God With Us – 12/26/2021

John 1: 1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Sermon Text

            If you were told today that tomorrow there would be no Bibles left in the world, what scripture would you want to memorize? Is it John 3:16, short and sweet but clear in what it tells us about Christ? Or perhaps Matthew 25, less salvific, but more definite in explaining what is expected of us as Christians. There are plenty of good Psalms, maybe even the ten commandments, but how can we ever choose what we would want to save if all of scripture were to disappear tomorrow?

That question is probably more daunting than any of us are prepared to face. However, if we think of it from the opposite direction, we can see what life was like in the early Church. Jesus was born between six and four BCE, his ministry spanned from somewhere between twenty-seven and thirty-three CE. The letters of Paul were written not long after this, but the earliest Gospel would not be written until the year sixty-five or seventy – thirty years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. While some pre-Gospel texts probably existed, the bulk of correspondence among Christians would be word of mouth, small snippets memorized and recited or sung together.

The opening of John is one of these early fragments that was likely passed among the early Church. The community which gives us John, the Johannine epistles, and Revelation is markedly different from the other New Testament communities. They were mystical Christians, focusing as much on God’s mission on this earth as they did God’s divinity in Heaven. It is this community that gives us the first concrete understandings of the Trinity which is only hinted at in other Gospels and Epistles. Likewise, John is the one to wrestle with Christ’s dual nature – human and God all at once. This deeply reflective tradition is reflected in this hymn which we read a moment ago.

The opening question I gave you, which scripture you would choose to memorize if you had no Bible, is important to consider when you see something like today’s scripture. As long as this passage may seem to us to read all at once, it would not take much to memorize. From learning it, a person would be able to quickly state some of the essential points of the Christian faith. The eternal Word of God, who is God, came to be with humanity, taking on flesh and bringing light into the dark world. Though this arrival was heralded by a prophet, this God was rejected by the people he had created, cast away. Yet, those who did accept this God were given a new life, one that made them part of the household of God.

That’s not bad for a page or so of memorization. You may not be able to write a systematic theology with it, but it will get the Gospel out and ultimately that is better than any ten-cent word we might chase after otherwise. John gives us, as an introduction to his Gospel, a summary statement of what we can expect to find within it. More than that, his audience probably knew the hymn even if they had not heard any other part of this gospel. By opening his telling of Jesus’s life in this way, those who heard it would be more familiar with what followed. Think of how much better engaged we all have been since the worship team has steered me away from unknown opening hymns – when we come into worship with something familiar, we are better prepared to see the details within.

The key focus of this passage is that God became human. Throughout all the Johannine writings there is a constant return to the reality of Jesus’s humanity. While we today tend to accept Jesus as fully God and fully human, that was not always the case. Some people denied Jesus’s divinity, saying that he was God’s best creation, but not God in himself. Others denied Jesus’s humanity, the most extreme among them, the Docetists, insisting Jesus was a Spiritual presence rather than a physical one. A Holy Ghost pretending to be a human.

John may have been primarily concerned with letting people know that God really had become human in the person of Jesus, but he was equally concerned in letting people know that Jesus was not a distinct being from God. The riddle that opens the Gospel is something which carries the weight of all our faith. In the beginning, before anything had been created, there was the Word. The Word was with God, standing face to face with God. And that Word was, somehow simultaneously distinct and united, also the same God. The Greek of this passage is one of the first things which is used to teach new Biblical Language students how to differentiate parts of Grammar, and it is a handy verse to memorize for parties. (Ἐν αρχη ἠν ὁ Λογος και ὁ Λογος ἠν προς τον Θεον και Θεος ἠν ὁ Λογος. “In arche ain ha Logos kai ha Logos ain pros ton Theon kai ha Theos ain ha Logos”)

 To identify the Word as being God would mean nothing without the further development of the chapter, namely that that word dwelled among us, taking on full humanity. This God was not someone who just stood on high and cast a judgmental eye of the fallen world, but was willing to be rejected if it meant giving us another chance. Even though the incarnate Word had made all things, nothing accepted their participation in the world. Even the disciples, close as they were to God’s presence on earth, ran away when the going got rough – all but a single, devoted follower.

In the close of this opening hymn, we are given the final bit of information we need to understand what this Gospel is all about. This incarnate Word had a name, had a personality, had a person that could be met and talked to – Jesus Christ, the only Son, who has made God known to the world. As abstract as John sometimes can be, and as philosophical as this opening passage may seem, it all ties into a single earthly reality – Jesus walked this earth and Jesus was the image of the invisible God made manifest in our lives.

For the early Church, recitation of this hymn allowed them to keep the essentials close at hand. It isn’t very different from humming your favorite hymn or sing it when you want to engage with the truth of God directly. The prayer which I most frequently pray, and which I have brought up a few times since coming here is another example of this kind of rehearsing God’s truth. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” As short a prayer as that is, it hits the same points that John 1 does. Jesus is the Christ, the Lord of all. Jesus is the son of God, divine from before creation. Jesus is a savior, and I am in need of salvation.

The simplicity of our salvation is that there is no need for long complex explanations. They can come in handy, and when we get down into the particulars of any given issue we are bound to have more and more to talk about. Yet, even for long winded people like myself, the more we stray from the essential claims of our faith the more we open ourselves up to blunder into something we do not intend. I love a complex theological conundrum, I love to wax poetic about incarnational theology, but at the end of all things my love of making things complicated cannot get in the way of the simple truths of God.

The opening of John is poetry, perhaps to help it be more easily remembered, perhaps to simply attest to the beauty of God’s entrance into human life. The metaphorical and artistic aspects of this story are often treated as obfuscating of some of the plain truths of Jesus’s presence on earth, but I think the opposite is true. Art is how we engage with the plainest parts of our life. If you think to any part of your life, one of the key things that you’re going to think of alongside anything that happened is the songs you listened to while it happened. The movies we love, the paintings that speak to us, we engage with the world around us through art. How fitting then that John’s summary of the Gospel is a song sung for thousands of years.

As we continue on in the Christmas season, twelve days which spans two Sundays this year, we remember the fullness of God which chose to dwelt among us. The simple truth of our faith, expressed in just about a page, is that we do not worship someone who is far off and away from us, but up close and personal. Jesus could have stayed up in Heaven, or maybe even have come to earth as a king living among nobility. Instead, Jesus chose a normal life, more than that a hard life among the poor and downtrodden. God became human, and God became a poor human at that.

We carry with us the simple truth of Jesus’s presence on the earth. We do not need long complicated formulations to understand what it means for God to have come to us, we only need to acknowledge that God made that trip down to us. Why would God do this? To bring us closer to the divine presence we long ago threw away. We were no one’s family, but now God has made us part of God’s own family. That transformation, that unity which we are all invited to, that is the essence of our faith. When we acknowledge that God is with us, that God is here to save us, then the rest finds its way bit by bit.

This does not mean we cannot be intellectual, or that we cannot study hard both the scriptures and the world around us. It simply means that we do not need to complicate the world as we do so. We are not saved by the mental tap dances we put together, but simply by faith in Christ. As we enter a New Year, let us commit ourselves to love and service, to study of scripture and prayer in the Spirit. Let us proclaim the Gospel, accepting that we are not only qualified for the job, but perfect for the job. The truth is simple, God is here to save us, let us all tell that story simply, well, and often. – Amen.

Christmas Eve 2021

Luke 2: 1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor 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 for them in the inn.

In that 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. But 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, as it had been told them.

Sermon Text

The past four weeks we have been exploring, through our Sunday services, the various members of the Holy Family. The parents of John the Baptist, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the Holy Couple themselves, Mary and Joseph. Today we gather on this cold winter evening to celebrate the final member of the Holy Family, the one that sanctifies all others mentioned and each of us gathered here today – our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The great drama of human history has finally met its main protagonist. God, the creator of all things and the author of every story, now has come to dwell among us as a human being. Born in a stable, laid in a food trough, the eternal Word of God now knows what it is to be cold, to be hungry, to feel the prick of straw bedding.

Christmas is the day we all take a moment to remember that the story of our salvation began with mundane pieces. A government official wants to collect more taxes, and so he calls for a census to be taken in order to determine exactly what amount he might begin taking in. A couple, unmarried and yet expecting a child, make their way from the small village of Nazareth to the slightly more cosmopolitan Bethlehem, as near to a suburb of Jerusalem as the ancient world could muster. There a child is born; there a mother falls asleep with her husband and child nearby. There, somehow against all odds, the salvation of all humanity was set in stone.

As with everything surrounding Christmas, we don’t know much about the night Jesus was born. We celebrate it on December 25th, but there are many reasons behind that, few of which have to do with Jesus’s actual birthdate. Some people do the math to say he was born in March, some others insist December makes equal historical sense. Yet, the actual date doesn’t much matter. While this day is fixed in our calendars, plenty of other important ones are not. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox, and yet that day is still important to us as though it were the actual moment Jesus rose from the dead. In the same way, today is, to us, the day Jesus was born, because we celebrate it as such.

Today the walls between Heaven and Earth lose all meaning. God sits among us. The long separation between God and humanity is finally erased. God is a human being. The long wait for salvation is finally ended. God has come down to save us. Christmas is the celebration of love, manifested in the most fragile of forms. An infant, born into a world where not many children lived to even be named. A child named “Salvation,” a child named Jesus.

The story of those who brought Jesus into this world are simple stories. A couple who longed for a child finally having one. A couple due to be married when a surprise pregnancy threatens everything they thought they had known. A loving cousin who keeps the young girl safe, a gentle angel that assures that boy that he is doing the right thing in going on loving his fiancé and her unborn child. The set pieces, minus perhaps the angels involved, are not unlike something we might see right here in North View. God could have made a grand entry into the world, but God chose to make a much more gentle one.

A hundred million lessons are set out before us when we pick up this story. The importance of worship, the power of family, the significance of a mother’s love. Yet, if we have been paying attention to the past few weeks we have spent together, I hope we can see that the real lesson of Christmas is in the simplicity of it all. Normal people worked to bring salvation into the world, and that remains true for us today. It is not the work of politicians and kings and rich donors that brings about the Kingdom of God. It is the work of the everyday person, of the poor and the disgraced, the cast aside and the unhoused, the lowest of the low. God came down on Christmas and God, who was owed a chariot of gold, came down in rags.

