Sermon 02/05/2023 – Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Sermon Text

 In the past few years, the importance of salt has stood out to me. We often talk about how the ancient world valued salt, it being necessary for food and worship and medicine, but it is not as if we stopped having a need for salt today. Food without salt is just not worth eating, we need the sodium to wake up our taste buds. Our roads are not usually coated with rock salt, instead having calcium chloride or some other tri-atomic salt, but sea salt has more than just sodium and chlorine in it, so I’ll call “salt”, “salt” in this case. We still use salt, we still need salt, the only thing that gets strange about Jesus’s metaphor here, is that salt is usually good as long as you keep it dry in a cupboard.

What can we take from this idea of “salt that has lost its saltiness,” is useless? What does it mean for a person to suddenly become “less salty.” Today, we use the term “salty,” to mean irritable or bitter, but Jesus is talking about living a good life as being “Salted,” properly. In truth, I think Jesus is a victim of the metaphor in use, the expression does not translate well from one language to another. Jesus does not say here that salt can become less salty, but that it can become “foolish.” In fact, the word he uses here is the same one as we used a few weeks ago to talk about God, “making foolish,” the wisdom of the world.[1]

Mixed metaphors are something we all accidentally run into now and again. You start out saying that the road was twisting like a snake and then somehow wrap it around to a different image of knotted rope or something and before you know it, everyone is just a little confused what you were going for. I do not know if Jesus is caught in a similar issue, where in trying to be relevant he picks salt as an image, but then realizes that does not quite work for the topic, or if Greek audiences ever used “foolish,” to talk about inanimate objects and we just do not have the records of it.

Either way, if we think of ourselves as salt, an important thing in the world, and then think of how easily we can become “foolish,” then maybe the parable can snap in a bit more concretely. Jesus too seems to understand that this parable needs to be built up a bit more. “You are like salt, if you are not salty enough, then you cannot be made more salty… Well, let me try saying it a different way, if you have a light then hiding it away wouldn’t be helpful. In the same way, if God gave us Jerusalem to be a place of goodness and life, then how can it be anything but that. Therefore, make sure you are acting like the good people of faith you claim to be.”

Light and visibility generally are easier to grapple with than saltiness. Jesus does this several times in his teachings, it is what good teachers will try to do as often as possible. By giving the same idea in three or four different ways, more people are likely to get it than if only one version of the message was attempted. I struggle with getting a good metaphor off on the first try. Grace makes fun of me for this, because in attempting to explain something I will often get more obscure than where I started. So if we are watching Doctor Who, or some other time travel story, I might say, “Oh, of course it’s like the Tralfamadorians.” And then I get blank stares as I then realize, not everyone has read Slaughterhouse-Five, so then I go to Bill and Ted, which is maybe a bit better, but only one more person knows what I meant, and then… It just degrades from there.

Jesus is a better teacher and storyteller than we are, thankfully, and so those second images make clear what Jesus is talking about. Salt, light, a city, all are things that have uses. Salt for food, light for illumination, and a city to be a place of community. If any of those things fail to be what they are meant to be, then they have no purpose. The final one makes a stronger point than the other two. Lamps that do not light a room are useless, and salt that does not salt is even more so, but one could claim to prefer bland food or a dark room. A city though, has to be a city, it cannot stop being what it is. In the same way, Christians cannot choose some days to be good and some days to be evil, we have to always be a city on the hill.

Jesus goes further. The people who teach you to be good, the scribes and pharisees, people Jesus elsewhere says to listen to, we have to be better than them. Jesus is very critical of the leadership of his day, as any prophet must be, but he does call them heirs to the “seat of Moses.”[2] It is easy for us to hear Jesus’s teaching as, “Be better than hypocrites,” but he is saying be better than the people society accepts as good. For me in my role as minister, I try to do well and be good in all things, but my hope is that you all exceed me in all goodness. As Jesus says here, the people in authority are often held up as benchmarks, things to aspire to, but Jesus says we must only aspire to be perfect, and in that aspiration overcome even those who teach us what it means to be good.

As Christians, and especially Protestants, we do not like being told to do things. Faith saves us, so why do anything else? If the transaction for my soul is complete, then why go above and beyond in being good? It is so much a concern of the Church, that our articles of religion address works of “supererogation,” that is, works above what is required. “I have my faith, I have my Church, I send my tithe. What more is required of me?” The answer, to spoiler the game, is “Everything.” Our Articles of Religion ban works of supererogation because there is no such thing.[3] When the goal is “Be thou perfect,” anything less than that is not too much, it is always lacking.[4] We are called, not to salvation by works, but as saved people to do the work before us.

Jesus says our righteousness must be exceptional because we are the visible part of Christ on earth. We are the city on the hill, the world is looking and they will judge how we act. We must act in goodness, we must do more goodness than we might thing is required of us, and we must be willing to take a few hits in the name of what is right. We are to be useful people, not as our primary existence, but as an outpouring of the grace we have been given. Jesus is very careful in his teaching, the person who fails this mission is not excluded from God’s kingdom, they still have a seat, but the joy they have will be lessened by their inability to understand what is good. They will be called, “least in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

I always talk about this life, not as a test or a trial to be overcome, but an opportunity to learn. We can learn to love as Christ did, to serve as Christ did, and to know our limitations and need for rest as Christ did. We can engage in all goodness and joy, but only with practice. It takes time to get good at being good, sometimes a person’s entire life is spent just learning how to not be quite so fussy with the people they see every day. We have people we call Saints for a reason, they figure it out long before the rest of us do. They are the salt and light that shines a way for the rest of we wayward souls.

Whether we think of this call in terms of salt, or light, or as a visible and inescapable reminder of who God is, it is a call we all have. To excel in goodness, to exceed the lessons that were taught to us by those who came before us, and in all things to be the body of Christ to all the world until Christ returns in final victory. We do this through Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, and within this Holy Church, we stand and testify as the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. – Amen.

[1] 1 Corinthians 1; from the root μωρός where we get the modern, “Moron.”

[2] Matthew 23:2

[3] Articles of Religion of the United Methodist Church. Article XI

[4] Matthew 5:48

Sermon 01/29/2023 – Wisdom’s Warring Madness

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of the proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews ask for signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to abolish things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. In contrast, God is why you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Sermon Text

            I have always had people look at me strangely when I tell them what I majored in in college. They hear that I had a religious studies major, and that I focused mostly on historical theology, and that all tracks for them. However, the minute that I bring up that my primary work for most of college was actually in Chemistry, heads tend to go to one side. People do not expect ministers to be scientists, or as the case may sometimes be, scientists to be ministers. Yet, as many people in the sciences are religious as people outside of them, so why wouldn’t some of them take the step into ministry?

