Life Together in the Spirit: Sermon by Keith 9.12.21

Scripture Reading: Ephesians 5:21-6:9

I don’t know if you were watching, but our voyage into Ephesians is about to get choppy with one of the hardest texts in all of Paul’s writings.   This text has caused a lot of consternation and sadly, abuse.  And maybe I’m a sucker for punishment because as I read Ephesians, I felt called to take on this passage.  I’ve said before, sometimes it is good to wrestle with the hard passages of scripture with integrity and not ignore them or dismiss them or whitewash them yet discover a word from the Lord for us today.  So, I’m going to put on my protective gear as I read this passage in case anyone throws something at me as I read it.

(Keith puts on a hard hat to read the scripture passage)

It probably depends on what I have to say next, but is it safe to take this off?  Here we go.  This is one of those texts that many people have used to dismiss Paul, especially thinking that he had a negative view of women.  Wouldn’t it be easier to take a permanent marker and go over text like these and others where Paul seems to dismiss or degenerate women?  Wouldn’t it be best just to get out the scissors and cut out all this talk about wives submitting to their husbands?  I will definitely say I have wrestled with this text for a long time, and you can rest assured, this passage was not read at my wedding.  When our Greek professor in seminary brought up that this was the passage that was read at his wedding, he needed a hard hat based on the reaction from the female students in the class.  But it is precisely because of that education, spending time in texts like these, learning about the 1st century world of Jesus and Paul, that I think Paul has something important to say to us today.  In taking the whole landscape of Paul’s writing together, we find that he is more of an advocate for the freedom and the equality of all people in Christ than we could ever imagine.  And with that overview of Paul, I think we can hone in on these troubling passages.  Paul is trying to bring the gospel message to new and unexpected situations of the first century.  

In spending time with Paul, I’ve learned that he says everything for a reason.  Why would Paul include these household rules?  Just maybe it had to do with Christ’s return.  If people believed that Christ’s return was imminent, maybe they were stepping away from their familial relationships and Paul is trying to let them know that these relationships are important, even as they have to wait longer than expected.  Just a few verses before this, he instructs them not to get drunk with wine but to be filled with the Spirit.  Were they celebrating their new found freedom in Christ in ways that were causing disruption in the family order?  Paul wants to ground them.  How was faith to affect the ongoing structures of their lives?  This just might be the reason we find household codes here in Ephesians and other epistles, tables of duties for husbands, wives, children and slaves, which begin by addressing this concern very concretely with how families are to be faithful to the gospel in the midst of ongoing social responsibilities in love and obedience while they wait.

I can appreciate this effort:  The effort to discern how Christian faith shapes our lives at its most intimate and critical points as well as its emphasis on a relationship with the Lord as the means of discerning how we are to treat others.  Paul is genuinely attempting to reframe marriage in the context of Christ’s lordship.  I can really appreciate that in light of that attempt, Christian husbands are called to love their spouses, not once, but three times.  The call is to love, not dominate.  Love her, love her, love her.  And Paul is clear about this.   Love is defined in Jesus Christ.  So husbands are specifically directed to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.  Which is to say the husband must spare nothing, not even his own life, in care and concern for his wife.  This is radical in a patriarchal society in which a wife is required by law to be subject to her husband.  Paul admonishes Christian husbands not to stand on their secular rights but to join their wives in mutual submission, one to another, out of reverence to Christ.  There is no better description of Christian marriage found in scripture than what is found at the end of Ephesians 5:  Where Paul, in trying to define marriage, suggests the mystery found in a marriage is a profound one, one that mirrors the very mystery of the love between Christ and the church.   In Ephesians, marriage reflects the very reality of grace.

But that doesn’t mean there are no problems.  This text has been used by countless Christians to theologically legitimate a pattern of wifely subordination.  It cannot be said that the relationship between Christ and the church, which the text uses to reflect marriage, is a relationship between equals.  Thus the text does not address the husband and wife as equals.  I struggle with understanding that love is a man thing and submission is a woman thing.  This is out of sync with Jesus’ own teaching.  When he washed the feet of his disciples the night before his death, didn’t he demonstrate that love and subordination go hand in hand?  And didn’t he teach them that they were not to model their relationships of authority of those of the world at large?  Didn’t he say that whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant? And whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all?  Quote: “I am among you as one who serves.”  

Earlier in Ephesians, Paul tears down the dividing walls of those who follow Christ.  Has he just put up a new one?  If he did, I can’t believe he did it intentionally.  Yes, Paul for sure does something amazing when he endeavors to redefine marriage in terms of Christian faith but the first century cultural pattern remains within it as well. And we shouldn’t pull the 1st century Gentile context off the page and plop it down into a 21st Century context.  Doing so has led to a legitimation of use of this text in ways I don’t believe Paul would have ever intended.   It has become hazardous to women’s health.  There was no way that when Paul called wifes to be submissive to their husbands, he was advocating physical violence.  But it has been interpreted that way and because of this text, abused women have stayed in relationships much longer than they ever should have.  

So, do we get rid of this text?  I believe there is still good news here that we can live by even while we fight against the way this text has been abused to allow abuse.  It has a word for us today, whether we are married or single, divorced or widowed, or gainfully employed or retired.  For wherever you live or work or whatever your circumstances may be, this part of Ephesians reminds us that our Christian faith affects the structures of our lives.  Many of us live in families.  And God knows that living in a family isn’t always easy, for we all know there are no perfect parents, no perfect children, no perfect spouse, nor perfect in-laws.  Life together pulls us and strains us in maybe one of the best ways that God gives us to grow out of ourselves into something more like we were meant to be.  And so like those first century Christians, we continue to discern the ways Christian faith shapes and transforms our lives at these most intimate and critical points.  How can we in our relationships with our partners, our parents, our children, our siblings we can best love one another, forgive one another, and live in service with one another?  This not only impacts our imperfect familial relationships, but our imperfect church family and our imperfect job settings.  In fact, it impacts every relationship we have.

Friends, we don’t have to like this text, but we need to embrace the instruction and the underlying concerns and commitments it reveals.  Because as we come before this text, what we are witnessing is the new community in Christ revealed, however imperfect it may be, engaging in discernment that we continue in our day, however imperfectly.  We see faith being enacted in love and love seeing its transforming power in the midst of this age.  This text reminds us that the grace of God in Jesus Christ continues to empower us to transform the structures we find ourselves and discern the ways we can serve one another in love in our time and place.  We will find ourselves wrestling with it as part of God’s own work within us forming in us the mind of Jesus Christ over our entire life times.  And that’s a voyage worth taking.  Amen.

To watch a video of Pastor Keith preaching this sermon in the 9.12.21 Worship service, click HERE.

The Voice: Sermon by Keith, 12.6.15 Advent 2C

Scriptures: Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6

December has to be the craziest month of the year.  In many ways, if we could step back and look at all the somewhat wild and out of the ordinary things we do this month, we would realize just how crazy this month and how crazy we just might be.  Why is it so crazy?

It is because we are preparing.  You see the husband up on the precariously balanced ladder, getting directions from his wife who should be holding the ladder but is instead giving instructions on where to hang the icicle lights just right.  And it is about 20 degrees outside.  And the wind is blowing.  They are preparing.  You see stores filled with people with a high level of intensity and aggressiveness as they shop, shop, shop; people making their shopping lists and checking them twice.  They are preparing.  With the flip of the switch, the day after Thanksgiving, the radio stations start adding in old nostalgic songs to their playlists about chestnuts and walking in a winter wonderland.  The airwaves are helping us to be prepared.  Even our sanctuary is now set to help us prepare.  We have all the greens this year, but also the smell of the sanctuary that is helping us to prepare.  Not just the smell of the evergreen tree and swags fill the air, but also the cinnamon smell of the cookie tree ornaments hanging from our lights.  People are preparing, we are preparing, because soon it will be Christmas.

But we as Christians do more than just prepare for Christmas, we prepare for Christ.  Last Sunday, Ellen Jones helped us mark the first Sunday of Advent, a season that lasts right up until Christmas.  Advent is that time of year when we prepare for the arrival of Christ.  We prepare to celebrate his first arrival, that humble, quiet birth in Bethlehem.  But we also prepare for his second coming, that day that Jesus promised at the end of the book of Luke and the beginning of Acts when we would see him coming again in his glory.  The Sundays of Advent go backward in time, from the future return of our King down to his modest birth on Christmas.

