Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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Matthew 9:18-26

Saved = Made Well and Then Some

February 18, 2018

 

Jesus saves: you read it on billboards and church signs and even bathroom walls. Jesus saves: you hear it from TV preachers and gospel songs. But what does it mean—Jesus saves? Is it limited to old-time, evangelical religion, or can 'Jesus saves' come alive in the gospel stories? Can 'Jesus saves' change our hearts and make us new this Lent?

The idea for this Lenten series comes from a sermon delivered years ago by my teacher, Fred Craddock. Dr. Craddock was widely considered one of the best preachers in America. To me, no one could touch him. I want you to experience him yourselves, a bit from the beginning of his sermon called "Jesus saves." It's helpful to know that Dr. Craddock was a minister in the Disciples of Christ, so when he refers to 'Disciples,' he means members of his denomination, their traits and characteristics. He begins the sermon telling how so many important words have fallen out of favor, but he goes on to say how some of them were being used again—for example, 'Jesus saves.' See what he does with that:

Video clip of Fred Craddock

The New Testament Greek word for 'saved' is sōzō, but as Dr. Craddock suggested, several different English words are used for sōzō, even in the same translation. In Matthew 1:21 the Lord appears to Joseph and tells him Mary will bear a son who will sōzō‑‑save--his people from their sins. But in Mark 6:56 Jesus meets some folks who are sick and sōzō’s them—only now it’s translated healed; and in Luke 8:36 someone with a demon is sōzō'ed—healed, again. But when they're perishing on a boat in a storm, the disciples cry out, "Sōzō us!" Now it's not translated "Heal us," but "Lord, save us!" Save Greek word. And in today's gospel reading, a woman who's been bleeding for twelve years thinks to herself, "If I but touch the fringe of his cloak, I will be sōzō'ed—made well, it says this time. And Jesus concludes the episode by saying to her, "Take heart, daughter, your faith has . . . made you well." But I'm with Dr. Craddock: She was saved; you can call it made well if you want to.

We have these different translations of the same Greek word because, unlike Jesus, we try to separate healing of the mind from healing of the body. We make a distinction between an individual's health and the wellbeing of the whole community. For Jesus there’s no distinction. All of these are part of the same saving/healing/forgiving/reconciling/life-changing power of God. 'Saved" is 'made well' . . . and then some.

 

As we've been learning, in order to understand the full meaning of Jesus' miracles, you have to see them as symbolic events. Again, that doesn't mean he didn't actually do them. That miracles are symbolic events means he really did them and they have a significance beyond themselves. The woman in today's reading had been bleeding for twelve years. Mark’s gospel provides the detail that the little girl whom Jesus raised from the dead was about twelve years old. Twelve is, of course, the number of tribes of Israel, a number that stands for the whole nation.1 That Jesus takes the trouble to raise a girl, in a culture that values boys, is important—honoring girls heals the whole community. And being touched by a woman with a flow of blood breaks so many religious and cultural taboos—removing barriers that keep women down enhances the whole community. There’s a lot going on in these miracles.

 

Let's think about what it means for this woman to be 'made well.' Having a hemorrhage for twelve years had undoubtedly left her weak and exhausted. She must have been horribly uncomfortable, liable to all kinds of infection, physically troubled in many ways. But that's not all. According to Leviticus 15, she is perpetually and permanently "unclean," in a ritual sense. She can't worship or even go out of the house. Everything and everyone that comes into contact with her is also rendered ritually unclean. Think of it—for twelve years she hasn't shared a bed with her husband, hasn't hugged children. She can't eat with others, since her very cup and plate become unclean. As Dr. Craddock puts it, she is isolated from her family, she has no place in the community, she has no place in the place of worship, she has been ostracized and oscillated and is a nobody.

And then . . . she touched Jesus, just the fringe of his cloak. And the hemorrhaging stops, but so much more than that. She is restored to her family, welcomed in her place of worship, she can go about and shake hands and sit with people. She is somebody. Again, you can call it 'made well' if you want to. But Jesus saves.

Of course we don't follow Leviticus 15 any more. We wouldn't keep someone out because of an OBGYN condition. But think of all the ways people are still isolated and made to feel like nobody. In one church I served there was a man who put himself in charge of baby patrol. If a child got fussy or started to cry, he would tell the parents they needed to leave. They were cast out, unwelcome, over a baby crying. But Jesus said, "Let the children come to me and do not hinder them." Jesus saves.

At the other end of the spectrum, the way our families and society are structured, many elderly folks wind up feeling isolated and left out. Their kids and grandkids are always busy. Their contemporaries can’t get out to see them any more. And there they sit, lonely, their gifts and wisdom untapped. But 1 Corinthians 12 says that every member of the body of Christ is necessary and important. We may forget and neglect, but Jesus saves.

And we know there are still places where God's LGBTQ children are not welcome for who they are. After all, people insist, there are rules in the book. But the gospel says if we but touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, we will be restored to community, welcomed in the place of worship, un-ostracized. You can call it 'made well' if you want to. Jesus saves!

 

Here’s the most striking thing to me about this story: the woman with the flow of blood touched Jesus and Jesus touched the girl who had died. In both cases, according to Old Testament law, Jesus was supposed to be “contaminated,” made ritually unclean. Bleeding women were considered unclean, and so was anyone who touched one. Dead bodies were the most unclean thing of all, and so was anyone who touched one. But with Jesus a funny thing happens. Instead of a dead body making Jesus unclean, his touch brings the dead girl to life. And instead of the bleeding woman making Jesus unclean, his touch makes her well. Jesus touched people he wasn’t supposed to touch, and they were made well. Jesus saves.

The sort of people we’re afraid of, the ones we try to keep at arm’s length, changes over time. In Jesus’ time it was this bleeding woman and dead bodies. In the 1980s it was people with AIDS, until we learned better. Then we despised people dealing with addictions, until that became us and our families. Now it’s refugees and immigrants. But everyone needs to be part of a community. Everyone needs to be accepted. Everyone needs love. The touch of Jesus restores, un-ostracizes, welcomes with open arms. You can call it ‘made well’ if you want to. Jesus saves.

 

When you feel isolated and ostracized, Jesus saves. When you feel untouchable and unworthy, Jesus saves. When you are bleeding and left for dead, Jesus saves. Shackled by a heavy burden, ‘neath a load of guilt and shame, then the hand of Jesus touched me, and now I am no longer the same. He touched me, O he touched me, and O the joy that floods my soul! Something happened and now I know, he touched me and made me whole.” You can call it ‘made me whole’ if you want to—Jesus saves.

 

 

Join with me, from the bulletin, in our Lenten Prayer

 

Lord Jesus, save me, for I need your help.

Save me from isolation and shame.

Save me from sin and guilt.

Save me from apathy and greed.

Save me from trouble and save me from myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy. Amen.

 

 

1 Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Fortress Press, 2002), 109.

2 William J. Gaither, song lyrics from He Touched Me, The United Methodist Hymnal, no. 367.

Mark 1:21-39

(Not) Just the Way Things Are

February 4, 2018

 

          Jesus cast out demons.  Did you know that?  What are we to make of these demons, or unclean spirits, that Jesus cast out?  People suppose the gospel writers talked about “demons” because they didn’t know much science or medicine.  For example, from the description of his symptoms, people assume the boy in today’s reading may have had epilepsy, but that people in those days didn’t know about epilepsy, so they blamed it on demons.  But the truth is, the Greek language of New Testament times had a perfectly good medical term for epilepsy.  It was . . . epilepsy.1        

The Bible doesn't refer to an unclean spirit here because it doesn't know any better; it refers to an unclean spirit because there’s more going on than seizures.  There’s the way this poor boy was treated because of his seizures.  There’s the history of trauma that leaves some people unwell.  In this case, the demon appears, of all places, in the synagogue, and on, of all days, the Sabbath.  Jesus is not just healing the boy; he’s confronting the power of religion to control people through regulations and shaming. 