I believe some of the issue is that we have created, in the past three hundred years broadly, but really in the last hundred years locally, a separation between science and religion, faith and reason, that is completely artificial. We in America especially, envisioning the Scopes monkey trial and the entire career of Ken Ham, imagine that there are two kinds of people – scientists who abhor God and faithful people who abhor science. This “Great Divorce,” between the two worlds has led to a central problem – wherever there is not communication, there is misunderstanding. That misunderstanding can cause a lot of trouble, it can even kill.

I can only really speak to Christianity on how these two interact but let us look at some facts. Mental health issues affect 20% of Americans, but because we have put a separation between mental health sciences and the Church, only recently are people in churches comfortable engaging with getting help.[1] Not specific to Christianity, but certainly present within the Church is a lack of understanding about medicine on a wider scale as well. Hesitancy to vaccination has expanded in recent years. This has led to a resurgence of Measles, Mumps, and other childhood diseases we had nearly eradicated.[2] More than that, the perception of a war between Science and Faith has led to an inability for faithful people to engage with those scientific issues that become mainstream.

This issue is not just an issue of the Church either. While many scientists of faith, and even secularists like Carl Sagan, worked for years to educate the world and to bring down the hifalutin jargon of science from its ivory tower, there are few people willing to do the same work today. As a child of the nineties, I hate to admit that I find Bill Nye obnoxious today – less of an educator and more of a media figure. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, brilliant though he is, exists in the public consciousness only to shame people and media for not being 100% accurate 100% of the time.Gone is the humility and skill of someone like Sagan, who first awakened my love of science with a rerun of Cosmos in my childhood, now is only personality and outrage media.

Yet, there are figures who continue to bridge the gap. Science was truly an exercise of faith for many people throughout history. Algebra, Optics, and Chemistry as we know them today were begun by Muslim scientists during the Islamic golden age. Modern genetics was begun by a monk named Gregor Mendel. The Big Bang was rejected at first as a  theory of cosmic origin, because a Catholic built the model, Even the current Pope, before he was a priest, was a chemist. The two worlds of science and religion, faith and reason, are always seeking after one another, always trying to reconcile, but there are always obstacles to that reconciliation.

On one hand, it is impossible to inject faith into scientific hypotheses and still call them scientific. Science is, first and foremost, falsifiable. You cannot disprove that God might have done something in a situation, and so you cannot include God in a hypothesis you are creating. Some people of faith have issues with scientific theory as a result of this, but like the book of Esther where God is never mentioned once, I think the discovery of all causes physical does not mean that we cannot use the material to learn about the immaterial.

On the other hand, faith often struggles against the cold rationalism of science. As I said above, you cannot include God in scientific theory to avoid biases, and that makes some people uncomfortable. More than that, science can sometimes expand our conceptions about God, and that makes us uncomfortable. Take for example the realization that the universe is fourteen billion years old, and the earth is four billion years old. For some Christians, this has to be rejected, as the church has always held the earth is a few centuries over six thousand years old. For others, this is a chance to rethink what we know about God, to marvel in a deity that took billions of years to craft a cosmos fit for our small little lives, and to hold that cherished thing in his hands.

Frequently cited in this conflict is the verse that we read today. “God has made foolish the wisdom of this world,” is applied to all pursuits of knowledge that seem to conflict with our faith. If something is new and challenging, it is weighed against the world as we know it and rejected. Faith, this interpretation demands, means that no matter how major or material an observation is, it cannot stand if it challenges orthodoxy. God’s wisdom, the wisdom of the Cross, overcomes any earthly observation or truth. Why else would Paul elsewhere reject, “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental principles of the world, and not according to Christ.”[3]

Context is, as always, how we can uncover what Paul means by this. In Colossians, the source of that latest quotation, Paul is addressing a group in the Church promising secret knowledge and a next level faith. “Yes, you’ve heard about Jesus, but have you considered purchasing the Jesus+ plan.” Paul is therefore warning Christians from the fact that other Christians might deceive them by sounding very knowledgeable about spiritual things, but who are really only after more power. In our Corinthians text, the context of wisdom and foolishness is specific to one thing only, the one place I will always insist faith must overcome reason. That issue is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

There is nothing logical or rational to it, it attacks and destroys any neat theology or philosophy we might form around it. Try to explain why God, the infinite God of the universe, chose this one specific way to reconcile us to that same divinity. A thousand answers probably swarm into our head, answers we have been told in seminary and in Sunday school all our life. Paul attempts to explain it time and time again, but Paul bases all his explanation on the reality that it happened, and the faith that it was sufficient and necessary, and only secondarily makes any attempt to fully understand and wrestle with those two things. The cross is a place where infinite questions emerge.

God died. God suffered. God, who could have found another way, or else would be lacking in the divine freedom that defines God’s power in creation, chose this one as the one and only way. Why? How? In what way really? Paul cites two potential opponents to this idea – his fellow Jews who would be thinking of the scripture, “Cursed is he who hangs on a tree,” and so would deny a criminal’s death as holy.[4] On the other side are the Greeks who want a coherent philosophy behind this faith. To both of them he says, “I am a fool! I have nothing for either of you except that this is true, that this is real, that I have seen it as real and cannot argue anything else.” Later on, he doubles down on this, saying that he may be a fool for believing in the cross, but if his faith in the resurrection is misplaced, then he really should be pitied.[5]

The fact is, that outside of this one core conceit, there is nothing to battle between faith and reason. We have different things we address in daily life. I cannot, in talking about the keto-tautomerization of compounds, draw a circle around a mechanism I do not know and say, “God did that part.” However, neither does the knowledge that the intricate systems of our world have material foundations and explanations prevent me from marveling that the God I believe in had a part in it. There is antagonism from secularists against people of faith, to be sure, and antagonism from people of faith toward the sciences. However, that antagonism is not inherent to our ways of being. The Jewish sage, Maimonides, argued that to really understand God’s work in the world, we all ought to know the sciences, and I like that way of thinking.[6]

There is a symphony present around us, the thrumming of electrons not just in the lights above us, but in every cell of our body. Every molecule is a sea of energy, swimming around a densely packed collection of protons and neutrons that associate with each other out of energetic convenience. Machines forged by eons of fine tuning are at work every moment, making new bones and tissues, cleaning out the old and disused. The air we breathe swirls in turbid spiral that only Van Gogh dreamt of before science imaged them. God ordained a heavens that is precise as a clock, and interrupts it only to shower mercy and love upon it.

