Birthmarks

A sermon based on 1 Peter 1:3-10 and John 20:19-29 preached on April 23rd, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s Easter evening. The disciples are huddled together in a room too small for them. They’re sweating because the air is stagnant. They’re fearful for lack of courage or purpose. Three days ago, their courage and purpose had been crucified on a cross just outside Jerusalem. His name was Jesus.

Yes, there were rumors about. Earlier that morning, the two Marys had run back to the locked room they were huddled in. Out of breath from running, but also from whatever it is that happens to us when fear mixes with joy, they told the disciples that Jesus was alive. Walking, talking, breathing. Having conversations with them. But, for those first disciples, rumors and stories, conjecture and hearsay were good for nothing. How can anyone believe that Jesus is alive without first having seen Him? That’s the deep Easter question we have, isn’t it, friends?

Sometimes faith is easy. There are moments, perhaps many of them, when believing in that which we have not seen with our own two eyes comes effortlessly. But there are also moments when our faith lacks the strength to carry us very far—out of our own locked rooms.

There they were—Jesus’ disciples, who knows how many of them—certainly more than 11—hiding behind locked doors, whispering to each other out of fear of being discovered, certain that if they made too much noise or emerged out of the cubbyhole of a room they were in, they’d end up on a cross just like their Master had.

It’s a wonder that the Jesus movement was birthed at all. For their faith to take on life, those first disciples had to emerge from the grave of that small, locked room. In a sense, they had already buried themselves inside those 4 walls. They had barred the door shut—it was locked from the inside—that door was like a tombstone they had rolled in front of their own grave. All indications would lead us to think that they were calling it quits.

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Whenever we read this passage in worship or in Sunday School class, or a bible study, the word doubt inevitably becomes a part of our conversation.

But there’s something much more sinister at play here. Doubt we can handle. We can live with doubt. In fact, it’s hard for us not to. But hope. Hope is something that none of us can survive without. If all we see wherever we look are walls, barriers, locked doors that keep us in, that hold us prisoner—especially when those doors are locked from the inside—then we’ve given up hope. And what else is there if we do not have hope?

Whenever fear takes up more space in our lives than hope, death wins. Life grows smaller. The walls around us get thicker, they move in closer. And there we are, cramped with fear. As good as dead. We all know what it’s like to be stuck in place; it feels like dying—or at least a sort of smaller death.

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It is right in the middle of this cramped space, this room filled with fear and death and hopelessness, that we hear a voice we recognize:

Peace be with you!

Jesus says. Heads turn. Mouths fall open. The women were right! Jesus is standing among them. He speaks real words from His real mouth. Looking at the disciples through His real eyes. There He is standing among them in the middle of that cubbyhole of a room. And whether it actually happened or it just felt like it, the walls of that room retreated. The space inside grew bigger, fuller. And suddenly, the disciples could breathe again. In that tiny space, life quickly replaced death.

Peace be with you!

And after saying those words, Jesus breathed on them, inflating their lungs again, reviving their hopelessness, giving new energy—God-energy to their bodies worn down and failing, bringing new birth to their dying spirits. In that moment, everything seemed to expand. Walls. Eyes. Lungs.

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Let’s dive a little deeper.

Did you ever notice how many times Jesus’ hands and side are mentioned in this passage? Three. Three times in 11 short verses. This should get our attention.

The first and last time, it’s Jesus who brings up these scars of His. The second time Jesus’ scars are mentioned, it’s Thomas who brushes aside the witness of his fellow disciples. They have told him that they had seen the Lord, and in his stubbornness, the first thing that Thomas brings up is that he needs to see those scars—the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, the lash marks in his side. That’s a curious thing! Have we ever thought about that? What’s so important about Jesus’ marks—these scars He had—that they’re the first thing Thomas says he needs to see, the first thing Jesus shows to His disciples, and the first thing that Jesus shows to Thomas a week later?

There seems to be no question about it: Jesus’ disciples were waiting to see the marks. It’s the most important detail of Jesus’ identity now—that His body now has scars. If we ever had the notion that the body of the resurrected Jesus would be blemish-free—glowing in radiance, white with light, healed by God, then we are assuming too much. In fact, we’d be assuming the opposite of what those first disciples assumed. The resurrected Jesus—the One high and lifted up—the One who is with us now in the power of the Holy Spirit—is perfect, but even in His perfection, He has scars. And these scars aren’t just something left over from His life on earth; these marks He has make Him our Lord and our God.

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Our bodies bear witness to the brutalities of this all-too-human life of ours. They’re marked up all over. Our skin tells our stories for us. Our bodies are our best diaries. Written upon them is every bit of our past. Over the landscape of our own bodies we encounter the countless moments of our lives. Our bodies are living signposts marking where we have been and what we have accomplished. They remember where we have stumbled, but they insist on getting back up onto our feet to try again—which in a way is its own tiny resurrection, or if that’s too much, it’s at least resilience, our hope becoming stronger than our fear. Our bodies are living testaments to the God-filled conviction that says: no matter what this world throws at us, we have within us completely resilient spirits. Our marks—physical, spiritual, emotional—do not make us less than human; they are the very things that show forth God’s power to bring us to new birth.

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Friends, we belong to a Wounded Healer. Jesus’ scars—the ones in His hands and sides—are not incidental. They are the story He has to tell. They are God’s story.

Jesus isn’t our Lord without those wounds. What He endured for us on the cross shall not be erased. We do not forget his crucifixion, because without Good Friday, there is no Easter. Without the marks, we would not be here. Without the holes in His hands and sides, we would not be whole. The Church was birthed by those marks on Jesus’ resurrected body. And without them, the Church would have died before it ever came to life.

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Do you know what this means, friends? It means that our faith is birthed from Jesus’ marks. So, the only way to be Church—to live our lives authentically and in witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ—is to bear our marks. To go out from this place, and into all our places, and show the wounds in our hands and sides. By so doing, we show others that Jesus’ church is far from being a group of people who celebrate their own perfection or holiness. Instead, we are people who are willing to roll up our sleeves and show others the side of ourselves that’s filled with wounds—wounds of body, heart, spirit, and soul. They will know we are Christians by our marks. Our marks make us fully alive! God-alive, Jesus-alive, Easter-alive!

And if we do that—if we are willing to be as vulnerable as Jesus was when He entered into that room appearing to his people, wounds and all, then we will bring light to darkened hearts, hope to fear-filled souls, life to people living their lives half-dead, and maybe, hopefully, lead them to recognize Jesus in much the same way that Thomas did that evening.

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Thomas’ eyes were opened when he saw Jesus. And from his mouth came the most profound statement of faith that we have in any of the gospels:

My Lord and my God!

he said.

The Church was given birth that night with those words from Thomas. It is with that declaration of faith along with the breath that Jesus breathed into those disciples—both, bringing them to life—that the Church still has its life.