          The New Testament scholar who did the most work on demonic powers was Walter Wink.  A demon, Wink said, is the name given to that “real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities, and nations.”2 

          Sometimes demons manifest themselves in individuals.  When I was a student chaplain, I visited a woman painfully dying from cirrhosis.  She kept referring to “that old devil,” how she fought it, how it hurt her.  I pressed her to name her devil, wanting her to be more specific, to talk openly about alcohol.  But she just kept talking about that old devil.  Looking back, I realize she was being specific:  there was a devil in her life, a spirit which took her over and impelled her to destruction. 

          Other times demons manifest themselves collectively.  In 1961 President Eisenhower--a retired general, you’ll remember--warned about a “military-industrial complex”--that informal alliance between our country’s military and the arms industry.  Each justifies its existence not by peace but by conflict.  Each in turn justifies and supports the other.  This demon, this military-industrial complex, Eisenhower worried, could lead to deficit spending and to engaging in wars that no individual finds prudent.  Hmm.

 

          Demons maintain their power because we get used to them, because the forces involved seem too big to do anything about.  We shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s just the way things are.”  Casting out demons means saying, in the name of Jesus, “NO, that’s not just the way things are!” 

  • No, I don’t have to drink the rest of my life.
  • No, I don’t have to be a second-class citizen because I’m poor, or have dark skin, or don’t speak English.
  • No, we don’t have to allow men to harass and assault women.

No, Jesus said to the demons, that’s not “just the way things are.  And I won’t put up with it!”

          When confronting demons, Wink insists, we must always address not just the physical, but also the spiritual realities.  He relates how when the Roman authorities ordered the early Christians to worship the emperor, they didn’t just refuse; they knelt down and prayed to God for the emperor.  This seemingly innocuous act of prayer, Walter Wink says, was far more exasperating to the emperor than outright rebellion.  It rejected the ultimacy of the emperor’s power.  There is Someone, higher than Caesar, to pray to.3  And in the name of that one, Christians say, “No, this is not just the way things are.”

 

          So what does this look like here and now?  How are demons cast out today?  Here are a couple of examples:

  • I’ve just finished reading Dreamland, about the opiate crisis.  You probably know that AA, NA and all 12-step programs begin by admitting that we are powerless over our addiction and that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.  There is no un-spiritual recovery from addiction. 

     And at the end of Dreamland, after describing how awful the drug problem is, the author begins to share some hopeful signs for Ports-mouth, Ohio.  People used to come from all over the country to the pill mills in Portsmouth; now people come from all over to enter recovery there.  Some local businessmen banded together to buy a factory to keep jobs in Portsmouth, so people wouldn’t have to sell drugs to make a living.  Finally, after years of shame and secrecy, people are talking openly about their families’ struggles with addiction and they’re helping each other out.  He concludes: The only antidote to heroin is community.4  To stand up together in the name of Jesus and say, “NO!”  We are gradually learning how to cast out this demon of opiate dependence, to say “NO, this is not just the way things are.”

 

 

  • And then there’s this children’s book by Robert Coles, called The Story of Ruby Bridges. 

Read book

 

     Ruby helped to cast out the demon of prejudice and segregation.  In the name of Jesus she said, “NO, this is not just the way things are.”

     We can say it too.

1 See Lamar Williamson Jr., Mark, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), 51.

2 See Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 104-13.

3 Wink, 110-11.

4 Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014), 353

Mark 1:16-20

‘All In’ for Jesus

January 28, 2018          Maple Grove UMC

 

          If a traveling rabbi/teacher came up to you while you were at work and said, “Follow me” . . . would you?   The answer, probably, is “It depends.”  It depends on just how compelling this teacher is. It depends on what else is going on in your life.  Perhaps above all, it depends on how much you want a fresh start. 

          “Follow me,” Jesus said.  And they just up and followed.  Commen-taries will explain how unusual this scene would have sounded to folks in Mark’s time, and in turn that may explain why these men would have dropped everything to follow a rabbi they’d never met. In those days, rabbis simply didn’t go around calling disciples; disciples came to them and applied, people begged to follow them.  Being invited to follow a rabbi was the honor of a lifetime.  Only the best and brightest need apply; only those with the right social and educational background were accepted.  Yet here was rabbi Jesus wandering around calling random guys, “Hey, follow me.”  They must have thought, You mean ME?  Follow a rabbi?  You want ME?  Heck yes!  When do we leave?  Unlike other rabbis, Jesus doesn’t call certain people to be disciples; he calls all people to be disciples. He doesn’t single out special people to follow him; all people are special to him.  Of course they followed him!

And Simon and Andrew didn’t just follow eventually, or when they got around to it. Mark says they immediately left their nets and followed him. And after that, Mark says, Jesus immediately called James and John.  This word ‘immediately’ is a feature of Mark’s gospel.  Of the 51 times the word appears in the New Testament, 41 of them are in Mark.  ‘Immediately’ relates to what we heard last Sunday—that the time, the kairos, is fulfilled.  If you think about it too long, you may never follow; if you think about it too long, you may never make the change you need.  If you're looking for a fresh start, don't wait for someone to give you permission, don't wait for the stars to align, don't wait until you have your act together.  It's time, Jesus says, immediately.

 

          Jesus said, “Follow me,” and they did; they up and followed.  And Jesus still says, “Follow me.”  So what might that mean for the likes of you and me?  Unlike the four people in the gospel reading, not everyone who follows Jesus leaves their job or their family or their home town.  Jesus may call us to do those things, but they’re partly metaphorical.  What if we stay right here—what does it mean to follow Jesus?

          One of the great spiritual teachers of our time, Rueben Job, put it this way:  “To follow Jesus is to commit myself to a lifelong journey of being led where Jesus wants me to go and not necessarily where I want to go.  This situation often causes opposition within myself.  Jesus may call me to do what I do not normally and easily do.  Jesus may ask me to wait or remain silent when I wish to speak or move on.  In each of these cases I experience opposition within to what Jesus calls me to do and to be.”1

          New Testament scholar, Ched Myers, finds that the call to discipleship in Mark is an “urgent, uncompromising invitation to ‘break with business as usual.’ For those who choose to follow,” he says, “the world [as it has been] is coming to an end. The kingdom has dawned, and [this] is . . . the discipleship adventure.”2  In other words, following Jesus is a fresh start, it’s an adventure, it’s life-changing . . . and it’s a bit unsettling, uncomfortable.

          Finally, notice that following Jesus is not a mental activity.  It’s not even a theological activity, in the sense of believing certain things about God or Jesus.  Following Jesus is a physical activity, a relational activity—it’s about changing the way you live your life.  And it is also a spiritual activity, because you don’t change what you do without changing your heart.  The late, great preacher, William Sloane Coffin said: “It is terribly important to realize that the leap of faith is not so much a leap of thought as of action . . .  One must, in short, dare to act wholeheartedly without absolute certainty.”3  There’s a song that says, “We can believe, and not change a thing / But following will change our whole life.”4

          So if you don’t go anywhere, what might it mean to follow Jesus, to take the discipleship adventure, to take a leap of faith in action?  Well, let me suggest a few things and see where it leads your heart:

  • Perhaps to follow Jesus means to commit to never engaging in retribution, but to always forgiveness—that would be a fresh start. 
  • Perhaps following Jesus means deciding to do something to serve others, not occasionally but every single day—that would be a fresh start.
  • Or following Jesus might mean making every decision based not primarily—or at least not only--on your own self-interest, but on how it affects others—that would be a fresh start. 
  • Or it might mean to pray like Jesus, to pray for mercy and justice, for God’s kingdom to come, that is, for real and fundamental change.  That would be a fresh start. 

 

          Here’s how I’ve come to think about it.  Jesus comes along and offers you a fresh start, a changed life.  He says, “Follow me.”  Now you can think about it.  You can ask him to get back to you.  And both of those responses can be faithful for a time.  But sooner or later, you either follow or you don’t. 

          Please don’t tell the bishop, but I sometimes watch poker tourna-ments on TV--Texas Holdem is what they play.  The most exciting times are when one player, usually someone down on their luck, gets a hand they feel so confident about that they go “all in.”  That is, they take everything they have, all their chips, and push them into the middle of the table. They risk it all on that hand and that hand alone.

