Living in Love

We’ll start this morning with three verses from John’s gospel, chapter 15, starting at verse 9. Listen to the word of God

9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (NRSV)

That ought to sound a little familiar…
we heard echoes of those words in the first chapter of 1 John.
There is a deep connection between our joy and God’s joy
There is deep connection between our love for God, for Jesus and for one  another, so much so that love is the key to our abiding in God.

Living in Love, remaining in love…
This is how we keep the commandments
This is how we show the world who God is.

Our final passage from John’s first epistle takes this idea and runs with it. Listen again for the Word of God to you today… this time from 1 John 4:7-21

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.

16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.

20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.   (NRSV)

If you asked me what the Bible – in particular the New Testament – has to say about what it means for us to love one another, I would probably point you to 3 passages…

Paul’s “most excellent way” of living as the Body of Christ, which he outlines in the 13th chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth.

The back half of the letter to the Ephesians, in particular where the household structure is described in terms of mutuality, rather than hierarchy.

And of course, I would point to this exhortation from 1 John, starting with beloved, let us love one another…

I know… those just scratch the surface of what we might say about love.  And if you asked me to choose another three from the gospels, I don’t know that I could narrow it down that far.

After all, Jesus tells us over and over again what the kingdom of God looks like.  And over and over again, it looks like grace, forgiveness, healing, hope… all stacked up on a foundation of love.
Love for God.
Love for neighbor.

The law of love, we call it.
The first and greatest commandment and the second, which is like it.
And which – according to our letter – flows directly from the first

…those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.  

But let’s back up just a bit.. I want to look again at a couple of segments closer to the start of this letter that will help us see more clearly what John means when he speaks of abiding in God’s love.

First, we need to recall how John summarized God’s commandments back in chapter 3, verse 23.
1- We are to believe in Christ
That Jesus lived, died and was resurrected
That this man Jesus was and is the Christ – the Messiah.

And 2- we are to love one another.
In ways that reflect and honor the light of the world,
rather than remaining in darkness of the world

We are to love one another
In ways that reveal the power of resurrection in us
In ways that show that we are alive in the love that Christ has given us…
Rather than living as though our hearts are dead, as if Christ remained in the tomb, and love died with him.

Those are pretty high expectations for what love looks like, if I’m honest. And yet, I don’t hear any doubt in this letter. I don’t see any reason to think this sort of love is unattainable.

Beloved, he writes…  Dear ones…
Let us love one another because love is from God;
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

And in fact, my friends, my siblings in Christ…
God is love.
God is love.

God’s very identity.
God’s very being.
Is.
Love.

And here’s the what John has been building to in the letter:
Because we are from God.
Because Christ is in us.
Our love is from God.
Our identity is in God and from God

Therefore, because God is love, our identify ought to be expressed in ???
Yes.  LOVE.

When we abide in God, we are abiding in love,
Steeping in love, marinating in love.

And when we are living in love, sharing that love,
When we are embodying that love, we are abiding in God.

Yes, it is our duty.
You could say that love is the work to which we are called, and you’d be right.
You could say that love is the work for which we were claimed, and you would not be wrong.
The bigger truth, dear ones, beloved ones, is this:
Love is the work for which we were made.
It is who we are.  

if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

When we love one another, we are transformed
The one who loves, AND the one who is loved.
BOTH are changed.

It is how we reach our potential… how we are perfected…
Yes, perfected, though not in the sense of being flawless.

There’s not a great English term for the original word here… telos.
Telos is more like a goal… or like a fervent hope.

When the Apostle Paul speaks of Christ as the telos of life.. .that to which he aspires, but has yet to attain,  Paul is saying that to be and live more like Christ is his greatest desire.   

God’s greatest desire for us… that which would bring the greatest joy…
God’s telos for us, God’s beloved…
we humans who bear the image of our creator

God’s greatest hope… God’s goal is for you and I to know how deeply we are loved,
To know that same love from one another, and then to proclaim and extend love ever outward, so that all the world might wake up to who they are.

Beloved, we are to love God and love one another,
Not because God needs more people loving and worshiping for the sake of being loved and worshiped…
But because our love for one another, our love for our fellow travelers on this planet, that is how people come to know and believe.

