We, The Older Brother – Lectionary 03/31/2019

Luke 15:25-32

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.

He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’

Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”

Sermon Text

Forgiveness is a difficult thing for us to give, and sometimes it is a harder thing to receive. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we are shown a father who has no problem forgiving, but we are shown two sons who struggle to accept it. On the one hand, there is the younger son who was prepared to sell himself into slavery with his father just to have some means to live by. On the other is his elder brother, the focus of our time today, who struggled to accept that his brother could be brought back into the family.

We can sometimes lose the scandal of the younger brother’s request – that in asking his father to give him his inheritance that he was essentially cutting all ties with the family. In receiving this money early he was saying, “Dad, you are not dying fast enough, so I will kill you in my heart and get it over with.” The boy runs away, and lives a life of pleasure and adventure, and enjoys every minute of it till the thrill and the money runs out.

Taking a job among the most unclean people and unclean animals, the younger son is given time to reflect. He realized that to be a slave to his father was a better situation than most people could ever have – so great was his love and mercy that even when reduced to property, people were still treated with love as though they were family.

The younger son travels home, and his father rushes to greet him. The father gives him honor and glory once again, not caring for a minute what the neighbors might thing of the father throwing a party for the bad son. Imagine that it was public knowledge that a relative of yours had told someone else in the family, “I just want your money, die whenever you feel like it, but I’m gone,” and that same person was given a massive, expensive, and very public welcome home party just a few months later. There would be rumors and accusations flying left and right.

The older son doesn’t waste any time in declaring this party out of line. The good son that he is, he never left home. He stayed behind and worked, in his mind, like a slave to help his father tend to the property. Even here, we see him returning from a day of work in the fields to come home and find a party for his screw up of a brother. This is a hardworking and devoted son, we get things wrong if we say he isn’t. However, he is, in this moment, forgetting what it is to be a family.

The older son, like the younger son, has reduced their father to a computer. You put in a command and allocate some resources, and then you get the desired product. In this moment ever small complaint against his father explodes into a rage. “I worked like a slave for you! And I was not even allowed to celebrate with my friends without buying my own goats.” The Father could be angry with his son, this could be one of those moments like many others in the Gospel where the father kicks the ungrateful son out. Instead, the father responds to this son with love equal to the love he showed the other.

He looks at this angry child of his and slowly reminds him how they as a family belong to one another. We usually translate the first thig the father says as, “My son” or “My child” but what he actually says is simply, “Child.” It is on one hand a reminder for the son, you’re my child as much as he is. It is also an admonition – you may think you know better than me, but remember what you are – a child.

“You are always with me” the relationship between father and son comes first, the father reminds the son that they have had good times in the younger sons absence. You almost get a sense of the father saying, “Remember when we were working together last harvest? Or the week we took off to visit Joppa?” We have each other, and that can’t be taken away by a party.

“All that I have is yours.” Even if the son is only concerned with what the father has to offer, the father gives him all of it. We will remember that at the beginning of this parable the father is said to, “Divide his property between the two.” Just because only one son ran off doesn’t mean that the other didn’t get some kind of forward on his inheritance. He may not have that money now, but he knows that everything left belongs to him. Or at least it did… Now that his brother is back, the son is afraid he is going to lose out – if not by his father losing interest in him, then in the money that will now go to the younger.

The final reminder the father gives is in telling his son, “We must celebrate and be joyous.” Why? Not because the father has gotten back  a son, but because, “Your brother who was lost if found, who was dead is alive.” The father wants the son to celebrate that he has gained back his sibling, that relationship has been restored between both objects of his affection, not just that he gets to have them both back.

This parable is about the family of God, not just some hypothetical farmer and his kids. While we like to see ourselves in the humble child who comes back to the father ready to give everything away, we who have been in the church for some time tend to be the older son. “We cannot let them back into the church, do you remember what they did? They aren’t really Christian, you can’t do this or this and still call yourself Christian!” We stand at the banquet of God, we look at the guest list and we turn up our nose.

We cannot accept that God would let people who disagree with us theologically, politically, or personally. We cannot imagine God would let the cruel, the violent, the foul-mouthed into the kingdom. Yet, when they see God and begin the journey home, God runs back and calls them one of God’s own children.

We look at their repentance, the confession before they take bread and cup or the tearful altar call, and we say, “They can’t really mean it. They’ll be back to their old ways as soon as the emotions run out.” How dare we.

Does this mean we should naively let predators into our congregations? No.  Should we tell the abused to accept the apologies of their abusers without any sign they’re done abusing? No. The reparation of relationships is dependent upon genuine repentance. The son would not be wrong to talk to his brother if he came back to find him stealing or raging, but he instead took offense at a party. He was upset that his father had reinitiated a relationship with his son.

We of the church live on the edge between the free grace of God, and the high expectations we must live up to as the people of God. We should work together to promote goodness and to work righteousness in all the world. However, if we enter into the people of God and spend all our time trying to curate the pews, then we are not working together for good, but against each other for ourselves.

