Follow Me!

Sermon by Keith, 3.1.2020: Mark 10: 17-31

Before I read this morning’s text, I want to go over a couple things.  First I want to ask you a question.  How many of you have been in a room with a group of people, and then maybe the speaker or the host or even just one of the people in the room says something that changes the entire atmosphere of the room, either for good or bad? 

That’s what happened with this text for me when I preached it before, probably about 7 years ago.  The text is usually given the title, “The Rich Young Ruler” and the story shows up in Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  Matthew tells us he was young and Luke tells us he was a ruler, thus the Rich Young Ruler.  I’ll read the text here in just a bit so if you aren’t familiar with it, you soon will be. 

When I preached on it before, when I finished and looked up to say, “The word of the Lord,” the atmosphere in the congregation changed. Before reading, there was my congregation, eager to hear a word from the Lord.  But when I finished, about half the people in the room had their arms crossed.  What’s body language saying when you are talking to someone and they cross their arms?  Yeah, I’m not listening to you!  And I’ve always wondered how this text has been used, maybe to beat you over the head about your giving. 

So, my invitation to you before we read the text is to just listen to it.  It is a hard text, but an important one especially since we find it Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  But it is also full of grace if we don’t put up walls to keep that grace out.

The second thing I need to let you know is I’m going to read a translation from NT Wright that is a little bit different than what you might be used to hearing but I believe it gets closer to understanding the first century Jewish worldview and I’ll explain why I use his translation as we get into the sermon. 

Are we ready?  Arms loose, relaxed, hearts and minds open.  Here we go.  (Read text).

Most of us have had a moment in our lives where everything changed and how you responded to and looked at the world was forever altered.  Maybe for you it was when you moved out of your parents’ house, or when you got married, or maybe even divorced.  For our country, one of those turning points was 9/11.  How we viewed our nation and our place in the world was drastically changed. And I’d even argue that the Second World War changed the trajectory that the entire globe was on, it literally tore a hole in world.  Everything was different, different governments and societal structures, different hopes and needs, and different possibilities and dangers. 

For the first century Jew, there were two events that changed how they viewed themselves in the world.  The first one was in the past: the Passover event that led to the people leaving slavery in Egypt.  The second was actually an event that hadn’t happened yet.  Something would happen, they believed, that would make everything different.  A great event would occur which would bring justice and peace, freedom for Israel, punishment for evildoers, a time of prosperity when all the prophesies would be fulfilled, all the righteous dead would be raised to new life, all the world would burst out into a new and endless spring. 

That future day had an impact on the everyday of the typical Jewish person at the time of Christ. Their way of talking about all this was to distinguish between the Present Age and what was referred to as the Age to Come.  The Present Age, their current time, was full of sin and injustice, lying and oppression. Good people were suffering while wicked people got away with wickedness.  But in the Age to Come, that would all be changed. 

So the question pressing on any Jew who believed this was, can I be sure that I will be one of those who will inherit the Age to Come, and, if so, how?  This is the question this man who stops Jesus wants answered. 

Now, many a translation puts his question as, “How do I inherit eternal life?”  A long Christian tradition has assumed that he wanted to know how he could be sure he was going to heaven when he died, but that wasn’t how the man in the story would have put it. 

The word that we often translate ‘eternal’ comes from a word which means ‘belonging to the Age.’  In this Coming Age, God was going to make the whole world a new place; when that happened, it wasn’t about escaping this reality. You wouldn’t want to be away in heaven but here on earth to enjoy the great blessing God was giving in re-created reality.

This understanding changes how we read Jesus’ words, “You will have treasure in heaven.”  Jesus doesn’t mean that this man must go to heaven to get his treasure; Jesus means that God will keep it stored up for him until the time when, in the Age to Come, all is revealed.  The reason you have money in the bank is not so you can spend it in the bank but so that you can take it out and spend it somewhere else.  The reason you have treasure in heaven, God’s storehouse, is so that you can enjoy the Age to Come when God brings heaven and earth together at last.  So it isn’t about escaping this world, it is about bountiful living in the next, recreated world and enjoying God’s blessing to its fullest.

Now, other groups had answered had answers for this rich, young ruler’s question.  For the Pharisee who worked with the common people in the village synagogues to the Essenes who had isolated themselves in the desert, to inherit the Age to Come meant living out their own detailed interpretation of the Jewish law.  More importantly, you had to join their group.  If you were in with the right group, you would be on the right side of the blessings of the Age to Come. 

So, you could look at the man’s question not as “How do I inherit the Age to Come?” but more like, “Jesus, just what sort of movement might you be leading?”  He wants to make sure he has his ducks in row and in the right group to get the most of the Age to Come. 

Jesus’ reply must have puzzled this young man greatly.  All he did was to restate the basic commandments from the Ten Commandments which every Jew knew well.  Or at least some of them.  Notice which ones he misses.  He starts the list with numbers 6-9, murder, adultery, theft, perjury.  Adds an extra one with ‘don’t defraud.’ and then goes back to number 5 about honoring your parents.  He omits number 1 to 4, putting God first, no idols, not taking God’s name in vain, and the Sabbath and also number 10 about covetousness.

Now, watch how the rest of the conversation comes round the back with a fresh twist on all the commandments (except Sabbath keeping).  Jesus’ basic demand is not for some logic-chopping extra observance, some tightening of a definition here, some tweaking of a meaning there.  No: It is for idols and covetousness to be thrown to the winds.  Sell it all and give to the poor

And it is for a radical rethink on what putting God first, and not taking his name in vain, might mean:  Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God; come and follow me.

Jesus’ new movement is indeed a radical revision of what it means to be God’s people, to follow the Law of Moses.  Because he, Jesus, is here, a whole new world opens up:  The Age to Come is not now simply in the future, though it is that, too.  It is bursting through into the present, like a baby chick so keen to be born that it’s already sticking its beak through the shell ahead of the right time.  Every time that you hear Jesus talking about the Kingdom of God, he’s talking about that future reality of the Age to Come being pulled into the here and now so we can experience it today.

The discussion that follows the rich man’s sad departure reflects the disciples’ shock at being told that wealth won’t buy you a place in the Age to Come.  Their surprise only makes sense if we assume that they regarded wealth as a sign of God’s pleasure. 

Jesus cuts right through that surprise.  Wealth can be a blessing from God, but if that wealth gets in the way of loving God and neighbor, then it becomes a block to the overwhelming treasures God has in store for us.  Riches can no more go or get you into the Age to Come than a camel can go through a needle—a deliberate overstatement.  In God’s kingdom now and fully realized in the Age to Come, everything will be upside down and inside out, all things are possible with God, and the first will be last and the last first. 

In particular, though, those who have left family and possessions to follow Jesus will receive many more things back in the Present Age—a new and ever-enlarging family of their fellow-disciples, with homes open to them where they go.  And yes, persecutions are waiting for them, too.  Mark wants to stress that the paradoxical living in the Age to Come now clashes with Present Age.  They are at odds with each other. 

 So, what’s Christ’s invitation to us this first Sunday of Lent? 

It is to take his call to follow him seriously.  What is it that gets in the way of you following him?  Wealth?  Power?  Status?  Even our family or home can become idols that direct our love away from God and neighbor.  Take this week as an invitation to open your life to the call of discipleship.  Let the Holy Spirit work on you. 

Friends, the good news is that that all things are possible with God. God can take those things that hinder us from truly following him and transform them and us into beacons that point to the Age to Come.  We open our homes to each other and the stranger.  We share, not because of a fear of scarcity, but because of the abundance we have been blessed with.  We use our influence to lift others up instead of a continued race to the top of the heap.  God’s grace and love are shared in new and multifaceted ways.

All the early Christians came to believe that with Jesus’ death and resurrection the Age to Come had indeed broken fully into the Present Age.  The future hope had been pulled into the present reality to be experienced and embraced.  That day was a day that everything changed for humanity and all of creation.  Nothing has been the same since. 

That’s one of the hardest points for us to grasp today about their way of looking at the world and at God.  But if we even begin to take it seriously, we’ll see there is nowhere to hide from Jesus’ uncompromising–though cheerful and celebratory and blessing-filled—call to discipleship. 

The call “Come on!  Follow me!” echoes down through history to us today.  We are invited to respond with a cry of “Yes!” with all that we are and with all that we have. 



Sermon by Keith, 2.23.20: Mark 8:27–9:8

I have been to the top of the mountain and have seen the promised land! 

No, literally, I’ve been to the top of the mountain and have seen the promised land. Now, there are some arguments about which mountain Jesus was transfigured on because the scriptures don’t say exactly which one it was. The two top contenders are Mount Hermon, an almost 10,000 feet mountain way north of the Sea of Galilee, or the much shorter but still impressive Mt. Tabor in central Galilee. It is this one that I got to go to the top of, a flat topped volcanic cone that sits by itself away from the other range of hills and mountains. There is more than one church there, because people can’t seem to agree about where the exact spot Jesus might have been transfigured.  What is ironic is that in the one church we did get to visit, they built the huge sanctuary with this beautiful mosaic of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the ceiling, and off to the left and right of the main sanctuary are two chapels, one for Moses and one for Elijiah. Peter got his wish after all!