I’ll tell you, I’ve spent enough time with evangelical folks and missionaries to have heard every version of every argument and logical case for the existence of God and the claims of Jesus as Christ.

I have all manner of apologetics from Augustine to CS Lewis to Timothy Keller.   

I have read way too many tracts and answered plenty of knocks at my door that led to plenty of long conversations on my front porch.

And you know how much of that helped me to believe in God?
None of it.
Not one bit convinced me they had proof of God’s existence.
Or Jesus’ divinity.
And I am, really, a pretty logical kind of gal.

You want to know how I came to know that God is real?
Love.
Being loved by another.

Being loved by a family of faith way before I could contribute anything of value… nothing but some noise in the sanctuary and a dirty diaper in the nursery.

And being loved by that same community of faith when I was old enough to understand how to  withhold what I could have given in return.

Being loved by those who knew and know me at my least loveable.

The proof of God’s love came in my being loved and being told that I am loveable when every voice in the world… including my own inner critic… was shouting otherwise.

In being told often enough, loudly enough, from deep enough in the heart…
that I am beloved…

And eventually, the proof of God’s existence came from my loving others loudly enough, often enough, exhaustingly persistent enough from the very depths of my own heart…  

Beloved, let us love one another…
Because love is from God.
Because opportunities to love are from God.

You know… this time last week we were praying for the soccer team that was trapped in the cave in Thailand. The boys and their coach were all rescued, thanks to the efforts and expertise of thousands of people, including many divers who risked their lives, and one who died, as the team prepared and then worked the plan that eventually brought them home.   

I was fascinated by a story in last Sunday’s Washington Post.  Shibani Mahtani wrote the piece about the assistant coach who had taken the boys into the cave.  It was the title that first caught my eye: He Loved them More than Himself.  

Ekapol Chantawong  joined the Wild Boars soccer team as an assistant coach about three years ago. But before that, he was a Buddhist monk. See, Ekapol was orphaned at the age of 10.  He went to a monastery, where he trained as a monk for about 10 years. But then had to leave when his grandmother fell ill. He moved to northern Thailand to help care for her, spending part of his time working at a local temple.

He also started working with the soccer team part time. Many of the young men he mentored were poor or from minority groups that left them cultural orphans. A friend of Ekapol’s told the article’s author that “he loved the boys more than himself.”

His love for them led him to help the head coach find ways to use the boys’ passion for soccer as motivation for academic work. Good grades might mean new soccer gear. Opportunities to experience a different life. His love for them led him to spend time beyond soccer, getting to know their families, their hopes, their sorrows.

As the world became aware of the boys and their coach, trapped in a cave, friends grew worried for Ekapol.  His love for them had earned the boys’ complete trust.  That trust is what allowed them to follow him into what turned out to be a life-threatening adventure. His friends knew that he would blame himself for the mess they were in. That his love for them would break his heart, if any of the boys were injured or worse.

But the complete trust that he had earned… this is also what allowed the boys to follow his lead when they needed help staying calm.
When they needed to conserve energy.
When they needed to stave off hunger and fear.

Ekapol was able to teach them how to meditate and slow their breathing to conserve oxygen.  He sacrificed his share of the little food they had among them, so that the boys would have more.

It isn’t hard to see why this young coach was and is seen by many in his country, and especially in his community as an almost divine force, sent to protect the boys in their ordeal.

Someone created a cartoon drawing of Ekapol. It shows the coach sitting cross-legged, as a monk would do in meditation, with 12 little wild boars in his arms.

It’s a just lovely, isn’t it?

You know, when I read his story and saw this image, I couldn’t help but think of the drawings on the covers of some of our children’s Bibles – and even in the stained glass right over there – depicting another divine force. The image of Jesus, inviting the young children to come to him.

Whether Ekapol would use the same language for the divine or not, I do believe he was the love of God made flesh- not only in the cave, but as he cared for those boys, saw their potential and worked to give them hope through something as simple as soccer.  

He loved them enough that he would have laid down his life for them.
Just as he loved his grandmother enough to lay down his vocation.

He loved them enough to want to keep them whole,
Just as he will be loved back to wholeness by the boys he loves, by the parents of his players and by the community members who know that he is more than one bad decision during an afternoon out with the team.