          That’s what it means when Jesus says, “Follow me.”  He wants you to be all in for him, to put it all in the middle of the table.  Not to hold anything back, but to risk it all because Jesus is worth the risk.  There are examples of this throughout the Bible.  Through Moses God invited the people of Israel to cross the Red Sea into whatever was on the other side.  And they went across.  Sometimes they doubted and sometimes they regretted ever having come.  But there wasn’t any going back.  They were all in. 

          The rich young ruler asked Jesus, “How can I inherit eternal life?”  Jesus tried to take it easy on him.  He said, “Just keep the commandments.”  But the man sensed there was something more, something deeper.  So Jesus said, “Go, sell everything you own and give the money to the poor; then, come follow me.”  And the man went away sad; he wasn’t ready to be all in. 

          In Galatians the apostle Paul criticizes Peter for trying to have it both ways—for preaching salvation through faith in Christ but also at the same time insisting on certain Jewish rituals.  No, no, Paul taught, you can’t have it both ways.  A fresh start comes from being ‘all in’ for Jesus. 

          This truth shows up outside the Bible as well.  In the Empire Strikes Back, Yoda says, “Try not.  Do or do not; there is no try.”  Change comes not from trying, but from being all in. 

          I read an interview of a woman who competed in equestrian events, where they jump horses over seemingly impossibly high walls and fences.  The interviewer asked her how they did it.  She replied, “Well, you take your heart and you throw it over the fence.  When your heart’s already over there, the rest of you just has to come along.”  You’ve got to be all in; otherwise the obstacles in life are just too high.

          And in marriage, we forsake all others and be loyal to just one person so long as we both shall live. I know it doesn’t always work, but when it does, there is something holy and beautiful about being all in. 

 

               So if I haven’t found my fresh start yet, perhaps it’s because I haven’t committed to that fresh start yet—I’m not all in.  If I haven’t got over that obstacle yet, perhaps it’s because I haven’t thrown my heart to the other side.  If my life isn’t changed yet, perhaps it’s because I’m keeping some of my chips back, playing it safe--I’m not all in. 

          Are you looking for a fresh start?  Do you need a changed life, a new or renewed relationship with God?  Well, the next time Jesus comes along and says, “Follow me,” here’s what you say:  “Sure, okay.”  Actually, scratch that.  The next time Jesus comes along and says, “Follow me,” here’s what you do:  take all your chips and put them in the middle of his table, take your heart and throw it over his fence.  Here’s what you do:  You get up, and follow. 

 

1 Rueben P. Job, “Being Led,” from A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God. Quoted in Alive Now (May/June 2012), 34.

2 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 133.

3 William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 7.

4 Bryan Sirchio, “Follow Me.” http://sirchio.com/songs/justice/Justice_And_Love/115.

Mark 1:14-15

Believe in the Good News

January 21, 2018          Maple Grove UMC

 

          This worship series is called “Do You Need a Fresh Start?”  Do you need a way to start over, a new or renewed relationship with God?  We started with baptism.  When you face temptation or depression or troubles, remind yourself:  Baptizatus sum.  I am baptized.  Come what may, I am beloved and pleasing to God.  Last Sunday it was about the life-changing excitement of meeting Jesus, getting in touch—or back in touch--with the passion and excitement of knowing and being known by Jesus Christ.

          Do you need a fresh start?  Today we turn to the start of Jesus’ ministry, what Mark reports as his very first sermon.  And here it is: “The time is fulfilled,” Jesus said, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  That’s it.  That’s the whole sermon.  You don’t have to say it; I’ll say it for you:  Why do I need fifteen minutes, when Jesus got by with 19 words?  The better you are, the fewer words you need.  Jesus was pretty good!

          You could memorize this sermon in a couple of minutes.  In fact, let’s do just that.  There are three phrases:

 

 

          The time is fulfilled

          The kingdom of God has come near

          Repent, and believe in the good news.

It's short, but it's packed.  The time is fulfilled.  The Greek language has two different words for time.  One is chronos, as in our English word 'chronological.'  It’s time as measured by a clock—minutes and hours and days.  The other word is kairos.  It means an opportune time, a critical time, a decisive moment.  Which word do you think Mark uses when Jesus says, "the time is fulfilled"--chronos or kairos?  Right—kairos.  When Jesus speaks, it's not just any time; it's the time.  If you're looking for a fresh start, don't wait for someone to say something, don't wait for something to happen to you, don't wait until you somehow get your act together.  It's time, Jesus says, right now.

 

The time is fulfilled, Jesus says . . . and the kingdom of God has drawn near.  What is this kingdom of God?  Mark's readers would have understood it in contrast to the kingdom of Caesar, the Roman Empire, in which money talks, might makes right, and peace is kept through fear and domination.  In the kingdom of God, however, love talks, forgiveness makes right, and peace is made through suffering and service.  The kingdom of God is like Martin Luther King's Beloved Community, in which all people are worthy, all people have food and shelter and health care, in which our diversity enriches rather than divides us.  This kingdom of God, Jesus says, has drawn near—that is, it's come right up close, so close you can feel it and taste it, so close you can live in it if you want to.

The nearness of God's kingdom relativizes all other values and concerns.  How can you worry about money or status when God's kingdom is right here?  How can you put yourself above others when God's kingdom as so close?  How can you shut out the homeless and strangers when God's kingdom is right here? 

Carolyn and I used to know someone who wrote a song about being in love, called Everything Changes:

Everything changes when I see you--

I was doing just fine a minute ago,

I'm not doing nothin' any more.

Everything changes when I see you.

Have you ever been in love like that?  The presence of the one you love changes everything.  Whatever else you were planning to do doesn't matter any more, if they show up.  Whether or not you've got money or accomplishments or success doesn't matter, so long as you've got that person.  Everything changes.  The kingdom of God drawing near is like that.  Don’t be afraid to take a stand—the kingdom of God is right here.  Don’t worry about pride or success—the kingdom of God is right here.  Don’t give up hope—the kingdom of God is right here.  What else matters, when God's kingdom is right here?  It changes everything!

 

The kingdom of God is so near, Jesus says, that it warrants your response—in fact it demands a response.  With the power and presence of God so near, with life the way God intends it to be within reach, you can’t just keep on living the same old way.  Our response to the nearness of the kingdom, Jesus says. is . . . repent and believe in the good news.  But in English, this word ‘repent’ carries a lot of baggage.  It conjures up images of groveling on the ground, of making long lists of sins, of public humiliation at the altar.  Repentance could be like that, but it’s not what the Greek word means.  The Greek word means literally ‘to change your mind.’  One translation puts it like this: “Change your whole way of thinking!  Heaven is already here!”1  “Repent!”—that can sound like a threat.  “Change your whole way of thinking because heaven’s here”—that sounds more like an invitation. 

 

Repent, Jesus says, change your whole way of thinking . . . and believe in the good news, or ‘gospel.’  In Jesus’ time this word especially referred to a message about a victory in battle and so it was associated with the emperor and military power.2  In Jewish circles, the idea tended to mean the end of Roman occupation and oppression, being delivered from the bad guys.3  But Jesus clearly has something else in mind—not deliverance from suffering but God’s power at work in the midst of suffering.4  This kind of good news is not always easy to see.  (That’s why we have the We Spy God project—to learn to see it.)  One writer asks, How can there be good news when the Romans are still here?  How can there be good news when racism and poverty and abuse happen all the time?  How can there be good news, he asks, when my dad just died?5 

The good news Jesus brings is not that we are rescued from trouble and pain.  His good news is that the kingdom of God has drawn near, a whole different way of life is right here.  That whatever happens, God is in it with his presence and power.  With the kingdom so close, everything changes.  Bad things will happen, but the kingdom of God is right here.  Bad things will happen, but they’re not the only reality.  Bad things will happen, but we choose to believe in the good news.

 

In a few moments Marialice Bennett is going to share with you and invite you to make your wellbeing covenant, your commitment to a healthier, more abundant life.  Here is one way of thinking about that:  how can I live right now in light of God’s kingdom being right here?  What in my life just really doesn’t matter, what feels possible, how can I dream life to be, because in Jesus Christ the kingdom of God is right here?  The covenant card is an opportunity to change your whole way of thinking and believe in the good news.