We treat church as if only so much of it is available, that God could run out of mercy and glory to give to us. God is inexhaustible, God is not a vending machine that will one day run out of goods, God is a person who we can relate to. Do we benefit from knowing God? Certainly, but when we act like either brothers in today’s parable we confuse the benefits with the person. The two cannot be separated – we benefit from God because we know God, God shares with us because God loves us. Let those of us who are in the church remember then that we are always with God, that all of God’s good things are ours. Let us trust God that God knows what God is doing in welcoming more and more people into the Kingdom. – Amen. 

A God of Scandal – The Feast of the Annunciation 2019

Luke 1:26-38

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.

Sermon Text

Did you know the feast of the Annunciation was during Lent? I did not.  Where else would you put it though, except nine months before Christmas? This is also, according to some traditions, the original date of good Friday. The idea being that a good man could only die on the date he was conceived, which is one of many contributing factors to Christmas being on the twenty-fifth.

I start with this aside to the timing of the Annunciation because we often place the story of the Annunciation in a similar category to Christmas, that is to call it an offshoot of older pagan myths that Christians adopted, so the argument goes, to integrate into wider pagan society. What if though, they were not just leitmotifs? What if the Annunciation was not a copy paste edit job, but a unique event in history? I’m speaking of a God who is willing to enter into history and subvert our expectations of what God will do.

God calls upon a poor girl, likely a teenager, and tells her that she is to give birth to a king. God, unlike the Zeus or Poseidon, does not achieve this through sexual violence but by a work of the Spirit. God, rather than conceiving within Mary a king who will conquer gives her a king who will die. God came down in the Annunciation and worked compassion and opened the Godhead to human suffering. Nothing about this was an imitation game, but at every turn was a sign of a God who loved us, a God who was willing to upset the status quo for the inauguration of the Kingdom.

That Mary responds to this, a terrifying but astounding mission with such willingness is daunting. This, by all accounts, little girl stands up to a community that would have her stoned as an adulteress. She has to face her fiancée and tell him that she is pregnant, but don’t worry it’s God’s kid no one else’s. She has to face doubt, she has to give herself to years and years of venomous looks and conspiratorial neighbors whispering every time she crosses the yard. She does not know there will be a flight to Egypt, for all she knows she will raise this child with everyone looking to her as a slut and her child as a bastard.

These terms stand out to us because of their evil. To call Mary a slut or Jesus a bastard makes us flinch, we’ve cleaned up the story so that we do not have to think about how all this looked. Yet, when we look out at mother’s raising children alone, no husband, how quick are we to throw these and much more disgusting language around. The single mother is irresponsible, the child is seen as an object of pity or a scarlet let, and no one takes a moment to extend love to either. Or, if someone is willing to love them, do they do so halfheartedly and with a holy pretention to them?

God chose to come into this world in scandal, and the lesson to us was that no matter what the circumstances of someone’s birth – their mother and themselves ought to be seen as blessed. The face of Christ is seen in the faces of the least of these, every one of the least of these.

Rather than looking upon this uncertain and terrifying future with dread, Mary shows us why she will be called, “Blessed among women,” she praises God that she takes part in this scandal of incarnation. Oh, Mary, did you know? Sure seems like she did…

Mary counts this child and all the struggles that will come with it, as a joy. God, she says, “has looked in favor on his humble servant… Has done great things for me.” She recalls all the gifts of God with this new one, the gift of becoming the mother of God. Mary, in proclaiming this work of God then begins to elaborate on how God has and continues to work throughout history. As usual, the presentation of God is not exactly what we might think at first.

God is first described as merciful to all covenant people. We need only look in the Psalms to see the way that God has showered mercy again and again, with every struggle we ever face God is willing to stand beside us in grief and lift us up in exalted healing. Now, with the birth of Christ, there is a new beginning, one in which mercy will spread out across all the world, and God will be able to reconcile all things to Godself.

She calls God strong and describes God as using this strength to dethrone kings and crush the proud. Pharaoh’s army was scattered, Nebuchadnezzar lived like a beast, David and Solomon even faced God’s wrath for their abuses of power. We do not always see how God tears down Babel from day to day, and we need to look no further than our world today to see a great many in power are committing a great number of evils. The promise of God being born lowly is that God knows what it is to suffer under oppression, and God will not forget on judgment day what evils have been committed by the powerful.

She says that God feeds the poor and starves the hungry. We know when God is active in a community because of how much scarcity there is in the area. Where money is hoarded among elites or even wrapped up in the consumer practices of the middle class while people starve, God is not working God’s fullest work. God would have us all give up our pet comforts to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but we have made God out to be a friend of the rich. Luke, from which this prayer comes, makes it clear to any reader that God has no interest in propping the rich up, but has ever interest in clearing them out.

