It’s about God bringing about life here and now and what that looks like.

With those things in mind, I think we can be brave enough to ask the question: what truth is hidden in this difficult parable that I need to hear right now?

Now, when you’re dealing with a parable, I think the best thing to do is just walk around in it and start asking questions.

  • Why did the first guests reject the king’s invitation to the party?
  • Where did people get the wedding garment? Did they carry them around with them just in case? Did the king provide them and run out?
  • Where is outer darkness exactly and how strong do you have to be to throw some one there?
  • Who are the called ones and who are the chosen? Is the poor sap at the end the chosen one? Or are the people at the wedding the chosen?
  • Where is the Son whose getting married in the midst of all of this? Better yet, where is the bride? Why doesn’t she ever show up on stage?

Scholars will disagree about what all of these things mean. Therefore people have interpreted this parable in all kinds of ways. They’ve said that Jesus or God is the one who gets thrown out because that’s what we do to a loving and forgiving God. Sometimes, I’ve wondered if God is not the other character in the story who is never seen – the bouncer at the door – who lets in people at the door who don’t not belong there and don’t have right clothes on.

But this week, all of those interpretations felt too easy. Like they were simply there to settle my own offense and discomfort with this story. And I was reminded this week to not disregard that which offends me. I was reminded to not be afraid of being offended but in fact to sit with it and wonder why I’m so bothered by what’s been said.

So, I wanted to try and take this parable at face value. What if God really is the king in the story. Now the whole thing is disturbing. In fact, it’s meant to be. Like a circus fun house mirror, everything is blown out of proportion and distorted. “Jesus’ parables are meant to disturb us. To wake us up out of our complacency and to ask hard questions about ourselves and about God.”[1] But the hard question I wanted to ask is, “What if God really is the king in the story?”

So, there is this king. And his son is getting married and they’ve invited all these guests. And let’s be honest, we know what kind of guests – the upper crust of society, the elites. The powerful. A status many of us would hold from the world’s standards. But they don’t come. But this is a patient king and a generous one, so he sends more messengers out. But the guests – they make light of the King’s generous offer.

Has anyone ever made light of something that was really important to you? It’s devastating. They say their busy at their farm or at their work. Aren’t we all. And some even kill the messengers. You see, sometimes we’re so busy and so important and self-sufficient that offers of help and generosity only reveal just how desperate and in need of help we actually are – and we don’t like to admit that. So we decline the offer and kill the messenger.

Then the king sends troops and destroys the murderers and burns their city. What could this mean? Well, I wonder if the city represents everything that’s distracts them from joining in the banquet of the generous king.[2] The city is the stadium for the rat race that keeps them busy and tired and numb and prevents them from living in the kingdom of heaven that is all around them. And so the king burns it down. So they can’t live that way anymore. In today’s language, maybe we would say he burns down the corporate ladder. So the people can stop scrambling over the tops of each other. It’s burned not to hurt the people but to ground them. Or maybe a modern day version is the guest don’t come because they’ve got so many emails. And so the king reaches in and takes the smartphone right out of their hand and burns it. And that will feel like being destroyed at first. But healing in the end.

God longs to take away or destroy that which distracts us from living in the kingdom of heaven that is all around us. Given to us by a generous and patient God.

So the king destroys the city. Now, the really ridiculous thing in this story is what happens next. Watch: the king changes.

The king who first opened the doors to some, now opens the doors to all. The king has become more generous in the midst of this offense. There is no way to be an elite now. The city is in ruins. There is no way to earn honor to deserve an invitation to the king’s wedding banquet. Now? Now, everyone’s invited. Every from the streets. And let’s not fool ourselves, we know who that includes.

That’s what should really offend us. That there would be a king so generous as to invite everyone off the street. The good and the bad. So, this kingdom of heaven –  it’s not about morality. It’s not about are you good enough, have you earned enough points. You’re just invited.

But here’s the thing, when you arrive, you’re handed a wedding garment. Now, no one really knows what this is or how it worked. But to me this week, the effect of the wedding garment has felt a lot like the effect of a hospital gown.