 

1 Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (And Other Wanderers) (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 147.

2 See Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 123.

3 See Suzanne Watts Henderson, “The ‘Good News’ of God’s Coming Reign: Occupation at a Crossroads,” Interpretation 70/2 (April 2016), 155.

4 See Henderson, 156.

5 Elnes, 148-49.

John 1:35-51

Look!  It’s Jesus!

January 14, 2018          Maple Grove UMC

 

          Every time I hear that gospel reading, I think:  so many sermons, so little time.  For example, there’s a whole sermon in Jesus’ question: “What are you looking for?”  Two of John the Baptist’s disciples start following Jesus, and he asks them, “What are you looking for?”  I wonder how often we don’t find what we’re looking for, because we don’t know what we’re really looking for.  We buy cars and remodel our houses and go on trips.  Nothing wrong with any of those, but are they what really want?  Jesus’ first question in the gospel is, “What are you looking for?”  What a great sermon that could be, but it will have to wait for another day. 

          I’ve preached before on that wonderful phrase:  Come and see.  Those two who start to follow Jesus ask him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  And he says, “Come and see.”  They came and clearly liked what they saw, for they spent the rest of the day, in fact, the rest of their lives with him.  Philip tries to get Nathaniel to meet Jesus.  Nathaniel is skeptical: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  Philip doesn’t argue.  He just says, “Come and see.”  It's the gospel invitation.  Does Jesus really forgive everything?  Come and see!  Is there a place for me in this church?  Come and see!  Can you have faith and still have questions and doubts?  Come and see!  I promise to give you that sermon again soon.

 

          But this worship series is called, “A Fresh Start.”  What does this gospel reading have to say about that—a fresh start with God, a trans-formed life?  Well, did you notice how excited everyone in this story is to meet Jesus? Well, everyone but Nathaniel, and even he gets there.  When John the Baptist sees Jesus, he can’t help himself—he has to cry out, “Look! It’s the Lamb of God!”  And when those two guys start following Jesus, they can’t help themselves—they invite themselves over to his house.  And when Andrew has been with Jesus a while, he can’t help himself—he has to go and get his brother so he could meet Jesus too.  And when Philip starts following Jesus, he can’t help himself—he has to find Nathaniel and get him to meet Jesus too. 

          In this story—and I would say, in all of our stories—meeting Jesus is exciting.  But here’s the thing:  by now some of us have known Jesus a long time.  I have known Jesus longer than some of you have been alive.  In turn, others of you have known Jesus longer than I’ve been alive.  And if we let it, over time the excitement of being with Jesus can kind of wear off.  Instead of thinking, “Oh boy! I get to spend time with Jesus this morning,” we think, “Well, I suppose I’d better say my prayers today.”  The excitement wears off.  Instead of thinking, “Knowing Jesus has helped me feed the hungry and speak up for justice and welcome all kinds of strangers,” we begin to think, “I wish there weren’t so many people wanting help from me.”  The excitement wears off.  Instead of thinking, “I get to praise God with Christ’s body today,” we begin to think, “I’ve got to drag the kids to church again.”  The excitement can wear off.

          But the gospel reminds us—when we meet Jesus, it is so exciting that we can’t help ourselves:  we have to cry out, we have to tell others about him.  Oh, to find that excitement again!  Marcus Borg wrote a book called Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  It isn’t really about “A Fresh Start.”  It’s about how you can be a scientist, or a liberal, or a skeptic, or any number of things, and still find faith in Christ meaningful.  It’s a great book; I hope you’ll read it.  But for today, just the title is evocative.  How can we meet Jesus again, as though for the first time?  How can we find that life-changing, fresh-start-giving excitement of knowing and being known by Jesus Christ?

 

          Well, here’s the story I want to tell you.  Years ago, when our daughter Rachel was about three, our family was having dinner at Roadhouse Annie’s, a long-gone diner in the Short North.  At that age kids like to stand on the seat of a restaurant booth, turn around, and look at everyone but their own family.  Rachel was doing that when the door opened and in walked a bearded man in a hooded jacket.  When he pulled the hood off, it revealed shoulder-length brown hair.  And Rachel cried out, for everyone to hear, “Look!  It’s Jesus!”  Carolyn and I were mortified, but Rachel was so excited.

          Carolyn and I were reminiscing about that a few days ago, and Carolyn said, “Yeah, she was young enough to believe Jesus might walk into a restaurant in the Short North.”  To which I replied, “I wish I was young enough to believe Jesus might walk into a restaurant in the Short North.”  More on that a little later. . .

As important as that “Come and see” sermon is, as critical as it is for to reach out and invite others to see and know Jesus, it’s not ultimately our invitation that gives people a fresh start.  It’s Jesus who does that. It's knowing and being known by Jesus that changes your life.  It has changed mine . . .

          When I was in junior high I went to church camp.  The counselors were wonderful.  There were kids I really clicked with.  I loved it.  But on the last night, sitting around the campfire, I started to not feel so good.  There was this burning in my chest.  I was afraid I had food poisoning or heartburn.  I went to the dean, a very reserved retired pastor, and told him how I was feeling.  He laughed out loud.  “Son,” he said, “that’s not heartburn.  That's the love of Jesus in your heart.  Sit down and enjoy it.”  Turns out it was Jesus and it was exciting.  And every time that feeling comes back, it's like a fresh start.

During seminary I attended a church in downtown Atlanta.  A huge, historic building with just a handful of members.  But that tiny church ran a homeless shelter in the basement, a weekly soup kitchen that fed hundreds, a city-wide racial justice ministry, and goodness knows what else.  One time I asked, “How can such a small church do all this ministry?”  One older lady shrugged her shoulders and said, “Because it’s what Jesus want us to do!”  Once you’d met her Jesus, you see, you couldn’t just stand by and let people be homeless; once you’d met her Jesus, you couldn’t let racism go unchallenged.  Her Jesus was exciting and empowering.  He still is.  And right now we need her Jesus more than ever.  Do I hear an Amen?

          A family member went through an extended, life-threatening crisis.  I could be with them, even help them sometimes, but I couldn’t protect them and I couldn’t fix the problem.  All I could do was pray and wait.  And every morning, figuratively, Jesus would come and sit on a park bench with me.  Every morning he reminded me he loved me and handed me the strength to make it one more day.  I'm not sure you'd call that exciting exactly, but it was pretty amazing.

Do you need a fresh start?  Well, let me recommend meeting Jesus.  Knowing and being known by Jesus is a life-changing experience.  Or if you’ve met Jesus before, let me recommend meeting Jesus again, as though for the first time.  Rekindle the excitement of meeting Jesus that has changed your life and carried you through hard times before. 

 

Now let me add a caveat here:  meeting Jesus is exciting and life-changing, but he's no flash-in-the-pan.  There's another important word in this gospel reading, and it is "stay."  Not just "Look! It's Jesus!"  But also, "stay," or as we used to translate it, "abide."  When Jesus asked the two guys, "What are you looking for?", they asked him, "Where are you staying? . . . or better, "Where are you abiding?” They weren't asking for his address; they were asking his heart resided, I they could count on him for the long haul.  They were wondering what it would be like not just to meet Jesus, but to be with Jesus, to "abide" with him. 

          And I suspect that, even in this ADD, thrill-seeking culture, this is what people are most deeply looking for—not just a new experience, but a new life.  Not just the excitement of meeting Jesus, but the discipline and joy of abiding with Jesus.  Abiding without excitement is being stuck in a rut.  But excitement without ongoing relationship is fleeting and shallow.  We need not one or the other, but both.