But what impressed me most about the spot the church was built on was the view.  There is what can best be described as an observation deck to see out across the valley.  Our guide, Ezra, started pointing out historical places that took place. There is Nazareth, there is Zarephath, the place where Elijah lived with the widow.  He lists off all the battles that took place that are listed in the Old Testament. And the valley’s name? Megiddo. Or the Valley of Armageddon, the place where history will culminate per the book of Revelation.  Before our eyes was ancient history and future history all wrapped up for one to take it all in and really see it. What a spot for the Transfiguration. 

I’ve always struggled with the meaning of this story.  Glow in the dark Jesus being visited by Moses and Elijah.  But the more I’ve studied it, I think it is a moment of seeing, of clarity, of not just from a human point of view but also from God’s point of view.  That’s kind of a scary proposition, to see the world from God’s point of view, but we will try.

Let’s start by taking a step back.  What has happened in the gospel so far? Jesus has, metaphorically speaking, led the disciples up the high mountain to a new view of God’s kingdom during the first half of Mark’s gospel.  In extraordinary actions and puzzling but profound words he has unveiled for them what God is up to. Those ‘outside’ look and look, but never see; the disciples are having their eyes opened, to that they can see for the first time the inner reality of God’s kingdom, and its central truth that, even though he doesn’t look like what they might have expected, Jesus really is the Messiah.  Thus the story so far keeps telling us about eyes being opened, in several senses, and it all concentrates on Jesus himself and God’s kingdom that is arriving with him.

Now Jesus takes the disciples up a high mountain, and something similar happens, through on an entirely different level.  Western culture is increasing realizing that most cultures have never forgotten, that the world we live in has many layers.  And when we peer into one of these layers, we ever afterwards see everything differently.

That’s what happened on this mountain.  What was the inner reality of Jesus’ work? He was continuing and completing the tasks of the great prophet Elijah, and the lawgiver of old, Moses himself.  Both of them, interestingly, had disappeared from view rather than died in the ordinary way, surrounded by their families and friends. Now they reappear, with the veil of ordinariness drawn back for a moment, and Jesus is with them, shining with a brilliant light.

What does this all mean?  We should state that the Transfiguration isn’t a revelation of Jesus divinity; if it were, that would make Elijah and Moses divine too, which Mark certainly doesn’t want us to think.  Mark does believe in Jesus’ divinity, but hasn’t told us why yet. Instead, this is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up with, bathed in, the love, power and kingdom of God, so that it transforms his whole being with light, just the way a scenic vista can change how you view the world or how music transforms words that are sung.  This is the sign that Jesus is not just indulging in fantasies about God’s kingdom, but that he is speaking and doing the truth. It is the sign that he is indeed the true Messiah. Everything is culminating with him.

That, too, is what the heavenly voice is saying.  Jesus is God’s special, beloved son. Elijah and Moses were vital in preparing the way; Jesus is finishing the job.  Mark is happy for later Christians to hear in the phrase ‘son of God’ fuller meanings than the disciples would have heard, but for them, the primary meaning, as with the voice at baptism, is that Jesus is the Messiah. That’s enough to be with now on the next steps of Jesus’ journey.

Once again, Jesus tells them not to reveal what they have seen.  This time he gives them a cryptic time-frame: ‘until the son of man has risen from the dead.’ Not surprisingly, this puzzles them.  In Jewish thought of the time, ‘the resurrection’ would happen to all the righteous at the end of time, not to one person ahead of all the others. 

What could Jesus mean by implying that ‘the son of man’ would rise from the dead, while they would be still living the sort of normal life in which people would tell one another what they had seen months or years before?  Mark’s readers would already know about Jesus’ resurrection, but the characters in his story certainly didn’t and weren’t expecting it. Like much that Jesus said, it remained cryptic and puzzling until after the event.  

The final exchange is even more teasing.  The disciples are trying to work it out; scripture, they know, tells them that Elijah will prepare the way for the Messiah.  Jesus also has other scriptures on hand which speak to him of his own vocation; this time, he seems to be blending passages and images from Daniel and Isaiah.  But the fateful identification, the one that matters, is his cryptic comment about Elijah having already come. Now there is nothing left but the final messianic task, the task which Jesus has already declared will involve his own suffering and death.

So, what does this mean for us?  We don’t generally experience things in our lives as dramatic as this story.  Sometimes I think it would be nice if we did, but I have to admit I’d probably be as bewildered as Peter.

But in Mark, the Transfiguration takes place right in the middle of his gospel, the transition point of Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee region to headed to Jerusalem and this death and resurrection.  What have you seen so far? There is an invitation to look back and see how Jesus has revealed himself as the Messiah as God intended.

Peter was surprised. The Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and die. He is supposed to lead Israel to freedom and new glory. How was it in his healing and teachings that Jesus was letting them know he was a different kind of Messiah than they had expected? Be as surprised as Peter at what you discover about Jesus and yourself during this time in Galilee. There is also an invitation to look towards Jerusalem and follow Jesus with your own cross.

Most importantly, each of us is called to do what the heavenly voice said: Listen to Jesus, because he is God’s beloved son. As we learn to watch where he goes and listen to what he has to teach us, even if sometimes we get scared and say all the wrong things, we may find that glory creeps up on us unawares, strengthening us, as it did the disciples, for the road ahead.  Amen.

Offensive Jesus

Sermon by Laura 2.9.20: Mark 6:1-29

Forgive me for attempting a football metaphor, since I know barely enough about the game to follow the Super Bowl once a year. I do know that each team has offensive and defensive players. The offense has a mission: advancing the ball across the opposing team’s territory to score a touchdown in the end zone. The defense stands in the way of the offense  to keep them from scoring and possibly take the ball away.

Teams need both skills to win big. Defense is important to prevent your opponent’s touchdowns. But—correct me later, football people, if I’m wrong—it seems that a great offense is even more important. If you have a great defense and no offense, the other team won’t score, but neither will you. That’s why the great quarterbacks are the stars of the show. They are the leaders and directors of the offensive game.

So maybe we can compare Jesus to a great quarterback? If so, Mark 6 demonstrates his offensive game. Jesus’ urgent mission is to press forward his message, “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news.” He carries out his teaching and preaching, healings and exorcisms, his pronouncements of forgiveness and his confrontations with the religious authorities, all toward the goal of focusing God’s people on God’s in-breaking reign and apprenticing disciples to live in God’s will and ways.  Jesus is on the move, inexorably advancing toward the goalposts of redemption, reconciliation, and resurrection.

But even as Jesus is on the offense, he offends people.

In Mark 6, Jesus and his discipleship team arrive in Nazareth. Unlike the Chiefs returning to Kansas City, there is no victory parade to welcome him home! Quite the opposite. Tales of Jesus’ mighty acts have gotten back to his hometown, but they are not impressed—they are offended.

All they can see is the handyman putting on airs, a local yokel gotten too big for his britches. What else is there to know about Mary’s son and James’ brother? He can’t possibly be the Messiah. But though hardly anyone in Nazareth is receptive enough to catch the new life Jesus wants to pass them, the text says that he still does heal a few people. Even Nazareth’s unbelief can’t halt God’s mission.

Now, don’t let anyone tell you that the hometown crowds’ rejection doesn’t hurt. How many of us still carry a chip or two on our shoulders from our hometown crowd’s reaction when we tried to do something new and grow into our full potential! We still remember the disapproving expressions, putting us back in our place, telling us in no uncertain terms that any newness was strange and unacceptable.

How does Jesus react to this rejection? He’s astonished at the intensity, but he seems prepared for it. It doesn’t throw him off his game. In fact, it seems to energize him to engage a new tactic. He expands the mission to neighboring villages by sending out his chosen twelve disciples, empowering them to proclaim the good news and cast out unclean spirits.

The instructions he gives his offensive team are remarkable, the opposite of “defensive” in every way. Take nothing for the journey, he tells them, no bread and no money; wear sandals and two tunics and only carry a walking stick.

These instructions speak not only to the urgency of the mission but to the heart of it: availability and vulnerability. Following Jesus’ directions, the disciples are totally dependent on the hospitality of strangers. They show up to each village as people in need, not as those with something obvious to give.

Compare this mode to the posture we often assume in our own mission efforts! Ever resistant to place ourselves in another’s debt, we try to show up in the superior position, doling out what we think people need.

Instead, Jesus teaches us to meet others in the vulnerability and availability which are the substance of loving relationships. Without vulnerability and availability, human beings cannot possibly connect in love, and any efforts at mercy and healing which are not based in love will be short-lived at best. Love is the transformative power of God.

Author Brene Brown’s social research confirms the wisdom of Jesus’ instructions. Every leader on a mission faces fear, she writes.