Though in the distance, foreign magicians were making their way across Arabia to visit Jesus, the only witnesses that night were shepherds. Unwashed, uneducated, rough and tumble shepherds were the first to attest to the glory of God’s salvation. How strange it would have been to see them dancing in the streets singing the songs the angels had taught them. They pointed to a distant stable, perhaps attached to a house and perhaps set into a stone wall, and they insisted “God is in that manger, cradled next to his mother, and God is here to save us.” Lunatics, madmen, or perhaps the first people outside of Mary to bring the truth of Jesus into the world.

As brief as our time together tonight is, it is a reflection of that night long ago. Unassuming though that night was, unremarkable in any of its features except to those who knew what it brought. A light, furtive and small, bursting out in the darkness of a sin-sick world. A light, blazing truth through the lies that we had built up around ourselves. A light that flickered, and threatened to go out, but would not be snuffed out just yet. The light of Christ, the shining love of God on display for all to see.

The work begins, once we leave here, to make sure that that light is allowed to shine. It is a light spread not with cruel flames that cut through the world, but with the gentle smoldering of our hearts. Love is like a fire, that jumps between the embers within us, alighting and bringing yet more light into the world around us. The simple message of Advent is summarized in Christmas, that God is coming to be among us, and God is already here. So go out tonight, to be with family and friends, and go out tonight in the knowledge that salvation truly is here with us. Go forward and love the world, love each person like they are family and protect them, feed them, house them, however you can. Christ is born in Bethlehem; Christ lives among us. The glory of God now must cover the earth, and all the world proclaim the glory of our salvation. Today we celebrate a world that will never be the same. Today we say, Merry Christmas. – Amen.

The Holy Family: Joseph – 12/19/2021

Matthew 1: 18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

Sermon Text

Sometimes you have to preach a sermon for yourself, or perhaps a sermon that you would have liked to have heard sometime in your life. Today we celebrate Joseph, Jesus’s earthly father and the one who raised him up in Nazareth. Like the rest of the Holy Family, Joseph is mostly known to us in legends and stories, and not so much as a person revealed in scripture. We know that he was engaged to marry a young woman named Mary, that he was kind and wanted to resolve the scandal of her pregnancy in a way that honored her, and that once an angel set him straight, he was committed to his wife and child.

The only other detail of Joseph’s life which we can say with some certainty is that he died either at the start of or right before Jesus’s ministry. This is revealed to us in his disappearance from scripture after Jesus’s visit to Jerusalem at age 12, and the fact that Mary eventually joins Jesus in his cross Judean ministry. She would only do this, following her itinerant oldest son, if the responsibility for caring for her had been transferred to him after Joseph had passed away. So, anything we say about Joseph has to be fairly abstract. However, as the last few weeks have shown us, the length of a person’s description on a page is not all that there is when it comes to understanding what they meant to those around them or as examples to us today.

Joseph is a pinnacle of love. It would have been easy at any point in his story to jettison himself from the situation he found himself in. When Mary was revealed to be pregnant, he could have publicly announced the reason for breaking off an engagement, but he instead planned to let her go quietly. When he was visited by the angel and told that this pregnancy was an act of God and that he was to raise the savior of humanity, he could have run away, but he submitted himself immediately to this work. Joseph had every chance to be callous, but he always chose love.

There are several legends about Jesus growing up in Nazareth and while some are quite fanciful, there is one that stands out in my mind. The author, imagining what it would be like to have a teenage Jesus around, described Joseph making the wrong cut on a piece of wood he was working on. Jesus, the faithful son, then miraculously lengthens the wood to account for this mistake.[1] While this story is only that, a story, it does let our imagination go a bit more freely. To see the way that Joseph would have embraced Jesus as his own, teaching him wood working and apprenticing him in his artisan shop. Jesus, in turn, using the powers he has as Son of God to help his earthly father. There is something beautiful to this sort of story.

Raising Jesus up probably wasn’t always easy. He had siblings after all, brothers and sisters born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus. We know the names of the boys: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas (not that one,) but sadly none of the sisters are named. Jesus’s siblings did not always understand him, once actively telling him to stop being such an embarrassment when he came home preaching his message. Jesus then seemed to refuse to go along with the family on pilgrimage. (John 7: 1-10) Scripture only speaks of when Jesus and his siblings were adults, it is hard to imagine what they were like as kids. More than that imagine if your eldest sibling was actually the son of God, and it wasn’t just what your mom thought about them!

Joseph had a big responsibility in raising Jesus. I’m not sure how much of Jesus’s earthly self was reflective of the way he was raised and how much was from his essential God-ness. I do like to imagine that sometimes he would say things that made his neighbors eyes roll, “Say what you want about the kid, he’s Joe’s boy now!” There must be something in the humanity of Jesus that reflected the man who raised him, and I often wonder what that looks like. Of course, I’ll be wondering until the day of resurrection about that, we just do not have information otherwise on that kind of mystery.

As with much of scripture, the thing that Joseph did, loving a child that was not biologically his own, was not unique. The miraculous quality was not in the act itself. Instead, the grace and mercy of Joseph is shown in the example he gives to us today, to love people even when we do not have an immediate relationship with them. We can count people as family without them sharing genomic markers with us, we can love people we have only just met because they bear within them that image of God we discussed last week in Elizabeth’s story. Joseph does something mundane; he loves a child he is raising, but the example he sets echoes through eternity and equips us to do the same.

In particular, I want to take time today to speak to blended families. They are so often left on the sidelines of church discussions of “Family.” We still treat as normative the idea of a father and a mother and their children and act as if any deviation from that is not worth talking about or somehow a diminishment of what could otherwise be. Perhaps to an idealist that is true, but in my own life, both as someone who grew up in a blended family, and as someone who knows a great many blended families, I do not think it is worth speculating on ideals when the beauty of what God can do in what is, is right in front of us. There is a blessed quality to blended families, a lesson and a blessing innate to them, that is not worth ranking above or below any other arrangement.

To speak to my own experience, I am blessed to have loving family on all sides. I have a loving mother, a loving father, and loving grandparents all by blood. I was raised fairly normally by sometimes normal people. My parents split up when I was ten and while that caused its fair share of trouble, it also introduced a blessing. Sometime after my parents had parted ways, my father met and married a woman named “Robin.” She had two kids of her own, a son named Brady who was a year and half older than me and a daughter named Jordan who was about a year younger than I am.

A lot changed with the expansion of my nuclear family. I came to live with father and stepmother and now shared a room with a brother, something I had never had before then. I was introduced to new grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles that were now, fully mine. All of this was an addition into my life and while it all caused some friction like any change will do, it was ultimately a blessing revealed again and again. It was this move that saw me attending church for the first time. First United Methodist Church of Berkeley Springs became my home and soon enough I was deeply involved in that congregation and well… The rest is history.

I can point to a lot of things about my blended family that made me who I am, however, there is one thing that no one can deny. That it that my stepmother is one of the best influences I’ve ever had. Beyond getting me into the church, Robin immediately showed she was an overwhelmingly loving person. She never for one moment treated me like I was any different from her own children. Sure, she knew them longer and did birth them, so things were never going to be identical. Yet, there was never any doubt in my mind that she saw me as her child, and that she wanted everything good for me that she could possibly give. She got me active in my school and in my church in ways I don’t think I otherwise would have. Things were never perfect, and I will never claim to have been a perfect child to any of my parents, especially perhaps her, but the sainted qualities of my stepmother is something no one will ever deny.

We who live in blended families know that it is not always easy to keep a balance going. We bristle at each other; we negotiate custody when kids are too young to drive themselves places. Holidays are divided up and negotiated over. You will never know anything messier than a blended household. Yet, when we take on stepfamilies, the attitude we should have is that the family we are taking on is just as important as the family we already had. We marry into, not just the person we love, but all the people attached to them. Children are, of course, less involved in that decision, and so it falls on adults to accept that reality and work to make it come true.

Blended families are the primary thing that comes to mind for me, but it goes beyond this particular kind of family dynamic. In-laws are also people we bring into our family, and we should treat them like family. That may get more difficult as the circles go wider and wider, but generally the pattern we put forward should be a more expansive definition of family. My siblings have married two wonderful people, my wife has two wonderful siblings, one of whom got married very recently. All these people are my family. Likewise, I have friends who are family to me, people who might as well be my sisters and brothers, whom I love fiercely.

Family is what we make of it, no matter how people come to be a part of it, we celebrate them. The Church is, in itself, people who found one another and decided to live as siblings, united in the identity Jesus has given them as Children of God. Today we celebrate Joseph, and by extension we celebrate family.

I speak so openly about my own family and experience today because Joseph will always be near to my heart. I love this member of the holy family, because every Christmas my stepmother’s eyes would light up when he was mentioned. The ultimate stepparent, who raised Jesus as his own, was the one she most aspired to resemble year after year. I can tell you today, she did that and then some. So let us all follow the example of Joseph, and as Christmas bells ring, only a little way off, let us see our family all around us. – Amen.

[1] The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. XIII

12/12/2021 – The Holy Family: Elizabeth

Luke 1: 24-25, 39-45

After [Zechariah received his vision in the Temple] Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people…”

[After her own annunciation,] Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Sermon Text

If I were someone who wanted to build suspense. We might have talked about Elizabeth before we talked about Mary. It seems that we are taking a step down from the miracle of the incarnation to the annunciation of a perfectly normal human pregnancy. While Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, would certainly go on to do a great deal in the history of God’s kingdom, he was not the Word made flesh. I’m not here for suspense though. Narrative arcs are for television, the pulpit is for the truth of God revealed through the scriptures and lived through our life.