Have you ever put on a hospital gown? There is never enough fabric, is there? That moment when the nurse politely says, “Please change into this gown and the doctor will be right in to see you.”

I don’t know about you, but as soon as that door closes, it feels like I’ve got 60 seconds tops on the clock before that door opens again. And my heart starts to race. Because I am certain that door is going to open, and I’ll be mid-pant leg.

But then you make it with time to spare. And you sit down on the butcher papered table, you stretch that fabric as far as it will go. You tuck all the edges in under your thighs just to insulate any dignity you had left.

And there you are. And suddenly it doesn’t matter if you are a CEO of big company or living paycheck to paycheck. It doesn’t matter if you are smarter than everyone else or if you’re life has just been one failure after another.

It doesn’t matter who you were when you walked into the room, because now, you have been stripped bare and you are just like everyone else. Revealing a vulnerable somebody with a body that softens over time. Revealing a somebody worthy of but also in need of care.

The hospital gown. It is the great equalizer.

I’ve wondered this week if in the kingdom of heaven that is the wedding garment. It reveals who you and everyone else really are. That you belong to God and nothing more. It suddenly equalizes you with everyone else. All that stuff you bring with you from the city? It doesn’t count here. It’s been burned away.

And that? That bothers some of us. One preacher puts it this way: Maybe it is hard “to put on the wedding garment that everyone else (like tax collectors, and sinners, and prostitutes) is wearing too.”[3] Sometimes it’s hard to celebrate the good news of God when you look around and see who else has been invited to the party. Sometimes we don’t want to be set free. And so we refuse to put on the wedding garment. Clinging to our false, yet more comfortable identity like an addict to their addiction.

And the king says well you can do it outside then. Because in the kingdom of heaven you’ll have to let go of all other identities for you and for others, except the identity: beloved.

Friends, Jesus is calling us out. On our making light of who we really are. And as a result, he is calling us out on our complacency and our apathy to the status quo. And there is love in that because it says that what you do matters. So, if you’re going to show up at a wedding, look like it. If you’re going to be people of faith in here, look like people of faith out there in the world. If you’re going to renounce the devil and evil and all the forces that defy God, like we will in a moment, then renounce evil out there! Because if we trust who we really are, it will affect how we live.

We are loved so that we can love. We are forgiven so that we can forgive. We are set free so that we can set other free.

And that will cause us to change. So by the grace of God, let’s change. And there is so much in the world that needs changing right now, but here are just some that are alive in me right now. Let’s stand against racial and gender inequality. Let’s stand against the sexual abuse and harassment that we’ve allowed to fly just under the radar in this culture. Let’s stand against health care offered only for some and not for all. Let’s stand against destroying the earth one gallon at a time. Why? Because God does. Those ways of being, those articles of clothing cannot be worn in the kingdom of heaven. They belong in the piles of ashes back in the city.

May we have the courage to have faith active in love. And may we bless these new people in this community and these Confirmands who will help us along the way. Amen.

[1] Debie Thomas, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/october-15-ordinary-28a-matthew-221-14-isaiah-251-9

[2] I was helped by a sermon by Kara Root on this point. Found here: http://kara-root.blogspot.com/2015/03/not-good-time-for-party.html

[3] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Year A, a Working Preacher Resource.

Sunday, October 1st, 2017 – My Favorite Song, a sermon on Psalm 25:1-9

You can listen to this sermon here.

Psalm 25:1-9
1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. 3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. 6 Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! 8 Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.

Do you have a favorite song?  Do you have a favorite song right now? One that you play over and over and over again? One that presses right where you need it to – cracking your heart wide open and sending your body full of joy or hope or compassion or maybe simply the feeling of having words put to your life that you never could have come up with on your own? What is it about music that grabs a hold of us in a way that nothing else can?