 

So how do you recapture the excitement of meeting Jesus?  If you need a fresh start, what can you do?  Here are three ideas:

  1. Open your eyes!  This is what "We Spy God" is all about: finding God in the everyday.  I am convinced that God is always somewhere in the picture.  But sometimes it's hard to see.  Sometimes we forget to look.  Sometimes we harden our hearts.  The trick is to be willing to stand on the booth and look around, to be willing to cry out for all to hear:  "Look!  It's Jesus!"  You don't have to be three to do this.  All it takes is a little faith.  All it takes is looking for God in the everyday.  All it takes is letting excitement carry you away a bit.  The truth is, Jesus just might walk into a restaurant in the Short North, or into Maple Grove Church, or into your home or heart.  And that is pretty exciting!  Open your eyes.
  2. The ones who meet Jesus are often the ones who seek Jesus.  When John the Baptist pointed Jesus out, two of his disciples got up and went after him.  When Andrew told Simon about Jesus, he got up and went to Jesus.  Even Nathaniel, skeptical as he was, when Philip said, "Come and see," he went and saw, and it changed his life.  Episcopal theologian, Kat Banakis, has pointed out that Jesus wasn't even what these guys were looking for.2  It didn’t matter; they found him anyway.  If you need a fresh start, a transformed life, don't just sit there.  Look for Jesus.  Or look for love or truth or meaning, and you'll find Jesus along the way.
  3. Or, by way of contrast, if you long to meet Jesus again, go where you’ve met him before.  In his massive commentary on John's gospel, Frederick Bruner has a little section entitled, "The Return to the Scene of the Encounter."2  Today's gospel reading starts out with John the Baptist seeing Jesus walk by and crying out, "Look! It's the Lamb of God!"  But just six verses earlier, exactly the same thing had happened.  John was standing in that same place, saw Jesus coming, and cried out, "Look! It’s the Lamb of God."  Do you think, after the first meeting, John was hungry for another?  So he goes back to the same place, this time taking two of his disciples with him.  Bruner puts it like this:  The moral of the story is: return to your meeting place with Christ; stand there with your most serious friends, and wait for him to walk by again.  Have you met Jesus before at camp or on retreat?  Well, there are still camps and retreats.  Have you met Jesus in morning prayer or by singing in the choir?  Well . . .  Have you met Jesus serving at a food pantry or homeless shelter?  Well . . .  Have you met Jesus in conversation with a counselor or trusted friend?  Go there, and wait for Jesus to walk by again. 

 

Will you pray with me?  Lord Jesus, we are hungry for a fresh start; we ache for our lives to be transformed by your amazing love.  Lord, give us eyes to see you in the everyday.  Give us voices to cry out with excitement.  Give us the will to seek you out, to go where we are led or invited on a holy quest.  And give us hearts to wait for you, in places where we have met you before.  O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.  Amen.

 

 

1 Kat Banakis, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (December 20, 2017), 21.

2 Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 99-100.

Mark 1:4-11

Begin as Beloved!

January 7, 2018  Baptism of the Lord Sunday 

Maple Grove UMC

 

          Do you need a fresh start?  Benjamin did.  He went to his rabbi and said, "Rabbi, my life is in ruins. My wife left me and took all my money, so my business is in ruins and there’s no way I can pay off my debts. Help me!"  The rabbi replies, "Here’s what to do: open up your Bible, point to any page and do whatever it says."  Six months later, Benjamin visits again. "Rabbi," he says, "since I talked to you, I'm a new man. I've remarried, got rid of all my debts and become successful in a new business. Your advice changed my life. "So what did it say when you pointed to the Bible?" the rabbi asks. "Chapter 11!"

          Do you need a fresh start?  I’ve got a better suggestion than bankruptcy, better than randomly pointing in your Bible.  If you need a fresh start, how about the gospel of Jesus Christ?  How about the excitement of meeting Jesus for the first time? How about some good news and being all-in for Jesus? How about being healed of what hinders abundant life?  If you need a fresh start, how about baptism in the name of Jesus Christ?

          The gospel reading today is, in a way, Mark’s Christmas story.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark says nothing about Mary and Joseph, no trip to Bethlehem, no virgin birth.  For Mark Jesus is declared God’s Son at his baptism, his manger is the Jordan River.  And instead of angels singing, in Mark there comes the voice of God:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  No shepherd or angel could bring news more joyful than this:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

          It’s so important that the Father spoke these words to Jesus at the very start of his ministry.  These are the first verses of the first chapter of Mark, and already God is saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus hasn’t yet resisted any temptations, he hasn’t called any disciples. He hasn’t yet told any parables, healed any sick people or taken up the cross.  Even before he has a chance to prove himself, already he is baptized.  Before he’s done anything to deserve it, God calls him “beloved.”  Before he’s had a chance to measure up or not, God says, “with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus begins as beloved.

          The four gospels establish Jesus’ identity in different ways.  Through the story of the virgin birth, Matthew and Luke say that Jesus is God’s Son in a literal, physical way.  John tells about the preexistent Word that in Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us.  But for Mark, it is Jesus’ baptism that establishes his identity.  Lamar Williamson says, “Jesus is who God says he is,”1  And God says he is beloved, pleasing.  He begins as beloved.

           

               One way of looking at what made Jesus unique, at what it means to be the Son of God, is that, unlike the rest of us, Jesus never forgot who God said he was.  He began as beloved, and continued to live out of his belovedness all the time.  When Satan tempted him, Jesus didn’t budge; he just held on to his belovedness.  When even the disciples misunderstood and denied him, Jesus could keep going—he knew he was beloved.  Even from the cross there was no anger, no striking back—these aren’t necessary when you know you’re beloved. 

          I am convinced that what causes much of our sin and suffering is that we forget we are beloved and pleasing to God.  And when we forget that, we feel anxious and insecure.  So some of us drink or take drugs to calm that anxiety.  So hungry are some people to be told that they’re loved, they’ll do almost anything to hear it.  People are greedy for money or they put others down or arrogantly boast—all to somehow prove themselves worthy.  None of that works, of course.  It can’t, because we are already pleasing to God.  We begin as beloved.

 

          The solution God has provided for all this is called baptism.  You don’t have to become beloved and you don’t have to make yourself pleasing to God.  You begin as beloved.  All you have to do is remember that; all you have to do is live out of the belovedness that’s already yours.  Baptism never washes off.  Your belovedness never expires.  You can do things that don’t please God, but you can never be unpleasing to God.  Because you are who God says you are.  And in baptism, God says you are beloved, pleasing.  You begin that way.

          I can’t tell you exactly how many times I’ve preached some version of this sermon.  I suppose for most Baptism of the Lord Sundays in my 27 years of ministry.  And I can’t tell you exactly how many more times I’ll preach some version of this sermon.  I suppose every Baptism of the Lord Sunday for however long God allows me to preach.  Or until everyone within the sound of my voice knows deep in your heart that you are already beloved and pleasing to God. 

          The trick is to remember that belovedness, not to forget how pleasing you are to God.  Chris Anderson is an English professor at Oregon State. One summer he spent an extended time in solitude in a hut by the ocean.  One evening during this time he got lonely and felt the urge to talk to somebody, but no one picked up the phone.  So he called his own number at the university.  When he heard his voice saying to leave a message, he did. 

          The summer passed.  When he walked into his office for fall semester, he was already tired and depressed, worried about the start of new classes.  “I sat down in my chair,” he writes, “picked up the phone and began to check my messages.  And there, from the past . . . was my other self. I’d forgotten about it.  I hadn’t thought about that message [for weeks].  But . . . there was my own voice, sending a message to myself, and it sounded so gentle and wise it was like the voice of someone else.  It said:  Remember: You are loved.2

               That’s what baptism is: a voice message from God.  And it says:  Remember: you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.  You begin as beloved.

 

          The baptism liturgy in our hymnal ends with a call to “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”  But those of us baptized as babies can’t remember our baptism, exactly.  Martin Luther had a better phrase.  When he faced temptation, when he doubted himself, when he endured depression and felt like giving up, he would say to himself over and over, in Latin:  Baptizatus sum.  It means, I am baptized.  Come what may, I am beloved and pleasing to God. 

          And now that is your voice message from God.  When you face temptation, when you doubt yourself, when you endure depression and feel like giving up, say it:  Baptizatus sum.  I am baptized.  I am beloved and pleasing to God.  Repeat it after me, so you can take it with you, forever and all the time:

Baptizatus sum.

I am baptized.

I am beloved and pleasing to God.

 

 

1 Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), 35.