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Friends, we still have limited vision and blinding doubts. We’re often crippled by the same kind of fear that those first disciples had, and that fear causes us to do the same thing it did to them: to keep all held up inside, to keep our faith hidden by these four walls, to hesitate to take the Good News of Jesus-alive out with us—to share it and wear it. To live our days, hours, minutes in witness to our resurrected Lord. It is into our anxiety—that thing that tells us over and over again that our faith is a private thing—that Jesus speaks those same words He did to those first disciples:

Peace be with you.

Jesus says it over and over again. Three times in this passage, and many more times to us. And he’ll continue speaking peace to us until we finally understand what He’s trying to tell us. Christ’s peace is a whole lot more than something that calms our fears. This is Shalom. This is a peace that empowers us and drags us into maturity, wholeness, completeness. Jesus breathes this peace into us. With His breath, Jesus gives us life—He births the Church in the same way God brought creation to life when His Spirit swept over the waters and stirred the cosmos to life.

With this Shalom, we catch our breath and are made into new beings. This is the breath that marks us for second birth. And once we catch Jesus’ breath, once we’re birthed by the Holy Spirit—given our vitality and our mission—we go out from this place and bear witness to our Lord by bearing His marks in all we say, and in all we do.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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A Christian’s Love

A sermon based on Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 5:38-48 preached on February 19th, 2017

Sermon audio

For the last several weeks, we’ve been feeling our way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this world-defying, upside-down, backward-seeming collection of Divine wisdom that, on the surface, sounds a whole lot like foolishness. But that’s exactly why we’re spending so much time in it: because it is only with careful and deep attention to each word of it—every Divine notion in it—that our hearts can be reshaped into this new likeness, that our very lives, and every aspect of them, stand a chance of being recast into God-shaped form.

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Nowhere in the entire Sermon on the Mount is the challenge greater than in this passage.

If we think Jesus asked too much of us last week when he recast the meanings of murder, divorce, adultery, and oath-making, then what He has to say here should seem to us nothing less than superhuman.

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Pastor Jason Byassee pressed the voicemail button on his phone as he was stumbling into his kitchen with armfuls of groceries after a long day at work. His daughter, Erin, then 10-years old, had left a message:

Dad, I’m the liturgist at church Sunday, and I have the passage where Jesus says, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ You know that passage, right? …Do the other gospels have that same passage? Is it different in the other gospels? Could you let me know, because… well, no offense, Dad, but I think Jesus is wrong.

Erin’s objection to this passage is quite like our own, isn’t it? We go through all sorts of efforts to finagle our way out of what we know it says. The mental gymnastics we do to excuse ourselves from practicing the way of love described in these words would earn all of us a gold medal at the Theological Olympics.

I don’t disagree with 10-year-old Erin. This business about turning the other cheek, giving away the clothes off our back, and walking the extra mile sound like the worst advice ever, and if that wasn’t enough, then comes the part in the middle where Jesus asks us to love our enemies, and the part at the end where Jesus encourages us to become perfect, both of which sound reckless and stupid. Who can actually love their enemies? No one does that. And who can be perfect? No one stands a chance. Besides, if we did any of these things, wouldn’t we be doormats? Is this what Jesus is getting at? Are we supposed to be doormats for Jesus? We live in a cruel world. Is Jesus saying that we’re supposed to stand there and take it?

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A thousand or so years before the time of Jesus, the law on the books was referred to as exact retribution. This was the Old Testament law that clearly stated that what was perpetrated on others would be the punishment right back at the perpetrator. You poke somebody’s eye out? Your eye is coming out, too! Tooth for a tooth. Life for a life. Exact retribution. A few hundred years later, the Israelites did away with the exact part of retribution, and established a system of penalties and payments for damages inflicted upon others. Here, in this part of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks against both methods or retribution. Forego retribution altogether, Jesus declares. Renounce your right to retaliate. Do not ask that revenge be exacted upon your opponent. Don’t fight fire with fire. Entire civilizations are burned to the ground that way. Instead, fight fire with water.

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The march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery, Alabama was the turning point of the black Civil Rights Movement. On March 7th, 1965, a day now referred to a Bloody Sunday, state troopers attacked an estimated 500-600 unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas after they passed over into Dallas County.

Televised images of the brutal attack on unarmed citizens presented American and international audiences with what was, for most of them, the first images of such brutal violence. The TV audience that day was in the millions, each one of them safe in the sanctuary of their own living rooms. They saw the protestors throw no punches—not even for their own protection. Gunfire was not returned for gunfire. Brutality was not inflicted by the Civil Rights marchers, but inflicted on them. And an entire world sat staring at those images, horrified. It seemed like the heart of an entire nation was changed that day. Eight days later, on the evening of March 15th, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson held a historic, nationally televised joint session of Congress to introduce his Civil Rights bill, and ask that it be passed into law. The violence, as we know, did not end that day. But due to the marchers’ commitment to non-violent action, an entire nation woke up to injustice.

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Some say that non-violent action, the kind that Jesus speaks of in this part of the Sermon on the Mount is some sort of strategy. Some kind of peaceful weapon wielded against an opponent. It is not. It isn’t the point of non-violent action to humiliate, or degrade a violent adversary. Love is not a weapon. It does not have ulterior motives. Refusing to hit a person who has hit you may show heroic restraint, but that heroic restraint isn’t a method. Love is not a strategy; it’s straightforward, it’s a way of life, a choice we’re asked to make over and over again. We cannot and do not hurt the ones we love, it’s impossible.

So, when Jesus asks us to love those who oppose us, He’s not talking about implementing a strategy, or practicing a non-violent defiance. He’s actually telling us to act and react with love. And love does no harm, even to an enemy. Love is a power far greater than any other. And love’s commitment to compassion speaks far louder than any form of retaliation. Responding with love is a wordless way of saying to our opponents,

I do not fear you, therefore I refuse to engage you in your violence.

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Fear is the real opposite of love, by the way. So often we think love’s opposite is hate. It is not. We will not understand what Jesus means by love if we think of it as the opposite of hate. Pastor William Sloan Coffin, ordained as a Presbyterian minister but serving the United Church of Christ, had this to say:

Fear destroys intimacy. It distances us from each other; or makes us cling to each other, which is the death of freedom. Fear has so many ways to destroy life. Love alone can hold onto and recreate life…Love, and you are a success whether or not the world thinks so. The highest purpose of Christianity—which is primarily a way of life, not a system of belief—is to love one another.

And then he quotes the first letter of John chapter 4, verse 18:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

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Pastor Kerry Bart down the way at First United Methodist Church had a sign last week that read:

Love your enemies. It will confuse them.

Exactly. Love diffuses our enemies. It sends our opponents away stewing in their own frustration. Spinning in their own webs of irritation and annoyance. But in all that stewing and spinning, we hope our love might wake them up to a better way. There’s nothing more defiant than a commitment to the way of love. But, at the same time, we don’t love in order to confuse, frustrate, irritate, or annoy.