And during this time of preparing, we, as individuals and as a community of believers, do all kinds of physical things to prepare for Christmas.  We hang the lights, we fill out and mail cards, we shop for gifts, and menus are planned as we prepare for visits from family and friends.  Here the sanctuary is decorated, we light a new candle every Sunday to mark time through the Advent season, and Joan has been in the back meticulously counting candles to make sure have enough for everyone on Christmas Eve. But there is more than just the physical parts of preparing for Christmas.  There are the spiritual things we do to prepare ourselves for Christ.  It’s easy to prepare for the holiday of Christmas.  But how do you prepare for Christ?  I bet there are some of you out here right now who could exclaim this early in December, “I am ready for Christmas!”  But my question for you is, are you ready for Christ?  And I think we can get so distracted by getting ready for Christmas, we forget who we are getting ready for.

Thank goodness we have someone just as crazy as we are to help us prepare for Christ as we get ready for Christmas.  He shows up like clock work every second Sunday in Advent.  No, it’s not Rudolph or Frosty or even Santa.  They are the list of those helping us get ready for Christmas.  It is John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair and eating wild honey and locust who helps us get ready and be prepared for Christ.  He had no church but the desert wilderness by the Jordan River.  He was a wild nobody.  Luke even begins this section by letting us know who the “somebodies” of the day were.  The lengthy list of the Roman political and Jewish religious leaders of the day reminds us of the power structure and systems that existed at this time.  But it wasn’t the emperor, the governor, the local kings or priests that God chose to prepare the people for the coming Christ; it was this long-haired, locust eating prophet calling out in the wilderness.

This wasn’t his idea.  This was his calling, God’s purpose for his life.  John was talked about hundreds of years before this scene from the prophet Isaiah:  “A voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord!”  John had been called by God to prepare people for the arrival of the Messiah—Jesus was about to begin his pubic ministry, and John was preparing people, getting them ready for Jesus and his message.  He did that by teaching people to receive a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

For John, to prepare for the coming Christ meant to turn around, to change direction in both actions and attitudes.  Repenting doesn’t just mean feeling remorse or regret for an act or decision and then getting up and doing the exact same thing over and over again, it literally means going in an entirely different direction.  Stop the crazy acts that you are doing and turn around, turn back towards God, because in that turn around, you will meet the coming Lord.  John’s hearers were going one way, unprepared for Christ.  They might have thought their religious affiliation or their political ties were going to save them.  But, John told them to turn their lives around and go another way.

“What then should we do?”  they ask John.  How do we prepare?  How do we repent?  How do we change directions?  It is interesting that three different groups ask John what they need to do to prepare, covering the entire gamut of those who were considered “in” and those who were considered “out” by the political and religious leaders of the time.  They begin with the closed group of those who believe they are OK because they have the membership card of being Abraham’s descendants who are oppressed by the Romans.  The next group is the tax collectors who move between the occupied Jewish community and the occupying Roman authority.  They are agents of the political reality, making decisions of self-interested compromise every day.  The third to ask are the occupiers, the soldiers.  They wield the sword of the world’s power, but they too are capable of sensing they needed to turn around and change what they were doing.

Notably, John does not demand that any of these groups leave their places.  Repentance is a change in direction of actions and attitudes that requires them to stay where they are.  They do not run from their sin, they seek forgiveness for it from those around them.  They stay where they are, but they are to be different where they are.  John identifies what each group needs to repent from and turn to.  From those who would claim the protection of status, affiliation, or membership, John demands that generosity replace self interest.  The needs of the other should take greater priority, higher status, than one’s own protection or security.  From those, who like the tax collectors, have learned survival skills in an unjust system, John demands integrity.  No more stealing, no more gaming.  They must demand less for themselves so that others may be treated fairly.  And finally from the soldiers, whose tool is raw power, John demands respect for others.  John tells these that the fruit of their repentance will be seen not in personal gain but in true modesty.

So, how do we prepare for Christ?  We repent!  What would John’s words be to you if you were standing on the banks of the Jordan and you asked, “What then shall I do?”  First, identify what is separating you from God in your life.  This will take some quiet time during this crazy time of year.  Turn off the TV, the radio, the internet.  Take a break from shopping and decorating.  And just sit, and think, and identify those things that separate you from God in your life.  And just because you are coming to church on Sunday doesn’t mean you don’t have some brokenness in your life that needs to be addressed.  Are you materialistic?  Do you like to be surrounded by things, more things than you could ever need or want? Are you selfish?  How are your thoughts?  Are you impatient with others?  Do words spill out of your mouth that are hurtful and angry?  Identify those things.  And then the second, do the opposite, right where you are and where you live and work.  Ask for forgiveness from those you have hurt.  If it is time to clean out the closet, both literally and figuratively, do it.  Change direction in your life.

Are you ready for Christmas this year?  More importantly, are you ready for Christ?  Are you ready to celebrate his first coming?  Are you ready to receive him, when he comes again in all of his glory?  If you listen closely, over the songs about Rudolph and Frosty and White Christmases, over the craziness that surrounds us this time of year, you will hear a voice, a voice of one calling in the desert:  Prepare the way for the Lord.  That is the message of this second Sunday of Advent, prepare your life, prepare your heart, prepare your whole being by turning toward Christ, seek his forgiveness and wholeness, and expect his grace.  Because it is only by his grace we are able to make that turn-around and be prepared for the day we see him, not in a card or manger scene, but for the day we will see him face to face.


Saintly Job Description: Sermon by Keith, 11.1.15

Scriptures: Mark 12:28-3

A lot of people had been arguing with Jesus this day in the temple.  This house of worship, where God was to be glorified, had become a hostile environment where different groups with differing religious and political agendas would quarrel about who was right. Our reading this morning is preceded by stories of antagonism between Jesus and these different segments of ancient Jewish leadership.  Group after group, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, shuffle on and off the stage with questions to trap or antagonize Jesus.  “Where do you get your authority?” “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” “Is it right to pay taxes to the Romans?” “In the resurrection, who will get to marry the women who had been married to the each of the seven brothers successively?”   Each of these questions are meant to either trap Jesus into saying something that will get him in trouble with the local authorities or attempt to find out what side of the religious/political fence he is on.  And in each and every case, Jesus offers a variety of responses to the questions that leads the one asking to be rendered silent and amazed.

But then another man enters the scene.  Mark just calls him a scribe who has been listening to all the heated conversations.  We don’t know much about him.  As a scribe, he would have known the Jewish law, the Torah, inside and out and probably would have been asked his interpretation of the law in a dispute.  He likes what he has been hearing Jesus say in his discussions with the others who have come before him.  He is drawn to Jesus in many ways because of his personal position and Mark casts this scribe as one sincerely interested in engaging Jesus in further discussion not to trap and determine political allegiances, but for the sake of piety, for the sake of deepening one’s understanding of what it meant to be a follower of the God worship at the temple.

This scribe enters the conversation by posing his own question to Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  And Jesus answers it in two parts, but they are two parts that are so entwined that they can’t be pulled apart.  We will discover that the answer isn’t complete without those two parts.

The first portion of the response Jesus gives is rooted in the law in what is known as the Shema, a prayer that has been said by pious Jews throughout history, “Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  The point is to love God completely and comprehensively, with all of one’s being.  And that love of God through our whole being begins with worship.  NT Wright puts it this way that since we are created in the image of God, “we will find our fullest meaning, our true selves, the more we learn to love and worship the one we are designed to reflect.  No half measures; heart, mind, soul and strength—that is, every aspect of human life—is to be poured out gladly in worship of the one true God.  Whatever we do, we are to do for him” (Mark for Everyone).

The reason this is the first and greatest commandment is not that God wants us to ponder how and if we are loving God with our entire being, or feel guilty that we may not be loving God enough, but it is there to help us respond to the love of God that is poured out upon us.  God is love, and the book of 1 John tells us that we love because God first loved us.  We don’t love God to try and get on his good side or get favors; we love God in response to the deep love he has given us.  We respond back in praise and gratitude to that deep love in everything that we say, think, and do.

In many ways, what Jesus answered up to this point could be considered a complete answer.  What’s the greatest commandment?  Love God!  And I have always wondered if the scribe expected Jesus to stop there, but Jesus doesn’t.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  When he sums it up, Jesus is using a mix of singular and plural words, “There is no other commandment (singular) greater than these (plural).”