“The real barrier to daring leadership is our armor—the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors we use to protect ourselves when we aren’t willing and able to rumble with vulnerability…You can’t fully grow and contribute behind armor.”

from Dare to Lead

Brown further notes, “Daring is not saying ‘I’m willing to risk failure.’ Daring is saying, ‘I know I will eventually fail, and I’m still all in.’”[i]

Jesus prepares his disciples to dare vulnerability in the face of resistance and rejection. When his hometown rejected him, his disciples witnessed his refusal to armor up in defensiveness.  Nor did Jesus try to impose his views by force. Leaving Nazareth, perhaps Jesus did what he now instructs them to do: just shake off the dust of your feet from any town that refuses to welcome or hear you out. A small and nonviolent action, it bears witness to a devastating lack of hospitality while allowing the disciples to release rejection, rather than retaliate for it.[ii]

Following these instructions, the disciples are successful in their mission to the extent that King Herod hears about it. This gives Mark an opportunity to insert a sordid bit of history, about how Herod beheaded John as a result of a grandiose oath sworn to his (illegal) step-daughterin front of his courtiers.

What are we to make of this awful story? I hate to say it, but I think Herod’s story is where the text comes home to us in our world today. We are not kings and queens, per se, but we are largely people of privilege. Brene Brown, again, defines privilege as the ability to avoid uncomfortable conversations and situations. We can and often do choose to do just that.

So we have something in common with Herod, who is caught in the snare of indecision.  He likes his worldly pleasures, his parties and dancing girls. At the same time, he’s drawn to John the Baptist. He likes listening to John, though he finds John’s teaching perplexing. Maybe some part of Herod longs to be a righteous Jewish king, as John exhorts him.

But Herod’s new wife, Herodias, hates John, who has spoken against their marriage. She wants to silence him. When her dancing daughter requests John’s head on a platter, the moment of decision arrives for Herod. Will he stand up for John, though it means losing face before his guests? Or will he defend his ego in the eyes of these peers with the horrible death of an innocent man?

Herod makes the defensive choice, the ego choice, all too common for people in high places. We’ve so often seen leaders choose political expediency over righteousness– did we ever expect Herod to seriously consider another option?

Too often, our own disappointment with corrupt politicians leads us to armor ourselves against truly daring leadership. Why should we dare courageous choices, if those who claim authority over us refuse to do so? Instead, we occupy ourselves with shaming and blaming, rather than summoning our own courage to risk leading others with integrity.

The truth is, we face Herod’s choice every single day: will we choose the righteousness of God’s will and ways, entering into Jesus’ offensive vulnerability, or will we play the defensive game, armoring ourselves against failure, but also connection and transformation?

Jesus’ way offends us because it’s not an “if” but a “when”: his daring leadership will bring us face to face with failure, heartbreak, suffering, and death. Jesus will ask us to move beyond our comfort zone, to go without our usual defenses, and to meet the world without armor, with no padding aside from our trust in Christ’s peace which passes understanding.

Even so, the scriptures testify that Jesus offers the only life which is, truly, life: the kingdom of God life, in which we manifest divine grace and glory as we learn from Jesus the capacity to meet whatever resistance we encounter. In fact, Jesus shows us how to use resistance, to let it be transformed into a meeting place where we encounter God and ourselves face to face, receiving and expressing God’s love all the more profoundly.

“What stands in the way becomes the way,” second-century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said. Jesus lived this principle to the fullest, all the way through death on a Roman cross and beyond, into the resurrection life, God’s decisive triumph over humanity’s deathly choices.

The good news, teammates of Jesus, is that he’s not only a great quarterback: Jesus is the game itself!

Jesus Christ is God’s purpose, presence, and power, God’s Word made flesh. Jesus not only leads us but empowers us to accomplish our essential part in his mission through the Holy Spirit he gives us. Through Jesus, we partner with God!

Isn’t it amazing that God trusts us so much as to toss the ball into our hands that we may run it in for the ultimate score? Though we often fumble and drop the pass, in Jesus Christ, God keeps lobbing extravagant grace encouraging us to receive it and run long, to carry Christ’s mission as far as we can, no matter what resistance we face. 

This may be where the football metaphor breaks down, however.  Unlike spectacular touchdown passes, the actions of God’s people often don’t grab headlines. Mostly, we carry grace forward quietly, in daily kindness to people, animals, and the earth, in small gestures which gently and patiently heal those around us. We love by seeing a need and stopping to lend a hand; by taking the time to listen to a someone’s sad story; by giving the benefit of the doubt to those whose ideas differ from ours, by refusing to avoid uncomfortable conversations even as we greet our opponents with Christ’s peace.

How many times a day do you receive these graces? How many times a day do you carry them forward? Each tiny decision we make to follow where Jesus leads has unaccountable ripples, my friends. These small actions keep advancing the long game of God’s mercy, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, year by year, to the glory of Christ’s kingdom fully come.

Alleluia! Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Brene Brown, Dare to Lead, 12, 14,19.

[ii] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 214.

What Have You To Do With Us, Jesus?

Sermon by Laura, 1.26.20: Mark 5:1-20

Okay, folks, get your workout clothes on and get ready to sweat! You thought you were coming to a Presbyterian worship service, “decently and in order” with two liturgical movements only—stand up and sit down—but, oh no, we’re shaking things up; today we’re gonna exorcise some demons!

Ugh, I know, bad joke. Blame Keith; I stole it from him. The exercise-exorcise pun works well, though, for the Gospel of Mark. It’s a high energy book, with lots of movement and lots of crowds. Read the whole book in one sitting, and notice how it seems Jesus is always running from one crowd to the next, teaching, healing, creating controversy, exorcising demons, and eventually being crucified—at the word of a crowd—for these efforts.

And throughout Mark’s gospel, we feel the str-e-t-ch of dynamic tension between Jesus’ true identity and the perceptions of the crowds. Whether they are anonymous gatherings of random bystanders listening to Jesus teach, the smaller “crowd” of religious authorities, or Jesus’ own family, each group of people sorts themselves in relation to Jesus according to whatever “groupthink” influences their assumptions.

Today’s story is circled about by various “crowds.” To begin with, there’s Jesus and his disciples. They are Jews, but they are arriving “on the other side” of the Sea of Galilee. When they step ashore, they are in Gentile territory. As Dorothy says, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

The second “crowd” in this story is harder to see, when a lone man runs from the tombs to meet Jesus. This man has the honor of being one of the best-described characters in all the gospels. Mark—notoriously brief on details—actually spends three and a half verses describing his deplorable state. Utterly outcast, he rattles around in a graveyard, clanking the chains his own people have used to restrain him, howling and beating himself with stones.

He seems to be alone, but he gives Jesus a name which evokes a particular crowd’s presence: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” For Mark’s audience, this word, Legion, did not merely suggest a multiplicity of entities. It was a political word, naming the premier weapon Rome used to conquer and enforce their occupation. Legions were groups of six thousand warriors securing the empire’s rule with deadly force. The power dominating this man’s home country and the “troop of phantom invaders” dominating his humanity are linked.[1] His personal has been utterly overrun by the political.

How many of us can identify with that, though the 2020 election year has hardly begun! We can also identify with feeling overrun in our heads with too many voices expressing their opinions. We should be so lucky in our day to only contend with 6000 extra voices in our heads—for us, it’s more like a Google.[2] Plug any topic into the internet search engine, and you’ll have 32,000 results or more in half a second.

And each of those voices represents, in its own way, a crowd—a group of people with an agenda, furthering their interests. So we struggle to determine which groups truly represent ours! We are always wondering, what’s real news and what’s fake, who is telling the truth and who is lying, who can we trust to have our best interests at heart, and who is trying to sell us out for their own gain.

No wonder we often find it easier to sort ourselves into likeminded groups and go along with a party line. It’s understandable that we seek belonging among groups which make us feel most comfortable, but there’s a danger in doing so. Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort, writes,

“As people seek out the social settings they prefer…the nation grows more politically segregated…and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogenous groups…”[3]

Bishop wrote this statement in 2009, but the dynamic of polarization has only grown stronger. At the extreme, we not only polarize but demonize, dehumanizing those who dissent or disagree with our favored group. And please do not assume I’m favoring one kind of faction over another in saying this! All groups have this temptation.

It turns out to be a demon destroying us from within. In Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown writes, “The paradox is that we all love the ready-made filing system…but we resent it when we’re the ones getting filed away.” She reports that “[a]t the same time sorting is on the rise, so is loneliness.”[4]

Brown’s research shows that a sense of the “true belonging” we desire actually not from sorting ourselves into likeminded groups, but from recognizing our shared humanity, regardless of differences we perceive, celebrating that we are “inextricably connected” to each other by a loving and compassionate power greater than any of us.

Among all the strange moments of today’s scripture, I believe there is this invitation for us to exorcise the sorting demon as we exercise our faith; to learn to see as Jesus sees and value as Jesus values, our personhood, our common humanity, beneath and beyond all our differences.

In today’s story, the local people seem to have “filed away” this demon-possessed man. They’ve given up trying to see the man beneath the demonic behavior, and hopeless to transform his plight, they isolated and bound him among the dead.