Beloved, let us love one another,
For opportunities to love are from God

Including opportunities to love people who are not our people… at least not on paper. People like Jim. If you were to draw diagrams of our interests – from sports to pop culture to politics or theology, you would see a really interesting trend. There are probably twice as many areas in which we are polar opposites as there are areas that overlap.

And when there are differences between us, they are in those HARD areas.  You know the ones. The ones that can tear families and churches and feels like maybe even can tear a whole nation apart…

But the thing is, Jim and I love each other.

We took the time to get to know each other. To hear each others’ stories. To be part of each others’ lives. So now, it’s not hard to love Jim. And it’s not hard to be loved by Jim, to share concerns and joys, to pray with and for one another and our families.

We love one another, not in spite of our differences.
And not because we ignore our differences.
But because we honor our differences and trust in the love of Christ that binds us together as children of God.

Now – I do think we can make it hard to love one another. We can make it hard to love and to be loved. I think that’s because there are times that we aren’t ready to enter into a relationship wholeheartedly… open heartedly.

Sometimes because of past or recent hurts.
Sometimes because of spiritual immaturity, which has little to do with age, by the way.
Sometimes we aren’t ready because we have found ourselves in a spiritually dry season

For whatever reason, these are the times that our hearts are not open to the kind of vulnerability and courage that living in love requires.

Those are the very moments we need to recall that
we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

We need to recall that
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, [and with shame and embarrassment that feels like punishment] and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

We need to recall that
19 We love because he first loved us.

And we need to recall that
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, [or short of hatred, choose to withhold love and acceptance of their brothers and sisters] are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

Beloved, we need most of all to remember that we are capable of love
We are called to love
We were made to love.
Just as we have always been loved.

If God is for us
If Christ is with us
If the Holy Spirit is in us
Then we can trust that the God of love is coursing through our veins and energizing every molecule of every cell in our bodies.

Beloved, let us love one another… just as God first loved us.

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Living in the Light

Today’s text from the gospel of John describes John the Baptist’s response to seeing Jesus the first time. Remember this took place along the Jordan, near Bethany, where John was calling folks to repent and baptizing them. Just the day before, he had told his own disciples that he was awaiting the one who would baptize with the spirit, rather than the water John used. Listen:
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1: 29 NRSV)

And now we turn to our selection from 1 John.  We continue on from the first four verses that you read last week.  Listen again for the word of God:

1:5 This is the message we have heard from him [Jesus] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (NRSV)

Sunday morning worship in the Disciples of Christ congregation that formed my faith as a child and young person was pretty similar to our presbyterian way of worshiping.  I mean- I still miss celebrating communion every time we open the church…

But there’s one I part of our order of worship that I don’t recall hearing back in the day.  Not until I started attending a Presbyterian church. And now it is – apart from communion – the portion of our worship that carries the most weight for me as a worshiper.

I remember the first time I heard a worship leader invite the congregation to pray and confess our sins together… It piqued my curiosity, for sure. Partly because they incorporated these words from 1 John:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  

Now- I’m not sure how many times I heard that invitation before I realized it was a direct quote from the Bible.  Honestly, it just sounded like deep truth about my reality… our human nature… and our need for the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Oh, how we need that grace.
Not just the saving grace that justifies us once and for all.
But the sanctifying grace that reconnects us day by day, moment by moment, thought by thought…  to the truth of God’s love for our fickle and wayward human hearts.

Given the apostle Paul’s statement that all sin and fall short of the glory of God…
And given the fact that just about every theologian since Augustine agrees that humankind is capable of great depravity…
I feel fairly confident in saying I am not the only one in this room who stands in need of that grace.  

But here’s the thing that I had to learn about these prayers of confession.
They aren’t about me. I mean, they aren’t entirely about me.
They are about us.
Even when they aren’t literally about the “us” that is currently gathered in this space.

These prayers of confession are about our connection to all of God’s children.
Those we know and love,
those we sleep with in the same house,
those we greet in this place,
those we wave to in the neighborhood.

Prayers of confession are about all God’s children… the ones who live and work and play in cities and towns and villages all over this country and around the world.