But here is why they are one and the same.  Loving God fully means living in ways that God’s kingdom is experienced and shared in concrete ways.  As we grow in God’s gift of grace and love, we grow in our capacity to love and serve as God commands and we do so both within and outside the walls of the church.  Love turns prayer and worship into concrete actions in the world because, above all, it is love made real that reveals the kingdom of God.  I think this is why the scribe, in responding to Jesus, says that this is much more important than all the offerings and sacrifices done in the temple worship.  It is the love of God that leads to loving the other.  If the focus only becomes worship and how to live a holy life before God, that worship is worthless, that life becomes self-centered.

But also notice what Jesus doesn’t say as he talks about the love of neighbor.  He doesn’t say, “Love others instead of yourself” nor does he say “When you have figured out how to love yourself then go love your neighbor.”

I don’t usually listen to radio preachers mostly because when I listen to one, I want to hear the entire sermon.  The couple minute drive from home to the church doesn’t cut it, so it is usually only on road trips that I tune into the sermons on the airways.  On one trip, the pastor was preaching on this particular text, but his main thrust was that the church needed to provide classes to help people love themselves.  Now, I’ll be the first to say that it is easier to come worship and praise God when I’m feeling good about myself and it seems much more doable to reach out to my neighbor when I’m not worried about the chaos that is happening in my own life, but that misses the point of this text.  Most people, on a daily basis, get up in the morning and dress them selves, feed themselves, make sure the kids or parents (depending on the life situation) are taken care of.  We love ourselves and our close clan naturally, instinctively in these ways.  This is the love of neighbor Jesus is calling us to, a love that sees our neighbor as part of the family that is enveloped not only in God’s love, but also our love.

But if this radio preacher would have said the church needs to have a class on teaching people to receive love, my response might have been different.  In this culture that pushes self-sufficiency and individualism, it can be hard to admit we need to receive love from God and each other.  Time after time, when I’ve met with people in need, going through hardship such as illness or loss, when it comes time to pray, they say, “But don’t pray for me, there are bigger problems in the world.”  Yeah, there might be bigger problems in the world, but this response says, “I can take care of it myself.” Or it says, “I’m not worthy of receiving love.”  This closes the door on love that can be shared, I believe, even the power of God’s love.  Take a risk and say “pray for me!”

We don’t know what went through the scribe’s mind as he left this encounter with Jesus.  The text said no one dared to ask him any questions.  I know I would have had questions.  Here Jesus has simplified the life of faith:  Love God and love neighbor.  But simple doesn’t mean easy.  One could get paralyzed by the enormity of what it means.  Do I run off to Africa and operate an orphanage?  Do I start knocking door-to-door down my street handing out pamphlets about knowing Jesus?  Do I sing a little louder in worship on Sunday?  As a pastor, do I hand everyone an application to go to seminary as they leave today?

No, I don’t think that’s how it works, even though if you are feeling called to go to Africa to run an orphanage, Amen!  But how do we, in our busyness of our lives, live into this commandment?

It boils back down to love.  God’s love for you and God’s love for the larger world cannot be separated.  Your day-to-day life, which God has given you and lavishly poured his love into, is the place where you can glorify God and love your neighbor as yourself.  It doesn’t mean working harder, it means opening yourself to the Holy Spirit so you can recognize the needs of those around you as you live out your life.  Margot Starbuck in her book, Small Things with Great Love, points out that in the story of the Good Samaritan, we don’t know why the Samaritan was on the road to Jericho.  For all we know he was on his way to coffee at the Jericho Mall to discuss a possible business merger.  He was just on his way somewhere—Walmart? A dentist appointment?  Starbucks?—when he recognized someone in need and pulled over his donkey to check it out.  The regular stuff of our lives–the commute to work, the workout at the gym or gym class, the church fellowship night dinners, home improvement projects, errands, play dates—these are the places in which we express and experience God’s love for a world in need.

Friends, today is All Saints’ Day.  And being a saint isn’t about knowing the right answers.  The scribe knew the right answer, but Jesus says that only brought him near to the kingdom of God.  A saint is someone who lives the answer, who participates with God in God’s reign by living joyfully in the love of God and sharing it with everyone they meet along the way.  It doesn’t mean adding a bunch of stuff or tasks to your life, but it may be inconvenient and uncomfortable at times.  But it’s about taking one step at a time, each and everyday, with Jesus into his kingdom.  Amen.

What Do You Want Me To Do? Sermon by Laura 10.25.15 Pentecost 22B

The story of Bartimaeus is Jesus’ last healing miracle in Mark’s gospel. Coming just before Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, it’s a transition story wrapping up one section of the narrative while it points toward the next. In the story of Bartimaeus, we have a rich gathering of imagery and ideas about who Jesus is and what he’s about, as well as what it means for us to have faith and follow him. This story seems simple, but it has many layers of meaning, so it lends itself well to a prayer practice from Ignatius of Loyola, who valued the power of human imagination in deepening our relationship with God. The idea is that you use your imagination to enter into the story and find yourself as a participant in it, experiencing for yourself an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Now, I’m aware that this kind of prayer is a challenge for some of us, so let’s be clear: there is no way to do this exercise right or wrong, and I invite you to release any expectations you might have about how it will go.  If you have a new powerful insight, great; if nothing comes, that’s okay, too. Allow yourself to be present; invite Jesus to sit with you in any discomfort; breathe, rest and trust that God is present no matter what. Even if you fall asleep, well, God’s with you there, too.

So, let’s go. First, get as comfortable as you can in your seat and close your eyes.  Let’s take three deep breaths, Trinitarian-style,letting our bellies fill with air and soften and then releasing with our breath anything outside of this moment. Two more…one more…

Now, letting your breathing settle into a relaxed and regular pattern, begin to imagine a busy ancient street in Jericho…a regular thoroughfare for Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the festivals…It’s a spring day, and you feel the bright sun on your face. You hear animals, and smell the dust rising from the road. Hawkers shout out what they have to sell, and beggars plead for alms. You hear the sounds of a large crowd, many feet stepping, and feel the buzz that someone special is coming, anticipation and the curiosity building on the street. Find yourself in this story as I read the text…

Mark 10:46-52

So…Where did you experience yourself in this story? Were you an observer, watching the whole thing? Were you on the street in the crowd? Were you on the roadside with Bartimaeus? Maybe you saw yourself as Bartimaeus, or maybe, if you were daring,you experienced the scene from Jesus’ point of view. Is there anything that surprised you about this experience?…

Here are a few thoughts I had, pondering this story from multiple perspectives. First, the disciples: how would you, one of Jesus’ “inner circle,” be feeling at this moment? You’ve been journeying with Jesus for many days, and you know it’s significant to be closing in on Jerusalem. Not so many days ago, Peter named Jesus “the Messiah,” and since then Jesus has been predicting strange things you can’t quite take in, using scary words like “suffer” and “be crucified.” You don’t really want to hear them, and they make no sense,
so you continue imagining that the moment you’ve been dreaming of is finally approaching, when Jerusalem is reclaimed and restored to the rightful King of Israel,and you, one of the 12, are at the center of power.

Then there’s the crowd. These are folks who have heard of Jesus, who are curious about him and want to be near him, who are carried along with the wave of energy his presence creates.  As a crowd member, it may be unclear to you why you are here. The buzz around him, the stories about things he’s done and said connect with you, but otherwise you are not particularly committed to Jesus. When you hear Bartimaeus calling out, the beggar’s voice at first feels like a dissonant interruption. And then, when you hear what he’s saying, it makes you a bit nervous. To call Jesus “The Son of David” is a pretty bold assertion that he really is the true king the Jews have been waiting for. It’s a politically dangerous claim, and you want him to quiet down before Herod’s spies or local Roman centurions hear anything and get everyone in trouble.

And of course, there’s Bartimaeus, a beggar with a curious name. It oddly combines Aramaic and Greek to mean the “son of Timaeus.” In naming him thus, Mark might be making a connection to Plato, who wrote a philosophical piece called “The Timaeus;” so I like to imagine that Bartimaeus before he was blinded, was a confused student of both Jewish and Greek ideas,  wondering about what’s truly true.

But what, if you are Bartimaeus in this moment, are you thinking? What is you’ve heard about Jesus convicts you now that he is the one, your true king? What is about Jesus that inspires your trust, that he can and will help you in your deepest, most desperate longings? What is it about him that compels you to shout against the crowd so that he will hear and see you?