We ought to be Holy Fools, to proclaim a crucifixion and a resurrection that has no explanation except that God loves us and God alone was enough to set things right. Yet, we are not to be fools in understanding the world itself. We should take time to learn the sciences, to learn history, to appreciate art, to engage with all the wisdom of the ages. Why? Because there is one truth in this universe, the truth God has given, and whatever ways we can get it, we ought to. The more we know of the universe, the more we can see God’s hand in it. Let us commit ourselves then to understanding this beautiful cosmos we inhabit and cease the warring madness which have so long prevented us from learning from one another. – Amen.

[1] Matthew S. Stanford (2007) Demon or disorder: A survey of attitudes toward mental illness in the Christian church, Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 10:5, 445-449, DOI: 10.1080/13674670600903049

[2] Patel M, Lee AD, Redd SB, et al. Increase in Measles Cases — United States, January 1–April 26, 2019. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2019;68:402–404. DOI: icon.

[3] Colossians 2:8

[4] Deuteronomy 21:23 c.f. Galatians 3:13

[5] 1 Corinthians 15:19

[6] Shafer, Sara Teresa. 2012. “The Wisdom of this World: Maimonides and Paul at the Interface of Science and Faith.” The International Journal of Science in Society 3 (3): 95-106. doi:10.18848/1836-6236/CGP/v03i03/51335.

Sermon 01/22/2023 – Call and Response

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishers. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Sermon Text

I want you to picture yourself on a Galilean shore long ago. Two fishermen are casting nets, a man walks up to them. You recognize him from a distance, Mary and Joseph’s boy, the first one, the one all the rumors were about. Jesus greets the two, says something to them, they seem shocked for a moment, and then they throw down their nets and follow him. Weird, but hey it’s the sixteenth year of Tiberius’s reign, weird stuff happens everyday. Then that man, Jesus I think his name was, walks a little further and calls out to two men, but his words are lost on the wind. You walk over to one of the men left on the shore and ask what he said. The words that changed their lives, that made them leave, “I will make you fishers of people.”

Even if we were looking in John’s Gospel, which gives a bit more provocative promise from Jesus, “I teach you how to snatch people!” we do not see something that would entice people to join a movement. If I were watching people on a seashore go with a guy who had such a simple call to action, I’d be confused. Maybe I’d go home and tell the strange story of what I saw that day, maybe I’d follow the group and see what was going on. For me as someone on the sideline, those few words would probably not carry much power. However, as we stand on the lakeside, we must understand that those words were for Peter and Andrew, James and John, they were not for us.

Everyone in this room had something that brought them into the Church. Some of us were born into it, raised from the moment we left our mothers arms to be a follower of Christ. For others we never knew the Church, except maybe occasional visits with a relative. We never knew Christ, until something happened where God came close to us, and we suddenly saw what our life was truly meant for. Whether born into the faith or welcomed into it later, there came a moment for every person in this room where the life we knew was transformed with a word given to us from God. A word likely spoken through another.

Faith for me came alive step-by-step. First by acknowledging that I truly believed in God. Secondly by seeing in my faith in Christ a need to change who I was into someone better than I had been. Finally, and across the longest span of time, the call I had to take on leadership in the Church. That final call is the message I remember best, because it was in a crowd at a youth camp. We were asked to stand if we were a leader among the people around us, and I felt a burning need to stand up. More than that, in the moment that everyone stood following that, I was struck by something undeniable. There was no distinction between anyone in that crowd. The ones God called to leadership disappeared, making me realize that the job of a leader is to lead others into their own mastery of mission. We are all leaders of something, all servants of something, all workers in a mutual work together.

For me, “You will be fishers of men,” would not be enough to awaken my soul. “You will support and equip others to thrive,” did. Jesus finds a way to grab a hold of us, a way to call us into what our purpose is, if we are willing to listen. For the fisherman on the lakeshore they were faithful members of their synagogue, they believed in the power of  God’s salvation, but they were not awake and alive in the faith until they heard Jesus call to them from the shore. Their hearts were ready, they just needed to be told that God was too. Jesus spoke to their hearts and what they knew God wanted of them. Even without all the details of what was about to happen, they were willing to leave their nets and go.

All of us here are at different places in our faith. Some farther along in maturity than others, some going in circles that trend upward and downward at different times. All of us here, however, have a call to something. Take a moment, close your eyes and chase away all the bits and bobs that might distract you. Do not think about lunch, do not think about this coming week, just for a moment, and ask what God has placed on your heart. What passions flare up? What desires are latent and ready to become a burning fire? All of us have something. When I do this, I feel the great desire to support people, to push them to be their utmost, and to live that ideal and joy-filled life that can come from living to our greatest potential.

Your desire may be to pray without ceasing. It might be to feed the hungry. It could be to tell the whole world what God has done for you. Whatever it is, there is a call that you have ready to come alive. Last week we talked about the importance of encouragement. Let me tell you that encouragement matters for more than just what people are currently doing. Encouragement can be the word we need to go forward and take the leap into what God is calling us to do. Sometimes people have no idea that God wants them to teach, until they are told they have a gift for it. I would never have gone into ministry if a teacher had not told me that the dream God had put in my heart was ministry work.

There are things that happen in our scripture today – a call is given and a call is accepted. Both are important. God may be using us to give the call someone needs to hear to start something new in their life. We should not think that our opinion is equivalent to God’s or that we can perfectly discern what people should do with their life, but we should be unafraid to trust when God has given us a message to light someone’s life up. Likewise, we who are told that someone sees God working something in us should accept that, pray on it, and discern if it is really where we are being called to. Sometimes the answer will be no, sometimes someone will see something that is not quite right for what God is asking of another person. Yet, only with consideration, discernment, and decisions, can they become anything more than a few spare words shared between people.

As I said earlier, the calls we get are not always just for what God is calling us to do. My first two big realizations in faith were just faith itself. That God was real and I could have faith in Christ. Both of those had their own messages that brought them to life, their own words that awoke something within me. The dire teaching of a Calvinist missiologist, the ancient words of scripture where God visits the elders of Israel. These awoke my faith and brought me into the Church I had only been an attendee in before. There was a transformative power in these words, and again they would not have happened if someone was not willing to share them with me, and I was not willing to accept them.