Recently I have been drawn to the songs of musical theater. Like the songs from Next to Normal, about a family desperately trying to hold themselves together, while the dogs of mental illness and grief try to rip them apart. Or the songs from the new Tony Award winning musical Dear Evan Hansen, the story about high school student who tells a grieving family a powerful story about his friendship with their son, who was a loner at school. That story turns into an inspiring speech. That speech goes viral on the internet. The internet starts raising money for this grieving family. The only problem is…the whole thing is a lie. There was no friendship. Evan Hansen simply told the story because he thought it would help a family that was hurting. What do you do when the wrong thing is done for the right reasons? Or was it the wrong thing? All of that is put into song – and it breaks my heart. Every time.

The beauty of music – of songs – is that they help us to feel the words, not just hear them.

The number 1 song in the country, according to Billboard, right now is Bodak Yellow by Cardi B. I’m both slightly proud and slightly embarrassed that I am old enough to tell you that I have no clue who that is or what that song sounds like.

But that’s okay. I found my own new #1 song this week. It’s an old song, but you might recognize it. It begins like this:

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. My God, I put my trust in you; let me not be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.

 Do you know it? You should. You just sang it.

It’s the 25th track of the massive 150 track album known as the book of Psalms. Or the book of Hymns. That’s what the psalms are – hymns. In fact, the first 150 hymns in our hymnal is the book of Psalms from Scripture. Each week, a different track, put to a different tune.

Over the years, as a pastor, I’ve found that more and more my favorite Bible verses are coming from the Psalms.

For awhile I’ve had mixed feelings about that – thinking that as a Christian pastor, shouldn’t my focus be on Jesus. Shouldn’t my favorite verse be something he said, or at least something from the New Testament?

But then I learned this week that Martin Luther calls the book of Psalms the “little Bible.” It comprehends most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible, Luther said.[1]

Which helped remind me that that Psalms were Jesus’ little Bible too. These were Jesus’ hymns. These were his songs. Jesus knew these hymns. Jesus quoted and sang these hymns – even from the cross. I have this feeling that it is okay with Jesus to love what he loved just as much as we love him.

What I love about these songs is they sound like the inner monologue of Scripture. They are like a private journal. They are not the voice of God addressing us; they are raw and honest voice of humanity addressing God. Expressing what so often we struggle to say.

I recently heard the story of a UCC minister who went to a UCC ministers conference. And he was surprised to find himself seated in a pew at the opening worship service next to his old theology professor from Harvard – Richard R. Niebuhr. As it turns out, the preacher that evening was preaching an experimental sermon. Which meant that he preached a couple paragraphs and then the congregation sang a stanza of a hymn. Then he would preach a few more paragraphs, and the congregation sang the second stanza. And so on. Evidently, it was not going well. It wasn’t catching fire. This minister leaned over to his old theology professor and said, “God, this is awful. This reminds me of something you said in class one day.” Niebuhr looked at him oddly. “We were reading J.S. Whale’s book Christian Doctrine. And you said that Whale was a bad theologian, because every time he encountered a problem he couldn’t solve, he quoted a hymn.” Niebuhr looked at him and said, “I was wrong. I was young. I was brash. I was wrong. I have since discovered that there are somethings in our faith that you can say only in hymns.”[2]

That’s what I’m discovering about the Psalms. These are songs poured out of human flesh – speaking that which only a song can say. And Psalm 25 was the chisel to the stone around my heart this week. Because I believe it is a song we all sing in our hearts, at least once in our life. Throughout it you can see these moments of reformation in his life.  I invite you to follow along in your bulletins.

The Psalmist begins this way: To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. My God, I put my trust in you.

 Which at first can sound like a pious, righteous statement – To you, O God, I give my everything. But to me it just sounds like desperation. Umm God…. here. Here’s my whole life. You take it – ‘cause I’m kinda spent. I’m gonna put my trust in you, because I’ve tried putting my trust in other places and it hasn’t worked. So, you’re up.

And that’s thing – only when we fully trust the one with whom we’re speaking, only then can we really be honest with them. Only then can we really confess the truth about our life.