She then closes with a final appeal to the covenant. That from Abraham to today God has been working for the good of God’s people. The Annunciation and Jesus’ ministry is not new work, but a continuation of what God has been doing all along. Jesus’ entry into life was among the poor, among the oppressed, and among the people of Israel. God has always been working among the poor, the oppressed, among God’s people. What makes the incarnation amazing is that God not only enters into human suffering but that God redefines God’s people in the incarnation.

Now, the promises which were forever a part of Israel are all our inheritances. Those who hold onto faith are gifted as Mary was gifted, as Miriam was gifted, as Sarah, and Hagar and Rebekah were gifted. The glory of God is not for the rich, not for the powerful, not for people born in proper circumstances, but for all people and especially for the oppressed. God makes clear throughout scripture, but especially in this moment, that those who side with power will ultimately fail. The Magnificat glorifies God as a savior, and as Jesus as the ultimate sign of this salvation. Let us make sure at all times that we side with God in all matters, that when the kingdom comes we are not among those who will be scattered. – amen.

Silence and One of Unclean Lips – A Sermon Given to Wesley Theological Seminary’s Plumbline

The following is a sermon given to Plumbline, “an interfaith social justice organization dedicated to service, education, and advocacy.” See more from Plumbline here.
Special thanks goes to Grace Milliken for help in editing and making sure appropriate language is used throughout. Please consider supporting their gofundme campaign here.

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Luke 5:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.
He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Sermon Text

What Justice for all means, is that we admit we are a people of unclean lips. Unclean not because of what we say, though we have said more than our fair share of evil, and done even more. And while it is easy to find someone who is openly hateful and violent toward other people, it is hard to find people willing to speak against them when the rubber hits the road. The source of our unclean lips is our silence in the face of evil.

When we see Isaiah in the temple, modern readers usually see it as a statement of humility that Isaiah shouts out, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips!” However, from the beginning, we have commentators writing that the uncleanliness of Isaiah comes from having a message, not sharing it. Oh, he was speaking, but not the full truth he was called to speak. We have five chapters of prophecy before he is called, and in terms of literature we can call that a prologue, or we could take something a bit more spiritual from our reading.

If Isaiah was ritually unclean, he would not be in the temple. If his words are unclean, what do we make of the opening prophecy? What must be understood then is that Isaiah is not afraid of God showing up because of what has been done, but what has been left undone? God comes down, bending the heavens to speak to his people and at the moment that Isaiah sees the Lord he has only one thought. I have not done my job!

It is an easy thing to quote MLK and say that those who stand silent in the face of evil essentially have committed it themselves, it is something else to actually break that silence. To call out against the violent forces in the world, not from the distant comfort of home and hearth. Can we stare the oppressors, the rich, the violent in their eyes and prophecy to them? Can we be Nathan and shout down David from his place of power?

There is, of course, a practical consideration to this. Namely, that to prophecy like this is more dangerous for some people than it is for others. Look no further than Standing Rock, than Fergusson, than anywhere where people stand up against power, power responds with force. The result is that people get hurt, people whose only crime is the desire to see justice done, and for abuse to stop.

What is absent in many of these protests, plain as day, is for the unaffected to take part in fighting against the evils of the world. When unarmed black men are killed, why is there so much silence from white America? When Native Peoples are struck with water cannons and tear gas, why do we focus on anything but their struggles? When women come forward and name the people who have hurt them for years and years, is it worse that people defend the abusers or that even more people are willing to sit with their mouths shut? Let’s just go there and say, when a Church Conference deemed a whole population of believers unfit for ministry, a ruckus was raised, but how were more not openly fighting for them to begin with?

In each of these cases, power would have likely responded with violence no matter who was participating. It is also untrue, and frankly patronizing to say that the problems of the oppressed would be fixed if people of privilege joined in the cause. No, this is not the case, and if we are honest, people of privilege often choose not to speak for but speak over the people they claim to be helping.

Let us not forget that the movement to ship African Americans overseas rather than consider them equal was a movement begun by “well-intentioned” people. The decision to keep schools and facilities, “Separate but Equal” was an insidious doctrine, but one that many well-meaning moderates supported wholeheartedly.

Even today, we see supposed “allies” fighting for things that would ultimately hurt the people they claim to be helping. Advocates who believe that the way to stop school shootings is to put armed police in schools, that it would be better for there to be a new Central conference for LGBTQ individuals to have, separate but equal from the rest of the Methodist Church, and of course all people who, only ever respond to tragedy with thoughts and prayers and not by voting or working for and with those who work against such evils.

No, the solution to our problems in this country is not for people of privilege to ride in on a white horse and save the day, but by them joining forces with existing work. Not seeing themselves as heroes or martyrs but as people sharing the works of righteousness. The work against injustice in the world is not the work of one group, but the work of all people and the Church – black, white, Latinx, Asian, Gay, Straight, Trans, or otherwise – should be leading the charge of righteousness at all times and in all places.