Paul had his big experience on the road to Damascus, knocked off a horse by a bright light, blind and disoriented – but it was the gentle words of Ananias that healed his blindness and welcomed him into his renewed faith. Simpler than this was the Ethiopian eunuch, reading the Septuagint in a carriage one day, who needed only to have someone tell him about Jesus to jump into the nearest puddle of water and ask to be baptized. Simpler still were the fishermen on a muddy lakeshore, smelling of fish and funk, who only needed to be told they could fish for something else to change their entire life.

Do not be afraid to speak what God has upon your heart – with discernment and prayer – but freely and proudly. God has given us our messages for a purpose and that purpose is the transformation of the world. Likewise, do not be afraid when someone brings a message to you. With prayer and discernment – we can sort what is human of them and what is divine – and from that conversation, that dialogue, we find a deeper truth together. That truth is the redemption of the world, the saving of souls, and the fulfillment of our true purpose in Christ. Listen, speak, act, and do not fear the calls that come into our lives. – Amen.

Sermon 01/15/2023 – Grace and Peace to You

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the partnership of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sermon Text

There is something powerful in a kind word from someone you know. It does not matter if it is a friend, the barista at the coffee shop you are a regular of, or someone at work. When someone gives us encouragement, it warms something deep inside us. There is never a time a kind word sits fallow, because when we speak kindness into the world, it breathes life in a way no other kind of speech can. Think of the times you have had something to say to someone, simple or heartfelt, that just caused their eyes to light up, their posture to change, their voice to lift just so.

This is the power of encouragement, a gift from God that we pass on to those who are around us. There is a vulnerability in encouragement, it is as dangerous as any other kind of frank speech. There is a fragility to it, lest it be rejected somehow. There is something transcendently powerful about the simple act of saying what we mean, how we mean it, when it enters into our heart. The power of encouragement is stronger than we give it credit, and it is something severely lacking in this life.

Think of it, how often do you really get encouragement from people? Thanks for this or that, sure, but when does someone put a hand on your shoulder and go, “You did so good with this.” That’s a rarer thing. I know that among clergy, our encouragement is often pragmatic more often than it is personal. “That was a good service,” is good, but “You really have a skill for making people feel the Spirit in your prayer.” Is something else entirely. Both are encouragement, but “Good job,” and “here is what about you, personally, that sets you apart,” are quite different. Is the latter always necessary, no, but we all know how good it can feel.

Those who work outside of more person-to-person professions might have this manifest differently. There’s only so many ways to properly hook up electrical outlets, and the ability to do that creatively often leads to fire code violations. The important thing which that shows, however, is that encouragement is not just something we should give for what people do professionally. Encouragement is something we offer to people for anything that we think that the world should have.

Our scripture for today is written to a congregation, and so we cannot get the full details of what Paul encourages about them. He speaks fairly broadly, “You are not lacking in any gift.” This is not saying that every person has every possible gift, but that the congregation together has them. Thinking about this congregation I see many different gifts. Some of them being fully utilized and some of them not yet fully embraced and developed. There are gifts of service that transcend a desire to do and become a calling to, in every way possible, make sure that goodness is done wherever it is needed. There are gifts of organization that allow for miracles to happen out of mundane things. There is gift upon gift here in North View, but as important as something general like that is, there needs to be a constant flow of personal encouragement beneath it all.

I try my best to give encouragement where I can, but I am just one person and am not always at the top of my game. We should be looking at the people in our life and find reasons to lift them up. Especially those closest to us. That can be hard – see someone every day and the cracks in their virtues can shine pretty brightly. Yet, imagine how much we might grow if we had those near us lifting us up regularly. I think half of the virtues in my life are based on what Grace has built up in me since we got married. A lot of stuff came before that, how else would I have married someone so wonderful? Still, she has made what was good about me excellent.

We should be willing to encourage one another, even if we are not presently very good at it. Until we can practice, we never will be good at it. In a world that is so critical, in a culture that is based on criticism and not on promotion, it is necessary for us to flip the script and build one another up differently.

Now, some may hear this and say, “But not everything about the people I know is good! Am I just supposed to praise the good and ignore the bad?” Firstly, more often than you might think the answer is yes. There’s a lot of things that might irritate us that are not actually any great failure on the part of those around us. In the event something is a problem that needs addressed, that is not something alien to being an encouraging person. Paul writes this beautiful letter to some of his most problematic children. He opens with such beautiful praise, but then he quickly explains how the people who have been given every good gift of God are squandering it.

Part of this contrast is to do with how ancient letters were written. You were always expected to state the things you liked about someone before you explained the things you were angry about. However, I think that if we diminish Paul’s opening words to just a formality, we miss the point. Paul shows in Galatians that he is willing to skip his greeting if he thinks it is necessary. Paul includes these greetings out of courtesy, sure, but he is not only keeping to tradition. Paul wants people to know that God is with them, that the kingdom of God is being realized in them, and then and only then is he willing to tell them to get their act together.

I’m going to wrap up here for today. I think that the message here largely speaks for itself. We are people who should be living into God’s gifts. Those gifts require us to be encouraging of the gifts we see in one another. The only way we begin to encourage other people, is by practicing it. I encourage you all this week, beginning even here in this sanctuary today, to take time to encourage the people around you. Water the gift of life and grace planted in our hearts, and see what blooms as a result. Speak life into this world, children of God. – Amen.

Sermon 01/08/2023 – Come to the River

Matthew 3:13-17

           Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Sermon Text

            Jesus was baptized… I’m gonna say it again in case it is not hitting your ears as strange. Jesus was baptized! The perfect son of God, the only sinless human in all of humanity, that God-man was washed with a bath that is described by its administrator as, “for repentance.” The waters of baptism, a sign of a transformation of self, was given to someone who had no need for transformation. You and I, we need to change our lives to abandon evil, to embrace life and not death. Yet, the person who modeled it for us was someone who had no purpose for it.

I say no purpose, but I doubt that God does anything without purpose. Think of your life, for all the moments that you are able to say, “God did that, no doubt!” and tell me if it felt random at all. I cannot think of anything in my life that matches both descriptions. I have had plenty of random things happen and I have had plenty of God things happen, and they have never crossed paths. The people who tell me about their problems with diabetes in the grocery store – that tends to be random. The people I meet in public and am able to give some kind of word that applies to their life in that moment – that is God at work.