But from first to last, Jesus never loses sight of his humanity. [5] Even before the possessed man bows at Jesus’ feet, Jesus perceives the cause of his suffering, distinguishes the demon from the demonized man, and calls out the evil: “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”

The demon, Legion—or is it the man inside—responds with a question, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” The question acknowledges Jesus’ authority even as it resists; it suggests both hope and fear.

So, too, goes the exercise of our faith, as we follow Jesus across group boundaries. For human beings don’t always welcome the gaze which perceives our common humanity. The groups we settle into are often masks which hide our vulnerability. We both hope and fear, long for and resist being seen us as we are, unmasked as frightened broken children, barely aware of yet also ashamed of the things which grip and control us against our best intentions.

Jesus never loses sight of our common humanity. Gazing upon each one of us with tender compassion, he asks us to name the demons that plague us: the addictions, the mental illnesses, the pain of whatever us-or-them groupthink, has convinced us we are unclean and unworthy of true belonging. Naming these powers in the light of day, saying aloud what seemed unspeakable, the demons are banished, and we are set free, in our vulnerability, of everything that kept us bound and separate from each other.

What have you to do with me, Jesus? Only everything.

Jesus never loses sight of our common humanity, and what’s more, Jesus, Son of the Most High God, joins us fully within it. As N.T. Wright reminds us,

“At the climax of Mark’s story, Jesus himself will end up naked, isolated, outside the town among the tombs, shouting incomprehensible things as he is torn apart on the cross by the standard Roman torture…And that, Mark is saying, will be how the demons are dealt with. That is how healing takes place. Jesus is coming to share the plight of the people, to let the enemy do its worst to him, to take the full force of evil on himself and let others go free.”

Jesus shares our common humanity, and we are called to take strength from his solidarity with us, to risk crossing to the other side and sharing what he has done for us.

This story ends with the man calm, clothed, and in his right mind. Though he begs to go with Jesus, he is sent back instead to his own people. “Go home to your friends, and tell them what the Lord has done, what mercy he’s shown you.”

This is, for the man, just as risky as crossing to the other side. Can you imagine the courage it takes to return to people who had ostracized and restrained you? To the people looking with fear upon the terrifying miracle of your salvation?

Yet the text says he goes and proclaims what Jesus has done for him, Jesus who is to him now the Lord. Everyone was amazed.

What have you to do with me, Jesus? You are my Lord and Savior, seeing me and delivering me, standing beside me in my vulnerability that I may face all others with true belonging in you, the common humanity by which you join me to God.

To God be the glory! Amen.

[1] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everybody, 56.

[2] Thanks, Keith.

[3] As quoted in Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, 47.

[4] Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, 50-51.

[5] M. Jan Holton, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, 148.

Seed Catalog: 1.19.2020

Sermon by Keith on Mark 4:1-34

There is something wrong that happens every year about this time.  No, I’m not talking about the snow and colder temps.  I actually really like this time of year when life slows down and a good book and hot cup of coffee make for a nice day.  But here is the problem: As I stand there looking out the window at the blanket of snow across the backyard with that cup of coffee in hand, I hear the mail get delivered into our mailbox.  I go grab it, and inside is a seed catalog or two. 

How many of you have been getting seed catalogs lately?  Now, after having perused the catalogs a couple of times, when I stand at the window, the calm of winter isn’t there anymore.  My mind has rushed to spring and potential of the gardens.  Which raised bed will I plant the green beans this year?  What kind of green beans will I plant?  I wonder what the kids will want to plant in their bed this year?  As I stare out the window, I no longer see just drifts of snow, I can see in my mind new shoots of growth coming up through the snow.  I see abundance!  The potential for new growth takes root right if front of my eyes.

Maybe that’s what Jesus wants us to see in these parables about seeds and the kingdom of God.  If you look hard enough, maybe you can see the Kingdom of God taking root in places and ways that you never would have expected, even in the most extreme and outlandish conditions.   

There are lots of definitions about parables, but a new one I came across was from CH Dodd.  He suggests that parables were used to lead listeners from a concrete and common experience into an uncertain and mysterious reflection that result in new insights.  That’s what we see going on in the parable of the sower.  There are the birds, rocks, and the scorching sun that everyone had known and experienced.  There is the planting of that year’s crop.  But every time I’ve ever read these words, I have a bunch of questions for Jesus, like, “What’s wrong with this guy?  Why is he throwing valuable seeds on the rocks and among the weeds?”

Then I have to remember that Jesus sometimes takes the ordinary to the extreme to make a point about God and about ourselves.  Everyone listening to his words would know how the farmer would plant his seeds; probably many of them had done it themselves.  The farmer would walk in the field, taking handfuls of seeds, and broadcasting them out upon the soil before plowing.  The irony of this parable is Jesus has the sower casting seeds in places that no prudent sower would ever cast his seeds.  It would be like trying to plant a wheat field on the back side of Mt. Emily.  You just don’t do that.  You plant down in the valley, where the ground is level and fertile and it is easy to water. So the question that comes up is what is the purpose of this parable that takes planting seeds to an extreme? 

The reference at the end of the parable to an incredible, extraordinary yield is clearly an encouraging message.  And those references to those seed eating birds, the rocks, and the scorching sun all suggest opposition to what the sower is doing.  There is no suggestion that the qualities of the seeds vary.  The seed that is cast on the rock has the same potential as that cast on the good soil.  It is the reception of the seeds that varies. 

The parable describes both the generosity of the sower in sowing seeds and difficulties encountered by the seeds.  The reception of the seeds is where the problems occur.  No wonder Jesus ends this parable with the exhortation to hear, to listen and be receptive soil.

For me, there are many levels of good news to be harvested in these seed parables.  What’s God up to?  God is up to his usual graciousness that goes beyond our expectations.  God is willing to plant his kingdom here, there, and everywhere with the hope that it grows into something big and marvelous.  The Kingdom of God is for everyone, everywhere.  God is the sower who cannot be bound by the limits of human activity or imagination.  We cannot raise a garden bed around God’s actions. 

Furthermore, the seeds of God’s gracious action spread beyond where we would expect them to be, even beyond where we might wish them to be.  We may want to limit the sowing of the seeds into just certain fields belonging to certain landowners, but the scattered seeds from God’s arm spill out beyond any limits we can place on God.

But there must be a response.  This is where we come in.  All the seeds that God has thrown hither and yon have the potential to grow huge and spread like the mustard seed and produce beyond our imagination. 

The problem isn’t the seed or the sower.  I could never say or believe that God wastes his love and grace on someone who isn’t receptive to that love and grace.  Even if people turn and reject the Sower, God just keeps lobbing that love and grace upon them.  God can’t help it.  That’s the very nature of God.  And it is even a gift of God when our very lives hear God’s call to discipleship, growth, readiness, and receptivity which call to us from this parable.  

There are mysterious connections between God’s actions and our actions, between God’s initiative and our obedient response.  Martin Luther, the Reformer, once said that the learned tongue, the ready ear, and the prepared heart are all related.  All are necessary for fruitful discipleship.  Without a learned tongue, discipleship is misdirected.  Without a ready ear, discipleship is paralyzed.  Without a prepared heart, discipleship is resisted.

Clearly, worship, study, prayer, and fellowship are part of that life of discipleship that helps us grow and flourish is ways we may not understand, but there is also an invitation in this parable to walk with God and sow in places that we might never expect a response to take place.  We share God’s love and grace with people whom we might think of as rigid and unreceptive.  We go places that might seem unproductive not because of our labor, but of the potential of the kingdom of God to take root and flourish. 

This weekend, we remember the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, who continued to go places with a message of equality that is promised to all of humanity that got him hosed, beaten, and attacked.  He could have stayed in his home church preaching about it, but he went out to some of the thorniest, hardest places in the south and cast seeds of God’s love and hope until a whole country responded. 

We, too, don’t say it is wrong to share the good news with that group because they look or act or vote differently, or are hard, crusty, or just too stubborn to receive what God wants to give them.  We need new eyes, eyes of the Sower who is willing to throw kingdom seeds everywhere. 

We don’t look out and see hard, rocky ground or hungry birds or thorny ground anymore.   We know the power and potential that is hidden away in the seeds of God’s grace and love that have been planted in us and that we want, no, we have to share with others.  Seeing with the sower’s eyes changes how we view the world.  It changes our actions and our hope. 

There are no longer lost causes, but only abundant possibilities.  We see the Kingdom of God growing and expanding in truly unexpected and amazing ways.  Amen.

Stand Up and Walk Wet

Sermon by Laura 1.12.20 Baptism of the Lord, Narrative Lectionary Year 2. Mark 1:4-11, 2:1-12

Okay, Language Arts 101 time. Who can tell me what a “metaphor” is? Raise your hands…(take an answer or two). Yes! A metaphor is a figure of speech, a combination of words, in which one thing is compared to another.

“Up” and “Down” are primary metaphors; they are so basic to our thinking that we don’t even realize we are using them metaphorically. Literally, they are names for how we orient ourselves, as creatures subject to gravity, right?  Whatever is above me is, directionally, “up,” whatever is below me is “down.”