The love that Jesus is talking about isn’t the passive aggressive sort where we put a smile on our face that’s only there to hide a belligerent and stubborn underside. This isn’t an “I-told-you-so” sort of showy love. The love that Jesus is talking about is authentic, straightforward, and complete. It has no ulterior motives. We love for the sake of love itself. Because, when it comes down to it, that’s the only kind of love there is. And this love is not easy. It’s never a feeling. It’s not passive. It never comes easy. It’s not a natural notion. This kind of love is of the unnatural sort. It takes effort and discipline, practice and determination, every bit of our energy and every bit of our courage. And finally, this sort of love is culture-defying. It makes no sense to the world. You will not find it out and about. It’s not a part of our everyday cultural vernacular. That’s because our culture doesn’t understand why anyone would dedicate them self to a way of being and doing that ultimately costs or compromises, inconveniences, or willingly puts their self in 2nd place.

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When Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, His disciple Judas Iscariot was leading a band of Roman soldiers to arrest Him. That night, Jesus was insulted in every single way imaginable. Betrayed by His own, beaten, mocked, stripped, and later hung out to dry. But all the way, He loved. There was not one moment when Jesus lost His self-control. He held His peace even though He was treated so violently. Throughout, He maintained His dignity, displaying at every turn a total refusal to retaliate, to trade blow for blow, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, insult for insult.

Friends, love, this Divine love that Jesus challenges us to undertake, it has a surprising dignity to it. It defies human nature. It’s a love we have to learn. It does not come naturally. This sort of love takes all of our moral strength.

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This teaching on retaliation-defying love is the peak of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is challenging that part of our human nature that would rather be rightunyielding, proud and headstrong and out of relationship than amicable, merciful, humble, and soft-hearted and in relationship.

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So, the question for you and I, friends, is this: when others look at us—family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and enemies, all—what do they see? Do they see a person scared to death, willing to trade blow for blow, insult for insult, fire for fire; or do they see Jesus inside, a disciple who at all costs and in all circumstances is willing to forego their pride and place to show forth the costly love of Jesus? Will we have the courage to love?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Christian’s Relationships

A sermon based on Psalm 119:1-8 and Matthew 5:21-37 preached February 12th, 2017

Sermon audio

For most of this week, I’ve wondered what do with this part of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve wondered many things, really: Jesus preaches the soaring words of the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which speak of ideal Christian character, and then after that He surprises and astounds and challenges us by saying that we should take our faith in Him and use it to become influencers, salt and light in and for the world.

What a wondrous and spacious image for us to grow into! Then all the sudden, the tone of His sermon shifts to His thoughts about some very specific things. He starts into some very touchy subjects: murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing oaths. Jesus, why the tediousness of these loaded subjects all the sudden?!

The words of the Beattitudes—they are soaring! Awe-inspiring! The metaphor of salt and light—brilliant and breath-taking. Jesus, so far your sermon is taking us to new heights! Keep going in that direction! Give us another image to astound us! One that will unleash our Divine imaginations. Overwhelm us with another sky-high oratory that will unleash the wonders of Heaven upon us! But Jesus doesn’t do that.

This part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount sends us right back down to earth—into the slog of complicated, everyday lives, into the thick and dense matter of our broken relationships. These are words about how we treat and have been treated by others. They remind us of how we’ve fallen and failed, how we’ve hurt and been hurt, how we’ve disappointed and been disappointed by others. And, honestly, most of us would just rather forget all of that.

Why’d you have to go there, Jesus?!

This is why: how we treat or regard others—family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and enemies—matters to God. It matters deeply. We cannot live into Jesus’ words about Christian Character in the Beattitudes, nor can we become salt and light in and for the world, if we refuse to live in whole, honest, right, and true relationship with others.

How we treat and regard our fellow human beings tells the truth about us. It speaks louder than any words we use. This is where the rubber meets the road. Where the wonders of heaven meet the very specific aspects of this life on earth. And God cares about it all! Throughout the Gospel, Jesus teaches us that being in right relationship with God is predicated upon being in right relationship with others. We cannot have one without the other. 1 John 4:20 reads,

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

Those two loves, love of God and love of our fellow human beings are tied up in one another. If one falls short, the other will fall short, too. Love of neighbor is love of God; and love of God is love of neighbor. And a need to mend one is also a need to mend the other.

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So, can we begin with confession? Can we begin by admitting to ourselves and one another that we’ve all failed in these ways? That not a single person among us can stand tall in God’s presence and claim that our love for God and our love for our fellow human beings is full, complete, or whole.

We have deprived other people of their full humanity, either by our action or inaction, and we’ve done so on both a personal level as well as on a global level. Human beings do these sorts of things to other human beings. We live in a world filled with alienation and distrust, and that allows us very easily to treat large groups of people in ways we ourselves would not want to be treated. And a denial of any person’s humanity, or a denial of God’s grace at work in them, is ultimately a denial of God’s grace in our own lives.

But let’s not use these words to shame ourselves. I don’t think Jesus preached this part of His Sermon on the Mount to beat us over the head with our own shortcomings. I think these words are here to lure us and lead us, to help us imagine, and practice, and then establish a more loving way to live.

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So, let’s consider each of these teachings, unpack them one by one. And if we do that well, we’ll be able to see how in Jesus’ treatment and redefinition of each, He’s really just speaking one overarching truth into our lives.

What Jesus does with the 6th Commandment, Thou Shall Not Murder, is surprising. It’s not enough, Jesus says, simply to avoid committing homicide. Most of us have that down. It’s really not a lot to ask of us. But Jesus steps things up a few notches. Evidently, that commandment means more to God than we ever realized before. According to Jesus, whenever we act, say, or think in a way that diminishes, disregards, or overlooks the humanity of a person or an entire group of people, or in any way clouds our ability to see or regard them as the full and beloved children of God they are, we’re committing murder.

Ouch, Jesus! That’s harsh! Treating another human being as anything less than a beloved child of God is tantamount to murder.

Jesus says that when we’re out of relationship with our brothers and sisters, we’re out of relationship with God, and the burden of bringing ourselves back into right relationship with God and our fellow human beings falls upon us. Depriving another their full humanity or denying them the thought that God’s grace is working in them is a denial of God’s power as well as a denial of God’s grace in our own lives. If we show up to worship or prayer holding any part of ourselves back so that we can hold onto our anger or bitterness, God does not want our worship, because it’s not whole.

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Let’s move on to what Jesus has to say about adultery.

We know the legal definition of adultery. It’s the same now as it was in Jesus’ day. But, again, Jesus expands the definition. It’s not enough to say we’ve stayed out of bed with another person’s spouse.

God sees it in a much broader way than we do, because God knows what happens inside our hearts. Our eyes lead us in directions that can get our hearts lost. And if we keep at it, we’ll not only find our hearts lost, but ourselves lost inside of wrong relationship. And before we know it, we’ll find ourselves outside of relationship with our families. Jesus’ words are simple: Don’t go there!