Jesus, the incarnate word of God, therefore is not doing anything that is just a happenstance. Jesus would not go out of his way to drop into a muddy river in Israel unless it had a definite purpose. That purpose? Well, that is for us to discuss today. What comes to mind when I say Jesus was baptized, why do you think that he would have done that? Was it to wash himself of sin? What sin? Was it to meet God’s requirements of Jewish worshippers? Baptism develops later on and for converts rather than people born into the faith. What about as an example to us as believers? Now that is something we can talk about.

Jesus is not just someone we look at from a distance and think about. Jesus is supposed to be the person that we imitate in everything we do. Scary isn’t it? The things that Jesus did are the things that we should do. Think of anything you have done in the past week and ask, “Would Jesus do that?” I have not seen y’all since Christmas, so we’ll include New Years in that equation. I ain’t gonna shame anyone for having a good time, God has given, “wine to make the heart glad,” but still we can probably think to something from the holidays and say, “Yeah, that ain’t Jesus-like.”[1]

The example that Jesus gives is an example in and of everything. That includes the start of our life. Christ goes into his ministry only after receiving baptism, and we too can only begin to do the work of God after we are washed in the water of rejuvenation that is baptism. There is nothing magical about water, but there is the work of the Spirit giving us some kind of grace. We are shown that the water takes away the life that was, and we are given the chance to live into the life that is. There are many vows taken in baptism, the United Methodist Church liturgy asks the believer if they affirm the Apostle’s Creed, but also:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?” Those are heave promises to make.”[2]

[1] Psalm 104:15

[2] United Methodist Publishing House. “The Baptismal Covenant I” The United Methodist Hymnal.

Sermon 12/25/2022 – The Infant Divinity – Christmas 2022

Luke 2: 1-20

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room.

Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them.

Sermon Text

Today is a Sunday like no other in the Church year. Not just because we are gathered in the sanctuary in pajamas, but because we are celebrating God’s being with us. All of history has been the story of God getting closer to the people of Earth. From the moment we left Eden, Heaven has sought a reunion with Earth. Cain and Abel knew God well, but Cain’s violence separated them. The world continued to learn violence until a flood seemed the only way to cleanse the world of its blood-guilt. This did nothing to stop human evil. God shifted the plan, stopped the work of eradication and began the work of rehabilitation. Through Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, and beyond – God was determined to reform humanity and bring Heaven to Earth.

The ultimate show of commitment to this goal was achieved on a day we do not know the anniversary of, but that changed creation forever. God, eternal and unchanging, sent out part of Godself – the eternal trinity was added to for the first time. Human flesh coated the Word of God, and a small child carried the Spirit through which all things were made. In a manger, stinking of animals and unfit for something as delicate and dangerous as childbirth, the God of Heaven entered a human existence that would never be taken away. Now Heaven and Earth were fused for all time, God and humanity, linked in God’s very own skin.

Today we celebrate the unity of Heaven and Earth. Today we sing songs testifying to the glory of God. Today we testify that God is with us. Though we do not see Christ face to face today, we see him in the love we share here together. We see Christ in those who we serve in this holiday season. We see Christ in the lights that surround us, and the table which is set before us. Today, we testify that Christ is here, that God is with us, and that the love of God is such that we are never alone. We testify to God’s love this way with every blessing we offer today. – Amen.

Sermon 12/24/2022 – The Baby

Luke 2:1-14

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room.

Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Sermon Text

The story we have told tonight is a simple one. Two people, going to their home town, welcome their baby into the world upon their arrival. They run into trouble because there is nowhere to stay, except for alongside animals, with a small food trough acting as their child’s first crib. We cannot relate to some details of the story, we do not have to walk long distances to get to our hometown now that we have interstates. We usually do not find ourselves so lost for options of where to stay that we have to see if the animals have room where they sleep. Most of all, most people today will not give birth in a stable, opting for hospitals and OBGYN’s keeping watch.

The simplicity of this story, aside from those details that make it seem strange to us, allows us to understand it more readily. We all know, from experience or proximity, how the birth of a child is. The rush of emotions everyone feels at this new life entering the world, the peril of making sure everything is set for them to enter safely. For these two parents long ago, much of the emotions were the same, the joy of finally holding the child they had cared for from afar, and the peril of seeing that he lived beyond that first fateful night.

The thing that sets this story apart is something that we know that only Mary and Joseph really knew up to this point. This child, somehow, was the savior of the world. This child was God given flesh, something eternal now wrapped up in something finite. Jesus the Christ, the eternal Word of God, now had come home to humanity. This was not in the grand trapping worthy of a God, but in the small package that is a baby. A mouth without teeth, a head with probably no hair, no attendants or nurses. In that moment when the newborn baby let out their first cry of life, the power by which all creation was spoken into being found only a mother and father to answer its need. The need to be warmed from the cold around him.

I have said many times that for me, the thing that makes Christianity most compelling, the power that we get from coming together and following our God the way we do, is that this God we worship came and became of this world. The world we know as being so messy that we often sit and worry about every little thing, God looked at that and said, “Let me live in that.” God did not choose a time of mass communication or technological ease to enter the world, but did choose a time when the stage was set for something that would make clear forever what the Divine felt about the Mundane. God sought out the poor, and was born to them. God sought out the oppressed, and became one of them. God sought out the unhoused, and started his life homeless. God came down and dwelt among us, and God took on every struggle God could.

At Christmas, and throughout Advent, we sing out an old song, “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” Return, God with us, to be God with us once more. We long to have a visible sign of God’s solidarity with humanity, we want to see Jesus face to face and know that God has faced all the trouble we have and that God cares for us because God knows what it is like. God knows what it is to be hungry, and cold, and sick, and dying, and brokenhearted, and lost, and lonely, and pained in every way. We want to see God and we want to see a comrade in the struggle. Today we celebrate that God came down and was that partner in suffering, and we celebrate that one day Christ will return to once again show solidarity through the rebirth of all creation, into the world it was always meant to be.

Tonight, whether it is for the first time or the hundredth time that we have heard it, we praise God that God cares for us. Tonight, whether as an old friend or someone new, we welcome Christ into our hearts and our lives. Tonight, we will light candles as a testament to the truth that we, the Church, are the light of Christ until he returns in final victory. Tonight, we celebrate the birth of our God into this world, and the salvation we all crave. – Amen.