2 Chris Anderson, Light When It Comes: Trusting Joy, Facing Darkness & Seeing God in Everything (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016). 18-19.

Luke 2:1-7

Love. Born HERE.

Christmas Eve 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

"Love. Born Here."  That's been our theme this Advent and Christmas season.  We asked, “What is it that’s born at Christmas?”  Well, LOVE is born at Christmas: for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.  We pondered what it means that Love is BORN Here.  Jesus was BORN as one of us in Bethlehem.  And Jesus said to us, "You must be born again"--the Holy Spirit gives each person a new life, a life of love.  And now we come to the final thrust of this theme:  "Love. Born Where?  Love.  Born HERE." HERE (in our midst) and HERE (in our hearts). 

But I suspect Mary had other thoughts that first Christmas Eve as she went into labor in a barn far from home:  Oh no, is love going to be born HERE?  And shepherds had been told that the baby the would find was the Messiah, the Lord.  When they found him sleeping in a feeding trough for animals, they must have thought, Love was born HERE?  And those grand Wisemen came from the opulence of the East to a two-bit village in a two-bit Roman province, wondering, Love was born HERE?

The answer, as every child in Sunday school knows, is: Yes!  Love was born here in this little town of Bethlehem.  Yes! Love was born in a stable because there was no room at the inn.  And Yes!  Love was born and laid in a manger where animals feed.  Yes, Love is Born.  HERE.

One thing Christmas means is this:  God's love is born in surprising, in unexpected places.  God's love is born wherever God chooses, wherever God is; and, of course, God is everywhere and always. 

This past summer Maple Grove member Don Ackerman, who is a captain in the U.S. Army, was leading a group of cadets in training exercises near Fort Knox, Kentucky.  They were in the field for weeks on end, often incommunicado, so he told me I probably wouldn’t hear from him for a while.  And out of the blue one day I get a phone call from Don.  He's whispering into the phone:  "I can't talk long.  The enemy is just over the hill.  But I've got a question for you."

"Oh dear.  What is it?"

"While we've been out here, our unit has had Bible study together every day.  And one cadet has invited Jesus into her heart and become a Christian.  She asked me if she could be baptized, but there's no way to get a chaplain here.  What should I do?"

          Now I know the rules about ordained people and baptism and all that.  But what are you going to do? "Can you find some water?" I asked.

"Probably tomorrow we can," Don said.

"Well then, baptize her!  And make sure she finds a church home on her next post."

The next day I receive a photo of a newly baptized almost 2nd lieutenant coming up out of a watering hole in the woods, surrounded by eight or ten tired, dirty soldiers. 

Was Love really born THERE? you might ask.  And the answer is: Yes, sir!  Right there, sir!

There will always be skeptics. There will always be people who will say, Oh, love probably won't be born HERE or probably not THERE.  Love probably won’t be born in this person, certainly not in that person.  And there will always be discouraged people who think, Given the state of the world or the way my luck is going, maybe love won't be born at all, any more.  But every year Christmas proves the skeptics wrong and wins the discouraged over.  Yes! Love is born.  HERE.  A familiar song tells the story:

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

 

Love is Born.  Here.

Of course, it love is born all the time, all year long. But Christmas is a special time to look around and see how love is being born, here:

  • You should have seen the children at pageant rehearsal a week ago!  Controlled chaos, you could call it.  Thirty-three kids singing their hearts out, caring for each other, and learning about Jesus.  I'm telling you, love is born here!
  • At Faith Family Worship, our new intergenerational experience, a few Friday nights ago there people of all ages singing and dancing, praying, and doing crafts together around tables.  At the end couple of kids crying.  I went to see what was wrong.  They weren’t crying because they didn't want to be here but because they didn't want to go home!  Love is born here!
  • In September we had our Over-80s Luncheon.  I looked around at all of that wisdom, all of that experience, all the years of service gathered around those tables.  And it struck me--love has been born here for a long time!
  • More than usual, this past year I've witnessed brothers and sisters in Christ disagree with one another, sometimes passionately, about important matters.  But for the most part—not always, but for the most part--they spoke their piece, they listened carefully, they shook hands, and then came back together to worship and pray.  In this angry and divided world, it’s so important that love is born here!
  • At one of our Muslims, Methodists & More potlucks down in fellowship hall, I ate dinner with refugees from Syria.  One of them tearfully said to me, "This is such an important event.  I thought everyone here hated us.  Now I see there’s love here too!"  Love is born here!
  • I've had dozens of people thank me for Maple Grove's Thanksgiving Day dinner—the delicious food, real plates and silverware, the warmth of the welcome.  I have little to do with that, but I say, "You are so welcome."  Because love is born here.
  • On Veterans Day we blessed and sent devotional books to military members associated with our church.  A young soldier in Texas texted me:  "I was having quite a bad day—and I checked the mail to find a prayer book with a card from the church.  Thank you! You have must made my day."  I'm telling you, love is born here.

It happens all the time, all year around.  But Christmas is a special time.  Just look around!  Where here do you see God's love being born?  And the song tells the story:

 

 

How silently, how silently

The wondrous gift is given

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of His heaven

No ear may hear His coming

But in this world of sin

Where meek souls will receive him still

The dear Christ enters in 

And it all starts right here (in your heart).  Your heart is where God’s love most needs and aches to be born.  Sometimes it may feel like love is beyond your reach—that it's too risky to love some people or in some ways. That you've been too mistreated or too misunderstood to love again.  Maybe you've just felt forsaken and alone for too long for your tired old heart to find love again.  The good news is you don't have to find love.  God sends the love.  Christ is the love.  God so loved the world that he sent his only Son.  God’s love is born for us and in us—here.

          All you have to do is set a manger out for Christ.  All you have to do, like Mary, is say, “Okay, Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” All you have to do is consent to the birth, or the rebirth, of love in your heart.  And Christmas I the perfect time.  At Christmas we somehow know that the way things are is not way they always have to be.  Because Love is Born.  Here.

Here’s what not to do: don’t leave this place today without letting love be born HERE.  Long for love, pray for love, consent to love, let love be born in you this day.  And the song concludes:

O holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us, we pray

Cast out our sin and enter in

Be born to us today

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell

O come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel

John 3:1-8, 16-21

Love. BORN Here.

December 17, 2017

 

          Our God comes up with some pretty extreme solutions.  When the world needed to be saved from sin and a lack of love, God did not just tell us that we are loved.  God did not just teach us about love.  God sent the Son to be BORN for us as love, taking on all our human frailty and suffering.  The desperation of the world’s need and the depth of God’s love demanded an extreme solution: Love.  BORN Here.

          And when Nicodemus, or when any of us, needs to get right with God, to be able to live a life of faith and love, God doesn’t give us a self-help book.  God doesn’t just show us a path of spiritual growth.  Through Christ and the Holy Spirit, God makes it possible for us to be BORN anew, to start completely over in love.  The desperation of our need the depth of God’s love demand an extreme solution:  Love. BORN Here.

 

          So God the Son was born as one of us in Bethlehem.  And that same Jesus told Nicodemus, You must be born anew.  These are extreme solutions.  A little too extreme for Nicodemus.  He took Jesus a little too literally about this new birth.  He protested that being born anew isn't possible.  There may have a part of Nicodemus that was afraid, that didn’t want to have to go back to square one, didn't want to start all over.  He tried to dismiss, he tried to tame Jesus' extreme solution.

          And we too have tried to tame God’s extreme solutions.  Or rather, let me speak for myself:  I know I have tried to tame God’s extreme solutions.  I turn the birth of God's Son into something warm and fuzzy, a time to eat too much and exchange gifts with people who don't really need them. But from Luke 1, listen to what Jesus’ mother, Mary, said about his birth:  “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).  There's nothing tame about that!  In so many ways, we try to tame what Christmas means. 

          In the same way, I often tame what it means to be BORN anew.  I have treated the term “born again” dismissively—oh, that’s something they do in other denominations.  Of I’ve pushed it off on other people--oh, that’s something other people need, people more sinful than I am.  “Born anew”—that’s not something I need; I’m ordained, for heaven’s sake!