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Divorce. Men in Jesus’ day could write their own divorce papers, hand them to their wives and send them out of the house for any reason they wanted. There are records of husbands who divorced their wives because they burnt a loaf of bread. We must realize that the culture of that time had reduced women to the status of property. Women were regarded as objects for a man’s satisfaction.

We must also realize that in our culture, there are way too many men who still treat women as objects of their own gratification. Then as now, Jesus is confronting that injustice. Jesus recognizes a woman’s humanity because He knows the God who formed them into being and calls them His own. For Jesus, the inherent value of all human beings prohibits our discarding or devaluing of them. Rather, we are to treasure and nurture one another as sisters and brothers, as equals—each us of worthy of honor and protection. In effect, Jesus is saying,

Men, step up. Treat the women in your life with integrity, and by doing so, you will stay in right relationship with God.

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And what’s this thing about oaths?

We live in a time when we can hardly trust the words coming out of peoples’ mouths. Truth has become something relative. It doesn’t matter how many bible’s a person swears upon, we still can’t trust anyone to give the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Here, Jesus asks us to work for strong, authentic, and trustworthy relationships with each other. Then we wouldn’t have to swear on a stack of bibles. We would speak true and genuine words to each other because that’s what real and right relationship means. No hint of distrust or suspicion in the way. No reason to say “So help me, God.” Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No.

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Jesus’ re-worked definitions of, and teachings about, these things: murder, adultery, divorce, and the swearing of oaths—they all point us in the same direction: together they paint a picture of what human relationship looks like when it’s built upon and pervaded with divine integrity. Jesus is asking us live every aspect of our lives being utterly trustworthy, transparently honest, and dependably truthful.

When we do this, we live into our vocation as salt of the earth and light for the world, reflecting Jesus in everything we say and do. This is the vision that God has for the living out of each and every one of our relationships. Let us live into this vision until the day when we who call ourselves Christian stand out from all the rest because of how we love, when we regain our 1st Century reputation as the people who value and protect human dignity, who uphold, fight for, and celebrate the God-given integrity of every human life.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Christian’s Influence

A sermon based on Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 5:13-20 preached on February 5th, 2017

Sermon audio

Today, we continue looking into the Sermon on the Mount. Last Sunday, we looked closely at the Beatitudes, the series of eight blessings Jesus bestows upon His followers, all of which come together to give us one comprehensive picture of what Christian character looks like—the attitudes we should have and the things we should pay attention to in order to grow into God’s idea of full human being. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount is simply Jesus’ effort to enflesh—to put skin and muscle, tendon and tissue around the bones that are the eight beatitudes. And, if we continue to listen carefully to the rest of what Jesus has to say in Matthew chapters 5 through 7, the closer we’ll come to developing into the full-bodied and faithful creatures that God wants us to be.

If the Beatitudes of last week come together to describe a Christian’s character, today’s lesson describes a Christian’s influence—the approach we take as we relate to the world, how we engage others, how we are called to be difference-makers, and how we put the Beatitudes to work. Sometimes, we hear the Beattitudes, each one of those Blesseds, and we say,

Well, that’s nice, those are beautiful words, Jesus, but how do we live them out? And what for?

When we begin living out the blessings inside the Beatitudes, when we start shaping our days and our decisions around them, what do they make of us? And this is Jesus’ answer: When you live the blessed life of the Beatitudes, you will become an influencer. You will live as salt, and you will live as light.

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Salt and light seem on the surface to be two completely different things. Isn’t Jesus mixing metaphors here? But when we dive into the thick of the metaphor, use our imaginations to draw out the substance and character of both salt and light, Jesus’ words begin to make sense.

First off, both salt and light are no good on their own. Just a tip: Don’t eat a tablespoon of salt. I did it as a dare once, and it’s gross. Aside from Double Dog Dares, we would do no such a thing.

Salt is useless on its own. Neither do we stare into the sun. Our parents teach us this from a very young age, but we do it anyway, and we learn the hard way that light by itself is no good on its own. In fact, kinda like salt, on its own it does harm. Light can’t do its thing unless it has something to reflect off of. Both salt and light are no good unless they’re poured out, thrown onto everything around them. That’s how both fulfill their purpose.

Another thing about both light and salt: neither one is made to draw attention to itself. Both work to reveal the character, glory, texture, and substance of other things. We scatter salt over a pot of homemade chicken soup to bring out the flavor of each ingredient. That salt doesn’t work for itself. It works for all the other things inside the pot. Same thing with light. Without a surface to shine off of, light does nothing. But, give it a surface to bounce off of, light finds its purpose, it reveals the character and shape of a thing. Our verse 14 says,

light brings out the God-colors, the God-shapes, the God’-textures in everything.

 

Without salt and light, our lives and many things in them would lose their meaning and significance. They would be bland and tasteless. With them, though, everything comes alive! We are salt and light, Jesus says. And, notice the way He says it. He doesn’t say,

If you want to become salt and light, then that’s an option you have, but only if you want to…

He doesn’t say,

You better be salt and light, and start acting like it!

 

Neither does He say,

I have an idea! Why don’t you start acting like salt and light?!

Jesus says we already are salt and light. We don’t get to opt out of this one. This is our character, our purpose. This is how we should be difference-makers in the world.

It’s important to stop right here, though, and clarify something. Notice there are no imperatives here. No command to be salt and light. No must’s or shall be’s. This isn’t something we have to do or else. Rather, salt and light are what we will inevitably be once when we take the 8 beatitudes from last week and live into them. Our Christian Character, shaped by the Beatitudes, yields salty and light-bearing lives. This is our Christian influence. We cannot help but be salt and light in, to, and for the world.

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Salt has an edge to it, though, doesn’t it? It bites back. Light can reveal what we or others do not want to see. And both can burn. Both salt and light, for better or for worse, can reveal the true character of things. When Jesus called us these two things, salt and light, He had both the upsides and the downsides in mind. But He tells us to be them, anyway.

The prophet Isaiah is an example of how being salt and light has an edge and a bite to it. Isaiah shouts out to his own people. God tells him to hold nothing back as he does so. And with words that God gives him, Isaiah confronts the peoples’ ways with God’s biting, edgy truth. Isaiah calls his people out on the floor in the passage we read this morning. Through the prophet’s voice, God confronts the people with their unjust behaviors. It appears they’re only pretending to be right-living people, but their actions speak a whole lot louder than their words. Isaiah declares to the Israelites that God can see right through all their religious activities. All their devotion to God is hollow, insubstantial. It’s just for show.

The kind of devotion that God wants comes down to how we treat others. Do we live to break the chains of injustice? God says that’s what real devotion looks like. We are to take steps to get rid of exploitation wherever we see it, to free the oppressed, and cancel suffocating debts, sharing food with the hungry, and inviting the homeless into our houses. Put clothes on the naked ones among us, and giving ourselves to our own families. Do those things, God says, and become difference-makers! That’s right living according to God! That’s what being salt of the earth and light for the world is all about!