We step back from Mary and her pregnancy, to look at Elizabeth and her own, to discuss another aspect of our life in Christ. Mary is a model of evangelism for us, she tells us how we can accept Christ into our being and then share Christ with the world. Elizabeth tells a different story through her life, one of the long suffering nature of faith, and of the difficulties that can come from living in a world that is not what we wish it was, not just yet at least.

Elizabeth is, like many of Jesus’s relatives, given little to tell us about who she is. She and Zechariah together are meant to be clear parallels to Abraham and Sarah, but outside of the general similarities we might see between a story in Genesis and a story in the Gospels, there is not much to glean about who they are. We know she is older than someone would usually be when they would become pregnant. It is hard to say how old this would be exactly. We know nowadays when menopause usually occurs, but it seems unlikely to me that that would not be impacted by environmental factors. Likewise, we know that Elizabeth was someone who struggled with fertility. We never know if that was because of something stemming from Zechariah or her own physiology. The ancient world always assumed women were somehow the deciding factor. Beyond these two truths, and her relation to Mary, not much is known about her.

We see in our scriptures, and we briefly discussed when we looked at Zechariah, that the ancient world often saw the ability for someone to have a child as a moral quality. Good people have kids, bad people do not. The impetus was placed on anyone struggling with fertility to invest a great deal into getting right with God. Sometimes this took the form of sacrifices or devotion, but whatever the form it took, the burden was on the couple, and especially the woman to somehow make the impossible come to pass.

As with anything, miracles are always possible, but the thing that defines a miraculous event is that it is not common. For many people who struggled with fertility in the ancient world, they were stigmatized as though they had done something wrong. Elizabeth, having realized that her dream of having a child was coming true, mentions this explicitly – pointing to the fact that she has suffered public ridicule because of her infertility. This mindset, unfortunately, was not ended with the fall of Jerusalem or the Reformation or any movement of the Church. Only recently have we begun to understand fertility for what it is – a complicated matter of genetics, physiology, and environment.

Much like Zechariah before her, Elizabeth asks us to consider the ways that we neglect to empathize with one another. With Zechariah we saw how accessibility is only something that comes to mind when we no longer have everything we are used to. Elizabeth asks us to think beyond our usual premises of how we define “fairness,” in the world. The fact that both she and Zechariah are presented as righteous in all ways a person can be, and yet as suffering what was considered one of the cruelest fates in the ancient world, proves to us that life is much more complicated than good things happening to good people and bad things happening to bad ones. Elizabeth, more than just being a story of a miracle, is a story of how we, the people of God, must be better than passive judges of all who suffer.

When Elizabeth is given the news that she is going to have a child, she is not able at first to enjoy what this child will add to her life. Her first thought is what the child has finally freed her from, the judgment of those around her. We are seldom better than the people who judged Elizabeth when we react to trouble in the world around us. While we can often be deeply sympathetic toward people we know and the problems they face, the further outside of our own sphere of influence a person is the less sympathy and the more skepticism we apply. Sometimes that skepticism is toward the person, “If they had done this that never would have happened!” or “Serves them right for getting wrapped up in what they were!”

If we cannot justify blaming an individual, we might look to a darker form of magical thinking. We start seeing malice in other people that somehow caused this event to take place. Rather than blaming an individual we look at those around them. We implicate certain people and things as bad influences or treat the difficulties a person faces like a puzzle to be solved. On grand scales these take the form of conspiracies, but on more personal scales they manifest in finger pointing that does anything but address the actual root of a problem.

This is not to say that there are not sometimes causes to a problem that exist within a person or within their surroundings. There are problems that are systemic and some that are personal. Yet, I would also say that some problems are just that, problems. They are things that emerge in the world around us. We can sit and try to explain the why and how of them, and if we can find something actionable to prevent or remedy them all the better. Yet, sometimes we come to a great wall, the wall of “the world as it is.” In this kind of situation, we do not do ourselves any favors by trying to explain what brought someone to the place they are in, it only matters that we support them and help them however we can through it.

Elizabeth was in a situation that only God could bring her out of, but that situation could have been made bearable if not for the callousness of her peers. It is hard enough in life to struggle without people accusing you of every possible reason why, if you only tried a little harder, you wouldn’t have that problem. Sickness and pain is written off, “You just need to try this supplement?” “Have you tried exercising?” “You should be eating at least three of these a day!” We wrap up our experience of the world so that there is always an answer to explain why someone suffers and we write off the continued suffering of others as a failure to adapt and adjust to those pressures.

Today a lot of people still face scrutiny for their struggles with fertility. We refuse to acknowledge their pain, pushing it far away from public view not for the sake of their privacy, but because we cannot stomach grappling with that kind of pain publicly. It is a common problem, that only recently has made its way from behind closed doors and into communities willing to support people as they face it. Like so many things that we as a culture decided was nobody’s business but our own, stigmatizing anyone who sought help or support and who disrupted our vision of a just world because of it, the plight of Elizabeth has seldom truly been heard when others cry out with it today.

But it is not just fertility. Chronic pain, lasting bouts of disease, chronic and congenital illnesses, sexism, racism, and all manner of bigotry – these are ailments to individuals and to society that we either make so broad we can do nothing about them, or so personal we write them off as someone else’s problem. If there is a trouble in this sin-sick world, then there are people tracing red threads through every aspect of a person’s life to explain why they have come to the place that they have come. Shutting up the doors of God’s mercy and opening up the floodgates of human judgment.

I’m not going to claim I’m not at fault for this either. There have been plenty of times in life where I see someone, obviously struggling, and I take time to justify why that might be. The mother with more kids than it seems she can handle, the panhandler who has given you a different story every time you have talked to them, the rough looking guy in a gas station that seems just a little off to our critical eyes. There is an essential and flawed part of us that wants to organize people into boxes. Those boxes make it easy for us to not feel responsible for their livelihood, maybe even to feel the troubles they face are appropriate given some imagined sin they may have committed.

The Arbinger Institute, in their book The Anatomy of Peace separates the kind of judgments we make in these circumstances in four categories.[1] The judgments we make are to preserve our feeling of superiority, of worthiness, of public perception, and even of our own insecurity. We look at the person who suffers and say, “I am too good to help them.” Or “They do not deserve my help, they can fix it themselves!” Likewise, we might say, “If I help them, people might start associating me with that kind of person.” or “I am in no place to help them, surely it is someone else’s job.”

The difficulty with any of these hypotheticals is that they are necessarily hyperbolic. I have never walked up to someone and thought, “I am too good to help them.” But I might think that the appointment I’m going to is too important to miss. The solution to all of this speculating about people, is to remove people from the category of item in our mind, to that of person.

It might seem strange, to say that people are people and then pretend some grand statement has been made. However, we very often do not think of other people as existing in the same way we do. While we can acknowledge the rich world of thought and nuance and emotion that encompasses our own heart and soul, we only see other people as things we interact with. Background characters in our life’s own narrative.

This has manifested in a bizarre way in certain groups online where people they run into in their daily life are called NPCs. Anyone know what that means? An NPC is a Non-Player Character, a term originating in role-playing games and most widely used in video games for anyone the player does not control. I love a good video game, but the moment I refer to the cashier at Kroger as an NPC is the moment, I have made myself so central to the story of life, I am no longer grappling with the reality that we are all of us here, equal in dignity and importance. Using NPC online is mostly a joke, but I think it has a kernel of truth about how people generally, not just the occasional OP, see the world around us.

When you meet someone, you meet an image bearer of God. That person bears the same imprint of the divine that you do. That means their soul, their inner-life is just as complex and beautiful. The troubles they face hurt them as much as anything that has ever hurt us. There is never a moment where we are not talking to someone just as complicated, as worthy of love, or as unfittingly suffering as ourselves. If we see the world, not in terms of who deserves what, but in terms of all people deserving the same goodness then we will come a long way toward a better world. Elizabeth suffered because other people were unable to see her as anything but the barren woman up the street, but if they had let themselves really get to know her, they would be pleasantly surprised.

They would know the devoted wife of a temple priest. A faithful woman who trusted that God would deliver her someway or another. She was a woman who, when she heard that her cousin was suddenly pregnant with her own miraculous child, she quickly called for her to come and take shelter away from the judgmental eyes of her neighbors in her own home. She cared for the expectant Mary and kept her safe in those first few, treacherous months of pregnancy. Elizabeth confirmed the message God had given Mary, she let her know that she really was going to be the one to bring salvation into the world. Elizabeth let Mary know that just because people say all manner of evil against you, it doesn’t mean that you are not deeply blessed by God.

Elizabeth teaches us about how God keeps a promise. God promised Elizabeth a child and she got one. Yet, I think that it would be a shame if we only looked to that part of her story. Like all of Advent, God asks us to look at the world in a different way. The Kingdom is breaking out all around us, and it is breaking out among the people we would least expect. The mute priest, the scandalous unmarried pregnant girl, and the old childless woman down the street. In our own life, we must accept that the kingdom will only grow if we can accept others as readily as we accept these figures we have lifted up the past few Sundays. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and it is to be a kingdom of misfits and weirdos, of people on the fringe of respectability, and those who have made their fair share of mistakes. The kingdom is a place we are all transformed, so let us be transformed into more loving, welcoming people.

The rumbling of a New World is upon us. Our third week of waiting is drawing to a close. Where does our salvation come? With loud trumpet and the cries of an army? No, but in the distant sound of labor just beginning, and the advent of a child, not yet born. – Amen.

[1] The Arbinger Institute. The Anatomy of Peace. (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler. 2020)

The Holy Family – Mary

Luke 1: 26-38, 46-55

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her…

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Sermon Text

 Our second week of Advent brings us to reflect on Mary, the Mother of God. She was a poor woman, from a four acre town in what was once called Israel. We know very little about her family, only that she had a cousin named Elizabeth who we will talk about next week, and another cousin named Zachariah who we already talked about last week. Little else is known about the woman who brought Jesus into the world. We do not know how old she was when she conceived, we do not know what she did with her daily life outside of raising Jesus and his siblings, and we do not know what happened to her after the close of the first few chapters of the book of Acts.