But from there, they have accrued all sorts of other resonances. For example, we use them to describe emotional states: “I’m feeling up” means we are happy; “I’m feeling down” means we are sad. Or we use them to describe power states: we “one-up” to gain advantage over others; we “put-down” to diminish another.

We even give these words spiritual significance. “Going up” is good—it’s where we picture heaven, the location of an afterlife of reward. “Going down?” Not so good.  It’s where we picture the location of afterlife punishment. Through our metaphorical minds, “up” and “down” become a value judgment, even a moral rule. We Christians strive to be upright persons, growing up in stature to become more like the God we imagine dwells up there somewhere, far above the dirty, messy, ordinary, earth down here below. 

So today’s scriptures may feel disorienting: as they both demonstrate “[s]ometimes Jesus is not above us, but below.”[1]

First, the story of Jesus’ baptism. Mark’s gospel pictures the masses of people, both town and country folks, drawn to the River Jordan and the hope John the Baptizer offers.

Talk about metaphors! The ritual of baptism is full of them. Baptism is a bath, cleansing us for a new kind of life. Or, more dangerously: baptism is a flood, drowning the ways of sin and death. And one more: baptism is crossing over from the land of slavery to the Promised Land.

These metaphor-images and more are what make this sign-act so significant as a marker of the life-transformation which comes with repentance.  And Jesus shows up among the crowds to receive this life-transforming treatment. In Matthew’s version of this story, an interchange between John and Jesus suggests that Jesus doesn’t actually need it. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” says John. Yet Jesus insists it’s the right thing to do. His willing participation in this ritual, plunging him below the waters, powerfully reveals the fullness of God’s identification and solidarity with humanity in the incarnation.

Jesus comes up out of those waters to see the heavens torn open, the Spirit-dove coming down, and the voice of affirmation ringing out, saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” The voice affirms Jesus’ willingness to go below, to take his place down here alongside every sin-sick human being longing for salvation. At the same time, it also verifies Jesus’ intimate kinship with the heavens above; it claims Jesus’ intimacy with the loving God as the Ground of Being on which Jesus takes his stand, to carry out the vocation of God’s Beloved:  Son of God, Son of Humanity, closing the gap between up and down, above and below, in everything he is and does.

The second story is conditioned by the first. After his baptism, Jesus begins his astonishing ministry. Those who meet him sense the remarkable depth of his authority as he teaches, heals and casts out demons. Unclean spirits obey him, disciples leave everything to follow him, and lepers are made clean by his decisive touch.

So, when, after his first ministry tour, Jesus returns to his home in Capernaum, he’s become a sort of celebrity. Such a crowd of people fills his house, that no one else can move or enter in. They press in to hear as Jesus speaks the word to them. He probably comes back to his favorite theme: “God’s kingdom’s come near. Repent, and believe the good news!”

But suddenly, there’s something unexpected. Dust and dirt begin to fall on their faces. The mud and thatch above come apart, and a gaping hole is torn in the roof.

Can you imagine if that happened here in this house on a Sunday morning? What if you looked up to see the ceiling torn open by some guys who then lower down a body on a stretcher and lay it gently at the preacher’s feet?[2]

If we’re not sure what we would do, we might want to consider that it’s the kind of thing that happens in Jesus’ presence! And Jesus doesn’t miss a beat. As one preacher notes, Jesus is like a great jazz musician; he knows how to improvise!

He knows a sacramental moment when he sees it, as the thing he’s been preaching is made manifest for all to see. Right here in that moment, above becomes below, the gap between up and down closes, and the kingdom comes near, in the act of four bold friends who believe the good news and turn to Jesus believing he can make their companion well. Just imagine what could happen if we trusted in Jesus like that! 

Now, I’d never heard it before reading Mark for Everyone, but scholar N.T. Wright suggests that “Jesus himself was the unlucky householder who had his roof ruined that day.” From there, Wright pictures Jesus down below with the crowd in the mess these men have made of his home, gazing at them and at the sick friend they’ve worked so hard to bring into his presence. What can Jesus do but smile and wryly say, “Son, your sins are forgiven”[3]?

I like that. It’s always bugged me how, in this story, Jesus’ first response is to talk about sins. So, Wright’s picture of this scene makes Jesus’ response seem a little less peculiar. Maybe Jesus’ forgiveness here is a direct response to the mess they’ve just made of his own house! Because otherwise, this guy clearly needs physical healing, and Jesus goes instead to forgiveness?

But I’ve also come to appreciate Mark’s brilliant, jarring way of telling these stories. It’s not what we have expected. It wakes us up and provokes our questions. What does forgiveness have to do with healing? And does Jesus have the authority to forgive sins?

At any rate, Jesus’ response sends the scribes into a tizzy. To them, his words are blasphemy. He seems to be claiming the capacity to forgive sins, something that is the sole privilege of God. Those scribes were the devoted church-people of their day, who put a lot into figuring out how to do religion right, how to relate to the God up there, high above, who has no equals.

That’s how they understood it, as we often do: God was not down here but up there. The Holy of Holies in the Temple represented how separate God’s presence was from their daily lives. Only the high priest could enter it once a year to atone for his people’s sins; forgiveness came through a sacrifice which sent those sins away.[4]

But in these stories, Jesus turns it all upside down. A hole is torn in the heavens; a hole is made in the roof. And lo and behold, it turns out that God is not up there, God is down here, right here with us in this mess we’ve made of his house, forgiving us our sins and healing us.

And just as up and down come together in Jesus, in him we also find both healing and reconciliation. Both the physical and relational dimensions of our lives are addressed in Jesus; sin and illness both lose their power, as Jesus breaks down whatever walls alienate us from God and one another.[5]  

Maybe that’s Jesus’ point when he asks, “Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘Stand up, take your mat, and walk?” This is Jesus in trickster-mode, and the answer to his question, is, simply, “Yes.” Yes, Jesus, heal me and forgive me, Yes, Jesus, help me stand up, take my mat, and walk in your ways. Yes.

That’s the answer the paralytic and his friends get, anyway, though it leaves the scribesscratching their heads in confusion. The sick man on the mat experiences total transformation. From an inert, passive body, completely dependent upon others, he is, in a sense, resurrected. The phrase “stand up” is here used to translate the Greek verb which means “rise,” the same verb which later describes Jesus’ own resurrection from death to life. “Stand up, take your mat, and go home,” Jesus tells him, and the once-passive man rises to become an active agent in his own life.

His transformation parallels ours, as our lives are immersed in the pattern of Jesus. Even as we are lowered down, following Jesus into baptism’s waters, the roof of the heavens is torn open for us, too. The Holy Spirit comes down to us, as God sees us as we are in Jesus, and names us Beloved Children,  as Jesus sees us lowered down through the roof into his presence and says, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”

When we come up out of the waters, we too stand up into our vocation as active agents of God’s kingdom, and the ground on which we take our stand is God’s love for us and God’s delight in us, God’s beloved children.

I’m mixing up all these metaphors, my friends, because God is above us and below us, within us and among us, around us and moving through us. On Baptism Sunday, receive the good news:

You are immersed in Christ, in the depths of God’s love and you have risen to new life: So stand up, take up your mat, and walk, gladly proclaiming, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” Alleluia, and Amen.


[2] I appreciate and am mimicking Rev. Reggie Weaver’s description of this scene:

[3] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 16.


[5] Annette Weissenrieder, Exegetical Perspective in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, 61.

Tongue Tied

Sermon by Keith, 12.22.19, Luke 1:5-25, 57-80

It has been said that the 9 months that Zechariah was unable to speak was God’s gift to Elizabeth during her pregnancy.  You know, since he was a priest and she was the daughter of a priest, she probably spent most of her life listening to sermons, theological discussions, and issues with the local synagogue and the temple.  Oh, the silent bliss!

But was it silent bliss?  Zechariah has been told he is going to be part of God’s plans in a big way.  How does one even react to news like that? To be given a part in salvation history is terrifying news and understandably so.  A messenger of the holy has spoken. Why wouldn’t Zechariah ask, “How can this be?” Mary asked a similar question when this same angel showed up on her doorstep.  Even way back in Genesis we find Abraham asking how he is to know for sure that he will possess the land and thus the promises of God. It seems understandable to ask “How?” and “Why?”  When the holy crashes into our world, and our assumptions are confronted with new realities, a response of fear, shock, and even speechlessness would seem to be reasonable.

Was Zechariah’s speechlessness really a punishment?  Maybe it was a natural response to being in the presence of the holy.  Maybe it was a sign of God at work. Zechariah did inquire of the angel how he was to know that this good news was true.  Lacking the ability to bless, explain, rationalize or fill empty space with words might certainly constitute such a sign, especially for a person whose livelihood is filled with blessing, explaining and rationalizing the holy.  If we take a less literal and more poetic approach to what happened to Zechariah, might it also suggest that human speechlessness helps God to be heard, especially when God’s word falls so far beyond the scope of our expectations and experiences?  In other words, maybe it is similar to what Henri Nouwen meant when he said, “You shouldn’t talk until you’ve been silent; there’s a difference between having to say something and having something to say.” The silence actually allowed Zechariah to have something to say.