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Salt, in order to do its work, must be poured out. Light’s the same way. It must go where there is darkness, and there it does its thing. With these words, Jesus speaks about our influence and the difference we’re called to make, indeed will make, if we step up to the call of God upon our lives and are faithful to the work that God calls us to dare and do. For Christians to be influencers, we must be distinctive and involved.

We have a tendency, though, do we not, to lean towards comfort, conformity, and complacency? Most of the time, we just want to blend in. Become a part. Let others come up with the plans and policies with which we live our lives, and then simply follow their lead. We follow in unquestioning allegiance in the ways of others. But by doing so, we give away our distinctive voice and character, and influence, and before we know it, we’re simply repeating what others say, and uncritically and unthinkingly proclaiming someone else’s vision and version of truth, or living out someone’s else’s vision and version of life. That’s the danger that Jesus is confronting here—our tendency to lose our uniqueness in our effort to simply blend in.

Salt and light never blend in. Whenever they show up, they change the situation. They change the look and flavor of whatever they’re poured into. By their very nature, salt and light are change agents, and so should we be! An influence for good. Distinctive, involved, and hard to ignore!

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The clatter and din and anxiety of these days in this current political climate—it’s immense. It’s really too much to take. We’re all on edge, have you noticed? No matter our political leanings, we are a hurting and uncertain people right now. Many of us feel attacked, embittered, misunderstood, and to one extent or another, we feel like our personal agency has been compromised or even taken from us. Do you come this morning exhausted by it all?

It’s easy to become a part of the uproar. To add to the chaos of these times. The greatest danger in doing so, though, if Jesus’ words here have anything to do with it, is that we lose ourselves in the process. We can easily give away too much of ourselves or lose our distinctiveness and character if we give in to the hand-wringing, the grenade-lobbing, the senselessness of this loaded and loud moment.

I believe that Jesus words to us this day, amid all this, is to take up a different manner, to undergo an attitude transplant, to take a bigger perspective, to step off the battlefield that so many of our fellow Americans are waging war on—trying to destroy one another on, and to step up onto a different sort of field, into a different way of being. To become an influencer, to cultivate something new, a different conversation, to be the people who plant new seed beneath our feet—something nourishing and life-giving. To rise out from all the messiness, and practice a new way, speak in a new voice. To be difference-makers. Live in the sort of way where we can be strong and distinctive reminders to anyone who pays attention, that we stand for the way of love and grace. That we have no use for the ways of hate and fear and division. That’s being salt. That’s being light. When everything we are, everything we do, and everything we say points toward love. That’s the Christian’s influence. You and I are agents. We’re here to sprinkle, plant, and shed a little bit of heaven around.

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No one ever said that would be easy. Discipleship is daring work. That’s why it’s so rare these days. It is into this world full of accusatory, pointing fingers, furled eyebrows, and snarling teeth that Jesus has placed us and called us to be salt and light. And that’s hard. Following Jesus is hard. It’s so much easier to hate and speak than it is to love and listen.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus says.

“But that’s hard!” we say.

Jesus replies, “Yes, neighbor, I know,”

So let’s trudge on, living our way into the way of love. Acting as salt and light of, for, and in the world. It’s a daring way, and it is the Way of Jesus.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Christian’s Character

A sermon based on Micah 6:8 and Matthew 5:1-2 preached on January 29th, 2017

Blessed are those who are sure of themselves, who are so confident they have no need to rely on anyone but themselves, because they have it all figured out.

Blessed are those who pay no attention to other people’s suffering, for they will walk through the world with light feet and light hearts and nothing upon their conscience.

Blessed are the strong and the brash, for their lack of humility impresses others around them.

Blessed are those think this world is fair to everyone simply because it’s been fair to them, for they sleep well at night.

Blessed are those who run over their opponents by whatever means necessary, for they will prevail in victory.

Blessed are those who lie through a smile, whose despite their kind appearances, always have ulterior motives, for in their deviousness they always get their way.

Blessed are those who stir up trouble, and never step off the battle field, because troublemaking is always easier than peacemaking.

Blessed are those who persecute and torment others to get their way, because the world belongs to the strongest, and all is fair in love and war.

If the ways of the world had their own set of beatitudes, those are it. We know who the winners are. We’re familiar with all the clichés: Nice guys finish last; Dog Eat Dog; Survival of the Fittest.

I wrote this set of beatitudes trying my best to say the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ said in His set. These alternate beatitudes are the ideals our culture lifts up and celebrates. They’re build into the very fabric of our nation. And anyone who doesn’t live by this set of beatitudes will be trampled underfoot.

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For the next few Sundays, we will move slowly through Jesus’ most famous words—the ones from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It is a surprising and upside-down picture of what faithful living looks like. We have heard these words for most of our lives, but I hope they have never really made much sense to you. That’s a good indication that you’ve been listening. I hope they still startle you. They still startle me.

As a whole, the Sermon on the Mount is a discourse on discipleship. It’s an 8-minute long description of how Christians should perceive and conduct themselves. In a way, it’s a working manual for the Ways of God, but that’s not all it is. That’s too small a thing. More to the heart of the matter, the Sermon on the Mount is a Rule of Life for each and every one of us who call ourselves Christian.

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I want to tell you about my week away doing Continuing Education back in early November. I went to a conference for Presbyterian pastors called Credo. Credo means I put my trust in. For 7 or 8 days, about 50 recently-ordained church leaders were invited to take a step back from the busy day-in and day-out stuff of ministry and focus our energy and imaginations on reconnecting to the very essence of our God-calling. We were challenged to pay closer attention to ourselves, to reclaim that part of us that led us into church ministry in the first place, to reestablish ways that honor our God-given character, to identify the values that are most important to us, and to insist on making time to tend to our spiritual lives throughout our weeks and our months doing ministry.

We all left that week having written our own Rule of Life. A manifesto of sorts. But more than that, I think: a very intentional plan for the living of these days. We promised each other before we left for home that we would spend the next 11 months practicing our newly-written Rules of Life, come back together this coming October, and see how they might need re-tweaking. I want to share my Rule of Life with you.

Stretch: Do an hour of stretching every day.

Pray: Spend an hour reading scripture and in prayer every day.

Play: Go on hikes, dates with my wife, and whenever possible, stop working at 5:30p

Spend: Be a good steward of money

I also wrote a big dream, a Mi Gran Sueno, for this year: Start outlining the book I’ve always wanted to write. These are very simple, very doable practices. There’s not a thing extraordinary about them, but tending to them faithfully day-in and

These are very simple, very doable practices. There’s not a thing extraordinary about them, but tending to them faithfully day-in and day-out sometimes seems heroic. Often, I do one or the other of them not out of sense that it will lead me into greater life, but merely out of a sense duty or drudgery. Some days, I complete forget I’ve made a Rule of Life at all. And other days, I simply don’t care that I have, and I hope for a better attitude for the next day.