Since I keep using the word, let’s take a moment to unpack privilege. It is a word that makes many people uncomfortable because they see it as something which erases their struggle. Coming from West Virginia, I’ve had many people tell me, “I am as poor as anyone, how can I be privileged?” The answer to this, from one poor Appalachian to another is that we face our hardships in life, just like anyone else, and we work for our bread, just like anyone else. However, for the White Appalachian man, or white men anywhere, we do not face hardships because of our skin color. We do not face hardships for our gender. If we are straight, we do not face hardship because of who we love.

Perhaps, though, because you entered into Academia you had to change your accent, perhaps you grew up in an area without proper school funding, or perhaps you grew up in a town where the only affordable food you could buy was from Ronald McDonald or Colonel Sanders, in this, others may be more privileged. Privilege is not saying that a person has never faced hardships. No, privilege is not having to suffer particular systemic hardships that others do. It is not a way to shut down a conversation, but a consideration necessary in going forward with one.

Which is why it is necessary to call a spade to spade. When we see crimes of minorities plastered online like they prove they are violent by nature. When we see white “pot moms” lauded as entrepreneurs while men and women of color suffer in prison over a few grams in their pocket. We should not say that privilege is at work, we should say that the people propagating these systems are not acting from a place of privilege but a place of racism given power by existing systems. It is hate and not being born to different circumstances that cause these evils. Let us not treat them as things that can merely be taught away, but as things, that must change in the innermost part of a human being.

The circumstances of our birth and our upbringing give us innate power that is reinforced socially and systemically in our day to day. The choice for every individual is then whether they will take that inborn power and actively oppose those who abuse it. Power and privilege are not the same things, neither is racism identical to either, but the three work together – one will beget the other will beget the other. It is the duty of every person to see in what ways they have power and to use that power to stand up against the evils that threaten those around us.

In dismantling these systems born out of hate, we must be aware of our contributions to them. When we speak on behalf of anyone, we should speak with their lived experiences informing our words. When I listed earlier the cases of Standing Rock, Fergusson, General Conference – it is easy for someone to say, “Well I would stand with them, but I do not agree with them.” Be that as it may, did we listen to them? Did we look at their lived experiences and give it equal regard to ours? Listening and learning are things that we as a culture are not overly good at, but it is an absolute necessity in working toward justice. We should not put words into the mouths of anyone, but like Aaron relay what they have taught us in a language that the listener may understand.

We must clean up our language of those words which are ultimately harmful to the causes we claim to defend so that in arguing for the rights of another person we do not become party to the language that has constrained them. This means that we have to keep up to date with our terms, work constantly to know the situation and the appropriate way to speak to it, and while changing the very way we speak about others can be difficult, it’s one small thing we can do to be compassionate to those who have been forced to change the very essence of who they are to get by or even to survive

If we look at how Jesus calls Peter and the Sons of Zebedee, we see a perfect example of what it is to preach to those who are actively hurting others. It is a call in which Jesus sends us into the waters where we, the good preachers that we are, know that nobody is gonna wanna hear us. We cast out the net of our words, and pray that we are going to catch something. The question is, did we clean our nets before we threw them out? Did we have the coal of understanding put to the quiet prejudices of our lips that we would speak only what truth God has called us to speak? The disciples had cleaned their nets, had patched any holes in it, and when they threw it into those dangerous waters… They caught fish.

They caught so many fish that they needed other people to come and help them so that the fish did not drag them under. It is dangerous it follow the call that Christ has put in our hearts, it is dangerous to call to repentance those in power, but we are called to do it nonetheless. If we have done our due diligence in preparing our nets, we must trust that God will give us the haul. If we go forward – all of us, from all walks of life – and join together in championing our causes, then the body of Christ can, at last, be whole and bring into the Kingdom multitudes of people.

Because at the end of the day we are not just seeking Justice on this earth. No, we are also seeking to save the lost, to erase hate from human hearts. So that, having done all things we can stand together as one people, with one God. We call out against those who do evil, we tell them “Repent and believe the Gospel!”

Because we believe that Christ wants them, but Christ does not want their hate, their malice, their greed, their violence. We must not be afraid to face evil eye to eye, whether it be evil in our president, evil in our senators, evil in our bishops, or evil in our very own family. Because at the end of all things, Justice means that we speak out, we rage, we move heaven and earth. We do all things but remain silent. – Amen.

Put Away Your Power – Lectionary 03/10/2019

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.”

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.

The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.

And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Sermon Text

As Lent begins, we look to Jesus’ time in the wilderness as the prototype of our repentance. While Jesus did not enter into the Desert to repent (someone without sin has nothing to repent for,) Jesus did enter into it to teach us, to pray for us, as the hymn says, “Lord, who throughout these forty days for us did fast and pray, teach us with you to mourn our sins and close by you to stay.”

The wilderness was a multifaceted thing in the Ancient World. On one hand, God would often appear to people who lived in the desert as he did to the Israelites and John the Baptist. However, it was also believed that demons were given free rein of the dunes – to ancient Egyptians, this was the domain of Set, God of destruction and chaos, to the ancient Israelites any number of evils may inhabit the dunes, not least of all the demon Azazel. Jesus was sent into the wilderness to pray and fast, but also to make his first earthly contact with the demonic. Surrounded by nothing, Jesus could focus more fully on God, but also had all sorts of opportunity to focus on his human needs and not his divine rights.