Finally, there’s Jesus. If you are Jesus, you are pacing yourself, step by step, toward Jerusalem, aware of the big picture. You know that what you’ve been doing and saying will inevitably be recognized as dangerous by the powers-that-be. You know the time remaining for your mission of proclaiming and enacting God’s kingdom is limited, and you know that even your closest companions are not really “getting” it.

God’s ways are so different from human ways, turning everything upside down. Yet you have trust and courage; you are centered and focused; the affirmation God pronounced at your baptism rings in your mind with each step: “You are my Beloved Son.” Amidst the flurry around you, you are somehow able to rest and trust in those words, in their truth and promise.

When Bartimaeus causes his commotion, the crowd—presumably including the disciples—tries to shut him down. But I love how the text says that Jesus “stood still.” I imagine him as the still point in the whirlwind of emotions and expectations the disciples, the crowd, and Bartimaeus represent. It reminds me of another chaotic commotion, on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus was the still-point, calming the Sea’s chaos and the disciple’s terror with authority.

Here Jesus uses that authority, commanding the crowd to call Bartimaeus, and a different kind of transformation takes place. I love how the crowd, obeying Jesus, goes from being a disinterested collection of people to a community of care and encouragement. I love how Bartimaeus goes from a disempowered beggar to a man of vision, doing what the rich man earlier in Mark 10 could not, flinging away his one possession, his cloak, as he springs with raw hope toward Jesus.

And I love the powerful question Jesus asks Bartimaeus, by which, perhaps, just perhaps, the disciples  are brought a teeny-tiny bit closer to understanding. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. This is the same question he asked James and John, when they approached him a few verses earlier, wanting to be Jesus’ #1 and #2 courtiers when he kicks out the Romans once and for all. Jesus tells them their request is not his to grant, telling them, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

What do you want me to do for you? It’s a beautiful question, says author John Dear, revealing not only that God truly desires to help us, but the very nature of our God: “In Jesus, we have a God who is humble, loving, and generous, a God who longs to serve humanity, especially in its brokenness, poverty and blindness.” Bartimaeus’ response shows his clear insight, his transparent humility, so different than the presumptions of the power-hungry disciples. Bartimaeus is graced with awareness that he is indeed broken and in need of mercy, and that Jesus is the One who can heal and restore him.

This question also shows that Jesus makes no assumptions. It may seem obvious to us that Bartimaeus will want his eyesight back, but I believe Jesus looks on him as Jesus looks on all of us, a human being in need but with inviolable dignity. Jesus’ compassionate vision can hold both our brokenness and the wholeness God intends for us, and he doesn’t presume to decide for us what we need most. It is up to Bartimaeus, as it is up to each one of us, to see and name our deepest desires for healing and wholeness, entrusting them fully to God in Christ.

My friends, Bartimaeus asks for what he wants and receives what he asks for. The disciples and the crowd are not yet as clear—not just about who Jesus is, but about who they are and what they truly want.

Where are you in this story? The good news of the gospel is that we have a King who has come to serve. Wherever we find ourselves today, we are invited to know ourselves as those who need his mercy, and we are invited to become aware of the mercy we need. Flinging away everything that stands between us and Jesus, we are invited to tell him, with profound trust, exactly what we long for, what we hope for, our deepest most desperate desire for new life.

I am convinced we will find it as we follow, like Bartimaeus, in Jesus’ way, a way that leads us from our blindness through suffering and loss into the wide-eyed wonder of resurrection faith by which we ourselves are blessed to serve and heal the world. Amen.

Losing to Gain: Sermon by Keith, 10.18.15

Note to readers: our sermon blog has been on hiatus for a bit, but I’m trying to catch things up. That’s why this is a sermon from October 2015 being blogged in February 2016. Such is the life of pastoral ministry: busy season and things go by the wayside. At any way, I’m going to do my best to get us up to the present in the next few weeks, so stay tuned. 🙂 Laura


Scriptures: Hebrews 5:1-10 and Mark 8:27-38

It is mid-term exam time for the disciples.  The test will not only see if they have been paying attention, but it is also see if we have been paying attention.  And the test boils down to just one question from their teacher, “Who do you say that I am?”   And a lot is riding on their answer, for what they say not will not only reveal who they think Jesus is, but also who they are as his followers.

Up to this point, the disciples have been hearing a lot of questions and even asking a few questions about who Jesus is and what he is up to that might help them pass the teacher’s test.  From Jesus’ first healing, the question rings out, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority?”  Basically, who is this guy and where does he get his power?  When the paralytic is dropped through the ceiling of the house that Jesus is staying in and offers him forgiveness before offering healing, the questions come up, “Why does this fellow speak in this way?  Who can forgive sins but God alone?”   And when he is in the boat with his disciples and he calms the storm, the disciples ponder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Even Jesus’ question about what other people are saying about him gives the disciples time to ponder who Jesus is.

Then he turns and asks them all, “Who do you say that I am?” When he says, “You are the Messiah” or the Christ, Peter becomes the spokesperson for the group. But in calling Jesus the Messiah, Peter isn’t calling Jesus divine or even delving into Trinitarian theology.

We have the benefit of reading these words on this side of the resurrection, of knowing how the church has wrestled with answering Jesus’ question for millennia. But in that time and place, what Peter meant in calling Jesus “the Messiah” is that Jesus is the true King of Israel, the heir to the throne of David.  Not Herod, not Caesar.  But Jesus was the long awaited king that they had all been waiting for.

I always have wondered what the teacher’s expression was when he heard Peter’s answer.  Was it a look of relief, “You finally got it”?  Or was it more of, “Well, you got the right answer, but show me your work.”

Now that Peter made his confession, Jesus begins to teach them something new, something different than they had ever been taught before about the Messiah.  Peter and the disciples had a specific job description for the Messiah: Cleanse and rebuild the temple, defeat the enemies of God’s people, and bring God’s justice upon Israel and the world.

But that isn’t what Jesus had been doing, he wasn’t gathering a military force or announcing plans to kick out the Romans or the temple authorities.  From the get go, he has been re-defining and re-describing what the Messiah would look like.  And now he adds a new layer to it:   There is danger ahead, and Jesus must walk straight into it.  It was certain death and it was what he, as the Messiah, had to do.

Now, I really like how N.T. Wright describes what must have been going through Peter’s head.  It would be like the new football captain telling his team that he was intending to let the opposition score 10 goals right away. The disciples had probably deduced that Jesus had something else in mind besides a military take over, but for sure they never thought he was going straight to his death.  To their ears, they were hearing that Jesus was going to lose, and worse yet, he was inviting them to come and lose along side him.  They want to play follow the leader, not follow the loser.  No wonder Peter pulls Jesus aside to give him some career counseling on proper Messiahship, how the Messiah is supposed to play the game.

So, what happened?  Peter gets the right answer, which leads Jesus to command them not to tell anyone, followed by the harsh prediction of the future that awaited Jesus, and finally by an exchange of mutual rebukes by Peter and Jesus that end with Jesus linking Peter to Satan. It appears Peter got the right answer wrongly.  This exchange between Peter and Jesus gives the indication that this suffering Messiah is not the one the disciples planned on following.

Now, if a suffering Messiah is hard enough for Peter to swallow, Jesus turns and open begins to teach what it means to follow him, to lead a life as his disciple.  They include denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus.  Peter probably thought that confessing Jesus as the Messiah put him on the winning side of things to come and a glorious leadership role, not the possibility of ending up on a cross himself.

And this is where Jesus calls for a change of human perspective to a divine perspective.  Of course Peter is looking at things from a human perspective; he is a man, how else does Jesus expect him to look at things?  Peter sees him as the one who will support his human wants and desires.  Peter sees him as the one who will sustain the values he wants in enhanced in his life and country.  Peter sees Jesus as the one who will enable him to become a winner and ruler in the age to come.

But Jesus’ words to Peter suggest that he can, and we can, set our minds on divine things.  In our relationship with Jesus, as we have seen what he has and is doing in our lives, the lives of our neighbors, and in the life of the church, there is a promise and the hope that somehow the divine perspective on who we are and what we are about breaks through.  In Jesus, God enables us to find a way that is different from the way of the world, enabling us to discern how life is fulfilled as God intends, and enabling us to live by values that are not embodied in the normal course of human affairs.

Even with the added benefit of reading Jesus’ words on this side of the resurrection, it can still be a struggle to discern the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?”  We want a Messiah who will set the world right on our terms, but God gives us a suffering Christ who brings forth a new creation on God’s terms.  We don’t get the Messiah we want, we get the Messiah we need.