Regardless of the “whys,” Zechariah in his silence and Elizabeth in her solitude find themselves in a time of gestation and incubation.  It is a time of waiting during which they cannot fill the space with noise and busyness; it is a time of passive watching and discernment.  There will be times to act and speak, and even in Luke, times to sing about God’s mighty acts. But those times come at the right moments, moments when God has worked on them, freeing them to speak of the holy because of a personal encounter with God’s messenger, not just empty words about God that have no personal depth.

So, how many of you came to church or will come to church Christmas Eve expecting to meet God in worship?  Yes, many of us will be present, honoring our commitments and offering up our prayers. You may even long for an opportunity to be emotionally moved, to be challenged from the pulpit to live in the way of the Lord, or to receive from the Lord’s Table.  That is as it should be. Having said that, how many of you are actually expecting to experience the holy or to have your prayers answered? How many are expecting God to do something new? For that matter, how many of us, no matter your age or education, clergy or laity, are expecting such and encounter or experience?

There certainly is no evidence in this story that Zechariah was expecting to come into the presence of the holy while fulfilling his duties, and perhaps that is good news in and of itself.  If God will remember a faithful but otherwise forgettable priest, easily lost in a crowd of hundreds of other priests, then perhaps God will remember us. If God will answer the prayer of a righteous, patient, and barren woman named Elizabeth, then perhaps God will answer our prayers.

Indeed, in this gospel of assurance that Luke has set out to tell, his opening characters reveal much about the promise of grace for those who are to come.  Yes, the powerful Herod is mentioned in the opening scene, but he mainly functions to set the story in the context of real human history. The main actors in this drama will not be the rich and powerful, but, rather, those overlooked by the world.  The principalities and powers do not concern themselves with barren older couples, unwed teenage mothers, and those relegated to caring for animals. The good news is that even they play a part in this drama of salvation. The terrifying news, however, is that even we play a part in this drama of hope.

Friends, we are on the eve of the eve of Christmas Eve, when God did something new, taking on flesh and, as the Gospel of John puts it, pitched his tent with us.  My invitation to you is that during this busy time of year, as you rush around filling those last minute gifts and making sure you didn’t forget to mail someone a card, take a moment and think about the Christ child and the ones who prepared the world for his coming.  And sit silently with that. Sit silently with that for a long time if you need to. And listen for God and God’s messengers in your life. Yes, this is a time to sing carols of adoration, but also a time to sit and listen for God and God’s calling in your life. In Christ, God has invited you into his salvation story of humanity no matter who you are or your worldly status.  And that is exciting and terrifying at the same time. What part will you play? It’s ok to ask “How?” and “Why?” Because even today the world is pregnant with divine possibilities. Perhaps those who can be still and nonanxious enough to watch and wait in this time filled with anxieties may again hear the glad tidings of the angels. Amen.

Coming Home to Christ’s Peace

Sermon by Laura, 12.8.19 Advent 2

Isaiah 40:1-5, Ezra 1: 1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13

It’s sing-along time. Join in with me if you know this song:

I”ll be home for Christmas,

You can count on me,

Please have snow and mistletoe,

and presents on the tree.

Christmas Eve will find me,

where the love light gleams.

I’ll be home for Christmas,

if only in my dreams…

That was great! Thanks for singing with me!

So, that was “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, one of the most popular Christmas tunes since 1943, when Bing Crosby recorded it. Sung from the perspective of a WWII soldier overseas, it became the most requested song at Christmas U.S.O. shows, and the GI magazine Yank said Crosby “accomplished more for military morale than anyone else of that era.”[1]

Isn’t it curious that this song about the longing for home was seen to improve morale? In the same era, the BBC, thinking it would have the opposite effect on British troops, banned the song from broadcasts! But in the last decade, psychology researchers who study nostalgia have learned this emotion has overall beneficial effects, alleviating loneliness, boredom and anxiety.

Apparently, nostalgia can even help people literally feel warmer on cold days! [2] No wonder so many favorite Christmas songs and movies are nostalgic—we need the warmth in winter!

But I also think we benefit from nostalgia as we sing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” because its last, wistful line acknowledges a difficult truth: “if only in my dreams.”

As much as we might want to go home, physically or emotionally, as much as we might long to return to the Christmas morning feelings of childhood, as we grow up we usually experience the truth of the saying, “You can’t go home again.”

I asked friends on Facebook to share stories of when this feeling had surfaced in their lives. Those who responded to inquiry named an array of situations: when a parent dies or moves away from your childhood home; when you return somewhere with a broader perspective after being away at college or visiting another country; when you realize your children will no longer stay with you for the holidays; and when a place you’ve loved changes or closes down. 

People and places and circumstances just keep changing, and we ourselves grow into different people. So the actual experience of going home, for Christmas or any another time, is often uncomfortable in the incongruity we might feel between our warm memories and the present reality. Today’s scriptures express the human longing for the comfort of homecoming alongside the ambivalent emotions that homecoming actually brings.

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says Isaiah 40. “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” We’ve often heard these familiar words in this season, as we read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which depict John the Baptist as the “voice in the wilderness,” the one who prepares the way for Jesus.  

However, in Isaiah’s context, these words are first addressed to the Judean people exiled in Babylon, promising them a straight and steady roadway to return home to Jerusalem, promising that God will make a way where there is no way:

“Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low.

The uneven ground shall become level,

and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed

and all people shall see it together…”

Isaiah 40 initiates the theme of return, which is carried through the next fifteen chapters of this prophetic book. This poetry was likely composed years after the fall of Jerusalem, as Isaiah or his students watched the political dynamics in the region and found hope when a new ruler, Cyrus, king of Persia, conquered and took over Babylon. Isaiah 45 even names Cyrus directly as a ‘messiah,’ an anointed agent of God, the only non-Israelite in the Bible ever to be named as such.

Cyrus and the Persians had a different idea of empire than their Babylonian predecessors. They allowed greater freedom to their vassals; they encouraged them to worship their gods in their own customs. So it is that Cyrus’ edict to exiled Judeans is the immediate good news of Ezra 1, a proclamation permitting them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. “And what a proclamation it is!” writes one commentator. “It’s the kind that refugees don’t even dare dream about: go home. Go home, loaded with blessings. Go home, loaded with blessings, and rebuild.”[3]

Some, though not all, of the people do go home to Jerusalem, with plans to rebuild their nation in these new circumstances. According to the book of Ezra, they waste little time getting to work on the “house of God.” They begin with the altar, setting it up on the ruined foundation of the old altar; from there, the priestly leaders immediately reestablish proper worship of God, in line with Moses’ instructions. Getting the proper sacrifices going is a priority for the exiles because home is not as they remembered.

In their time away, the exiles in Babylon had struggled to stay true to their identity as God’s chosen people while surrounded by worshipers of other gods. These struggles shape their perception of those who had stayed behind, people who were never the political or religious elites, and who had intermingled and intermarried with the Canaanite cultures in and surrounding Judah. In the returned exiles’ minds, the people who had remained in the land had diluted and corrupted the ways of God’s people. At stake was the question of identity: which people constituted the true Israel, the true heirs of God’s blessing?

Of course, questions of the ‘true people’ or the ‘true church’ continue to cause conflict within and between Judeo-Christian and other religious traditions to this day. And no matter how humans fight to prove our own ways to be correct or pure, it is truly a question only God can judge rightly.

That said, I want us to see how the leaders in Ezra’s story demonstrate practical wisdom.  In the midst of great uncertainty and change, they prioritize the rituals, symbols and structures which have and continue to ground and frame their sense of identity in God and their trust in God’s presence. It is wisdom each of us can use when we make disconcerting transitions, coming home to a changed reality.

“Structure binds anxiety,” a wise teacher once told me.[4] What are the core structures, symbols, and practices which help you return to your foundation with God? What are the songs and stories, the memories and mementos which bring you home at Christmas, even if only in your dreams?

And there is a further question, once you’ve reestablished that foundation: Will you allow God to draw you, beyond the home you knew, to your true home in the heart of Christ?

Perhaps the most poignant moment in Ezra’s story arises in a gathering after a new foundation for the temple has been laid. The priests put on their vestments and sound their trumpets. Musicians come out with their cymbals. They sing the classic refrain with which Israel has praised the Lord for generations, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”

The gathered people respond with a great shout. Many are joyful, but not everyone. The oldest people, those who still remember Solomon’s glorious temple, are weeping. Can you imagine their feelings?

A new beginning has been made, but they know how much has been lost. It will never be the same. The past is gone, and any possibility of future glory may never match it in their eyes.

What I appreciate in this story is that their weeping is not overlooked or denied, even as the text says that “people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.”  Both responses seem to be regarded as worthy of notice and authentic to the moment.

Here, too, is great wisdom for us. In God’s presence, joy and sorrow will intermingle. Both can provoke tears. Tears not only express grief, compassion, and contrition but they arise in response to goodness and beauty. “Tears are a way the body expresses its openness to God,” writes spiritual director Susan S. Phillips. Tears reflect an opening with a person to “see oneself clearly in the light of God’s loving truth.”[5]

Here in this season of Advent longing and Christmas celebration, when we remember God’s past coming in Jesus Christ, and we renew our hope for Christ’s culmination in the second coming, there is an invitation for us.