When the devil enters the picture, he tempts Jesus with three things which we all might find appealing. Satan promises Jesus food to satiate his hunger, power enough t rule over the world, and finally a chance to demonstrate to all people that he is indeed the Christ. It is hard for most of us to understand what it is to be truly hungry. We live in a world of abundance, and while it is increasingly common for people to struggle to struggle to find food, many of us have more than enough. How tempting though, is power. How much does each and every one of us desire to be in control, not just of our lives, but the lives of others? Power is something all people crave at some point, and power is the one temptation we must never give into.

We as the church are called to serve the entire world. We are to be brothers, sisters, siblings of everyone everywhere. We are to love the community of the faith as the body of Christ we are also a part of and love our neighbors as if they were ourselves. Power is the ultimate block to servanthood. To quote Jesus, “A servant is not greater than their master.” For this reason, we are never to chase after power, to desire to rule over another human being. For this reason, Christians did not take political office for many years. It was only after the church was married to the government with the donation of Constantine that we became infatuated with power.

Now, does this mean a Christian can never have a position of authority? As a seminarian with specified knowledge and who has worked in pastoral capacities, I carry power. If you are a supervisor in your job, you have power. Indeed, every one of us has power over someone or something. The question is, how do we use it. Christ, who after his resurrection was given, “All authority in Heaven and Earth,” did not become a tyrant, but rather continued in service. Christ sent forth the Holy Spirit as a comforter, as a guide, as God within us, that we may live a Godly life.

The Christian, if they find themselves in a place of power, should serve even as Christ served. Not lording ourselves other others, but in all times and in all ways serving as we execute the authority we are given. The Church for too long has blindly sided with power, and it has not been a source of prophetic witness. The Church, the scripture, is not doing its job if people are comfortable, especially those in power. Nathan was always at the ready to show David the way, John the Baptist criticized Herod to the death, and Elijah and Ahab fought as long as both lived. The Church exists to give peace and shelter to the oppressed, to take in all who earnestly repents of their sin, but it always meant to be a thorn in the side of those who are perpetrating evil.

The problem across time is that certain parts of the church become aligned with power in such a way that the Church inevitably finds it more convenient to side with the powerful than to do what is right. When Rome wanted to sack Jerusalem, few stood against it in the name of the Prince of Peace. When Jews were expelled from cities all over Europe, the church was ready to sign off on the pogroms. Even now, today, the church often will support the wishes of the Government, no matter the ethics involved, as long as the sitting president matches the individual Christians political party.

We are in a season in which Republicans have a fairly firm hold on Government, so what is the church supporting out of party loyalty? The building of a border wall, the detention of asylum seekers as though criminals, devotion to those in authority, especially those in uniforms, and as with any politician, but maybe especially now, excusing the sins of an individual because they have taken power, and are offering it to us.

If we had a democratic government, we would have other things to speak prophetically about as a church. It is important to remember that while Christians may choose one party or another, God has no politics outside of God’s own kingdom. God does not care about Democrat or Republican, God cares about righteousness. So, we must discern, is it a good use of power to build barriers that are more about politics than effectiveness, to lock up and separate families who are seeking a better life, to look at the lifeless body of unarmed innocents and say “They got what is coming to them. Above all, perhaps, is it right to support and start conflicts that lead to the deaths of civilians and of service men and women, when they are started not to defend but to assert control. Neo-Colonial exploits to acquire oil rights or to establish new, more pro-us governments.

In all things, we must question how power is used, and critique those who use it poorly. It does not only extend to our votes though. In our day to day, we exert power. Are you a supervisor over someone? How do you treat you, employees? Are you a parent? How do you treat your children? Are you in a relationship? How do you treat your partner? There is always a power dynamic at play, and we choose how we maneuver around it. Do we take advantage of the power we are given, or do we use it to the benefit of those with less power than us? Servant leadership is not a new idea, its as old as the Church.

Christ, king of all creation from the beginning of time, had all the authority of God. Yet, at the moment that Christ was given the chance to save us, to establish a true relationship with us, Christ gave up all that power. Christ, “not taking equality with God as something to be grasped,” gave up all their power. The Greek says that Jesus, hollowed himself, of all the rights of Godhood so that Jesus could become like us. We, in serving others must be prepared to hollow ourselves out, to remove all the power we have accumulated, and serve people with authority, sure, but not by overpowering them.

Sometimes we cannot change what gives us an advantage, I cannot change that I am white or that I am a straight man. These things inevitably make my life easier, not that I will never face trouble, but never face specific troubles. I am not likely to be harassed because of my gender, my race, my sexuality – and all of that is a power in itself. I cannot put aside my power, but I can use it properly. We are called to be servants in a sacrificial way if your Christianity does not ask anything of you, does not make you feel uncomfortable and sometimes weak, then you are not practicing it correctly.