Sermon 12/18/2022 – The Angels

Luke 1: 5-17, 26-38

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord…”

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
           “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Sermon Text

We go backward from our story last week to the pre-infancy of Jesus and John. Years before they become the ministers we know, they were merely the promises given by God to their respective parents. John was promised to Zechariah, though he could tell no one about it, and Jesus to Mary, though no one would believe her. A child born to impossibly old parents on one hand, and to a young woman out of wedlock on the other. Scandal and mystery stand side-by-side, as they often do, and we as people who know the ending look on in wonder to know that God made such wonderful things come from these circumstances.

Strange to both these stories is the appearance of angels. While we tend to think of the Bible as being full of angelic beings, they are really quite rare in scripture. Much like the miracles we consider synonymous with the pages of our scripture, angels were not more common long ago than they are now. Hundreds of years would pass between one recorded appearance of an angelic being and another. If we take out the prophetic descriptions of angels, which often come from ecstatic visions, then we can make that gap even larger. To see an angel is never a common occurrence, and the presence of these messengers here is nothing but spectacular.

Our term “Angel,” just means “messenger,” and the Greek (Angelos,) and Hebrew (Malak,) reflect this. In the Hebrew Scriptures, angels were seen as being wingless young men. The idea of angels with wings comes from the use of wings in Greek art to denote messengers of the Gods (e.g. the winged shoes of Hermes.) The angels in this story would have been differentiated from regular men somehow other than having big wings floating behind their back, but something about them stood out to those who saw them. Maybe it was their sudden appearance or disappearance, the clothes they wore, the sound of their voice.

The appearance of these men are not nearly as important as the things that they said. To the two women, in very different circumstances of life, the same message was given. You’re going to have a baby! It’s a boy! For one person this was the answer to years of prayer and struggling with infertility. For the other, this is a major reason to worry. You’re not married, the kid isn’t your fiancé’s and he knows it? That is a recipe for disaster. People could get killed for that kind of thing in the first century, if not by the powers that be, then by an angry mob. The two contrasts of these circumstances show something about what these children would mean to the world.

John was welcomed at first because he seemed to be bringing a message that everyone could resonate with. Redemption was coming! The harder part of his message was that we had to get ready for that redemption by changing our hearts. This is the message that was harder to hear, but still one that brought even Pharisees and Sadducees to come and be washed by him. John was not an easy person, not an attractive person, but he brought a message that people struggled to find a way to fight against. At the end of the day, his ministry ended over a personal squabble with a politician, and not because of the message he preached. John was the long-awaited prophet that promised something new, and even in his bizarre way of being, he found his niche.

Jesus was a more complicated figure. His birth to an unmarried woman made him a pariah. Legitimized though this birth may have been through his mother’s marriage, there were always going to be rumors. Jesus took John’s message and made it even more urgent. The time to repent is ending, the time to join the movement was short, the Kingdom of God was dawning. Jesus drew in massive crowds, like John before him, but these crowds were far more varied. Even some gentiles began to come to him looking for the redemption he fulfilled. Jesus offered an alternative to the way the world ran, and the world silenced him for his trouble.

I think it would be too simple to make too much of those contrasts. However, I do think that the birth of these men, relatives by blood, shows something of the contrast in their life. Both would die at the hands of the powerful, both lived lives in service to God, and both were ordained by Angels. Yet, while John was seen as another prophet in a long line prophets, Jesus was regarded in a much more varied way. John was the child of two people of good repute, and Jesus was the seeming bastard of a couple too poor to offer more than a few birds at the temple.[1] The worst that John’s critics could say was that he was not really a prophet, but the Gospels say they would never say such a thing in public.[2] Jesus could be shamed, though, because he was born to nothing, and sought to have nothing, and so was deemed to be nothing.

The announcement of two births, in two different circumstances. Both necessary for the start of something new, but both not quite what anyone might expect. Jesus our savior, Jesus the Lord of All, who we celebrate as coming to be with us, and as coming one day to set all things right again. That Jesus, was from his conception someone the world doubted. For Mary long ago, the news of her conceiving a child would have been terrifying as much as it was an honor. There is a reason that the Catholic Church honors her with a prayer modeled after the words the angel says here. To them her willingness to follow God into this terrifying adventure is the start of something amazing, and terrifying.

Faith is the sustaining blood of this life. It is what gives us the ability to hope. It feeds our love for one another. It is the simple commitment to the truth that is revealed in our meeting God, face to face. It is also a big scary thing. To have faith is to say that you trust something you cannot always see, and that you are ok with the road not always going where you expect.

Angels are universally met with fear in the Bible. They appear and people get ready to run. The first thing out of their mouths, therefore, is “Do not be afraid.” I think that those words are very necessary in our walk of faith. “Do not be afraid,” is the natural response to us realizing there is a God. “Do not be afraid,” is the response we need when we realize we have failed to do what is right. “Do not be afraid,” is the comfort we need when we are lost and alone and heart broken. “Do not be afraid,” is the little bit of drive we need to keep going, even when things seem tougher than we can ever imagine.

Mary is the real hero of today’s Gospel reading, because she accepted a heavy burden. She would always be seen after this angel’s visit as an object of scorn. She’d be called all kinds of nasty things by those who knew her kid wasn’t Joseph’s. She’d grow up with a child she could only begin to understand was somehow God and her little boy. She would walk with him as he preached his hard messages, and as countless people called him all the things she had tried to shield him from. She would know the greatest pain of watching him be killed for crimes he did not commit. Stranger still to meet him again, resurrected and glorified. Her little boy, long ago promised, now fully shining as the deity he was. Mary, our lady of sorrows, and mother of God, stands out as the first evangelist. She took Jesus into herself and gave him to the world at great pains to herself.

The angels still speak, though maybe not by appearing to us. The Spirit of God whispers to us, asks us to take the hard road, to try and bring about the Kingdom here and now. Sometimes we like Elizabeth and John, get to face hardships with relative dignity. Sometimes, we like Mary and Jesus, must abandon our self-image and our reputation to do what is right. May God give us the strength to do either, and may angels give us all rest this holiday and for ever. – amen.

[1] Luke 2: 22-24

[2] Mark 11: 27-33

Sermon 12/11/2022 – The Baptist

This sermon is an updated version of one preached for the second week of Advent 2019

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ ”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore, bear fruit worthy of repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Sermon Text

We continue to look at those who paved the way for Jesus, by look at one of the most influential people in the New Testament, John the Baptist. He is someone who we are not given much information about. He will appear, say a few words, and then disappear before coming back and saying a few more things. From birth to death we are not given a full biography of John the Baptist. What he taught, who he taught it to, or how he ran his ministry. The only thing we know is that whatever he did it must have worked. Whatever it was he did, he was immensely successful at it.