And in answering the question of “Who is Jesus?” in light of Mark’s answer to that question, we can come to a clearer understanding of the question, “Who am I?”  It is not only about what we confess we believe about him, it is also about what we do in light of that confession.  We are disciples, his disciples:  learners who follow Jesus; followers who learn from him.  And what we learn above all else from our teacher is that we follow him in obedience in the will of God, even though it may mean our suffering and death of the self.  Because when we take up our cross and follow Jesus, we are also following him to his and our own resurrection, participating with the power of God to bring life out of death.  Amen.

One Thing: Sermon by Laura, 10.11.15 Pentecost 20B

Scriptures: Mark 10:17-31, Hebrews 4:12-16

In the 1991 movie “City Slickers,” Mitch, played by comedian Billy Crystal, is a 40-ish radio ad salesman in midlife crisis, whose friends have brought him on a Western cattle drive “vacation,” hoping to reignite some inspiration in their lives. The movie’s pivotal scene comes when Mitch is helping Curly, a grizzled old cowboy played by Jack Palance, round up some missing cows. Curly turns to Mitch and says, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” He holds up one finger. “This.”
“Your finger?” says Mitch, perplexed.
“One thing. Just one thing,” Curly says….
Mystified, Mitch asks, “But, what is the ‘one thing?’”
With an enigmatic smile, Curly responds, “That’s what you have to find out.”

One thing. Just one thing. A man interrupts Jesus’ journey, kneeling before him to ask a burning question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The text says Jesus looks at him, loves him, and—I’m imagining this part, but can’t you just see him holding up a Curly-esque finger?—says to the man, “You lack one thing.”

One thing. You lack one thing. How ironic, since, by any of the world’s standards for measuring abundance or blessing, this man seems to lack nothing. Wealth then, as now, was understood as a sign of God’s blessing upon individuals or nations. To have many possessions is to lack nothing necessary for the comfort of oneself and one’s family, but also for achieving status as a societal patron with the power to influence culture and politics; and how much more likely is one whose needs are not only met but exceeded to be able to rigorously keep the commandments!

But Jesus looks at this man and sees differently. Mark’s words are simple but moving: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”

Yet Jesus’ loving focus on the man also brings to mind today’s Hebrews text, about the living, active, piercing word of God:  sharper than any sword, judging the thoughts and intentions of the heart, so that “no creature is hidden but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Jesus’ sharp gaze sees not only the man’s status, but also his sincere longing to be faithful, his deep yearning to participate ever more fully in the goodness of God. It is from such love that Jesus issues the man an invitation: “Go, sell, what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

These words were shocking and grieving to that man, as they are no less shocking and grieving to those who today have many possessions. And while Jesus issues this particular invitation to a specific individual, so that we are hopeful it doesn’t apply to us, just after the rich man sadly walks away, Jesus turns his keen eyes on all his disciples and says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

Christians over the centuries, desiring to be both faithful and prosperous, have wrestled long and hard with this text. There are two classic ways interpreters have tried to wriggle out from under Christ’s loving but pointed gaze by making its message too simple. On one hand, we reduce what Jesus is saying to “Poor people good, rich people bad.” This gives us permission to do what we do so often, compare our wealth to those who have more than us. Clearly, Jesus isn’t talking to us, because we have so little compared to the 1%. And if we believe we are on the poorer end of the scale, we get to feel a little virtuous, feeling entitled to tell people who hoard their riches, “Good luck getting through the eye of a needle!” whilst we secretly envy them.

On the other hand, we try to tame Jesus’ hyperbole. There was a time when church scholars regularly taught that there had been a gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” through which it was difficult, but not entirely impossible for camels—and therefore wealthy people—to pass through. Often the preacher would then suggest that if said wealthy people put a bit more in the church’s coffers, they’d be assured safe passage through the tight gate to eternal life.

Of course, there never was such a gate, and both reductions of Jesus’ message reveal that we are just as misunderstanding about the God’s kingdom as that poor little rich man.

“Good teacher,” the man says of Jesus, and we, like him, think we know what is “good.” Surely it is “good” to purchase every comfort or influence events with our monetary power. But Jesus says only God is good. The things we have and the power we exercise are only “good” to the extent that they partake of the God who alone is good.

We also, like the rich man, tend to think we are capable of assuring for ourselves ultimate security and abundance, both in this age and the age to come. “What must I do,” he asks, unable to see that eternal life might not be something he can procure for himself, even in his prosperity and lawful obedience.

Finally, we, like the man, misunderstand the kind of inheritance God gives us in Jesus Christ.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks. The word “inherit” suggests the experience of waiting and receiving from someone with whom there is a history of relationship, a kinship. To the extent that we honor the one from whom we inherit, we assume a responsibility for stewardship. In an inheritance, the relationship is key.

With “abstract wealth,” however, those ties are severed; we claim ownership of our possessions detached from relationships and unaccountable to anyone but ourselves. As one scholar notes, “The rich man thinks he wants inheritance, but what he wants is an eternal form of abstract wealth. He soon discovers that God does not give gifts that are detached from God’s own self…”

Jesus invites us, like the rich man, to consider how our abundant “goods” have become an obstacle to inheriting and receiving what we really yearn for, not abstract “goods” but the Good which God alone can give. How does our wealth distort our relationships with God and to others? How have we sought to provide for ourselves, by means of monetary power and accumulation of things, the abundant life that God alone can provide?

What is the one thing, just one thing, which makes our lives here and now and forever abundant with joy? I know how many of us here are all too aware how our possessions can begin to possess us! Our home is no exception to the clutter conundrum, a pandemic unleashed on the earth by consumer capitalism.  So recently I tried out a de-cluttering method from an international bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Kondo helps people in her native Japan shape the life they long for by teaching them how to discard and store their stuff.

Her method is pretty simple: go through your stuff, category by category, hauling out everything into a big pile, and then taking each piece in your hands, asking yourself, “Does it spark joy?” If you feel a thrill of joy holding the item, keep it. Otherwise, thank it for its service to you and let it go.

I began, as Kondo recommends, with my clothes. Now, I am by no means a clothes horse, but just as Kondo predicted, I was stunned to see the heap of clothing I actually had. I managed to cull four large garbage bags of clothing from my collection, though I was a bit worried seeing how much I was letting go: “What will I wear? If I rely only on joy, will there really be enough?”

That right there is more than a purely practical question, isn’t it? Somehow de-cluttering my clothing became a practice that got right at my fears of scarcity, revealing my lack of trust in the true source of joy. Waking up to my fear, I chose to trust and let go, giving thanks for the abundance I had received; and sure enough, a new and joyful freedom in dressing emerged.

It’s a pretty simple example, but I think Kondo’s method is effective because, beyond the desire to have a tidy home, it taps into our greater longing for joy and gratitude,  without which the most luxurious things become nothing more than clutter collecting dust.

Gratitude and joy go together. As Benedictine Brother David-Steindl-Rast writes, “We notice that joyful people are grateful and suppose that they are grateful for their joy. But the reverse is true: their joy springs from gratefulness. If one has all the good luck in the world, but takes it for granted, it will not give one joy. Yet even bad luck will give joy to those who manage to be grateful for it…”

My friends, what is the one thing you lack, the deepest yearning of your hearts? And what in your life has become clutter, standing between you and the truly abundant life? Maybe it’s a pile of things collecting dust, but maybe it’s also your fears and insecurities, your distrust of anything but what you can count in your pocketbook, your home, or your heart. Maybe it’s a long-burning anger or grudge, or maybe there’s grief that’s never been experienced and released.

Today is the day to look at your life with the sharp and loving gaze of Christ, to see the things, habits, attachments and attitudes, holding you back from full reliance on God, to let go with gratitude, trusting you will inherit the one thing necessary a life of joy that comes only from the Giver of all Good things, not only in the eternal future but starting here and now, as we lean deeply into Christ’s love,  and we receive with gratitude the grace and mercy of our God of impossible possibilities.

“You lack one thing,” Jesus says, pointing the man and us toward liberating generosity which restores relationship with God and others, rooted in gratitude and fruiting in joy. My friends, let us practice gratitude that we own nothing, not even ourselves. We belong to the God who created us, who invites us to receive a joy we can scarcely imagine, as we follow Jesus the Christ and we partner with the Spirit in sharing ourselves generously with a world profoundly in need of God’s love.  Amen.