If the king of all creation was willing to die for me, willing to go forty days without food to teach me what it is to draw close to God and deny temptation, then shouldn’t I be willing to give up my rights? Shouldn’t I be willing to take a risk and unashamedly make myself lesser? If we do not use our power to help the oppressed, then we are through our silence aiding in their oppression. Let us never become unclean of lips through silence, but lift our voice against all injustice.

If we look at our reading from Deuteronomy we can see what God would have our world look like. Giving to God the first fruits of our production, showing that we are not afraid of not having enough. Telling those we give it to the story of God’s redemption. “We were once oppressed, but now we have power. We have been given food, land, security by God. God alone truly holds the right to any of it, and now I give some of it back to God.” What are we told then? That our willingness to give away what we have then leads to a celebration.

A celebration of the people, the priests, and the strangers who have moved among them. Asylum seekers, the new neighbors from another country or of another race, from a far away town, from the big city, or perhaps a homeless person who is just wandering through. No matter what makes that person other, your place in the community means you have something they don’t, the question is how you use that power. Do you work to exclude them? Or do you open wide the doors of the church, the community, and put off your perceived rights, your inherited power? The choice is yours, but only one is truly of God. Free us, Lord, of the chains of our privilege, free us for joyful obedience. Amen

Repent for Lent – Ash Wednesday 2019

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?  Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”

Sermon Text

Christianity must contain eschatology. That is to say, Christianity is a religion that is meaningful because it has an ending. The resurrection of the Christ allows us to see forward to our eventual resurrection. The purification of our souls through Christ’s redeeming blood is our salvation, and the sign and seal of that salvation is Christ’s resurrection from the dead. We cannot simply live in the peace of Christ dying for our sins, without the challenge and promise of his resurrection.

We do not enter into a season of happiness now. We enter into a season of quiet, a season of contemplation. Now is the time where the Church all over the world should commit itself to setting things right. Lent, the preparation for Easter, is a long stay in the tomb with the crucified Christ. Here we look inward at the reality of our brokenness, the sin-sick souls that we have no hope of healing on our own. Now is the time of weeping, now is the time of deep and penitential  prayer, now is the time to make ourselves aware of our bonds so that when Easter finally comes, we can leave them in the grace – folded up, set at the foot of the slab where we had laid ourselves down in our sin.

Christianity is given meaning in its ending, a time where we know Christ will return and right all wrongs. This the promise that we will be vindicated, that God will wipe all tears away, and that all will be as it was meant to. However, it is also a time when we must own up to all the wrongs we did. If we believe in Christ then we are indeed saved from our sin, but that does not mean that there is no recounting of them. The redeemed, though they stand free from damnation are nonetheless put to judgment, no one is spared the walk up to the Master, to be told to go either to the left or to the right.

We all have done wrong, otherwise, the cross was in vain. We all sin, or else we are lying to ourselves. If we decide that we, being washed in the blood, now have no need to repent – to change our ways, then we are mistaken. While I have no doubt that Christ is sufficient to save anyone who believes in him, I also believe that Paul is correct in saying that this can be a salvation, “But from the flames.” In which, all that we have built up in this life is burnt away and we enter heaven empty-handed. Yes, we inherit the fullness of God, but there is something in the teachings of Christ and of Paul which suggests that the Kingdom does have levels of benefit for certain peoples.

Does this mean that heaven is a meritocracy in which only the holiest find joy? Of course not! However, it does mean that we can enjoy the full benefits of heaven in the now and the hereafter if we are only willing to, “build up our treasures in heaven.” This is not a statement to make the poor feel like their poverty is a blessing, that they should grin and bear the here and now, but instead a strong statement against those who hoard wealth. Those of us who have too much, who benefit from the ability to be at rest, who surround ourselves with trinkets and gadgets, constantly upgrading them and wasting money on our stomachs rather than on our neighbors.

Jesus goes further in today’s scripture that there is something wasteful about the way in which we usually go about doing good. That’s right, there is wastefulness even in the way that we do good. The examples presented are not meant to strike at the hearts of the elite only, although if we are honest Jesus had the most problems with those at the top of the proverbial latter. No, these were trespasses that anyone could commit, not just the rich and powerful. The sins of the heart which are common to all people are here laid out for us.

Do you give to the poor? Not just to the church, though tithing is important, do you give to the poor? The people who are by the side of the road, panhandlers and window washers. Do you see them and have pity on them, do you see them and give good things to them? I would hope so, but the reality is that many of us do not. Still more, when we do give to the poor, we find ourselves telling others about it as soon as possible. It is not satisfactory enough that we have completed Christ’s command, “give to whoever asks of you what they ask of you,” but we must also have glory for it. How many posts do we make about “paying it forward” on Facebook, or how many stories do we share in which someone tells of the good they’ve done for someone.