Despite the little bit that is written about him, the biblical text and other ancient texts give us a good idea of who he was and what the general work it included. John the Baptist firstly was non-sectarian. He was not a part of the Temple Sadducees or the Teaching Pharisees or the Monastic Essenes, he existed in a space betwixt and between all of them. Not only did he stand out in this way, but he is the first person in history to be given the title of “Baptizer.” Not only this but he created the concept of “Baptism,” by transforming existing Jewish and Greek rites which were repeated for the sake of ritual purity into a declarative act of repentant reorientation.

His washing was not just a means to becoming clean, but a moment to commemorate something new was happening. That the baptizand had died to this reality and was born into a new one. John’s baptismal ministry gathered a group of disciples who appear throughout the Gospels. Sometimes they worked alongside Jesus and his disciples, sometimes arguing with them.

The strange thing about all this is that, though John was Jesus’s cousin, John never really interacts with Jesus. They usually sent messengers back and forth, and the text following today’s scripture, the baptism of Christ is the only time scripture records a face to face conversation between them. John and Jesus, two distinct separate messengers working toward the realization of God’s kingdom.

Yet, we see in John some indications of what Jesus would bring. John’s ministry was radically inclusive. He preached a message that managed to reach people where they were. He was so effective in his speaking that no matter how he got it out there, people from all over Judea were willing to come out and see him. Judea was not very large, smaller than most states, but to travel from one side of it to the other would be a trip of days if not weeks. People were willing to uproot their lives to hear the message and receive the Baptism of John.

This message, far-reaching as it was, was simple – “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” We’ve talked about repentance before. We understand the idea that we reorient ourselves toward God. That we reorient our vision of the future to be in line with the goodness that God wants. It is the transformation that comes with the renewing of our minds so that we can become good and do God’s good work. That is the essence of repentance.

If we go a step further I would say that most of us, except in moments of intense doubt or despair, feel as though we have room to grow and are capable of growth. That something can push us to grow by the Grace of God and that we can attain something beyond our current state. With this confidence of self and of God’s goodness, we have a sort of assurance. Here is the question though, is that assurance of God’s grace and our hope of growth just for people like us? Is it only for people in circumstances and situations and churches and pews and denominations like ours? Has the Kingdom of Heaven drawn near to a select few or to all people?

John answers this question in ministering to two groups – the crowd who we can assume were likely peasant farmers or other laborers from throughout the region, and distinct from them the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups controlled, on one hand, the religious instruction of the people and on the other the religious rituals of the Temple. Abundance and necessity, power and powerlessness, potential for action and inability to act met on the banks of the Jordan that day. In the way that John writes a potential confrontation was set up. “[John] saw that many of the Sadducees and the Pharisees were coming to see him.” The moment they are set apart is the moment we know something is about to happen to them.

Many times in reading this we put ourselves in the place of the repentant crowd, watching on as the Pharisees and Sadducees are made an example of, but today I want us to take on the role of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Imagine that you have heard the preaching of this man and that you come out from Jerusalem and step into the muddy waters of the Jordan to see him. Moving through a crowd of people you hear dialects and smell smells that you have never seen before. You walk between crowds of people who society tells you are all beneath you. You walk to see a preacher who your fellow leaders in Jerusalem have decreed a dangerous revolutionary. An apocalyptic preacher who only could cause trouble for someone in power like you.

But you know the power of this man’s preaching because it made a Pharisee and a Sadducee go up to see him. Two people who could not agree on anything religiously suddenly agreeing that this man was worth listening to. Imagine what it must be like then when this preacher you have come to see, looks at you from across the crowd and starts yelling. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you of the wrath to come?” And if it wasn’t bad enough that he insults you and calls you a snake he accuses you of not really being invested in what you’re doing. “Do not presume,” As I am assuming you are, “to say, “I am a child of Abraham because God could rise up children to Abraham from rocks if God wanted.”

Now step away from that time and place and join me back in the here and now. Reading this text I find myself asking a question, which rocks are John pointing to? Is he pointing to the memorial stones down the Jordan at Schechem, can God raise up children of Abraham from the past? Is it to the rocks of the Temple, can God raise up children to Abraham through religious devotion? To the pebbles under his feet, is he recalling Genesis? Or is he pointing to those around him, to the crowd and to the Pharisees and Sadducees, saying, “From these stones, God could raise up children to Abraham.”

The Gospel does not use any special word here to indicate a metaphorical or literal meaning. It does, however, use the same word for stone as Greek translations of the Ezekiel do in describing our hearts before God transforms them. “Hearts of stone,” transformed into, “Hearts of flesh.” So we see that while John is critical of these people he is still looking beyond their present state to what could be. That God could take even a literal rock and turn it into a child of Abraham is a statement of God’s incredible power and grace not a statement about Humanity’s inability to meet expectations.

If the message is that a stone can become a child to Abraham what does it mean for a flesh and blood person if they are willing to take the leap? This is not to say that John is minimizing his criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees or that the wrong they have done does not matter. John is clear in laying out the stakes. The people must, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” No free pass is given simply because you apologize to God or anyone else you have hurt, but if you are sincere in your commitment to change, then the Kingdom cannot be denied you. If we are people who believe, who speak our contrition and act out our penance then the Kingdom is opened to us.

Yet we so often read this scripture as if it ends with John warning the Pharisees, “Bear fruit or perish.” Yet if we read the text honestly we see that his following statement does not change direction. He is still speaking to the Pharisees when he says, “I baptize you with water for Repentance, but the one who comes after me is mightier than I… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John gives correction to the Pharisees and Sadducees but he also gives them hope. “Your present is not the endpoint of your life and even I, John the Baptist, am not the fullest version of myself I could be. But I lead the way for one who will transform all of this.”