Despite this relative obscurity, Mary has captivated the Church for centuries. Legends describe her lineage, her battles with dragons and with demons, and in certain traditions her eventual ascension into Heaven. I do not think that Mary was likely taken up into Heaven like Elijah or Enoch, but there is no doubt that the Mother of God made her way to be seated in the company of Heaven. Wherever her grave may be, it goes unmarked and unremarked upon in the modern day. We do not know where Mary ended up, and so we are left with the few pieces we can be certain of. The most comprehensive narrative we are given in scripture to tell us about Mary are the one’s which we have read today, the annunciation – where Jesus’s entry into the flesh was announced – and the Magnificat – where Jesus’s life was foretold.

When we are told that Mary was visited by an angel, the exact stakes of what she is being told may not snap into our minds immediately. When an angel comes and tells you that you are going to be miraculously pregnant, that can be very good news. Zechariah was excited to hear he would have a child even though he had previously thought such a thing would be impossible for him. Yet, to have this kind of birth foretold when you are not married carries different kinds of baggage with it. The angel was not just telling Mary she was going to carry a child, but that she was about to become an object of public interest, of ridicule, and perhaps even an object of violence.

Formally, Roman rule in Judea had discouraged capital punishment among Jewish citizens. While Rome had the right to kill non-citizens for any number of crimes, local governments were more limited in their ability to execute criminals. Add to this the general perspective among the prominent rabbis of the time that capital punishment was needlessly cruel, “increase[ing] the number of murderers among the Jewish people,” and you get an environment where capital punishment for crimes outside of Roman law was unlikely.[1]

Now, why is this relevant to Mary and the news that she was going to conceive a child? Well, she was an unmarried woman in first century Judea. To an outside observer that would suggest that Mary had had relations outside of marriage. That in itself was not necessary a problem, assuming that this was a matter between herself and her betrothed Joseph. While probably a faux pas and certainly something discouraged, relations of this kind were not considered beyond the pale in the society of the time.[2] However, we know from other places in scripture that Joseph had considered breaking off the engagement before he fully understood what was happening. If that had happened, or if that had gotten out, Mary could have been in big trouble.

An unfortunate truth, as true today as it was in Jesus’s time, is that even when those with the theoretical authority to pursue death sentences have given that power up, people in communities will place that supposed power upon themselves. Mob violence, or even just an individual with the wrong sort of sense of superiority, could have caused great harm to Mary in the months leading up to her giving birth to Jesus. It is my earnest belief that, one of the reasons we see Mary move in with her cousin Elizabeth during the early part of her pregnancy was to protect herself and her unborn child. Something she was able to do even better once Joseph was fully on board with what was to come, but something that still took several months to sort out.

The blessing the angel brought, of Mary being able to carry the incarnate Word of God into the world, was therefore not a small thing for her to take on. She was being asked to face immediate danger for the sake of her child. A child who, we know from reading ahead in this story, she would ultimately have to give up to death on a Roman cross. The grief of a mother who had to face public scrutiny before their child was born, be jeered at by those who misunderstood his work during his life, and then pitied her after he died a criminals death, it is all just unimaginable to me.

Yet, the image we get of Mary is not of a broke woman grieving, but of a strong and confident prophet proclaiming the salvation of God to anyone who is willing to hear it. Mary takes on this assignment, not with apprehension or fear, but with a desire to understand more. “How can this be?” quickly transforms to, “Let it be with me as you have said.” I’m not foolish enough to say that Mary probably did not have any worries or fear, but her faith was sufficient to overcome them. She did not know everything coming down the line, but she sure did know that God was going to see things through to the end.

This is made most clear when she arrives at her cousin’s house. Elizabeth, as we will see next week, greets Mary and confirms that she isn’t just dreaming. She really is carrying a savior, one that will turn the world on its head. Mary does not miss a beat from the moment she receives this confirmation. The quiet and thoughtful Mary launches into her longest recorded speech – what we now call the “Magnificat.”

Following the example of prophets like Miriam before her, Mary describes the faithfulness of God throughout history. She begins with herself, saying that God’s actions even up to this point have shown her to be blessed. She is blessed to be the bearer of God into the world, she is blessed to be a mother who is going to go through Hell to bring Heaven to Earth, she is blessed in a way that no one will be able to deny in the future. She then speaks to God’s more general goodness. God takes the proud and knocks them off their pedestals, but God lifts up the lowly who know their real worth. God feeds the hungry and denies the rich. God brings justice wherever there is injustice, and God settles the score wherever earthly courts fail.

Mary is someone who we in the Protestant church too often neglect. While I understand some of the hesitancy we tend to express, I think that it is to our detriment. We may not regard Mary as the sinless mother of God, immaculately conceived and bodily assumed into Heaven, but she is still the mother of God and worthy of our respect. We can learn a lot from her, even just by thinking about what it means for her to have taken on her role, to have been the first evangelist in history. Some may point to John the Baptist, or to any of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible as the first bringing of good news, but I am admittedly being a bit more specifically Christian in my argument. If we define evangelism as bringing the Word of God, and the salvation that Word brings, to all the world, then I cannot imagine a better prototype than Mary.

She carried that Word of God within her for nine months. She gave birth to a child, naming him “God is salvation,” and then raised him up to love the scriptures and to be a part of the community he lived him. She gave him up to his ministry, eventually joining him in his travels when her husband died. Then, worst of all, she gave up her Son to the cross, standing beside him as he breathed his last breath. Even the resurrection, the confirmation that her prophecy before his birth was spot on and that she would see her Son again rightfully seated on the throne of Heaven, meant that she had to send her beloved child away, far from where she could see him or hear him call for her when he needed her.

We are all of us imitators of Mary. Though we do not suffer our separation from Jesus in just the same way, we still can feel some of what she feels. We come into the Church and accept the Word which is given to us. It grows within us, transforming us into people who more resemble the one who saved us. We then share that Gospel with all we can, through love and service as well as through proclamation and testimony. We wait earnestly the day we see Jesus face to face, and for the work to be concluded and our rest to truly begin. We imitate Mary in every step of our spiritual journey, and so to not give her, her due is a shame.

In a moment we will celebrate Holy Communion. Here we receive the gifts of bread and the vine, here we proclaim all that Christ’s salvific work has done for us, is doing for us, and will do for us. Then we all take it, and we receive it into ourselves. We grow strong through this gift of God and then go forward into the world in that strength to share the grace of God with all the world. Each action of the Church, as it pursues service to Christ, calls us to remember some aspect of those who knew Christ while he walked this earth, and few people know any person better than their mamas. On this, our second week of Advent, let us remember the fearless evangelist who brought our savior to the world. Let us all consider, and imitate, Mary in our devotion to the Gospel. – Amen.

[1] Mishnah Makkot. 1.10 Available at: https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Makkot.1.10?lang=bi

[2] Genesis 24: 67 captures one such instance of relations preceding any formal marriage.

The Word Upon our Heart – Lectionary 10/31/2021

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Sermon Text

How do we do what is right? How do we live a life that is worth living? Those two questions undergird a large part of our life. The two feed into each other, or at least they should. When we are asking ourself what makes life worth living, we should hopefully be thinking about how our actions impact our lives and the lives of those around us – hopefully for the good. Contrariwise, if we are asking ourself what is good and what we must do, then hopefully we are looking for it out of something more than simple obligation. We should tie the actions we take and the perspectives we form to our ideas about what makes life worth living. To use put a dollar toward some fifty cent words, we must make sure our praxis – what we do – reflects our theory – what we believe.

The Church, not as any establishment but as the full body of believers, is not always good at following up the things it believes with action. While I can list many things happening here in this church and in every church throughout time that are good and in line with what God has taught us, I can also see a disconnect – again as individuals and as a community – that seem dissonant with God’s vision for the world. While this contrast between ideals and actions is as old as humanity, the Church has a particular set of beliefs it must keep in tension that cause it to lean toward this imbalance. The Church is constantly balancing the instructions which God has given us, those standards laid out in God’s teachings, and the grace God has shown us through Jesus Christ.

God has always shown mercy to the world. From the moment Adam and Eve were given clothing as they left Eden, through the time of Abraham and Moses, even up to the Babylonian Exile – God is a God of grace. While we often split God’s word in two, saying that the Old Testament tells one kind of story about God and the New Testament tells another, the reality is not so simple. We as Gentile believers, that is people who are not first century Judeans, do interact differently with the Torah than the first Christians. We read the prophets differently than Jews do today, connecting even obscure texts to the life of Christ. Even poetry like the Song of Songs we shape to reflect our understanding of the Church, when it has traditionally been considered a story of love between two people. We are part of the tradition that predates Jesus’s ministry on earth, but we are also somehow distinct from it.

The grace which Jesus brought, the mercy of salvation, is universal in its scope. We will never understand all that Jesus’s time on earth meant until we see it completed on the Day of Resurrection. We are people living in the middle of God’s story, at the end of it the mysteries we have been told and the questions left unanswered will suddenly find an answer in God’s salvation of creation itself. Yet, one of the key aspects we can understand about what God did in sending Christ to us is that we, non-Judeans two thousand years later, were able to be included in the same family which began in Ur of Chaldea with Abraham’s call to enter Canaan. We were allowed to know the God of Israel fully, through the work of Christ which removed all barriers to us.

Unfortunately, we often teach that one such barrier was God’s instructions – the Torah. We read Romans and the Gospels selectively enough to think that Torah, often translated as “Law,” is somehow a dirty word among God’s people. We cannot talk about the “Law,” without visions of legalism. We see the commands of scripture in harsh, consequentialist terms, “You will do this, or you will suffer that!” We project our anxiety about obligation onto the Hebrew Scriptures and say that, “Before Jesus, everyone was trying to work their way into Heaven, after Jesus we were enlightened and knew that only God could save us.” We created a false sense that in the Old Testament, God was a God of Works, but now we know God differently, as a God of Grace.