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If these 8 beatitudes that begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount had checkboxes next to them, I wouldn’t be able to put a mark in any one of them. None of these come naturally to me. In fact, by many standards, they may look to you and I like terrible advice! Impractical and foolish. But, let’s not pass them up so quickly.

At first glance, they may appear as mere suggestions for how you and I should behave. Or maybe you see them the opposite way, as rules that we need to adhere to. We might think that a list like this isn’t so much for regular Christians, but only for those more holy than we are. Might you think that because I’m a Pastor, they’re made for me, but not for you? Not so fast! These beattitudes are for all of us. And they’re not so much a list of 8 things we have to be or accomplish. These 8 things are really only 1 thing: a single vision of what a God-blessed life looks like. Read rightly, these beattitudes are both an invitation into, and a description of true Christian character. This is what our lives would look like if we lived them the ways God wants us to. We are to take this sketch of blessedness that Jesus has given us and spend the rest of our days doing our best to live into it. And, in a word, the sketch of Christian character looks: Different.

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Maya Angelou was a writer as well a person of deep Christian faith. But if you ever heard her talk about her faith, you’d hear her use hesitant words. She didn’t like to call herself a Christian. As a poet, she knew the meaning of words very deeply, and she understood the word Christian means little Christ, and that was simply too big of a thing for her to claim. She thought that when anyone identified them self as Christian, it rang of self-accomplishment. It seemed to her too big of a thing for anyone to assume about themselves—that they’d made it. They’d become a little Christ. She thought she just wasn’t there yet. I know what she’s saying, but I’m not sure I agree with her. None of us are there yet, and it’s a dangerous person who thinks they have arrived.But can we not call ourselves something that we’re still hoping to become?

The first disciples of Jesus were called by that name not because of what they already were but what Jesus thought they ought to be. We know what we ought to be, and there is no better a collection of words in all of scripture that describe it—the essence of Christian character than these Beattitudes. These are enormous words, and we should spend our days living into every one of them.

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Let’s run through each of them quickly.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I best understand a thing when it’s compared to its opposite, so throughout I’m going to repeat the world’s beattitudes that I shared a few minutes ago.

Blessed are the poor in spirit – The spiritually poor are those who practice a humble dependence upon God. Its opposite are those who are sure of themselves, who say they have it all figured out. The poor in spirit know they are unable to save themselves. They know they have nothing to offer God, and who therefore look to God for salvation, asking for God’s grace. To such as these, the Kingdom of God is given. This is a quality of character we should practice.

Blessed are those who mourn – We usually equate mourning with the loss of a loved one, but this goes deeper than that. Jesus is talking about those who see the sorrow and suffering of an unjust world, who mourn the loss of their own self-respect, or the self-respect of others. The opposite: those who don’t seem to care about the suffering of others. By sharing this quality of Christian character, Jesus asks us to take an honest look at the evil we see in the world, to face it, to name it, take it personally, and weep over it.

Blessed are the meek is there to suggest that we practice a gentle and humble attitude toward others. Its opposite is something like throwing your weight around. The meek are those who know what a great gift God’s grace is, who know in the deepest parts of who they are that there’s nothing about them that earns God’s favor.

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the ones among us who are never satisfied by the world’s idea of justice and fairness—who realize that human beings have a great capacity to mistreat others, and whose greatest prayer for the world is that all people may be treated in a way that honors their God-given integrity and dignity.

Mercy is compassion for those in need. Blessed are the merciful directs us in the ways of forgiveness and compassion for others. We live into this one when another’s suffering becomes our suffering too. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared,

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Blessed are the pure in heart – A person pure in heart is sincere. When you look into their eyes, you get this feeling that their whole life—inside and out—all their thoughts and all their motives are pure. I’m sure you can imagine the opposite

Blessed are the peacemakers – We should give ourselves to the work of creating calm where there is anxiety, understanding where there is conflict, and figuring out our problems without the use of violence.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness – This one speaks loudest to those Christians in parts of the world where their faith puts their life in danger. For us, it speaks how important it is to be unwavering in our faith, even when—especially when—it’s inconvenient. If you can’t see yourself in any of these descriptions, I implore you, in the name of Jesus Christ to change your ways. This is about as close as a Presbyterian minister will come to giving an alter call.

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Let me give away the ending here…each and every one of us will fall short of this picture of God blessedness. The point isn’t to accomplish any of these. The point is to do our best to live into them, to lean into them, to trust their divine wisdom a whole lot more than we trust in the backwards wisdom of the world. The prophet Jeremiah declared to his people,

Do not follow the ways of the nations…the rituals of the nations are hollow.

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Let us live into these counter-cultural words. They are nothing less than Jesus’ version and vision of personhood and the very shape of human being created in God’s image. May you give yourself to them. May you walk in the directions they take you, and in their practicing, may you discover the Way of Jesus.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

 

Going Without Knowing

A sermon based on Psalm 27:1, 4-9 and Matthew 4:12-23 preached on January 22nd, 2017

Sermon audio

These days, it’s awfully difficult to hold our attention. Our culture moves fast. We dart from one thing to another just as fast as our high-speed internet connections can move us. It’s not difficult to get our attention, but it’s almost impossible to hold our attention. Scientific studies have proven this. Since the year 2000, the average attention span has decreased from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, which is the attention span of your average goldfish. If that’s true, it means I’ve already lost you.

Magazine editors also know this about us. The word-count of your average article has dropped from 2,000 words to somewhere around 400 words. Any longer than that, and they lose their readers. I’d like to say that I’m not a part of that easily distracted average, but I know that every time I get my Atlantic Monthly or Smithsonian Magazine in the mail, I turn to the cover article to see how long it is. If it’s anything over 4 pages, there’s a good chance I’ll throw the magazine away before I get to reading it. In this sense and others, we’ve become tourists in our own lives. We visit moments, but we no longer settle down into them. We live out of our suitcases instead of using the chest of drawers, empty and available for us.

And in a lot of ways, our religious lives are like that, too. We enjoy those occasional moments of spiritual highs—the moments when our faith entertains us. We make scarce time to grow in our faith, and if we’re honest, the attention we give to practicing our faith is fleeting—counted only in moments. It’s more akin to a rest stop along the highway than a long, day-in and day-out journey down the road.

We don’t mean to spend so little time attending to our relationship with Jesus, it’s just that, increasingly, Jesus has to be squeezed into our ever-endangered free moments. Whatever attention we pay to Jesus has to be written into our schedules. Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson, puts it this way:

There’s little interest or enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue or of deeper knowledge.

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Come, follow me!

Jesus shouts to those first disciples. And right way, Simon Peter and Andrew drop their diversions—the nets they were mending—and follow Him.

One thing missing from this story is all the small print. There’s no clarification of what this commitment these first 4 followers of Jesus would be like. No questions of how long this would project of discipleship would take. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John weren’t given an itinerary or an ETA. Jesus didn’t hand them a syllabus, nor did he present them with a project proposal. Really, no details at all. Jesus simply said,

Come, follow me,

and they dropped everything and went with Him.