There is an entire culture around what some call, “Inspiration Porn.” While this may seem like a strong title I think that it is fitting, it takes the good actions of humanity and commodifies it. We are able to take in good feelings just by reading someone recounting what they did to help someone else. This is not to say all sharing is bad, and certainly elevating others who do good is a noble pursuit. What I am saying is that we should not be wrapped up in our own self-promotion, or encourage others who want to show the world how holy they are. You can share the article that was written about you, you can tell people the organization you work with and what they do, but be careful that you do no chase after feeling good for being good.

In the same way, praying should not be something we do for show. Jesus is not, as some have interpreted, saying that all public prayer is wrong. What he is saying is that, much like with giving, if you go out of your way to pray in such a way that people will see you and think, “Dang… That’s one holy person.” Then you are in the wrong.

How many times do we, because we don’t want to look bad, raise our hands during a worship song? How many times do we look extra contrite during a sermon lest someone look at us and thinks we’re not engaged? Jesus wants your prayer to be authentic, you worship to be really about you, God, and the community you’re in. He goes so far to say that if you are gonna be caught up in the pressure of public prayer, you would do better to pray alone. We all can get pressured into religious expressions we are not feeling, but Jesus is telling us to be authentic.

Not feeling like singing a praise song? Stand up, join in with the community, but do not feel bad if you frown your way through “Marching to Zion.” If a sermon is not touching you, do not nod your head or shout amen just to look engaged. Worship is communal, so yes we should strive to be on the same page as much as possible, but if have to choose between being authentic and looking like you have it all together – then pick authenticity.

The final point Jesus makes, and what I will use as the launching point for our Lenten sermons going ahead, is that when we fast we should not do it in a way that’s obvious to the public. Not only this, but Jesus says that you should look better when you fast than when you’re eating. Take that extra step to look presentable, not just because it helps keeps your piety private, but because you are doing a good thing. You are taking steps toward God. By willfully holding off from food, you are allowing God to speak to you in new ways. If I’m going to be seeing an old friend, I try to look a little more presentable, and I’m usually happy about that meeting. So, do not look sad when you fast or you’ve given something up for God, be happy. It means you get to meet God in new ways.

We are entering into Lent. We are facing up to what we have done wrong. We should not engage these forty days with pomp and circumstance. No, today begins a period of time when we inhabit our death. “Dust we are, and to dust we shall return.” What is born from that dust, what is born out like a phoenix shaking off the ashes of its parent, that is for God to work within us. We should be contrite, we should not broadcast our contrition to the world. We should seek to repair relationships, we should not tell that to people so that they congratulate us. We should pray more, but not so that people think better of us. We should review what we have, and give more, but not so that we seem like more generous people.

We should repent for Lent. Forget what you will, “give up” in terms of chocolate or sugar or whatever it may be. Still do this to train yourself in discipline, but focus more on your soul. “Rend your heart, not your clothes.” Be kinder, own up to what you have down wrong, ask forgiveness and give it freely. Lent is a season of prayer, of fasting, and above all else of returning to God. As we sit in the ashes of our sin, the garden that we have burned, we look toward the restoration of all things Christ has promised us. So let us commit ourselves to the works of God, not so that others will know we are good, but that we may turn to God and find blessings where once there was desolation. That in all our conduct we make it obvious, that God is good. – Amen

Loving Glory – Lectionary 03/03/2019

Luke 9:28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said.

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Sermon Text

The transfiguration is the first time that any of the disciples really knew what they had gotten themselves into. At the top of that mountain, they saw Christ in his full glory. Suddenly their teacher, the one they knew as Messiah, became something more than that. Jesus was not just a human being who could bring about miracles – now he was a miracle in himself, shining in the same glory as those who have been in God’s presence show.

Moses is described in the wilderness as meeting God regularly, and after each meeting, he would return to the people. They were never happy to see him, not because he came with more rules, but because he was terrifying. His face shined, not only like it was its own light source, but as something which had been given glory. We do not know what glory looks like, we have never seen what that kind of light looks like. Glory is something which is brighter than the sun, than any light we have ever made or will ever make. Glory comes from God, and nothing but the presence of God allows us to take it on, to be glorified.

The disciples, when they see Jesus in glory on the mountain respond reasonably enough. They are woken from something of a stupor, tired from their long climb, and when they see this glory they want to build tents for these glorious figures to live in. The problem with their offer of hospitality is that they responded to this new revelation by trying to hide it away. They did not do this intentionally, they were earnest in giving honor to the figures before them. Moses built God a tent, so why should they not build tents now?

Much like the way in which a flower dies when it is picked for us to enjoy, glory is diminished the moment we confine it. This does not mean that Jesus, as soon as he entered a tent would become just another guy, but that by hiding the light of glory the light loses its benefit to us. If we believe, as John says, that Jesus is the Word, and the Word was life and that life was the light of all who live – then we must believe that the light exists not simply to shine, but to shine for us! We are gifted in that God did not simply create glory to shine for its own sake, but to give us direction.