Sources:, with obscenity removed for church consumption.

Karoline Lewis,

Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective,” in, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 310.

David Steindl-Rast, quoted from Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer by Brother David Steindl-Rast by Brene Brown at

The Creative Word: Sermon by Laura, 9.6.15, Season of Creation 1B: Planet Earth Sunday

Scriptures: John 1:1-14, Psalm 33:1-9

How many of you have seen the T.V. series, “Doctor Who?” You remember the basic premise: The Doctor, a humanlike extra-terrestrial, is the last of the Time Lords, travelling space and time in the TARDIS, his traveling machine which looks like a 1960s blue British police box. Courtesy of the internet, Keith and I have been time-travelling, watching old episodes from the newest BBC series, beginning in 2005. In an episode called “The End of the World,” the Doctor and his companion, Rose, arrive, in the year 5 billion, to a party with the universe’s rich elite, gathered at a viewing platform to watch the “artistic event” of the end of planet Earth.

Of course, some mayhem inevitably ensues wherever the Doctor shows up, and I won’t spoil it for you, if you haven’t seen it.  But at the conclusion of the episode, we find Rose and the Doctor watching asteroids which were once Earth floating by a giant red sun. Rose says, “The end of the Earth. It’s gone. We were too busy saving ourselves. No one saw it go…” They stand in silence, then they return in the TARDIS to 21st Century Britain. Standing amidst a crowd of people going about their daily lives, the Doctor, who witnessed the death of his home planet, comments, “You think it’ll last forever, people and cars and concrete, but it won’t.  One day it’s all gone…”[1]

One of the things I love about science fiction is that, by taking us to an imagined reality, it can wake us up to our own. How often do you go about your day on Planet Earth, assuming that it will last forever? I do, almost all the time. It’s a necessary survival instinct, that we are able to live in kind of amnesia, forgetting that our existence is not actually a given. How would we function in all our little, daily crises, if we were constantly pondering the eventual end of everything and everyone we know and love?

But while it helps in many situations, we now live in an era when the human propensity for big-picture amnesia—we might call it “denial”—allows us to unwittingly continue in patterns of behavior which damage the environment that we and all other creatures of Earth require to continue existing. Scientists are more and more certain that our use of fossil fuels in the industrial centuries has precipitated changes in climate, which are already harming the world’s poorest people, let alone the plants and animals.

But whether or not you buy climate change science, few of you are unaware of one kind of environmental problem or another. The water and air in treasured places are not as clean as they used to be. Record-breaking drought and fire plagues some places, too-heavy-rains and mudslides in others, and unprecedented hurricanes sweep across the tropics. Human population growth in the Two-Thirds world has us wondering where the resources will come from should poorer peoples desire to live as we have grown accustomed. Inside ourselves we feel gnawing anxiety as we look at our world and wonder what legacy we are leaving for generations to come.

Starting today, through September, we are celebrating the Season of Creation. On these Sundays, we will worship God as we do every Sunday. But we will do so from a different angle than we may be accustomed, focusing on the Creator’s grace in the gift of Creation. It is a chance to wake up to the present moment, looking together in grateful awe at what God has made, joyfully marveling at how God has, in Planet Earth, provided a home and a sanctuary for a myriad of splendid life-forms. It is a time to celebrate the privilege of our very existence as creatures inhabiting such a beautiful world. It is also a time to lament how human beings have separated ourselves from God’s grace in creation and abused the gift of life. And it is a time to repent, to turn around and do things differently, that all life on Earth may flourish.

A couple of clarifications. First, in calling the Earth “God’s creation,” I am not arguing for or against “creationism,” the belief that scripture tells us how God literally made everything in 6 days. Personally, I do not believe the Genesis accounts are meant to be read as “science” that can be tested or proven. I read the Bible as a book of testimonies, in which people who encountered God have attempted to witness in their own words to God’s purpose, presence, and power.

Science and faith are two different perspectives on reality, both helpful in their own way, and not necessarily contradictory. There are many things scientific method cannot prove or disprove; and there are mysteries of life that only the eyes of faith can begin to see.  Yet, scientific method enables human beings to enter more deeply into the mystery of creation, and I am grateful for the tools it gives us to become aware and appreciate Planet Earth’s splendor and fragility.

Second, to marvel at Creation is not to equate it with the Creator. We do not worship heaven and earth in our celebration and lament; we worship the God of heaven and earth. Reading scripture in faith, we testify alongside our faithful ancestors that God is the author of all life, the source and ground of being, who is present with and for and within creation, the One who, in freedom and love, chose, and continues to choose, to fashion, redeem, and sustain the cosmos.

Genesis testifies that this God, with the Spirit hovering over the primal waters, created all things by speaking into the darkness, beginning with “Let there be light.”  The Gospel of John describes the same event in this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

The gospel writer is using a Hellenistic philosophical idea, the idea of the Logos, trying to conceptualize and name the “very core of our existence,” God’s creative impulse, “the organizing principle of the cosmos,”[2] the spark of light and life igniting reality.[3] The good news of John’s gospel is that this Word, this power and reality of limitless life, [4] through which everything was somehow created, comes from the Creator to become part of the creation, to be a particular man, at a particular moment and place in history. This man acts in a particular manner, “plunging deeply into the sinful, ignorant realities of our existence in this world.”[5] John identifies Jesus the Christ as the Creative Word uttered by God who is sent to redeem and renew the entire beloved cosmos, even as he restores human creatures to the lives for which he created us.

We are created to be God’s children, not children of Empire’s dominating and blood-soaked will, not children of consumer culture’s will to creature comfort at any cost, and not children of the will to self-made, individualistic autonomy. God’s children are people who are sourced in, redeemed for, sustained by, and participating in the limitless, endlessly creative abundance of God’s generous grace and steadfast love.

In the Season of Creation, we open our eyes anew to the wonder of this scandalous truth. It is another of those big-picture concepts that we so often close off to our daily consciousness, not just because it is difficult to fathom, but also because it seems nonsensical in our culture. John’s gospel tells us, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” Do we truly know the incarnate grace of Jesus Christ, present for, with, and within God’s creation?

To receive and believe, to accept and stake our lives upon the power of the Creative Word is to begin to see the Creation as God sees it, beautiful and brutal,[6] broken and blessed. It is to fall in love again with the world God has made, and be motivated by that love to a Spirit-led response to creation’s suffering.

As we enter the Season of Creation, I recommend the spiritual practice I’ll call “sacred noticing.” You choose a place, a little, nearby corner of creation, and you go there to sit and notice the world around you for at 15 minutes, three or more days a week. I first tried this at Waller Creek near Austin Seminary. It was a spot I’d often passed on my way to classes. Over three months of sacred noticing, I came to know and respect the lives of the plants, animals, water, and rock. I fell in love with them, and I wanted them to be well. That love motivated us to gather with others and clean up the creek and the park.

Here in La Grande last week, I chose the corner of 6th and Washington, near the church sanctuary entrance. There’s lots of traffic there, and at first all I could notice was the noise of the cars and trucks. They dominate the landscape, such that it doesn’t seem like landscape at all,  certainly not one that featured on a Planet Earth special!

But, looking closer, there are tall trees and thick grass; there are birds singing, there are squirrels, and there are people walking dogs which the squirrels taunt from the treetops. There are layers and layers of life, layers of relationships of creatures connected to each other. Therefore God is present on that busy corner and God loves all the people, birds, dogs and squirrels, all the grass, trees, mushrooms, and insects in that place. God sees all of us as infinitely precious, created and connected to God through Jesus Christ, the Creator of Earth who came to be part of Planet Earth.

Our job as God’s children is to stay awake and receive this incredible reality, keeping our senses alert, refusing to forget that all of us who live under the light of the Sun together draw our life from God. Our job is to testify to the Light of Life, to see it and recognize it and follow it in the world, even and especially in the overlooked corners that seem so segregated from the God’s grace. Our job is to worship and celebrate, lament and pray in company with all the creatures who dwell in the sanctuary of Planet Earth remembering, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

Our job is to fall in love with creation, loving as God the Creator loves, and from that love, act in ways that bless others, generations of children and grandchildren, squirrels and dogs, trees and rivers and stars alike. Alleluia! Amen.


[1] From the transcript, found here:

[2] Cynthia L. Rigby, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 142-144



[5] Rigby, as above.

[6] With credit to Glennon Melton of, who coined the useful word “brutiful”—beautiful and brutal.