          But the first person Jesus told—technically the only person Jesus told—about being born anew was Nicodemus, a Pharisee.  John calls him “a leader of the Jews.”  Translate it into our culture however you want, but Nicodemus was a VRP—a very religious person.  It turns out that VRPs need new birth too.  In fact, it’s not just that even VRPs need to be born anew; it's that especially very religious people need to be born anew.  Because we VRPs are tempted to think that we are good enough, right enough, spiritual enough all on our own; that we can do it with a little help and support from God.  What Jesus is saying is, “No you can’t.  You need to start all over; you need to let the Holy Spirit remake you in the power of God’s love.”  It’s an extreme solution. 

 

          There is another connection between God’s Son being BORN of Mary and the call for us to be BORN anew.  When the angel told Mary that she would conceive and bear a son, Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  It's natural enough question, but the angel replied, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”  Christmas is not about what we think is possible, but about what’s possible with God.

          Nicodemus has similar concerns.  He speaks four sentences to Jesus, and in three of them he uses a Greek word that can be translated as ‘can.’  “How can one be born after growing old?” he asks.  “You can't

enter into your mother’s womb a second time, can you?" Nicodemus' thinking is limited to what human beings can and cannot do.  Jesus is all about what God can do.1  Being born anew is not one more human step; it’s a whole new possibility from God.  Living a life totally focused on love is not something you can do or have to do; God makes it possible to be born anew into a life of love.  Love is BORN anew.  Here.

          Martin Luther taught that this new birth is not about what we must do or not do; it’s about what we must become.2  All our doing, all our thinking, all our trying, just gets in the way of what God wants to do in us. 

The story is told of the woman who set out to discover the meaning of life.  She read everything she could get her hands on—history, philosophy, psychology, religion.  But she wasn't satisfied.  She visited very smart people and asked them the meaning of life, but they didn't agree with each another.  Finally she sold all her possessions and went to far places in search of the meaning of life.  She went to South America, to Africa.  Finally she went to India.  People there told her about a man high up in the Himalayas.  She climbed and struggled and finally reached his front door.  “Yes,” said the kind-looking old man who opened it. 

          “I’ve come halfway around the world to ask you one question,” she said, gasping for breath.  “What is the meaning of life?”

          “Please come in and have some tea,” the old man said.

          ”No,” she said.  “I mean, no thank you.  I didn’t come all this way for tea.  I came for an answer!”

          “We shall have some tea,” the old man said, so she gave up and came inside.  While the tea was brewing she began telling him about all the books she’d read, all the people she’d talked to, all the places she’d been.  The old man listened (which was just as well, since his visitor didn’t leave any time for him to reply), and as she talked, he placed a cup in her hand.  Then he began to pour the tea.            She was so busy talking that she didn’t notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea began spilling out onto the floor.      

          “What are you doing?” she yelled.  “It’s full.  Can’t you see that?  There’s no more room!”

          “Just so,” the old man said.  “You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do?  There is no more room in your cup.  Come back when it is empty and then we will talk.”3

          “Love. BORN Here.” is not about what we must do or not do, but what we must become, not about what’s possible for us but what’s possible for God.  This Christmas can you empty your cup enough for love to be born, here?

 

          We used to call this new birth 'conversion,' and the most famous conversion stories are alll about VRPs (remember them?).

  • Saul was the most religious person there was, following every rule in the Bible and punishing anyone who didn’t.  And then, literally, he saw the light.  He was born anew.  He received a new name, Paul.  He let go of the rules and made his message the love of Christ for all people.  Love was BORN. Here.
  • John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was definitely a VRP.  He'd been a priest for years.  He’d been a seminary professor, a missionary to America.  Yet he was discouraged and unhappy.  He went to a prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street in London, where suddenly, he said, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”  Love was BORN.  Here.
  • Years ago I visited a church member who’d been given just weeks, maybe months to live.  He was a VRP, a long-time pillar of the church.  But he’d been estranged from his son for years—didn’t approve of what he called his son's "lifestyle."  The first thing he said when I got there was, “I want my son to come home.  All these years I’ve kept him away.  I was wrong.  All I want before I die is to tell him I’m sorry and that I love him.”  Love was BORN.  Here.
  • The mother of a seven year-old child in our church told this story.  She and her son were talking about faith in the car.  (I’ll pause to let that much sink in--you parents can talk to your kids about faith!)  And the seven year-old said to her, and I quote, “Mom, faith isn't just a word.  It transforms people!"  I believe, in so many words, that’s what Jesus said to Nicodemus.

 

            Christmas is an invitation to be born anew, to be transformed, to let God do what’s possible only for God.  Christmas is the perfect time to empty your cup and let Love be BORN.  Here.

 

1 See Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 174.

2 See Bruner, 172.

3 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Stay for Tea, Nicodemus,” Living by the Word, The Christian Century (February 21, 1996), 195. 

John 3:1-8, 16-21

LOVE. Born Here.

December 10, 2017

 

          What was born at Christmas?  Well, Christ, of course—the Messiah, Immanuel, the Son of God.  But most simply, LOVE was born at Christmas.  And each Christmas we long again for LOVE to be born in our world and here in our church and here in our hearts. 

          Love was born at Christmas.  Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in John 3:16: “For God so loved that world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  The Son is the gift of the Father’s love.  Love is and love must be at the heart of the gospel and the heart of our lives.

          This is true throughout the New Testament.  The great command-ment is to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).  After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus said there’s really only one commandment:  “that you love one another” (John 13:31).  1 Corinthians says that three things stand the test of time—faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love (13:13).  1 John goes so far as to say, "God is love" (4:16). The greatest image of love is the father of the prodigal son, welcoming his wayward child home with joy and not a word of judgement (Luke 15:11-32). Love is the heart of the gospel and of life. 

 

          Nevertheless, we make endless attempts to place other things at the heart of life.  From all the hoopla, you’d think that what was born at Christmas was decorations and cookies and presents under the tree.  These are great but they’re not the heart; that’s love.  Some people put rules or regulations or traditions at the heart of the gospel.  All these have their place, but they’re not the heart; that’s love.  Some of us, especially us pastors, put church activities at the heart of life—worship and service and Bible study.  These too are wonderful but they’re not the heart; that’s love.

          And some people believe in God’s love, just not for themselves. They consider themselves unworthy or for some reason outside of God’s love. Martin Luther encouraged such people, “Search in your [heart], whether you are not also a [person] (that is, a piece of the world) and [do you] belong to the number which the word “whosoever” embraces, as well as others?”1  Love is born at Christmas not for some, but for all, including me, and no matter what you think, including you.

 

          You may have noticed some harsh language in this scripture.  There is the prospect of perishing and the idea that some of us are condemned.  Love may be at the heart of the gospel, but love is not the only choice in life.  There is always the danger of perishing--of wasting one’s life on something other than love.  If love is not at the heart of life, then something else is at the heart, and is that not a form of perishing?

          And though God did not send the Son to condemn the world, it’s a sad fact that some of us condemn ourselves.  When you turn a light on, some people will come to it; others will hide from it.  I had a friend who one year dedicated himself to loving his wife more fully and sensitively.  He spoke more kindly to her and listened more carefully to her.  He did little things for her around the house and took her special places.  After a few months, word got out, and several men came to ask him for hints on how they too could love their wives better.  But other guys came and complained that the way he was treating his wife was making them look bad and wouldn’t he knock it off.  Put love at the center—some will gather around; others turn away. 

 

          In some ways, keeping God’s love at the heart of life is so simple.  Just don’t complicate things.  There’s a Peanuts cartoon where Peppermint Patty and Charlie Brown are sitting under a tree and she asks him, "Do you ever think about love, Chuck?"

"All the time," he says.  "Is music the food of love? Is love a many splendored thing? Is love here to stay? Does love make the world go 'round? Is love . . ."

"Wait a minute, Chuck!" she interrupts.  “I asked you a simple question and I wanted a simple answer! I didn't expect a whole lecture!  Let's start over . . .  Do you ever think about Love, Chuck?"

"Love?" he mumbles, with a confused look on his face.

"That's what I figured. . ." she concludes.  Don’t complicate things!