If Jesus or any of the others present entered into a tent, then their glory could not be seen by disciples and it could not be transferred to others. Why then would we want to hide the glory away? Not simply because we are hospitable, but because we want more than anything to make sure we do not lose it. In the same way that Moses put a veil on his face so the Israelites would not know that the glory that shone from his face faded, we always try to wrap glory up in a package, something that we can see, confine, control. We take the glory of God, free and shining across creation, and we put it in a tent, behind a veil, and we lock it away from the world – making it so it can never be seen.

How do we do this in our daily life? We withhold goodness from people, we do not care for the needy, we do not serve others. We are cruel or vindictive, we shut the doors of the church to people who do not fit our conceptions of “Christian.” We work actively, and I mean actively, to prevent people from getting their most basic needs met, and in so doing withhold the provision God has given them. We are stewards who steal, we are emancipators that enslave, we are saints who are devils.

In these ways, we hide the glory of God. If you believe that you are a temple of the Holy Spirit, a dwelling place for God until Christ returns in glory, then you believe yourself to be an object of Glory. While we do not shine outwardly from our nearness to God the Spirit, we are able to act in glorifying ways, but shining as a light to all people through our actions.

We are told everywhere that Christ, not just on the Mount of Transfiguration was, “the radiance of the Glory of God, the exact imprint of his nature.” That Jesus, whether shining in heavenly splendor or a human being suffering and serving alongside us is the glory of God should shape how we act in the day to day. We are told to live as a city on a hill, as people who chose not to hide their lamp under a basket but leave it out for all to see. We can only do this through acting like the Christ who set us free.

We should approach the marginalized, we should offer the free grace of God to all we meet. Christian or non-Christian should be the same in our eyes, in the same way, that Jew and Gentile were nothing to Jesus. Sinner and saint, we should love equally, in the same way, that Jesus was content to dine with loyal disciples and Judas – not only his betrayer but a thief who stole from the poor. Perhaps most difficulty, we should rage against any system that works evil in the world.

While the exact way that evil is defined by many differs, there is one definition I can feel most people would agree with – namely that evil produces suffering. Evil kills, evil causes pain, evil is not that which denies “flourishing” but that which actively diminishes. Evil starves while others grow fat, evil denies healthcare, evil denies the humanity of other human beings, and evil works to promotes falsehood wherever it goes.

Someone need only to look at me to see I contribute to evil. While there are many factors that lead to my robust figure, a large part of it is excess. What if I ate less, saved more money on food, gave that money to those in need? What if we love one another when we had nothing to benefit from doing so?? What if we did our research before sharing a post online – preventing the propagation of falsehood, conspiracies, and all other means by which lies enter our hearts and kill.

The work of a Christian is not an easy one if it becomes easy you’re not doing it right. Plainly put, God gives peace but not plenty. We are not made to sit and soak up the gifts of God, we are made to receive them and immediately give them away. Money is nothing, the kingdom is everything. Love is nothing unless it is given to those who we gain nothing by loving. As C.S. Lewis put it, nothing is truly ours until it is given away. The light of Glory is enfleshed in us, but we decide whether we open our hearts enough to let it shine out into the world.

I would be wrong to not discuss the Methodist Church on this Sunday of all Sundays. I do not, as some have said believe that individuals “on all sides” failed to act lovingly at Conference, but I do believe that we saw a fundamental problem with how we do church. The entire theme of the conference was damage control.

Forget that LGBTQ+ people in the church are continuously dehumanized. Forget that the American Methodist church exported our particular understanding of scripture to the global church and then chastised them for doing them as they were told. There are levels to the evils which we have committed, and chief among them should be the dehumanization of people which we not only allow but promote. It is not a matter of biblical inerrancy, it is a matter of believing people unlike me are still worthy of love, of understanding, and above all of acceptance.

If we are to let the glory of God shine out, we cannot become divine gatekeepers. It is not our place to decide who can enter into the kingdom of God. We often hear that the bible is clear about how it views matters of homosexuality, but there would not be so much discussion in the church if this were true. The church does not debate what the scripture says about feeding the poor, it is clear. This is not nearly so cut and dry as we often make it.

While there will be a time to discuss this further, the time for this sermon is drawing to a close. So, let us end where we began, in the presence of God. We are not like Peter, standing on the mount of transfiguration, we do not see God before us shining brighter than the sun. We cannot build a tent to house God, any more than we can trap God in a building. Yet, we are made into dwelling places of God, our skin becomes the walls of a new tabernacle of the Spirit. We look unbounded into the eyes of God, and we take on the glory which was set aside for us before the world began.

We have to seriously consider how we live with one another. Glory can only be shared if we are willing to open our hearts up. This is the responsibility which is laid upon the church, to be the hands and feet of Christ until he returns in glory. What this means is something that we as a church must work out, it is true, but it is also something which we as people must decide for ourselves. Not that we become relativists, not that the scripture becomes just another book, but that the spirit of God leads us to understand what it means to be carriers of God’s glory. Let us commit ourselves to love one another, and to pray for God’s guidance in how we do that. – Amen.