That’s what happens at the beginning of our confession each week – each week we first proclaim a loving and graceful God before we confess. We have to know that trust and grace are waiting for us on the other end before we can share the truth about our life. A few moments ago, we said, Blessed be God who heals us and reforms us again and again. And then we confessed. Because we knew we were confessing to a God who heals. And reforms.

So, the psalmist is desperate and given his trust over to God and then can finally be really honest. And this is what the psalmist says…

Lord, don’t let me be put to shame. Lord, don’t let my enemies triumph over me.

This is a hurting person. This is a vulnerable person.

But then watch what happens – this is so human. Lord, do not let me be put to shame…but them, those people over there – the treacherous ones – put them to shame. Shame them Lord!

Isn’t that how we all are sometimes. Lord, don’t shame me. Shame them.  So often when we are hurting is when we want to hurt people the most. It takes a lot of trust to be able to unveil that truth.

But then something happens to the Psalmist. Something changes between verse 3 and 4. In fact, I could publish this psalm, I’d put verse 1-3 at the top of the page and verse 4 at the bottom – with a lot of blank space in between. Just to show the massive leap that happens between verse 3 and 4.

In verse 3 the Psalmist sings the Psalmists ways – don’t shame me, shame them.

But then in verse 4, he sings – Show me your ways. Teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth, and teach me
For you are my salvation (I can’t save myself anymore)
In you have I trusted all day long.

Show me, teach me, lead me, Lord. In your ways. He’s desperate for transformation. What courageous statement. Don’t you just want to sing that one from the roof tops some times. As we argue and argue about football players kneeling or standing for a flag, while millions of our people are without aid in Puerto Rico and I just weep – Teach us your ways, O God. Our ways….our way isn’t working.

The Psalmist goes on to say – Remember your compassion and love, Lord, for they are from everlasting. Now we know they are in a trusting relationship because it takes a lot of guts to tell God what to do. Remember who you are God – Remember who you’ve always been, which is full of compassion and love. That’s who I need you to be.

Why? Why does he want this God to be full of compassion and love? Look what happens next:

Remember not the sins of my youth. Don’t remember my transgressions. Remember me.

 Just remember me, Lord.

If you ask me, this is the barrel-chested chorus of this song. Remember not my sins, remember me. Every single person sings that chorus. At least once in their life. Remember me not my sins. Remember not when I’ve messed things up and missed the mark. Remember me. Don’t remember me for the things I’ve done. Don’t remember me for my lowest moment. Just…just…remember me.

I wonder if Jesus heard the echo of this Psalm when the criminal on the cross beside him said, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” And being the full embodiment of God’s compassion and love, Jesus could boldly say, “Brother, today. Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Lord, remember not my sins. Remember me.

Listen then to what the Psalmist says next. You are gracious and upright, O Lord, therefore you teach sinners in your way.

Remember at the beginning the psalmist wanted God to shame sinners, now he wants God to teach sinners. Remember when the psalmist said, “Teach me, O God.” And now he says that God teaches sinners.

God instructs sinners in the way. What does it mean to instruct sinners?

It means to believe that we can change.

And to believe that we can change, that God can teach us to change, is to always have a song of good hope.

In the end, this Psalmist –in his courageous vulnerable honesty – realized that he, like the rest of us, is not so innocent. It’s not that the world is divided up between good people and bad people but that we are, as Martin Luther would say, saint and sinner together. That together we are all part of the painfully complicated and wonderfully beautiful people of God – who rely on the grace and teachings of God. Dependent on God’s goodness and not our own.

That’s my favorite song this week. It just might be my favorite song for life.

Do you have a favorite song? If not, may you find one. And may the true Song of Good hope, Jesus, walk with you through everything.[3]

Let’s sing.

[1] Rolf Jacobson, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1701

[2] As told by Tom Long in a sermon preached at Duke Chapel on November 20th, 2016. https://chapel.duke.edu/events/university-worship-1479657600-1479661200

[3] Glen Hansard, “Song of Good Hope.”