The truth is that God has always been a God of Grace and that God remains today a God of Torah. I mentioned earlier that the translation of “Torah,” as “Law,” is simply that, a translation. I usually do my best to translate Torah directly from Hebrew. Anytime we read a passage from the Hebrew Bible and see “Law,” we must understand that the word used actually means “Teaching.” When the Hebrew was turned to Greek, the translators chose to use the word “Law,” in place of “Teaching,” shaping how we read both Hebrew and Greek even into the modern era. While people like Paul understood both realities, speaking Greek but knowing Hebrew, we often see God’s teachings in the same way we do tax law – they are hard and fast strictures that are boxes meant to be checked.

In some ways, that is a natural response to how the New Testament discusses Torah. Jesus was often in conflict with holier-than-thou members of the religious establishment. Whether they were Sadducees or Pharisees, writers or lawyers, he constantly butted heads with people who were more concerned with being technically correct than actually good. Yet, Jesus was also perfectly clear that his business was about fulfilling the Law and not throwing it out. Paul, in his sprawling reflection on salvation in Romans, sought to equalize his Jewish fellows and Gentile believers – both of whom had begun to fight over who was “really,” the Christians in the room. Paul spoke describes the Torah in this argument, as a “Law of Death,” which has led us as Christians to often think of it as something we have moved beyond. However, Paul also explains that God gave us a good gift in the Torah, we are the ones that made it into a tool to judge others rather than transform ourselves. We made it a Law of Death, not God.

One of the key problems with how we try to talk about God’s teachings is that checklist mentality we talked about a moment ago. Similar to how we sometimes see God as a vending machine where certain inputs get us certain benefits, we see any list of rules as something we must do and then be satisfied we did it. This is formally called “obligationism,” the idea that we do good things because we are asked to them. In obligationist thinking, life is all about actions in themselves and not what is behind them. Jesus fought with obligationists who could list every way they kept the letter of God’s law, but never cared to talk about the Spirit of it. When you only think of the world in terms of obligation, you do not think of doing “good,” you think of doing what you have been asked.

Let me put it more relevant terms. If I believe obligation is what makes me a good person, then every day I will wake up and make a list of things to do. I must go to the office. I must type up worship materials for Sunday. I must call three people. I must go home. I must greet my wife when she gets back from her Church. I must clean the house. I must make dinner. I must say a prayer or two. I must sleep at least five hours. None of the things I listed there were bad things to do. Some of them contribute to good in the world. Yet, let me go to just one part of that list. If I give you a call, as your pastor, and you were to ask me why I called, would you at all be happy with the answer, “As a United Methodist Minister, visitation and pastoral care is part of my job description, and I am meeting that requirement in calling you.” Is there anything more soulless than that?

No, God does not give us instructions so that we can become better at checking boxes. God gives us teachings so that we can become better people. As we practice good things we become good people. Always we live in the flesh, limited and prone to doing wrong, but if we really believe God has spoken to us through the Word and the Spirit, we have to do more than just what is asked of us – we have to actually change how we think and how we are. Rather than focusing on life as a series of obligations we have to meet, we should see it as a series of situations we must respond to. It is not enough to do something because we have been told to do it, we must grow to want to do good regardless of whether or not that good is asked of us specifically.

Let us think of our relationship with obligations through another lens. I gave you a simple checklist vision of my job, but let us understand going beyond obligation through the prism of marriage. Hopefully those of us here who are married are willing to say they love their spouse. If they are here with you today, I encourage you let them know that. I’ll even take a moment to let you. Marriage has certain obligations to it – we are obligated to care for one another, to be faithful to one another, to live a life in concert with one another. However, that last one makes it so no list is sufficient to explain all we have to do for a spouse. I can empty the dishwasher all I want, that does not mean I’m growing closer to my wife. She can refocus my thinking when I’m in a depressive episode, but if she is only trying to meet an expectation it probably will not help.

The truth of God’s teachings, wherever they present themselves, is that they are meant to be internalized. We understand rules first as obligations. We do not hit our siblings or our friends so that we are not punished by our parents. We do good because it makes people in our lives happy. Our obligations are tied to consequences. Yet, when the rubber meets the road, we will find more situations that do not have fixed answers than situations that do. I know I am to feed the hungry, but what does that actually look like beyond handing someone a sandwich? I know I’m to love my neighbor, but what does mean when it gets to be November of next year and I have to cast a ballot for one politician or another?

Scripture gives plenty of commandments. We know ten that are easily brought to mind, but we often number the full scope of teachings in the Torah to 614. 365 things that God called Israel to do and 249 they were not to do. Just building off of the Ten Commandments I hope we can see that they are good to keep. We should love God above all else and we should honor our parents and we should definitely not kill anyone or steal anything. However, if I only learn not to kill, I am not any better a person than I was before – unless I was especially violent. The knowledge that I should not kill, or that I should honor my parents, means nothing if I do not grow from the practice of seeking peace and of showing honor.

God did not give Israel a list of things to do win their way into Heaven. If nothing else, there was no belief in an afterlife in Israel until the time of the prophets, so they weren’t working for anything beyond this life we are living now. God gave Israel rules to live by with the hope that they could become more like God, more loving, more holy, more willing and able to bring justice to an unjust world. God is a God of grace, God saved Israel because God loved Israel and not for anything they did. God extended that grace to the world through the work of Christ, and that grace likewise can lead us to become good in the same way the Torah was meant to make us good.

The Spirit works within us and the Word of God we read shows us the fullness of God’s teachings. In the myriad laws of the Torah, we should not see a checklist to fulfill and be done, but a set of standards that reveal something about God and ourselves. My house does not have a roof I can stand on, so the Torah’s teaching about parapets meant to keep people from falling off of them is not relevant to my life. However, that teaching lets me know that life is sacred, and that not taking necessary precaution to save lives is the same as taking a life. An especially important lesson in the world we live in today where even this piece of cloth can be a life or death measure.

The command that our scripture for today has is one of the key teachings of the Torah. God’s word is asked to be written all over the lives of God’s people. “Put it on your doorposts! Put it on your arms and your heads. Tell it to your children! Do not let it leave you for a second. Most importantly, etch it into your heart, where nothing can ever take it from you.” The word of God, once it is within us, digs deep roots and offers us real fruit – to grow into the kind of people God would have us be. The prayer God gives us, “Hear of Israel, the Lord is our God the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your being, and all your might.” Reminds us of what transformation looks like. When we write God’s word on our heart, it transforms us into people who seek to do genuine good. When we seek to do genuine good, every part of us is shaped to reflect that new disposition. When we are transformed our actions likewise become good.

We must all study scripture, Hebrew and Greek, Old and New Testament. We must all seek to keep God’s word, not quibbling over which teachings are more or less important, but seeing the virtues behind the commands rather than the virtue of the command themselves. We must all allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit, so that even when we fail we can attest to the fact that we are pursuing perfection in our will, attempting to reflect the goodness of God. We do not do this to be saved, God has saved us already without us contributing anything but our own sinfulness.[1] Now though, God invites us to become Good for the sake of all people, including ourselves.

Write the word of God on your hearts today. Let God’s teachings bring life where once there was only bitterness and decay. Go forward and learn what it means to love, not by just doing enough, but by actively seeking to go above and beyond. – Amen

[1] This sentiment is often attributed to Jonathan Edwards. While a similar sentiment can be found in his Sermon 153 on Romans 4:16, I could find no actual evidence that Edwards said these words. It seems likely this quote is a general truism rather than an authentic quotation.

Son of David, Have Mercy – Lectionary 10/24/2021

Mark 10: 46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Sermon Text

            The connection from one week to another of preaching is not always obvious. As a preacher, I have not often been one for sermon series – that is changing come Advent – but up till now I tend to take each week on its own. For the past three years of my ministry, I have also made use of the “Revised Common Lectionary.” This resource is a helpful tool to pull scripture from all sorts of places. The lectionary lets me pull from some scriptures which might not otherwise make it to the pulpit. The downside to this is that, from week to week, the selected scriptures can sometimes go in very different directions. To utilize a lectionary is to let some control be taken away from you. This opens up another door for the Spirit to draw connections we might not see until we open our ears to hear them.

Last week we looked at two disciples asking for Jesus to make them great. The week before we saw how Job called out to be heard and then received his audience with God. Today these two themes meet in our scripture. Here someone cries out to God, they ask to be saved, and they find their prayer answered. They do not seek glory as James and John did, not to be heard as Job had, yet in his answered prayer the deeper truth of both becomes clear. God listens to us, and God desires to give us the things we seek after for our own good. Today, as we look at scripture, we are not going to find a surefire formula for answered prayer, but we are going to see the love God has for us and the strength which we can depend on.

Our scripture opens with the briefest summary I’m aware of in scripture regarding Jesus’s ministry in any one place. We are told Jesus and his followers went into Jericho and the next we hear of them is Jesus and company leaving Jericho. What wonders happened in that town that were left unwritten? What teachings landed in the soft soil of the people’s hearts, but were never put to paper? Even if Jesus was just passing through, I find it hard to believe he did not have plenty to do. The no nonsense writing of Mark rushes us forward to a specific work of Christ. We are introduced to a blind man named Bartimaeus and the exceptional healing which changed his life.

Blindness, and more generally disability, was not treated consistently in the ancient world. As much as I would like to offer a single perspective that all people held in Jesus’s time, it is sadly never so simple. If we look to scripture, we do get several ideas for mindsets that were contemporary or that predate Jesus. The purity codes of the Torah treat some injuries or conditions in the same way sin is treated – excluding certain people from full participation in community (Deuteronomy 23:1, Leviticus 21:19-20) Jesus is asked several times if Sin produced the trouble that people faced spiritually and physically. (Luke: 13:1-4, John 9:2) Disability is sometimes even described as someone having “evil,” qualities in their limbs or organs. (Matthew 6:22-23.) These all suggest a fairly negative view of disability in the ancient world.

While other, more positive, or at least neutral perspectives exist in scripture and other ancient texts, there was an undeniable negative trend in perspective. Jesus stands out in his ministry because he was sure to separate out sin and suffering. Despite the insinuations of the crowds around him, Jesus did not blame anyone who was sick or disabled for the situations they found themselves in. Jesus extended a hand to those who needed help. There was never an interrogation of them about what they had done, how they became injured or disabled, only ever a desire to restore them to the community they lived within. Jesus listened to the cries of those in need and answered their prayers in the way they asked for them to be fulfilled. Jesus listened and loved with wisdom and mercy.