The culture paints this season as “happy happy joy joy,” a denial of complex reality which can exacerbate our feelings of loss and lack and loneliness. But the truth is that God’s coming,and our coming home to God, evokes a very mixed bag of emotions: joy, sorrow, fear, excitement, and everything in between.

We are invited to accept all of the ways God’s Spirit moves through us and those around us, whether in laughter or tears, or even both at the same time. We are invited to let ourselves and others express those emotions freely, trusting that our authentic responses help Christ lead us deeper into God’s grace in each encounter of these days.

When we can freely experience and express to God and to one another whatever arises for us this season, God’s house becomes a spacious place in which we can truly come home to Christ’s peace.

In Philippians, Paul calls it “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.” It is a peace which is not dependent on the purity of our traditions or appropriate religious enthusiasm. It is a peace which transcends time and place, flowing in and beyond any conflict, a foundational equanimity, unshaken, no matter what life changes we experience. It is a gift which we are given so that we can be at home no matter where or with whom we find ourselves in this world, a gift granted to us that we may become peacemakers, those who pass on to others the peace of Christ.

So, my friends, hear my prayer for you this season: Wherever you may go in these days, in your life, may you come home, in and beyond your wildest dreams, to God’s love in Jesus Christ. Amen.   

From my Charge and Benediction: quote from Barbara Holmes in Joy Unspeakable:  

“The human task is threefold. First, the human spirit must connect to the eternal by turning toward God’s immanence and ineffability with yearning. Second, each person must explore the inner reality of his or her humanity facing unmet potential and catastrophic failure with unmitigated honesty and grace. Finally, each one of us must face the unlovable neighbor, the enemy outside of our embrace, and the shadow skulking in the recesses of our own hearts. Only then can we declare God’s perplexing and unlikely peace on earth.”[6]




[4] David Evans at Austin Seminary, in a sermon he preached in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

[5] Susan S. Phillips, Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2008, 36-37.

[6] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press: 2017), 3-4.

Stumped in the Vineyard

Sermon by Laura, 11.17.19 Isaiah 5:1-7, 11:1-5

What’s your favorite broken-hearted break-up song,  Or just the first one that comes to mind? (take a few suggestions). 

When I crowd-sourced this question on Facebook, I was amazed to realize just how many textures and flavors of break-up songs and heartbreak pain artists have tried to express: from “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt, to “Positively 4th Street” by Bob Dylan; from “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor to “Flowers on the Wall” by the Statler Brothers. There’s the I’m-leaving-you songs and the I’m-being-left songs. There’s the wistful goodbye, the angry goodbye, the power-anthem goodbye, and the humorous I-won’t admit-it-hurts goodbye. 

What they seem to have in common is that they all narrate a decisive moment. Each relationship began with high hopes of love or friendship, some form of the intimacy humans long for. But those hopes have not come to fruition. 

As the relationship ends, each song sings out whatever feelings need to be expressed so that the ground can be cleared. And each song leaves us wondering, what new life could possibly emerge in this landscape of loss? 

This question also lingers at the conclusion of Isaiah 5’s Love Song of the Vineyard, which is a strange sort of break-up song.  I agree with Beth Moore, who says that she hears it in “pure country.” She writes, 

“..a country-western song can start you out at a family picnic eating buttermilk fried chicken and watermelon on your great-grandmother’s quilt, with butterflies flitting about, and before it ends, your daddy’s gone to prison, your momma’s run off with the preacher, and your little brother’s blowing butterflies to dust with a BB gun.”[i]

That’s just the sort of turn the story takes in the Song of the Vineyard, which begins well enough. We hear all the detailed ways the prophet’s beloved friend has given meticulous care for the vineyard, clearing the land, digging out stones, planting the best vines, setting in place the tower and vat where the harvested grapes would be made into wine. But abruptly, the song twists, dashing any hopes for a fine vintage to be shared in communal joy. In spite of all the care lavished on it, the vineyard yields only “wild grapes;” a better translation of the Hebrew might be “rotten grapes.” 

Then we are confronted with a question: “And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (Isaiah 5:3).

Can you hear the plaintive cry of this question?  What more could I have done? How many of us, suffering heartbreak in our lives, ask ourselves the same question? 

But this question not only voices heartbreak; it also draws its hearers into a trap,much like the prophet Nathan does after King David’s affair with Bathsheba. Nathan tells David the story of a rich man who abused his power to steal from a poor man. And when David rushes to judge, “The man who did this must die!” Nathan replies, “You are the man!” 

You are the vineyard!” sums up Isaiah’s message, trapping the people in their own judgment. Of course, they would say that a vineyard yielding rotten grapes should be given back to nature, its hedges and walls torn down so that wild beasts can roam and brambles take root. A diseased garden must be plowed under, and the land remain fallow for a time, until healthy new growth can take root. The destruction and fallow time are natural consequences of the vineyard’s failure to bear good fruit. 

But once their judgment is made, God’s people discover the bereft lover of the vineyard is God, and they themselves were God’s “pleasant planting.” But instead of the fine vintage of justice and righteousness, they have yielded the stinking spoils of violence and oppression, and the consequences of judgment are coming due.  

In a nutshell, this is the prophet Isaiah’s message throughout the first 39 chapters of the book. It is a message of judgment, naming Israel’s rebellion from right relationship with God, other people, and God’s land. This rebellion is most evident in the oppression of the poorest people, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. There will be consequences. 

This is an uncomfortable message. Judgment always is, whether it’s two lovers recognizing the end of a relationship and experiencing the fallout of breakup, or a whole nation, descending into chaos when their leaders have led them into acts of oppression and violence. 

So I’m tempted to jump quickly to Isaiah 11, where, after pronouncing judgment, the prophet offers hope, “comforting the afflicted” as well as “afflicting the comfortable.” 

But before we zip forward through the centuries to remember how God brings new life out of death, let’s stay present a few more moments in the aftermath of judgment, in the wasteland of brambles and stumps. For here we can learn an unexpected grace: The grace of the fallow lands, the conditions for new life encountered at rock bottom.

Now, I don’t use the word “grace” lightly here. When the catastrophe Isaiah predicted took place, and the empires of Assyria and Babylon conquered the land, thousands of people were killed, some were taken captive, and others were left in starvation and poverty. Some have called this catastrophe the first holocaust. The pain and suffering in Israel’s story are real and profound. 

And yet. And yet

The people who came after Isaiah recognized his words as true prophecy, as his words helped them find meaning in senseless destruction. Isaiah saw God’s judgment as a form of grace, righting the course of the people from the corruption which had rooted so deep in the landscape of their nation.  

Eugene Peterson writes that the prophets “…worked to get people to accept the worst as God’s judgment—not a religious catastrophe or a political disaster, but judgment. If what seems like the worst turns out to be God’s judgment, it can be embraced, not denied or avoided, for God is good and intends our salvation.”   

Judgment is how God sets things right, when the disease is diagnosed, the reality of rupture is seen with clear eyes, and decisive action to face the consequences can now be taken.

Now, in the popular imagination, I think we often picture God in judgment as a lofty being watching everything we do with a disapproving frown and his hand on the Smite Button. But let’s be clear: It is not Isaiah’s vision. It’s  more the image of Zeus than it is God in Jesus Christ.  

Let’s not forget, from start to finish, this is a love song! From start to finish, God desires our blessing and wholeness. That’s why God created us with free will, the means by which judgment comes for us as God allows the natural consequences of our freely willed choices to play out. 

That said, I must note that in Isaiah’s world and in ours, humanity’s collective choices create systems and cultures. And when together we create cultures of violence and oppression, the consequences may fall on the wicked, but all too often, the innocent and vulnerable suffer most. It breaks our hearts; I believe it breaks God’s heart most of all. 

What more could I have done? God asks in Isaiah’s song.  I hear in those words a tone which is kin to Jesus’ lament from the cross:“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His words are the cry of all innocent people who suffer the consequences of sin, even as they are the cry of the God who suffers our wrong with us and for us,  then and always. 

My friends, in our lives, we all experience the ground-scoured landscapes of heartbreak and loss. We all go through our seasons of dashed hopes and lost love. Whether it’s a divorce, a job loss, a devastating diagnosis, or the death of our dearest ones,  there will be times when it seems like our lives have become a landscape of chaos and despair. 

So, what are we to do in these fallow lands? 

We might take some direction from Twelve-Step recovery process, written down by people who knew a thing or two about “rock bottom.” The first step we take in the fallow lands is recognize and accept how unmanageable life has become. From there, we can remember that we are reliant on God’s care and provision for life itself; so only God can save us!  We make the decision to return ourselves into God’s hands, and with a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” we ask God to remove our shortcomings and restore us. 