Jesus doesn’t want casual fans. He’s not interested in entertaining tourists. Read all 4 gospels. There’s never a moment where Jesus tolerates a distracted follower. Jesus doesn’t care for sightseers. Jesus wants disciples.

A disciple, biblically speaking, is a learner, not a learner in the academic sense of the word, but someone who dedicates her or himself to the slow, careful, intentional, and meticulous ways of apprenticeship. Whether we’ve ever realized it or not, when we call ourselves disciples, we are identifying ourselves as people who learn and work as apprentices under the tutelage of Jesus, our master craftsman.

This means that discipleship is a learning-growing relationship where we live under the guidance and instruction of our Teacher, and we dedicate our everyday, our every moment to paying attention to the ways of Jesus. And like all apprenticeships, discipleship takes every bit of our day, every bit of our focus, our entire mind and heart. The student soaks herself in the life and ways of her teacher. So are we to throw all of ourselves into the careful and meticulous learning as apprentices of Jesus. Casual glances toward Jesus isn’t discipleship. It’s tourism. Freidrich Nietzche calls biblical discipleship “a long obedience in the same direction.”

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Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John—none of them were looking for new jobs. If we take this story at face value, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t, Jesus simply shows up one day and disrupts their lives. Not asking but telling them to follow Him. Jesus pulled them away from everything they ever knew. The rhythm of their days as fisherman. Their family and friends. Their homes and their mortgages. And for some unknown and thoroughly confounding reason, these first 4 disciples drop everything, including their nets, and follow Jesus. The only thing Jesus says about what’s coming next for them is this ambiguous and mysterious mixed metaphor:

I’ll show you how to fish for people.

“To fish for people.” That’s the calling. That’s the vocation of a disciple, and we have to figure out what that means in our own contexts. Change the metaphor if you need to. I have a hunch that the only reason Jesus used a fishing metaphor is because he was talking to fishermen. If Jesus was talking to construction workers, He might have said,

Come, follow me. I’ll show you how to dig for people and build up a new Kingdom.

If He was talking to a bunch of chiropractors, he might have said,

Come follow me. I’ll show you how to turn your crooked hearts and lives back into their proper alignment.

The point is that you take who you are, how you best understand the world and your place in it, and apply it in a bigger way change the world with it.

Jesus’ call is a summons to be something bigger—to think bigger thoughts about your purpose and place in the world, because God’s call upon your life and mine isn’t merely a call to do something; it’s a call to be something. Jesus calls us as we are, from where we are and how we are, being who we are, and then He takes us farther, changing our focus, expanding our sense of purpose, apprenticing us in the Way until we realize that the Yes we’ve said to Jesus means giving of our entire selves to the call of God upon our lives.

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In a world full of people trying their best to take the lead, who seem to define success as the capacity to climb to the highest rung of whatever ladder they’re on, the vocation of discipleship says that being a leader doesn’t hold a candle to being a follower of our Divine Apprentice.

Discipleship is first an abandoning of all the values that our culture holds up highest, and giving ourselves to the project of followership. It’s a changing of loyalties. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a purposeful, determined, and daily humbling of ourselves. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John—they had no clue where Jesus was leading them, but they followed and obeyed anyway. Discipleship means going without knowing, being caught up in what Jesus is doing. It’s a call to spend our days and our lives sharing in the life and ways of Jesus, giving our best, apprentice-like attention and devotion to our Fisher King.

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A story like this, where four random people simply get up, seemingly abandon their lives as they knew them, and walk away from every one of their relationships makes all of us feel…what? Small? Pithy? Incredulous? This story does have a certain sting to it, doesn’t it?

When we ask ourselves what we would do if we were in the situation, dropping it all and following just doesn’t seem possible. We’re no sea-faring people like the disciples. We spend most of our time on land. We have our feet, as well as our loyalties, firmly grounded in some very specific places with some very specific and beloved people. So, maybe our version of dropping our nets and following Jesus—this going without knowing—looks a little different for most of us. And that’s okay. We’re not all meant to be vagabonds. But just like those first disciples, we come and go, leave and arrive in so many senses of those words. What if we did it all under the apprenticeship of the Master Craftsman of our lives, Jesus the Christ?

Maybe our call to be disciples of Jesus means dropping our own nets—all those heavy things in our lives that only ensnare us, entangle us. All those small things that take up too much of our time and attention, that distract us from seeing how Jesus is always approaching us, saying to us in some way or another, “Come, follow me!” It could be that following where Jesus takes us means considering all of those fears we have that keep us where we are.

Could it be that some of us are trapped inside nets of our own making—the selfish motives we have woven over the years, that feeling we have that we are helpless to undo all the knots we’ve made in our own lives or in the lives of others. Maybe the call to drop our nets means being more receptive to the voice of Jesus. Or, could it be that Going Without Knowing means getting out of our own way so that Jesus can become our way.

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That’s not a bad prayer for all us, by the way. What if, before we rolled out of bed in the morning, we prayed a prayer like this:

Jesus, get in my way today! In fact, Jesus, become my way, today!

That’s not the prayer of a casual follower or a sightseer, nor are those words a spiritual tourist would say. Those are the words of an apprentice, a disciple on the Jesus Way.

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May we be caught up in the Jesus vocation, this going without knowing, this long apprenticeship in holiness. This long obedience in the same direction.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Embodied Gratitude

A sermon based on Psalm 119:137-144 and Luke 19:1-10 preached October 30th, 2016

Sermon audio

As it turns out, we have Zacchaeus all wrong. The little man has gotten a bad rap for centuries. We thought we knew the story. Zacchaeus is a greedy, crooked, little tax-collector. He’s no better than a Wall Street CEO. The kind of person whose entire life revolves around shamelessly taking money from the most vulnerable among us, and padding his already bulging bank account. We think this story is about the moment when Jesus, on behalf of the crowd, confronts this slime-ball of a tax-collector. And upon seeing Jesus, Zacchaeus confesses how greedy he’s always been, and at once promises to change his ways by divesting half of his wealth. But that’s not at all what this story is about. It turns out, Zacchaeus is a better guy than we or anyone in the crowds that day thought he was. It turns out we have completely misunderstood Zacchaeus. 

See, back then crowds loved to hate tax-collectors. They’re the people who steal from the poor to line their own pockets. They were hated more than any IRS agent is hated these days. But Zacchaeus is not your average tax-collector.

Zaccheaus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord, I give (not ‘I will give’, future tense, but present tense) I give half of my possessions to the poor…and if I have cheated anyone, I repay (again present tense) them four times as much.

He doesn’t say,

I’ll start giving as of this moment.

Zacchaeus says,

I’m already giving. I have been giving for all this time! In fact, I make a habit of it! I make a practice of giving half of what I have to the poor. And if ever I find out I’ve cheated someone, I have always (and will continue to) repay four times as much.