Vulnerable Mission: Sermon by Laura, 7.19.15

Scriptures: Mark 1-13

His disciples followed him.

With the dramatic stories that happen next, this phrase from Mark 6:1 seems rather innocuous and obvious. Of course Jesus’ disciples followed him. That’s what the disciples do, right? They go where their master goes. They do what he tells them to do. They open themselves to receive and learn from him. They follow.

In this text, they are following Jesus back from a tour of regions around the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus has been announcing the coming of God’s kingdom. On this tour, the disciples have seen him rebuke the wind-tossed sea into stillness and cast a Legion of unclean spirits from a possessed man into a herd of swine. Just prior to our stories today, they have witnessed Jesus heal a woman suffering from 12 years of bleeding and raise 12-year-old girl back to life. Thus have the 12 disciples seen Jesus’ kingly authority revealed, bringing order to chaos, freedom from enslavement, and new life out of death.[1] Soon, they will themselves be sent out, in that same authority, to heal, cast out demons, and announce the kingdom.

His disciples followed him.

First, however, the disciples follow Jesus to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath day. And, after all the wonders they have seen, I imagine the last thing the disciples expect is the hometown crowd’s reaction to Jesus. It begins well; the people seem impressed by Jesus’ wisdom and powerful actions: “What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”

But in the next breath, what appears to be a compliment becomes an insult. Regardless of any powerful deeds, these people know those hands were, up until now, employed in the mundane work of carpentry. Jesus was just a handyman, so how special could he really be?

There’s irony here, as N.T. Wright notes, “Jesus is indeed the one who can fix things, the one who is putting up a building, the one people should go to, to get things sorted out.”[2] But “familiarity breeds contempt,” the saying goes, and even more, it gives the locals the excuse they need to reject any notion of Jesus as Messiah and dismiss his dangerous kingdom teachings.

So this “un-miracle” story ends sadly.[3] Jesus offers a new, transformative reality, but the locals refuse to receive it. It’s not that Jesus’ hands have any less power, but that his neighbors and friends have effectively tied them.  After healing just a few sick folks, Jesus voices the pain he must have felt in this rejection: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown…” And then, amazed at their unbelief, Jesus moves on.

His disciples followed him.

It’s interesting that Mark’s gospel places the story of Jesus sending the Twelve into the villages to minister with “authority over the unclean spirits,” just after an event where Jesus’ authority was rejected.  What is “authority?” One source defines it as “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.”[4]

My mind links the word “authority” to the word “authoritarian,” a leadership style which enforces obedience “at the expense of personal freedom.”[5] Authoritarian governments use whatever force necessary to compel submission and conformity to their agenda. This is the kind of leadership Rome exercised over the people of first century Palestine, domination by force of arms and incessant war, celebrated, ironically, as the “Pax Romana,” the peace of Rome.

The peace of God’s kingdom, the authority in which Jesus sends the disciples, is utterly in contrast to such authoritarian regimes. And that, frankly, may be part of what offended Jesus’ hometown crowd. The kingdom Jesus was announcing contradicted the hope of Messiah so many Jews had nursed, the hope for a military leader who would fight Rome’s fire with fire, reclaiming their homeland from the pagans.

Jesus does not and will not compel obedience to his agenda by dominating force. Jesus’ authority comes from God, and God doesn’t force anyone into faith. God, who longs for our responsive love and obedience, allows people the freedom to reject him. In concert with God’s will and ways, Jesus’ authority makes change by way of free acceptance. He announces the kingdom, available to us here and now, and he shows us God’s desire and power for healing and wholeness. Those who freely accept and receive from him find their hearts and lives completely transformed. The eternal kind of life—a life of grace, purpose, courage, and deep love—becomes our everyday reality and spreads out from us to others.

But Jesus knows that for others, his way just seems too contrary to their understandings of prosperity and power on earth. No matter how loudly he speaks, some will not hear; no matter what sign he reveals, some will not see. Jesus grieves our rejection and our lack of faith, but he doesn’t let it slow him down.

And his disciples followed him.

 The Greek word, here translated “follow,” can also mean “imitate.” Disciples not only go where their master goes, but they take on his discipline: training that guides them in imitating the master’s character and deeds, training that shapes them in his likeness.

So, when Jesus sends out the Twelve, the disciples are not only to imitate their master’s powerful words, calling people to changed hearts and minds, fit for God’s kingdom; and they are not only to imitate his powerful sign-acts of exorcism and healing, which show, more powerfully than words, God’s kingdom is present in Jesus Christ. Above all, in the instructions he gives, we see that his disciples are also to imitate with authority rooted in vulnerability.

It’s an urgent mission; the disciples need to move fast and travel widely. They are not to waste time or energy carrying the burdens of self-sufficiency—bags with extra clothing, money, or even bread. If the disciples are not welcomed, they are not to waste time or energy trying to force the issue. Jesus tells them to shake off the dust and move on.

But beyond urgency, these instructions shape a relationship of hospitality. The disciples leave behind “the right equipment and…beautiful sacred objects”[6] we are so often tempted to substitute for faith. “Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment,” is how Eugene Petersen puts Jesus’ instructions in the Message.[7]

Showing up in town as vulnerable people, strangers in need of welcome, willing to risk rejection, and accepting their lack of control over others’ reactions: It’s not just that these instructions allow them to be in a home to speak gospel words; it’s that, in and of itself, living out these instructions actually makes the gospel real. The disciples come into a community in vulnerable acceptance, just as Jesus Christ, in whom God comes to dwell with us came as a vulnerable infant, submitting himself to our hospitality, accepting our rejection, giving himself for our redemption.

His disciples followed him.

In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen writes that hospitality is not just the literal act of receiving a stranger into our home, but “a fundamental attitude toward our fellow human being” and “…in the context of hospitality guest and host can reveal their most precious gifts and bring new life to each other.”

Nouwen continues, “Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place….Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.”[8]

Friends, the good news of the gospel is that God in Jesus Christ offers us this kind of hospitality. When we were far off, God in Christ ran to us with open arms and received us with mercy and grace into his kingdom. Therefore, as Christ’s disciples, we are called to offer such hospitality to others. But in today’s scripture, we see that we do so not merely by welcoming strangers into our fine homes or churches, but by becoming strangers ourselves, allowing others to fulfill our needs, making ourselves vulnerable to the welcome or rejection Jesus himself receives. The paradox is that, in so doing, we become available to share the radical acceptance and the new reality of love we have received in Jesus Christ.

Friends, I know this is not easy or comfortable. It means shedding not only layers of stuff that get between us and others, but layers of cultural assumptions. In and of ourselves, we frankly cannot do it.

But we are disciples sent out in the authority of Jesus Christ, imitating and relying upon his utter faith in God: Nothing will be impossible with God. Friends, it is not easy, but the eternal love and abundant life of God in Jesus Christ is worth whatever discomfort, whatever risk.

So let us, Jesus’ disciples, follow him. Amen, and Alleluia.


[2] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 66.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, quoted in Kathryn Matthews Huey at


[5] Definition from

[6] Peter W. Marty, quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey at

[7] Eugene Petersen, The Message, Mark 6:8

[8] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out, New York: Doubleday, 1975, 67, 72-73.

[9] Gittins, quoted at

Blessing and Cursing: Sermon by Laura, 6.21.15 Pentecost 4

Scriptures: James 3:1-12, Psalm 19

Here’s how John Hockenberry of National Public Radio’s “The Takeaway” opened his show on Friday: “What happened this week? What happened this week? …[O]nly in America do you have in the same week a network anchor who lied and tells America he wants to be trusted, a woman who’s white who tells America she wants to be considered black, and a white man with a gun who kills nine black people in a church in Charleston and says to police he wants to start a race war. One week. But is it one America? Trust, race, and violence, all three, that’s the big construct, right there, in one crazy, only-in-America, kind of Biblical parable. What does it mean?”

Hockenberry’s show goes on to consider the connections between our difficulties in trusting one another and our government to speak truth and to follow words with actions; the ongoing history of discrimination and violence against African Americans, and the continuing rise of gun violence, constantly asking, what lessons can be learned? What wisdom can be gleaned from the ruination of lives and the murders of innocent people in a house of worship?