The story of Bartimaeus is the sort of story most ancient writers would skip. He was a person of no social importance who lived on the outskirts of a city. Yet, Mark tells his story and skips Jesus’s time in the city. Mark wants us to understand that Jesus does not prioritize the same things we do. Somehow the faith of one man, of a social outcast without any means of his own, is more significant than an entire narrative of teaching among “polite” society. Mark shows us Jesus again living the lessons he preaches, helping those who have nothing to offer him and releasing people from things keeping them from participating in the world around them. Jesus looses the chains of an unjust world from the hands of the downtrodden.

The cry of Bartimaeus to Jesus carried over the roar of the crowd. His shouts were condemned by those who stood around him. “Do not bother Jesus, he’s too busy for you!” “Stay quiet and accept what life has given you!” “Do you see the scene you are making right now?” Yet all these cruel words just inspired Bartimaeus to keep shouting. Jesus hears these cries and stops, standing still suddenly along the road. Jesus sends for people to bring Bartimaeus to him. The crowd that chided him now encourages him to approach Jesus. Bartimaeus has thrown aside his clothing, rendering himself completely vulnerable before Jesus. The man stands before him and asks that his vision could be restored, Jesus complies, and he sees once again.

The faith of Bartimaeus has given him a name to be remembered for all time. We hear about his faith every time we read this scripture and he more than most rests in our imaginations. What exactly about him captures us? More than anything, I think we admire his boldness. Bartimaeus wanted to be near God and he would not let anything get in the way. He wanted to stand in front of Jesus and know what God’s mercy felt like. I do not know if Bartimaeus expected to see that day, but I know he expected to be heard. His cry to Jesus utilizes a voice in Greek that is meant to get a person’s attention. Like calling someone by their full name, the vocative is meant to perk up someone’s ears.

There is much we can take from this story, and we only have so many minutes this morning to talk about them, so we will try and be selective in our reading for today the key takeaway that today’s verse has for us in our daily life is what it looks like when we pray. When Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, he was offering a sincere prayer to be made whole. While we typically associate cries for “mercy,” with avoiding punishment the phrase has more to it than that. To seek mercy is to ask for God to make us whole, to restore us to somewhere or transform us into something. The lesson that should be most obvious to us from reading about this event is that we do not have to fear that our prayers go unheard. When we cry out to God, God stops, stands up straight, and brings us close to hear what it is we need. We should boldly approach the throne of our salvation.

Prayer is as simple as that and yet we cannot pretend we understand every aspect of prayer. Not unlike our look at Job, the mystery of God’s relief of our suffering is sometimes just as obscure as God’s presence in the midst of our suffering. We offer prayers here every week, some of them we see answered in immediate and obvious ways, and others – if they are answered – are not answered quickly or in any noticeable way. When we pray for disease to be healed, sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. When we pray to avoid disaster, sometimes disaster still finds its way into our life. When we pray, even just for peace, sometimes we find that we cannot escape the dread that seeps in behind our eyes.

A cynical mind could easily see something fickle about this. Why does one prayer seem to be answered, sometimes in astounding, fire from heaven kind of ways? While another seems to go unheeded? If we knew that answer, I think that we would be in possession of some of the most precious information we ever could. To know the secrets of how God pours grace on the earth would be to know how miracles fall from Heaven to earth. I’d give a lot to know that.

Yet, like so many things, we do not know how God answers our prayers, only that God does hear us. Sometimes we will try and explain prayer as being stopped by demons or blocked by sin, but to do so almost always shrinks God into someone who can only answer prayers that are worded just so or are spoken by just the right kind of person. That presentation of God is not consistent with scripture, it certainly does not look like Jesus does in this passage we read today. When it comes to the kind of work that God accomplishes through our prayer we should not idly speculate on mechanics. Instead, we need to look at what is plain to us about prayer and what God accomplishes through our prayers, even when we might feel they have not been heard.

Firstly, we cannot deny that prayer brings us closer to God. When we take time to intentionally reach out to our creator, we find our creator reaching back toward us. Every time we pray, whether we say something silently in our heart or aloud, whether we are in private or in the presence of other people of God, we are present with God. The same fire at the center of creation that put light behind the stars is the warm presence we feel within our hearts as the Spirit settles within us. The one who set the foundations of the earth is the one who holds us in a single strong hand. To pray is to be close to God and to be close to God is to be where we are meant to be.

Prayer also brings us closer to one another. When we pray for one another, the space between us dissolves. Whenever we gather together on Sunday, we are all fairly close together here in this sanctuary, but we are not the only people gathered this morning. All those worshipping at home, watching on Facebook, are here with us as we worship and pray. All the people we mail the service to every week join us in prayer, whether they wait till Sunday to read and pray alongside us or open their letter as soon as they get it and pray ahead of us. Prayer brings us together, it makes our love for one another stronger, it makes us be intentional in caring about each other.

 This is not just spiritual or sentimental in nature, but an observed neurological reality. When we make a habit of praying and when we pray for any length of time, our brain begins to reshape itself. In his book, What God does to Your Brain, Dr. Andrew Newberg explains that habitual pray can temporarily limit the use of our parietal lobes. This is, for reference, the part of your brain closest to your ears. Among its many functions, it helps us to differentiate ourselves from our environment. When it turns off, we become less aware of ourselves as individuals.[1] The reality of our identity as, “the body of Christ,” is most obvious to us when we are praying. We are not just our individual selves, we are part of something much bigger.

These considerations would be acceptable to anyone. I could tell you prayer makes me feel closer to God and an atheist could agree I probably feel that way. I can show you the science of how the brain reroutes itself during prayer and even the most seasoned skeptic would at least be interested in reading that research. What makes prayer so important to us, what makes it more than just a thing we do to feel good, is the fact that it does produce results. If it did not, we would not keep doing it. People are healed by prayer, strength is given to us by prayer, God does work wonders on this earth because prayers are offered up. The story of Bartimaeus, if it ended just with everyone feeling a little bit closer together, would still be significant, but it would not be the kind of story that we tell again and again.

I can tell you myself of miracles that I have seen happen through tireless prayer. A woman I know felt that God has promised her a child, and after dozens of tests showed her that her baby was going to be stillborn, she still held onto that hope. She had her baby, and that daughter should be graduating college right about now. I know that a minister of mine growing up fought Parkinson’s for years, and through prayer he went into remission – something that is not physically possible for Parkinson’s – for five years. Even recently, when Grace’s bottle of Adderall she takes for ADHD was accidentally thrown away, I prayed that she would find it before she needed it most. The next few weeks were a struggle, but when she had her yearly DCOM interview, she found a single capsule of Adderall in her pill box that helped her go into the meeting fully able to show her brilliance.

I cannot answer why prayer does not always seem to get the result we want. I pray often for my wife’s fibromyalgia symptoms to lessen, or her migraines to be relieved, and oftentimes that does not happen. Yet, whenever a prayer does seem to be answered, I know that I can glory in what God has done. That God answers any prayer shows that God loves us and listens to us, that knowledge should tell us that even when our prayer is not answered in an obvious way, God is still beside us listening and acting to help us. Christ, dying on the cross, the most gruesome death imaginable, cried out to God, and in that moment, Christ felt well and truly alone. Yet I believe Christ, both as a member of the Trinity and as a human being, never let out a cry that God did not hear. Even in the darkest moment of his life, even when all seemed lost, God was still listening, and God still cared deeply for God’s son.

As children of God, as people saved by the work of Jesus Christ. We all must cry out to God. A few weeks ago, we spoke about letting God know about our pain, now I ask us to let God know our needs! We must have faith that God will hear us, and hope at all times to see our prayers answered. The worst that can happen is that we grow closer to God and one another. If that is the worst outcome of taking a step out and shouting my prayers to God, then I only stand to gain through offering up my prayer. So let us all, whenever we can and whenever we need it, join Bartimaeus in crying out, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!”. – Amen.


The Greatest Disciple – Lectionary 10/17/2021

Mark 10: 35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Sermon Text

            We talked a few weeks ago about how the disciples fought with one another over who would be greatest. The lesson they received soon after their argument on that Judean backroad was that only the most lowly among them would be considered great in God’s kingdom. God sought to move our definition of strength and power away from simple doctrines of might making right and toward an understanding of a Kingdom ruled by slaves, putting even the greatest of rulers to shame by the love and mercy they showed to those around them. This teaching was not simply a positive encouragement to do what is right. Jesus remained clear that an inability to repent would be equally as dangerous as repentance would be blessed. The life of the Christian is split between the reality of our sin and the promise of our righteousness.

Jesus would teach for some time in Capernaum. He taught on the importance of fidelity in marriage, the dangers of wealth, even upon the sanctity of children within his Kingdom. The people gathered were amazed at his teaching, they were challenged by his words, yet they listened on. They listened, that is, until Jesus again returned to his most difficult teaching. This teaching being that the end of his ministry was not going to be in a triumphant victory over worldly powers, but a shattering of death itself through the death of the messiah. Jesus taught, once again, that the victors in this universe would ultimately be found among the broken, the poor, and the servant, not among kings.

The response that Jesus gets to this teaching is almost identical to the previous time he taught this. However, rather than all the disciples arguing behind Jesus’s back, two have learned well enough that they can approach Jesus with questions. They have, all the same, failed to learn what about their ministry draws them closer to Jesus. Rather than asking Jesus how they may be better servants or how they might better prepare themselves for Jesus’s passion, they simply as for Jesus to give them places of honor.

The other disciples find out about this and lash out at James and John for their boldness. Jesus, ever the teacher, sees that he is still fighting an uphill battle in leading his disciples into the Kingdom. When we look at the Gospels, Mark tends to be the most direct when it comes to telling Jesus’s story. However, because Mark is so direct, there is more obvious repetition of certain events. While Matthew and Luke fill the space between the disciples continued questioning and misunderstanding of Jesus, we see almost from one page to another how the disciples continue to struggle with Jesus’s identity. The alternative community which Mark is offering in the way he tells Jesus’s story is a lofty goal for the disciples to become a part of and reading through Mark we find again and again what details are most important and what obstacles stand the most firmly against us.