Zacchaeus stands in front of Jesus and the crowds, not confessing greed or repenting for something he’s done wrong. He’s defending himself against a crowd of haters, and he’s trying to set the record straight.

“Look,” he says. “You have good reason to hate all those other tax collectors, but you’ve got to understand: You’ve got me all wrong. I’m not like them! I’m following the Law. I’m one of the good guys!”

And as it turns out, this little verbal mistake translators have always made changes the entire meaning of the story! So, our task this morning is to meet Zacchaeus again as if for the first time, and find out what this story, now rightly understood, has for us, especially in the season where we’re focusing on God’s call upon our lives to be faithful stewards of all of our resources.

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For the last few weeks now, we’ve been talking about the right use of money. How we earn, save, spend, and regard our money is a mirror into our hearts. We are how we use our money.

The people who were attracted to Jesus in New Testament times were the poor. Jesus was pretty much the only one around who had Good News for the down and out. That day, the crowd surrounding Jesus as he entered Jericho was mostly peasants. They knew, or at least had heard, that Jesus’s main message was for them—that the Kingdom of God favored those who had no earthly comforts.

It was into this crowd that Zacchaeus entered, and each and every one of those peasants hated the man. They knew what he did for a living, and that’s all they wanted to know about him. In their minds, Zacchaeus, no matter the facts, was automatically lumped in with all of the scoundrel tax collectors out there. It didn’t matter what the truth was. They had their minds made up already.

Imagine then the crowds’ dismay when Jesus, champion of the poor and forgotten, vindicator of the disregarded and trampled-upon, speaks up only to address Zacchaeus! No words of encouragement for anyone else, no healing of the sick, no reassuring the impoverished. None of that. Jesus solely focuses upon the short little tax collector. According to the crowd, Zacchaeus is the last person needing Jesus’ attention that day, but here Jesus is buddying up to the little guy! Jesus even invites himself into Zacchaeus’ house. Is this a joke! We can imagine the crowd whispering to one another or even shouting out loud for everyone to hear:

Jesus, I thought You were on our side!

But that’s a slippery slope! No matter what side you’re on, that’s a very dangerous thing to convince yourself of. And, if that’s what you think, surely Jesus will surprise and disappoint you every single time. Jesus doesn’t come strolling into town to take your side. Never expect Jesus to prove you right and your enemies wrong! Jesus is much bigger and a whole lot more unpredictable than that! God’s not here to take sides. When God shows up, God takes over! When Jesus walks in to our lives, he’ll slay every sacred cow we’ve got, and he’ll leave us questioning all those pre-existing notions we have of Him. Jesus is unpredictable and unsafe like that!

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In the chapter before this, Luke tells the story of a rich ruler who wants to know what he has to do to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells him he needs to sell everything he’s got and give the money to the poor. It’s a familiar story. The rich ruler walks away because selling all of his possessions is way too much to ask of him. He’s too tied to his wealth. That rich ruler is the only person in the Gospels who walks away from one of Jesus’ invitations. Jesus watches the man walk away, and then turns around and says to his disciples,

How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Camels don’t have an easy time squeezing through the eye of a needle. What Jesus is saying is, as long as that man likes the idea of being rich better than he likes the idea of aligning his heart and his life with God’s heart and life, as long as he puts more trust in his fortune than he puts in God, then he stands a just as much of a chance of understanding and entering into the Kingdom of God as a camel’s got squeezing through the eye of a needle. Jesus tells his disciples that it’s not impossible for that to happen, but it is very unlikely. But here it happened! In this story! This is the story of the day when a camel passed through the eye of a needle. They said it couldn’t be done, but they were wrong! Zacchaeus is proof that even the largest of camels—a ruler among tax-collectors, the head hauncho of tax-collectors—gets it! He understands the Kingdom of God, and He lives his life practicing God’s ways!

Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor (that, by the way, is four times the amount the Law requires of him.) And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much (that’s twice the amount the Law requires of him).

Zacchaeus understands the huge claims the Kingdom of God makes upon his life, that they cost him dearly (both financially and spiritually), but he follows through with it, because he knows that it’s much better to live his life God’s way than it is to live his life his own way. He knows that the blessings of living faithfully for God make him far richer than all the money in the world could make him!

The story of the rich ruler and camels passing through the eye of a needle isn’t about who’s in and who’s out of heaven. It’s about who understands how the Kingdom of God works, and who doesn’t! And as it turns out, Zacchaeus understands how the Kingdom of God works. He’s living proof that even the wealthiest among us can still be faithful to God if they’re generous and willing to share their wealth with others. Jesus proclaims, much to the dismay of the crowd,

Today salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house, and he too is a part of God’s family!

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Zacchaeus’ commitment to go above and beyond the requirements of giving has a lot to teach us this stewardship season. This passage has a whole lot of action in it. Zacchaeus is all over the place in this story. He’s peering over shoulders, climbing up and down trees. I can see him heartily welcoming Jesus into his home and excitedly introducing Jesus to his family.

Back in Zacchaeus’ day, kinda like ours, grown men didn’t climb trees. That’s only something little kids did, but don’t tell that to Pete Nelson and his crew. Pete Nelson is the founder of Nelson Treehouse and Supply. Tree House Masters is a show on Animal Planet that documents Pete and his team of carpenters and designers as they design and build huge, extravagant treehouses for adults. The treehouses they build are big enough to live in, and they’re the best quality treehouses money can buy. And it’s such a joy to watch that show, because you can tell that Pete Nelson is bonkers about trees! He has the energy level of an over-caffeinated hummingbird. The moment he finds just the right place to build a treehouse for his clients, he can barely contain himself. That’s what I imagine Zacchaeus, a tree-climber in his own right, was like! Joyful. And joy is a natural byproduct of having an attitude of gratitude.

Just like Pete Nelson who can’t stop thinking about trees, or tiny little Zacchaeus who will just about do anything he needs to do—including climbing a sycamore—to get a view of Jesus passing by, God loves when joy comes together with serious commitment! When you have a mixture like that, God is glorified! Joy and serious commitment.  Let’s call it the recipe for embodied gratitude. Embodied gratitude happens when we not only say thank you to the God who has given us everything, not only when we know where all our gifts come from, but when we—just like Zacchaeus—put them back right where they came from, right back into the hands of God. It happens when we take our gratitude and we turn it around to practice the right use of all of our actions, our time, and our money so that they come right back around again to glorify the Source of it all!

Embodied gratitude.

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I bet that Zacchaeus wondered every so often if he was a fool to give half of what he had to the poor, or what he could do if he didn’t stick to his tall promise to repay four times the amount to anyone he’s cheated. A second house in Maui? A higher pair of shoes so he didn’t have to climb a tree every time a crowd gathered around him? I bet he had those moments. But I also bet that he was content right where he was—that he thought life was good and right. That giving back was good and right. And that giving back more than he had to was even better!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.