The pain is deep and the issues are complex.Everyone has a theory on the roots of our problems. But this morning, the book of James cuts through the layers. Each of the stories Hockenberry named exemplify the dangers of an untamed tongue. Each person made choices to use his or her speech, sparking “forest fires” of distrust and violence, not merely “staining” their own lives but also setting ablaze what James calls “the cycle of nature,” creating with their words—and the actions flowing out of them—an environment of distrust, a climate for violence, a world of hurt.

They may seem so small, but our tongues do have a power disproportionate to their size. With them we exercise the creative capacity for speech, given to us by the God in whose image we are created, who spoke a Word into the chaotic void and created a universe.

Adam named the animals, and we continue to name the world and each other, which, “in some sense…creates a genuine reality,” notes author Dan Clendinnen.  Barbara Brown Taylor notes, “Whether we mean to or not, we construct worlds with speech. Describing the world we see, we mistake it for the whole world. Making meaning of what we see, we conflate this with God’s meaning. Then we behave according the world we have constructed with our speech, even when that causes us to dismiss or harm those who construe the world differently.” We are all connected to one another in a web of relationships in which our words have world-formational power.

We know from our own experience that the childhood rhyme is a thin defiance against the truly hurtful power of words: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Hateful remarks, shaming criticisms, and glib gossip can leave more enduring wounds than broken bones.

I can’t help but think of the collision of worlds between the African-American Bible study group in Charleston and the young white stranger they graciously welcomed and hosted, living out the Word of God they were studying. But even after receiving their hospitality, face to face, he continued to live according to the ways of a world constructed by hate speech, as he turned on them with words of hate and a gun.

That is why it is vital that we Christians are people who know and live out of the power of the Word to heal and to bless. We believe in God’s creative Word made flesh, and we proclaim Jesus Christ, in whose life of teaching and healing, in whose unjust death and unexpected resurrection,
our universe is created anew.  We receive the power of speech as part of God’s gracious invitation to participate in the ongoing recreation and restoration of the world.

Our speech is a Christian practice, by which we live out our love of God and neighbor. But James does not underestimate the challenge,  saying wild animals are tamed more easily than our tongues, and seeming gloomy on our prospects in controlling our speech.

Indeed, even in our churches, where we intend the best use of our speech, without realizing it, we sometimes find ourselves speculating about others in ways that are subtly harmful. Especially here, we must take seriously James’ wisdom from ch.1, “Everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak.” We are being restored to God’s image, but sin is pervasive and tenacious, and we do make many mistakes.

But James also tells us that the capacity to control our speech is a sign of maturity in the faith, which suggests that there is hope for us yet! We can choose to pray and practice to learn to use our speech for healing and not harm.

Of course, like any spiritual practice—loving speech takes practice! It is a process in which we notice and learn about God and ourselves. We can observe our speech and notice how it reveals our inner life, what we truly value and depend upon. Comparing our words to our actions, noticing the degree to which they have integrity, we will know how we have been growing in Christlikeness.

The Renovare workbook we are using in this summer’s Spiritual Formation Group suggests ways to engage in practicing loving speech:
–Be a gossip-buster. Whenever someone you are with begins to gossip, quickly end it. Guide the conversation to a different subject.
–Practice the art of speaking positively. Resolve to make two positive remarks about someone or something for every negative remark you make.
–Cultivate integrity in your speech by focusing on simplicity and honesty in all that you say.

These practices sound so simple and obvious, but trying them for a week is revealing! The point of them is not to get it perfect, but to see what we see. Sometimes we won’t like what we notice.
The awareness of what we don’t like in our words and actions is an invitation to ask for God to change us.

The good news is that we can learn to use our speech to bless others and share the truly good news of Jesus Christ; we can learn to discern when to speak and when to stay silent, and we can learn to speak in the Spirit to create worlds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness.

Do you see my stole? It’s my ordination stole from Alaska, and it features a raven and eagle with little crosses in their bellies, wings, and especially in their beaks. It reminds me of James’ metaphor of the bit and bridle guiding and directing the horse. There is a prayer inside which says, “May the Word of Christ be always in your heart, in your words, and in your actions.”

Those three aspects of our lives are brought into integrity as Christ speaks his transforming Word into our lives. Christ is already present with and within us,and by the power of the Spirit, we can  ask and receive God’s help: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach,” James says in ch.1. As we ask, receive and accept, lean into and depend upon the Holy Spirit that God has given us, Christ becomes the one who controls our speech and our whole bodies.

Friends, our speech has creative power. God gives us the freedom to use it for harm or for healing. Jan L. Richardson writes, “Offering a blessing is an act of profound hope. In blessing one another, we recognize and ally ourselves with the presence of God who ever works to bring about the healing of the world.” Let us invite God to shape us anew, that we may offer blessing.

Alleluia! Amen.



Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009, 67.

James Brian Smith and Linda Graybeal, A Spiritual Formation Workbook, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.

Jan L. Richardson, In the Sanctuary of Women, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010: 18.

Divine Friendship: Sermon by Keith, 5.10.15, Easter 6B

Scriptures: 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

(Congregational conversation around the question, “what is a friend?”)

When I asked that question, did a dictionary type definition pop to mind, with bullet point characteristics of what a friend is? Or did a real-life person come to your mind? (Let people answer). My guess is that this friend came to your mind and then how you answered my question about what a friend is, you pulled out characteristics that you have really experienced in the relationship with that friend to define what a friend is. Is that correct?

And that is what Jesus is talking about here in this portion of the farewell discourse, this long speech he gives right before he heads to his crucifixion. He’s talking about a relational friendship, not something metaphorical, but real and tangible with a person, with him. And as he talks about this divine friendship, we look at and to him for what it means to have a friend in Jesus and what friendship can look like in the community of faith.

Jesus’ criteria for living into this divine friendship is three-fold. Jesus’ friends are those who love one another. Now, we have been reading a lot from the Gospel of John and John’s first letter about love over the past couple of weeks. And the love Jesus is talking about is that self-sacrificial love that puts the other person first just for the sake of love. No agendas, no getting something out of putting the other ahead. Just love.

It is what Jesus’ whole ministry is about,  and we even find his understanding of love in his words today. He says, “I no longer call you servant, but friend.” That word that usually gets translated “servant” is actually the Greek word for “slave.” Think about the hierarchy between a master and a slave. Now what does it look like between two friends? Jesus has lowered himself and at the same time elevated the status of his disciples by calling them friend. That’s one of the ways we love one another, not by elevating ourselves in the community, but by lifting each other up, celebrating each others’ gifts and mourning with each other when our hearts are broken. In building our friendship with Christ, we love and build our friendship with one another.

The next part of friendship, as Jesus reveals it, is that everything is revealed. Jesus does not leave us in the dark. This is one of those parts of scripture that that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around.   Jesus holds nothing back from his disciples when he states clearly, “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” Everything. No secrets to dig out of what Jesus said. No special knowledge for a select few best disciples. Everything is and has been revealed in Jesus. In order for us to live in a loving relationship with God, Jesus has spilled the beans that we need to love one another. No secret handshakes or special rituals. Revealed love.

And that is what friends do with each other, they hold nothing back. It’s easy to share the good stuff in our lives, and it does take time to build trust and share those things that lay hidden in the back of the closet. But I think that Jesus is calling us to reveal those things to one another so that they are exposed to the light and love of God so healing and transformation can take place. Friends hold nothing back from God or each other. Everything is out in the open.

The last part of this divine friendship is understanding that being Jesus’ friend means that he chose us to be his friends. There was nothing we did or could do to be his friend. It was his initiative to lower himself so that we could be lifted up and be friends with the divine. Look around: God in Christ has chosen everyone here to be a friend. Indeed, he chose us long before we chose him.

And that is the second part of this choosing. It isn’t one way. We also have to chose to respond to God’s friendship. Friendship is a two-way street. I really like how Friedrick Beuchner talks about it. Friendship isn’t “something God does. It is something Abraham and God or Moses and God do together. Not even God can be a friend all by himself…” In speaking of the friendship of God and Abraham, Beuchner adds, “There is no agenda. They are simply being together, the two of them, and being themselves.” We respond to Christ’s invitation to be his friend by spending time with him and each other. That is how we build and maintain any friendship.

Friends, we are called to a personal relationship, a friendship, of love and loyalty to the one who has loved us more than we can begin to imagine. He is the one who calls us friend. And to prove his love for us, he shared everything and gave up everything for us. He lived, died, and was raised from the grave for us. And in that friendship with him, he calls us to a simple, profound, and difficult command: Love one another. Amen.