The repetition of this lesson also shows us how Jesus’s disciples are growing in their understanding of Jesus and his ministry. The first time Jesus taught that he was to be killed, it led to a public confrontation with Peter. The second time it led to the disciples fighting over who among them was “the best.” Now there are at least two disciples who, while still not fully understanding of Jesus, are at least speaking directly to Jesus about their desires. As self-serving and convoluted as their request to be placed beside Jesus is, it shows that they have begun to realize that if they want to know about the Kingdom of God, Jesus is the person to go to.

Jesus responds to his disciples’ request in a way that acknowledges that growth. Rather than chastising them, he redirects their thinking away from questions of who will be top dog toward more practical concerns of weathering the storms of this life. Jesus poses the question, “Can you drink from the cup I am about to drink and be baptized with the same baptism,” but regardless of how James and John answered this question the conclusion of Jesus’s teaching would be the same. If they stayed in Jesus’s ministry they would suffer as Jesus suffered.

That was the basic expectation, they were not afforded any special privileges for simply doing what was the natural conclusion of their work. Jesus was clear that to follow him was to give up any expectation we had of a life free of sacrifice. The anger of the other disciples when they learn what James and John had asked is likely tied to two equal yet opposite ideas. On one hand, James and John were likely seen as acting unfairly by asking such a question.

The disciples rejected them asking for honor out of a perceived righteousness they saw in themselves, saying something along the lines  of “I would never ask such a selfish thing!” On the other hand, the disciples may have been frustrated that James and John had thought to just walk up and ask Jesus such a question. This concern takes form, not because they see this request as wrong, but because they had not thought to ask that question themselves. The sons of Zebedee had realized that asking Jesus led to answers, while the other disciples still believed they could argue their way into the kingdom. The disciples, in either case, pushed against James and John for doing something they had not tried – trusting Jesus enough to directly ask for what they wanted.

Where Jesus gently redirected James and John, his response to the other disciples has a harder feeling to it. To disrupt the angry crowd his followers had suddenly become, Jesus speaks in his most direct language yet regarding the attitude his disciples should apply to their lives. Jesus accuses the disciples of acting like Gentiles seeking Roman political power. Counter to the idea they may have had that they were being pious by having these arguments, Jesus places their behavior as secular at best and “Gentile,” at worst. In first century Judea, that sort of insinuation would have carried weight.

Jesus goes on to describe this Gentile-Leadership mindset. The NRSV, and most other translations I read, does a poor job at rendering Jesus’s words here. While the translation we just read speaks of people, “Lording,” authority over one another and acting as “tyrants,” Jesus’s words are more general than bad leadership.  Jesus is speaking here to how people lead generally, not just to the worst examples of leadership. Despite the strict hierarchies and power struggles present in the world around them, Jesus called his disciples to see their greatness coming from a willingness to serve one another. The people of God cannot see one person as exceedingly great over any other, because all people are servants – from the oldest and most senior elder to the newest member.

The Church does not always follow Jesus’s model of leadership. We can point to periods in history and plenty of our own personal anecdotes that show the people of God seeking power and influence and control rather than trying to serve one another.  This problem is most obvious among clergy because we have more opportunity and systemic backing than most people in the Church. Yet, the tendency to seek after power is not limited to any group within the Church, it is a temptation we all can give into. It is something that can appear in friendships, workplaces, even in our families. The desire to get what we want, no matter that cost, that is never far from us.

Of all the teachings of the Methodist Church, few are more important than how we see the organization of the Church. As any of us gathered here may attest, the exact organization of the Methodist Church can seem arcane at times. Committees and charges and districts and conferences all flow into a complex web of oversight and reporting. Despite this reputation, the intent of our structure is to be as egalitarian and democratic in nature as possible. The chair of the council of bishops is not any more important or spiritually significant than any believer seated in a pew. If you are a Christian, the United Methodist Church sees you as just as worthy and capable as any other Christian.

Leadership in the United Methodist Church is therefore meant to be seen as people being called to take on leadership among equals. When someone accepts a nomination to a committee or a call to ministry, it is not as though they suddenly become more important or holy than others, but that they are living out their service to God in a particular way. Even Bishops, having taken on as much responsibility as they have, are no more significant than any other faithful member. We are all of us servants to one another, even if our gifts lead us to serve one another in specific ways or through leadership positions, we can never assume we are greater than one another, because we all serve with the same expectation to seek one another’s good.

This does not always seem to be the case and it often is not the case. We all see our positions in life as ways to get what we want, at least occasionally. Whether that is gathering praise and benefits for our work or getting our name attached to a successful ministry, we adore the idea of climbing the ladder. In some ways, this is not inherently bad. “A worker is due their wages,” after all and we should celebrate the achievements of those around us. (Luke 10:7) This includes standing up for ourselves and standing together in solidarity with others whenever we can.  Whether that be in Unions or one on one advocacy, asking to be respected and seeking our honest due is no sin. The problem emerges when the desire for more authority and power overcomes our desire and real capacity to do good.

When we live a life in line with Christ, we will find opportunities to take the lead. Sometimes this means career advancements, other times just the chance to raise another person in the faith. I say “just,” because we often times see things like that as lesser than any career goal we may have in mind. The reality is, of course, that there are few manifestations of love and servanthood as obvious as helping one another grow.  This can be growth in knowledge, in the trust we show toward God, or any other number of skills – but that growth should always be tied to growth in general goodness.

Jesus tells us that the greatest people in the Kingdom of God are those who serve one another. Jesus goes further still by removing any criteria about what will define glory in the world to come. The only guidance we have is to live into Christ’s teachings through our service to one another. If we apply this attitude to all aspects of our life, then we will benefit. We will benefit, not because of any rank we attain, clout we collect, or wealth we acquire, but because our service to one another will be a gift even in itself. Jesus speaks as though Heaven may have some hierarchy, but even this seems an earthly way to describe something presently beyond our comprehension. If we truly seek only to love and serve one another, then no title or power will overcome our plain desire to love and the satisfaction that comes from selflessness.

If we wish to be great in God’s economy of Grace, then we must ask ourselves often and honestly how we can serve one another. This mindset begins at home and goes out into the world. We often encourage our children to think about how they can serve their parents, but I encourage parents to ask the same question for how they can serve their children. Spouses should ask this of themselves. We should ask it about all the people we regularly meet in our life. Why don’t we do that now?  Because we are used to only one person in a relationship putting that kind of effort in. Truly, unless we are all willing to put service before self, we will see inequalities from some people doing what is right and others taking advantage.

Yet, if we want to transform the world we live in, we have to begin living a life of service in every way we can. If we can begin that here in this church, by loving and serving one another in our household and this sanctuary, we will begin to see transformation. We will all grow together; we will see the blessings of the Church made plain to us. If we go beyond asking to see blessing and begin living as a blessing, then we will truly know what it is to be great and what God’s kingdom really looks like. – Amen.

Revised Common Devotional – 10/13/2021

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Meditation Text

            What defines a person who is living a life worthy of God’s calling? This kind of question is entrenched in pretty churchy language. We do not understand our daily life in terms of “worthiness” or “calling,” but we cannot escape what these words mean to us. To live “worthily,” into what God would have us do is not to earn our way into Heaven – that would be impossible. Every aspect of our life, nonetheless, has something evaluative behind it. I cannot simply say that I have a job or that I am married, we naturally follow up any category of our life with, “Am I good at my this thing?” Am I good at my job? Am I contributing to a healthy marriage? Beyond the simple categorization of our life into what we are, there is the question of whether or not we are truly living into what that categorization would suggest we believe.

            The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is one of my favorites in all of the Gospels. In it we see a comically rich man eating at a table covered in every kind of good thing while a poor man sits at his gates every day, sick and tired, and starves. The two men are not described as having lived particularly holy lives, yet when death comes to call the rich man finds himself in a place of torment and Lazarus finds himself comfortably seated with Abraham. The rich man is baffled, but Abraham states the matter plainly. Because the rich man received an abundance of wealth and food and comfort in life, he now faces torment in death. The poor man, however, who knew only pain, now experiences eternal comfort. There is no complex formula here, the rich man’s desire for more and better has left his eternal destiny to be consumed in less and worse.

            As we make our way through life, we need to define how well we are living in terms that are not tied to how much money we are making or how much stuff we have. We can have all the stuff in the world and never be satisfied and after a certain point, money is no longer a means to take care of ourselves but just a way to get more that we do not need. Wealth is a dangerous thing, and possession of it quickly turns to love of it, which we all know is the root of all evil. (1 Timothy 6:10.) We must all be careful that we are not too enraptured by the wealth we have around us, it will ultimately lead us closer to Hell with every penny we acquire. Only generosity can define how much a soul has accepted Christ, because Christ is, at the end of all things, hospitable beyond measure.

            While we live in a country that demands a great deal of money from us in order to have even basic necessities, we cannot deny that simply living above the poverty line in the United States makes us incredibly rich in global terms. It can be difficult, in the midst of paying bills and repaying loans (especially student loans in my case,) to remember the great amount of wealth that regularly passes us by. We know more plenty today than anyone in history has ever known. How do we use it? Do we spend money to get more things? How often do we ever use our money to help people in this world? Especially those who live all around us.

            The fact is that we all love money more than we ought. Returning to our opening question, we are usually more concerned with living a life worthy of money, of Mammon, than we ever are worried about living a life worthy of the Gospel. We collect money to buy more clothes, or electronics, or entertainment. When we come to our final rest, what will our bank account show we loved? God and God’s people, or consumption and leisure? We have to connect our financial habits to our moral disposition, not for any other reason than Jesus clearly does. I do not pretend to be sinless in this matter, but even as I write this out I feel conviction seeping from my wallet. The sting of every dollar meant for the poor I spend on myself, and every check I could write to help the needy I use to feed my own desires.