Let us return now to the Pharisee walking toward John. Having been insulted, accused, and told to straighten up you are now dipped in the Jordan. You are told those words, “I baptize you with water for repentance.” Now you hold in yourself the hope of the coming Messiah. As you leave the river, the Grace of God literally dripping from your clothing. Ask yourself one simple question, “Can I deny others what to me has been so freely given?” Let that question lead us, shape us, transform us in how we give Grace to the world around us. – Amen

Sermon 12/04/2022 – The Prophets

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge for the poor and decide with equity for the oppressed of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion will feed together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Sermon Text

Last week, looking into the Torah, we saw a reflection of a deep truth. In God’s promise that the enmity between the serpent and the woman would not be eternal, but have an end through the intervention of her child, we could see a clear image we could use to understand Jesus, born of humanity, and his work against evil. The work of the Gospel, perfectly embodied in the mere matter of a snake and its destruction. Today we jump forward in the history of God’s people. Looking far from the primordial state of the world, we look to the chaos of a world in ruin.

As with much of scripture, the prophet Isaiah preached during a time when conquest was just over the horizon. I was not a secret to anyone that the powerful armies of Assyria would begin making their way through the Levant. The only thing between the recently fallen Northern Kingdom and Egypt was Judah and its neighboring countries. There was no hope for the people not to be taken as collateral in the bid for control of the entire Eastern Mediterranean. Horses and chariots, siege engines and soldiers, all were loaded up and ready to reduce all opposition to their campaign to stubble and ash. This particular prophecy comes when Israel still stands between , this incredible army and the people of Judah, but neither country had a chance.

The promise that Isaiah brings is therefore one that is somewhere down the road. It is not deliverance in the form of a present King, but a future King. From the lineage of Jesse would come a hero who would purify the world. The wicked would be blown away, and peace would spring from where violence once sat. Wolves and their prey are now playmates in the fields. Blood is not shed, but life-giving springs bubble between all creatures in all places. Even the serpents of the world, literal and not metaphysical, are reduced to the toy things of small children. Asps and vipers, copperheads and moccasins, now just friends to all other life.

This idyllic vision of the future is one that any person would gladly see fulfilled around them. To see a world with no more pain, no more struggling just to get by, that is a blessed thing. Not only that, but a world where the wicked are punished and the righteous are allowed to live a full life, unfettered by the cruelty of circumstance. Now that is something worth dreaming of. Isaiah stands looking out over the countryside, knowing that much of it will soon be in flames, but he knows that there is a future ahead for God’s people and for all the world to flourish under.

Assyria would not completely destroy Judah, but it would reduce it to a vassal state. No longer independently governed, it owed taxes to the Assyrian capital and was expected to contribute to its military campaigns wherever possible. This end was far better than Israel, the northern kingdom, which was all but destroyed. The survivors in the land saw their culture merged with people from other Assyrian vassal states, and over time became what we now call “Samaritans.” The friction between Samaria and Judah was still decades off, but only a few days walk from Jerusalem would be the reminders of a people that once were, and now were not, the destruction of their siblings, the loss of ten tribes of the twelve in Israel.

The huddled people of Judah took in what survivors they could, some would go on to have descendants that cross our path in the New Testament – Anna the Prophetess being one such person. Yet, the dream of a king that removed all troubles never seemed to come. It was not achieved by the vassal-kings of Judah under Assyrian rule, nor when Babylon conquered a few generations later, nor when Zerubbabel ruled the exiles in the time of Ezra. Nothing seemed to bring about this prophecy’s fulfillment. The world is still in chaos, copperheads will still bite and kill, and wolves are not the best dogs to keep around our sheep. The world still waits in anticipation for the resolution of this prophecy, for peace without wickedness, but the day of that decisive peace seems distant, like a small light flickering in a dark attic.

It is not surprise then that the Early Church saw this prophecy as something that resonated with their experience of Jesus. Jesus, born into the family of David, was the thing that would someday bring about the kingdom that the prophet had long ago dreamt of. In Jesus’s time on earth we saw that light, distant and flickering, flare up brighter than any star in the sky. In Jesus there was a glimpse of something completely unlike what this world has shown us till now. There was a King who was first and foremost a servant. There was a God who allowed himself to be a slave. There was a Kingdom that promised the best for those with the least, and retribution for those who dared to have when others had not.

The bizarre nature of Christ’s life was a testament to the bizarre and wonderful nature of God’s kingdom. Repentance and forgiveness poured freely from the foot of the cross, a never ending stream that blessed all the world. The Spirit of God descended upon the Church after the resurrection, a great wind that blew them to the four corners of the known world proclaiming this new kingdom. An end to violence was possible, if all people banded together in love and service, a new era dawned upon the land. The root of Jesse had bloomed into a grand tree, and many found shelter beneath its branches.

Yet, of course, the Church has never been perfect, and seldom even successful in this mission, not on a grand scale at least. It took only a few hundred years for worldly powers to take over the Church. One of the first councils of the Church was called by an emperor, not a priest or even a believer, but an emperor seeking to create stability in his newly seized empire. That emperor set the tone of a unified force of Church and State that lasted centuries. The monks at first fled to the desert to avoid it, but even their monasteries fell in line. The Reformation simply moved the pieces around, and by the time of our own revolution even a country that claimed separation of Church and State could not resist power courting power.

The appeal of Christianity, its power and presence across all time, is that it is an alternative to the world. It is not like everyone or everything else, but is instead singularly focused on the object of its devotion – Jesus Christ, the Word of God present here with us. At this table all separations cease, there are no nations or denominations, no borders of IDs. When the bread is broken and the cup is lifted up, there is no distinction in sex or gender or circumstance or fare. We are all, each and every one of us, made equal in distance and proximity to Christ. We can see a little bit of what it is like not to have anger or violence rule the world, even just for a few minutes, if we let the time we gather here be like it was for the disciples to be in the presence of Christ. Here everything melts away, here there is only peace, here there is the glory of the Kingdom that God has always dreamt of.

In this Advent season, we await the coming of Christ into this world. Not just the birth of a Child two millennia ago, but a King riding triumphantly into a city that will know no end. This season, leading up to Christmas, is the time we tell the world that there is a good ending to the story of history. At the close of the book, there is not fear or doubt or struggle, but light everlasting and the life abundant. I hope that when we look into the worlds, shabby and broken as it is, we can do what Isaiah did.

Looking beyond the horizon, beyond all troubles and worry, there is a dawn approaching. Out from the darkness of all our sin and betrayal of God’s true kingdom, one that knows no distinction and seeks no power, there is a blazing flame that seeks to make things right once again. The conflagration at the center of life’s cyclical path is not a devouring and wicked thing, but something that purifies, refines, and will someday see all things made beautiful. Today, as we ought to do everyday, we must make clear the glory of our Lord through the communion of this congregation. We must see in one another the face of God, and show the world the world as it could be. – Amen.