 

Yes, love is simple, but it's not easy, and when it's needed most, there's nothing sentimental about love.  You parents know what I mean.  Love waits by the phone when a child is out too late, and then hugs them like fury when they finally get home.  Love washes clothes and cooks meals and helps with homework without ever getting thanked.  Love keeps loving when lines are crossed, when angry words are spoken, when disagreements become impasses. 

Think about the love of God that sent the Son into the world.  Who knows how the Father must have worried while the Son was living down here?  Who knows how it hurt the Father to see the Son rejected and despised.  Who knows how the Father's heart broke when the Son breathed his last?  And who knows how the Father must suffer still when in the Son's name people judge and exclude rather than love and include? 

This is the sort of love that was born at Christmas:  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

 

I tell you again: tradition has it that John, the author of the Gospel and Epistles of John and Revelation, had a disciple come to him.  "Master," he said, "Tell me one thing. . .  Why is it that you always write about love?  Why don't you ever write about anything else?"  St. John paused, waiting for the disciple to work it out himself.  Finally, he answered:  "Because," he said, "in the end, love is all there is."2

Look in the manger, my friends, and what will you find?  God’s love, only love.  Because in the end, that's all there is.

 

1 Quoted in Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 211.

2 Quoted in Samuel Wells, Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the Heart of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013). 

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus Is Everyone

November 26, 2017      Maple Grove UMC

 

          In this parable, there is good news and bad news . . . or what may feel like bad news.  The good news is that Jesus is everywhere.  No matter where you go, Jesus is already there, Immanuel, God-with-us always and everywhere. Good news!  The bad news is that Jesus is also everyone.  He is present in every beggar, every prisoner, every stranger.  That's a lot to take in.  But as is often true of the Gospel, the bad news is the good news, if only we can learn to see it that way.

 

          This Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is the culmination of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, what he's been leading up to for 25 chapters. Immediately after this begins his arrest and crucifixion, so this is it, his last chance to get his message across.  We’ve been reading through Matthew’s gospel this whole year, so we know the kind of things he's been teaching.  We’ve watched as he’s touched the untouchable, in the form of lepers.  We’ve seen him include a despised a tax collector in his inner circle. We heard him say of an officer of the occupation Roman army that he had more faith than anyone in Israel.  We saw him repeatedly heal on the Sabbath, insisting that loving people is more important than keeping rules. 

          Given all that, who knows whom Jesus would ask us to touch and include and love today?  Well, actually, we do know, because in this culminating parable, he tells us quite specifically:  the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  Only now instead of just modeling for us how to touch and include and love these people, he tells us that’s how we’re going to be judged at the end of time—by how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  That’s quite a culminating teaching!

 

          I want to say first of all that this is a theological story.  That is, it’s not just an ethical story about how we should live and treat people; it’s a story about theos, about who God is and how God relates to the world.  Speci-fically, this story is Matthew’s version of the incarnation, the Christian doctrine that in Christ God became truly human, in Christ God entered our world as one of us. The scripture usually referred to for the incarnation is John 1:14:  “The Word became flesh and lived us. . .” Matthew’s version takes it one step further:  not only did the Creator of the universe become human in general; the Creator of the universe chose to become poor, hungry, a stranger.1  This story is theology.  And here’s how theology matters: Mother Teresa said, “We should not serve the poor as though they were Jesus.  We should serve the poor because they are Jesus.2

 

          Now here’s a little aside about this parable, a truth that I won't dwell on, but at least want to mention in passing.  Did you notice who is brought before the judgment seat of the Son of Man?  It’s not you and me as individuals.  Jesus says, “All the nations will be gathered before him.”  So in the final judgment, it won’t be about whether or not I personally fed the hungry or whether you on your own cared for the sick.  It will be about how we’ve done collectively, as a nation. This is not a parable about personal charity but about what John Wesley called “social holiness.”  Again, I’m not going to dwell on that today, but I thought you’d want to be aware of it.

 

            One of the things that can make it hard to care for the hungry and homeless and outcast, is that the sea of need can be so impersonal.  If we don’t know any prisoners, for example, it’s easy to assume they’re all alike, that they don’t need or deserve our care and support.  If we don’t know any homeless people, it’s easy to be afraid of them or blame them for poor choices.  And if we don’t know any immigrants, we may not understand the desperate decisions they’ve had to make. 

          It’s when we know someone’s name that our hearts shift, that compassion wells up.  I had lots of assumptions and judgments about homeless folks; and then I volunteered in a shelter once a week in Atlanta and I got to know guys like Rodney, and Bob, and Antoine.  Real people, sons and brothers and fathers, people with demons and dreams, people who laugh and cry, people who play cards and watch football.  People, I discovered, a lot like me.

          Our family used to have a neighbor who said horrible racist things.  He was against all black people . . . except the ones he knew.  Laticia and Jackson and Lawrence, they were different.  Why?  Because he knew their names; because they were real people to him.  Knowing people's names makes a difference.

          Here’s what Jesus does in this parable:  he gives a name to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger.  He gives a name to the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  From now on we do know their name—it’s Jesus.3  From now on there is no one we can ignore or stereotype, for we know them individually and care about them personally—their name is Jesus.

 

          That Jesus makes a list of certain kinds of people is troubling to some. He names six specific kinds of people:  the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  These, he says, are me. Jesus should have known that any time you make a list you’re asking for trouble.  "What about us?" cried people with disabilities. "What about us?" cried the elderly?  What about me, is what we mean, I suppose.  Why just these six kinds of people and not others?  How can we tell exactly which ones are you, Jesus, and which ones we can safely ignore?

          One of my teachers grew up on a farm. One time their mule got out and his mom sent him to fetch it. Finding the mule involved going over a hill and across the woods where there was an old family cemetery.  And before he left, his mom told him, “Now when you go through the graveyard, make sure you don’t step on any graves.  Graves are sacred.” He remembers how ridiculous he must have looked, tiptoeing and taking first tiny steps and then giants steps, trying to avoid graves he couldn't even see.  When he got home, he said, “Mama, I can’t tell what part is sacred.”  And she said, “Well, I know it looks the same.  But if you’ll treat it all as sacred, you’ll never miss.”4

          Maybe that’s what Jesus was saying: if you just treat everyone as sacred, you’ll never miss. If you feed every hungry person and give a drink to all who are thirsty, if you welcome every stranger and clothe every ill-clad soul, if you care for all the sick and visit at least someone in prison—if you do all that, you can't miss me, he’s saying. And if you want to help persons with disabilities, too, and care for the elderly and be kind to yourself, all the better.  If we’ll just treat everyone as sacred, we’ll never miss the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

          Now, this parable may sound daunting, like it’s trying to force us to do things that are scary or uncomfortable.  Maybe a little, but I don't think that's the main point. After all, it’s not a grim duty, not some horrible task, to feed and welcome and care for Jesus; it’s a privilege, the highlight of life.  And sooner or later, most of us wind up being down and out; and I sure hope when that's me, someone will see in me the face of Christ.

 

          One of my favorite writers, Kathleen Norris, tells of being the only guest one Sunday night at a women’s monastery.  So the sisters invited her to join them in statio, the community’s procession into the church for worship.  The prioress was her partner, so she could give Kathleen instructions along the way.  The procession, Norris writes, ended like this:  The prioress told me, “First we bow first to the Christ who is at the altar.” So I did.  “And then," the prioress whispered, "we turn to face our partner, and bow to the Christ in each of them.”  “'I see,' I said, and I did.'”5  I really did.

 

          Jesus is everyone--the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  We give our food, we risk relationship with those who make us uncomfortable, we share our precious time, we reach out across all differences, and we bow to the Christ in everyone.  Yes, Jesus, I say, I see you there in that neighbor.  And on a good day, I really do.

 

 

1 See Miguel A. De La Torre, “A Colonized Christmas Story,” Interpretation 71/4 (October 2017), 414-15.

2 Alive Now (March/April 1999), 37.

3 See Penelope Duckworth, “The Body of Christ,” I Am: Teaching Sermons on the Incarnation, The Teaching Sermon Series (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 73.

4 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 91.

5 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 162-63.

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