            Let us all strive to love God and one another more, much more than we love money.

Our Bitter Complaint – Lectionary 10/10/2021

Job 23:1-9

Then Job answered:

“Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I

Sermon Text

 The book of Job is a tragic masterpiece. Though often overlooked or relegated to specific times in our life, it is a wonder of poetic and rhetorical composition. Few books contain such raw emotional force or as decadent of meditations upon pain as what we see in Job. The story of a man who loses everything, of someone doomed to suffer seemingly in spite of his goodness – captivates us beyond any feel-good story we might otherwise be drawn to. The protagonist of our story is someone we can relate to throughout our lives, a good man who suffers, a good man who seeks answers, a good man who can ultimately only shrug at the enormity of his own question.

This book is often said to be the first canonical book of scripture to be written. Before Moses composed the law or the Chronicler wrote the history of Judah, someone wrote the story of Job. This is partially true. The plot of Job takes place in the Patriarchal period. We are meant to read Job as being alive at the same time as Abraham. Similar stories to Job were written as far back as 3,000 BCE, predating the oldest parts of the Torah by nearly 2,000 years. However, the present version of Job we have today was written after Babylon conquered Judah. Likely, the book as we know it today was still being edited and finalized when Jesus walked the shores of Galilee.

Job, it should also be said, is only a story. Unlike most of scripture, it is not a recounting of historical events. Like the book of Esther or the Song of Songs, Job is a narrative written to teach a lesson, but not a record of history. This is why we see images of a divine court in Job that resemble ancient throne rooms, why Satan and God can bet one another about what Job will do. We are not meant to read Job and receive literal accounts of how God and Satan interact or how a man named Job suffered, we read Job to understand how we as human beings respond to grief, and through the Spirit of God how we can push on through even the hardest times.

To refresh our memory about what has happened to Job up to this point, we go to the very beginning. Job was a man who was blameless before God and humanity. If Job ever did wrong, he begged forgiveness and paid restitutions. Job was rich, but also generous, he had money and family and cattle a plenty. Satan, God’s prosecuting attorney, turns his attention to Job after God brags about his righteousness. Satan scoffs and assures God that if Job did not have all his riches, God would immediately see a different side of Job. God allows Satan to kill Job’s family, his livestock, and to even steal away his health after all else was gone. Job loses everything, keeping only his life, his heartbroken wife, and three friends.

 After sitting in total silence for days, Job speaks. He does not thank his friends or offer any wisdom. Instead, he begs to die. More than this he asks God to wipe out his entire existence. Job asks that God would reach back in time and uncreate the day he was born, letting it sink into the “shadow of Death,” that existed before creation. Where Job’s friends had hoped that healing would have come out of Job’s silence, they were now faced with the reality that a few days was not enough. Job did not cry out hallelujah, he just let out a cry. Weeping, the broken man asked God again and again – “Why me? Why me? Why?”

Job’s friends stepped in and offered numerous answers. They blamed Job, saying he must have sinned, or else God would have spared him this pain. They looked at God and said, “God is good, so this much actually be a good thing that is happening to you.” The friends took their own understandings of God and applied it to this moment, refusing to budge an inch. They believed, not that they might not understand God, but that they knew everything about God. They look at their friend and, counter to everything they know about him, decide he must secretly be a villain, rather than allow themselves to question whether or not there might be more to suffering than crime and punishment. Still Job, now having to defend himself, returns to his question, “Why?”

The section of Job we read today captures a moment when Eliphaz, the first to accuse Job of wrongdoing, has just finished laying another laundry list of possible sin at Job’s feet. Job takes a deep breath and refuses to budge. He looks to Heaven and asks for an audience with God. The courtroom we saw at the opening of the book is the place Job longs for above all others. Job wants to see God, to tell God all he has suffered, to voice his pain even just a little. “If I could only do that,” Job says, “Then God would at least listen to me.” Job does not want to fight God, he just wants God to acknowledge his pain, to have God admit his suffering is unprovoked, to be healed simply by knowing he is not acting irrationally.

Yet, Job is sure that wherever he goes, he will not find God. Job knows God is real, he dreams of an audience with him, but he feels he will never get that chance. The knowledge of God is not enough for Job, he craves more, he seeks to understand why his is suffering, but more than that he just wants to know that he is not alone. Where he had three strong friends at the outset of the book, he now seems to only have three bullies in front of him now. Instead of peace, he finds more reason to cry as they speak to him. Job just needs a single person to stand up for him, even if it is after he is dead, he wants one person to tell the truth about his life.

The book goes on back and forth with Job testifying his innocence and his friends arguing falsely about both Job and God. Finally, God decided to show up. Job received his audience and is told all about the things God does daily. God fights sea monsters and giant personifications of chaos. God makes the stars to sing and feeds every animal and person. God lifts up the enormity of creation and Job responds simply by saying, “I’ve seen enough!” Job’s final words are him refusing to speak again. This does not mean that Job is saying God has answered his question fully, but that Job has now accepted that his question has no real answer. God chastises Job’s friends but commends Job for standing up for himself and for God.

There are times where we, like Job, have to stare suffering in the face. We lose someone we love, we are diagnosed with a dangerous condition, or we fall into a run of plain bad luck. The response we have in those moments says a lot about how we have oriented our lives. Sometimes grief tears us apart, leaving us trapped in its darkness. Other times it can cause us to lash out, seeking to take control through violence. Still, another response might be to simply stop feeling at all, to let the trouble stand on its own and seek peace some other way. I do not believe anyone should be held too closely accountable for their first, instinctual response to trouble. Job took days to even be able to speak, perhaps because his first responses to suffering were too raw to share with others just yet.

Yet, when Job does speak, he gives us a model for how to talk to God when we are in pain. Job does not sugar coat his feelings, he begs for death and demands that the unfairness of his suffering be made known. Job does this while constantly affirming God’s goodness. Job is not upset that bad things happened to him, he is upset that a good God has allowed for them to happen. Job asks to speak to God face to face because he trusts God, he loves God, and his experience of God is currently in conflict with what he knows to be true about God. God looks at Job at the close of this book and affirms his feelings of hurt and confusion, because God knows that Job is justified in feeling that way – it proves Job’s trust in God.

When we experience hurt, we in the Church often rush to explain why we are not really all that sad. Our loss is seen in light of Heaven, our pain is written off as part of God’s plan, our sadness as just a hiccup in a life of joy. None of that is wrong in itself, but when our piety prevents us from truly feeling our grief, we harm ourselves and those around us. When we feel life is unfair, we should let God know. When we cannot see a light at the end of the road, we are on we need to shout our for a lantern. We are called by Paul not to “grieve as those without hope,” But we are never told not to grieve. (1 Thes. 4:13) Life is hard and life can really hurt sometimes. We, like Job, should raise up our bitter complaint to God whenever it is needed. We cannot silence our weeping when it is our tears which bring us healing.

The dangers we face as a Church when we do not know how to mourn is that we become like Job’s friends. Standing in the ash pile with people who have lost everything, we offer up platitudes in place of support. The book of Job is dangerous to read because four out of the six speakers in it are actively lying throughout it. Job’s friends – Bildad, Eliphaz, Zohar, and the elusive Elihu, all offer up really religious answers to explain Job’s trouble. “Job, this is just what happens to sinners, you need to repent!” “Job, God works in mysterious ways.” “Job, you deserve worse, be glad you had anything good to begin with!” The chorus of Sunday school answers to life’s biggest question drowns out the central truth of Job – we just do not know why good people suffer.

The question, “How can a good God allow for evil to exist?” is answered in many ways. This line of questioning is called, “Theodicy,” and usually assumes God is three things – all good, all powerful, and all knowing. The problem with answering why bad things happen is that in order to reach an answer, we usually have to remove or limit one of God’s “all,” attributes. We say God limits knowledge of the future, or allows free choice, or has concepts of “good,” we cannot understand. The problem with making any of these arguments is that, if we imagine God as a three-legged table, then shortening one leg of the table makes the whole thing wobble. To attempt to answer why suffering happens is to immediately reach an unsatisfactory answer.

The book of Job is a template for us in our response to pain because it is honest about what grief feels like. It hurts to lose those we love; it isn’t fair that the wicked succeed and the good suffer, there is something fundamentally wrong about this world we live in. This can cause us to doubt God, to question our faith, but it does not have to lead us to despair. Job shows us that we can trust God is good, we can know in our hearts that there is an all-loving advocate for us who oversees all of the universe, and still feel things are unfair. The cry of Job to be seen and heard by God is answered by the end of this book and I believe we all will receive an answer to our own cries we let out to God. If and only if we are unafraid to voice them. We have to trust God is big enough to take on our worry and disappointment alongside our praise.

God, throughout all of scripture, is willing to suffer alongside us. God does not stand up in Heaven and watch as we all go through the hard things of life. We are constantly given examples of God bending down to interact with us, to lift us out of the trouble we are in and into something more. The ultimate manifestation of this comes in the incarnation. God could not tolerate any separation between humanity and divinity any longer. God took on our flesh so that God could feel all our pain, know all our fear, see all our suffering. God knows what it is to lose a parent, a friend, to suffer illness and pain – Jesus felt it all. There are days we would rather weep than praise, and we can feel confident doing so because Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb. There are time we have questions for God, and we have to remember Jesus’s frantic question on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We can look to the hope of the resurrection because Christ did his time in the grave.

The lesson for today, if we may take one way, is that God is willing to hear us cry out when we cannot make sense of our pain. The question of “Why?” is never going to have an answer we can accept, but God wants us to ask it anyway. When we cry out, when we let loose our fear and worry and sorry, we allow God the chance – if not to answer it – then to come close to us. We trust God because when we asked God to show God truly cared, God stepped down from Heaven and suffered beside us. The story of scripture is a story of a world that is broken, of God calling people to come together to fix it, and when that project does not work out, of God sitting with us in the ash heap. We await joy and resurrection, but if that is not where your heart is today, then let God know it!  God waits for us to voice our bitter complaint. God hears you. God sees you. – Amen.