Second, in the fallow lands, we look around and see who is there with us.  Just as good heartbreak song lessens our pain as it reassures us that we are not alone,   we take heart from those have gone before us, who have survived the fallow lands and met a new life on the other side. And we sing our own heartbreak songs, expressing the pain and clearing the ground, holding onto hope and holding out for the new future God is already bringing to life.

Isaiah picture this future in chapter 11, a tendril of hope to hold onto, a wisp of green amidst the charred stumps of devastation: Hear it now: (read Isaiah 11:1-5). 

We often hear this scripture during Advent, the tender hope of a righteous leader, a hope we believe God fulfills in Jesus the Christ. So I wonder, when did a painful upheaval in your life ultimately result in new and righteous fruit?

My family has a few stories, which they have given me permission to share:  

My mother tells how the seven difficult years in which she gave care to her father after his stroke bore the fruit of reconciliation and new friendship with the two sisters she’d got along with least in her childhood. They are now each other’s closest support. 

My sister Beth tells how our father’s death was the catalyst which finally motivated her to act on her dreams of teaching overseas, revealing to her how short life really is. 

And my sister Julie now tells how the injuries she suffered when her car was rear-ended by a semi cleared the ground this past summer to bear unexpected fruit. As her whole family slowed down to care for her, they experienced a time-out from their normally hectic lives in which intimate, quality time deepened their love for each other. 

You, too, have a story of how God brought a new shoot from a barren stump in your life. I challenge you to remember this story. Name the heartbreak even as you name its unexpected fruit. 

And let us, God’s people in the church, hold fast to hope even in the landscapes of heartbreak and despair. Let us listen, there, for God’s song of grace, still and always singing new life from the places of death, a love song, start to finish, which never ends. Amen.   

Benediction: The following poem comes from one of the darkest periods of recent history. It was written by anonymous prisoner at Ravensbruck, found beside the body of a dead child.

O Lord, remember not only the men and women

of good will, but also those of ill will. 

But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us;

Remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to

This suffering–our comradeship

Our loyalty, our humility, our courage, 

Our generosity, the greatness of heart 

Which has grown out of all this, and when

They come to judgment, let all the fruits

which we have borne be their forgiveness.

[i] Beth Moore, Chasing Vines, p. 62.

Deeper Love Than We Can Imagine

Sermon by Keith, 11.10.19 Mark 10:13-14, Hosea 11:1-9

Either to their joy or consternation (I won’t know for sure which until after we get their bill for therapy) we have referenced our children in our sermons over the years.  I think there was a disclaimer in the delivery room when they were born that said, “Welcome to the world, PK! Everything that you say and do from this moment on may be used as a sermon illustration.” 

Which in some ways makes perfect sense. You are bound to see all aspects of the human condition–the good, the bad, and the ugly–come out in such close knit relationships, including between a husband and wife, parent and child, and between siblings.  I can say that for the most part, what I have seen and experienced with them has been so joy-filled that when they say or do something that speaks to a scripture text I’m working on, I want to share it with you.

But yes, we have an almost teenager in the house.  Things are changing. The dynamic of the relationship is changing. And that probably means you will also hear some different type of sermon illustrations. But no matter what the dynamic of the relationship I’m having with Lucas or Ben, or even with Laura for that matter, the constant will always be love.

And that is the point about God love that the prophet Hosea is trying to make.  Now if you think that we use stories from our familial relationships in our sermons, especially of our kids, Hosea takes it to the next level.  Early in his prophetic writing, his children become living sermons and the deep messages tied to their names are then used to teach us deeper lessons about God and God’s people. 

In Hosea, you find the prophet marrying a prostitute and having children. And their names become important messages. His first son he names Jezreel to talk about the death, destruction, and murder that took place in the city of Jezreel.  His next child he names Lo-ruhamah, which means “not shown pity” as the people feel that the love of God has left them. And the last child, a boy is given the glorious name of Lo-ammi, “Not my people” because of the separation and rejection God felt because of his people.  Just think of what their playground experience had to be with names like that!

But Hosea, through poetic prophecy about these close familial relationships, teaches us that these names are not looking at the relationships from God’s perspective, but from our perspective.  I feel like God has left me, I feel like I am no longer part of God’s people. These names are about Israel’s unfaithfulness, not God’s undying faithfulness.

The names change, or at least the understanding of the names change.  The living sermon changes to a message of despair to a message of grace. Trouble to grace. Jezreel’s name doesn’t change, but instead of being a reference to a place of destruction, it changes to the literal meaning of that name, “God’s sows.”  God will sow God’s own self in the land so that no one will miss his bountiful love and presence. Lo-ruhamah becomes Ruhamah, because the people will come to know God’s love and grace. And finally, Lo-ammi’s name is transformed to Ammi, because God’s claim on the people as his people has not been changed, but only reaffirmed and strengthened.

Outside of talking about the psychological damage this may do to his kids, this name game makes us ask the question of why would Hosea do this, make his children into living sermons?  As we continue to read Hosea, I think we see why this is important for this prophet. Even in their rebellion and waywardness, Hosea wants to stress that the living God of Israel and Judah loves his people, loves us, more deeply than humanly love can be explained or expressed.  But the closest he can come is relating it to the love of a parent who has loved relentlessly and fiercely a child who kept running away from his or her parent’s love. Hosea gets personal with the names of his children because he wants to stress that we have a relational, personal God.

And I love how Hosea shows that love in chapter 11, a piece of scripture that Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says is “among the most remarkable oracles in the entire prophetic literature.” And biblical scholar , HD Beedy said, “In Hosea 11 we penetrate deeper into the heart and mind of God than anywhere in the Old Testament.”  What Hosea has us do is pull ourselves up the kitchen table with God and a hot cup of coffee and go through the family photo album.  

How many of you have a family photo album? They are fun to look at.  Pictures of either when you were a child or pictures of your children.  Maybe there are pictures of you in your highchair with spaghetti all over the place.  Or a picture of your daughter playing with dolls. Your son on his first bike. The vacations and family gatherings.  The birthdays and holidays. Now think about what might be in God’s photo album. For the people of Israel, there had to be a picture of them crossing the Red Sea.  God shares the pictures of teaching them to walk, leading them with cord of kindness and bands of love. Can you picture the photograph that would go with these lines:  “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Wow!

What would be in God’s photo album of you? What about the church?

Sometimes we go back through the old photos because life has hit a rough spot, like maybe when a rebellious adolescent child has done something so horrible that we need a reminder of just how much we love that child.  God in this story has hit a difficult time. And God is responding to Israel’s rejection. Israel ran away from God to pursue other gods. Some of the Israelites in fact went back to Egypt–the very place from which God brought them out of slavery.  Even after God kept them alive during those years in the wilderness; it was God who gave them a beautiful land to call their own, but they mistreated it all, abused their land and its people, ultimately discarding their relationship with God. God lamented, “You want to go back to the place that nearly destroyed you?  Fine, go! I’m done this time. You are on your own from now on!”

Not too unfamiliar behavior for a parent of an unruly child.  My parent’s closest words to this were, “if you choose to go out partying with your friends, when you get arrested for doing something stupid, don’t call me until the morning.”  

But then we see God’s internal anguish and self dialogue.  It appears that God cannot even escape the pain that people can inflict on someone they love.  And there is a dramatic twist in the plot of the story, a twist that would have shocked the people who heard these words.  God’s heart recoils within God’s own being.

The word we translate “recoil” is the same word used in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to describe how God overthrew those cities.  In Hosea’s words, God overthrows God’s own heart. Instead of punishing the child, God takes the punishment upon himself. The consequences of the child’s painful actions are taken into the heart of God. 

And God’s tender compassion is rekindled. They are God’s children after all. They didn’t ask to be chosen by God. God has different eyes to see them. God holds their yesterdays in pictures no one else remembers:  waiting for them to be born, the moments of their childhood, first steps, first words, smiles and cries, and all the big thresholds of their journey–in wilderness, in the promised land. In life and in death, they belong to God as God’s children.

I share a story, not of our kids, but what may be looked at as the infancy of our time as your pastors.  It had to have been within the first month that we were here that one of the members of this church walked up to me after a Sunday worship and said, “You are this church’s last hope.” 

Well, needless to say, that freaked out this fresh out of seminary new pastor. I got over pretty quickly the weight of that statement because I realized that at some point or another, I would mess up things up.  Thank goodness you are a forgiving people! But most importantly I came to see that this church knows that its hope isn’t in the pastors, the programs, or the music played on Sunday, but our only hope is on God in Christ and in his fierce love and compassion that goes beyond our human comprehension. 

That love was made most visible when God bent low and became one of us in Jesus Christ, entering the fray of humankind. God went to the depths of anguish, like a lion roaring out from the cross, giving voice to a painful love for all humanity.

And in his resurrection, Jesus calls us to be living sermons with and for him, because we take on a new name, Children of God, lifted high in the arms of God’s grace and love as a new family.  And it is there we find we are connected to one another, our unknown neighbors, and all of creation to share that message of love, invite others into God’s family, work for justice, and glorify the One whose love we cannot escape. Because it is a love that calls us back home to God’s fierce, loving embrace. Amen.