Whether they call themselves Baptists, Presbyterians, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, humanist, unitarian, or spiritual but not religious.  

All God’s children.

You see, John isn’t talking primarily about individuals confessing individual sins.
Oh, we can and must confess the sins that we commit on our own.
That is a given.

But let’s think again about what prompted this letter from John. This letter was written to a community of faith, a collective of souls.  And unlike the gospel attributed to John, which was focused on the divinity of Christ, this letter is written to a community that needed to recall the humanity of Christ.

Why?  Because Jesus – the person, the man who walked and talked and ate and slept right here on earth, wrapped up in human skin – Jesus is the way God encountered humankind. God encountered us in a particular human being at a particular time. **

Which means that the love of God, the living out of the love of God is more than a mere concept, more than a nice idea.
The love of God has been and can be fully embodied.
The Word was and can be made flesh.
Right here.
In this messy and chaotic and – yes, dark and sinful – world.

John is saying to his readers, and to us –
that the Word made flesh is what it looks like to love God and love our neighbors.
The Word made flesh is what it looks like to keep God’s commands.. All 10 of them.
And that we – the followers of that Word, the followers of that Jesus who was the Christ, are the embodiment of God’s love in this current age.

John wrote this letter to a community of faith, a household of siblings in Christ, whose fellowship was broken.  

They had broken fellowship with one another, and thus with God.
There was disunity in the house, and thus their joy, John’s joy, God’s joy…
all that joy was incomplete.

And so, he reminds them, there is need for confession, for forgiveness.
There is need for truth-telling.

You’ll note that there was not a call for finger-pointing
Nor was there a call for blame-laying.

But there was a call for telling the truth about ourselves.
To ourselves.

To bring into the light those things we do “in the dark.”
Those things that we’d just as soon leave hidden.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me more than a little squirmy. You know… that squirmy feeling down in your gut…  you know the one? Yeah… I’m not a fan of that feeling.

So I would just as soon not go back and look at things I’m ashamed of.  Much less take them out of their little boxes that are tucked back into those dark hidey holes of my heart and name them.

Even when we do so in silence… when it’s just between me and God. I mean, that’s why I need longer silence in our prayers of confession… so I’ve got time to work up the courage to go into those hidey holes and open those boxes.

And that’s when it’s just between me and God.
Except… it really rarely ever is just between me and God.
And that’s the whole point.

That thing about broken fellowship?
That’s not about taking God’s name in vain…
That’s about the ways we fail to love one another

That thing about broken fellowship?
Sure, it’s partly about the community that gathers here.
But it is also about many ways the church has failed to be God’s love to and for our neighbors out there in the world.

Broken fellowship is all about about not quite living in the light… in truth…
The difference between fellowship and broken fellowship?
That’s all about integrity. And the lack thereof.

That’s about living the words of scripture that we say we hold dear…
In ways that allow the world to see and believe we are followers of Jesus.

It’s about taking seriously the work God requires of us…
“to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”

Jesus prayed that the world would know his followers by our love.
Our love for God, yes,
but Jesus made clear that the would ought to know us by our love
for one another and for our neighbors.

So… how’s that going?
No really… how do we think that’s going?

Based on your faces, I know you and I could could swap some anecdotes about ways we’ve gotten it wrong.

And if we take a look at what public interest researchers like the Pew Forum and evangelical pollsters like the Barna group have to say…  You’re right… Not so great.

Year after year, a growing number of people identify as de-churched (meaning they have left church for the forseeable future). The same is true for those who have never been members of a church, or would claim a connection to God but have no desire to be part of organized religion.

Many of these folks point to what they see of the church – whether in their own communities or as represented in the media – as the problem.

There are “too many Christians doing un-Christian things”, and “organized religious groups are more divisive than uniting”. According to Pew, large numbers of these folks believe that while churches do good works, faith communities can also be too concerned with money and power, too involved in politics and too focused on rules.  

Chances are good that you know at least one or two folks, maybe even in your own family, who have opted out of church. They probably have a story to tell about why. And it likely has to do with something other than Sunday morning worship being scheduled at an inconvenient time.  

The stories I have heard from unchurched and dechurched folks are not mine to tell, but I will say this: Now, more than ever, people are watching the church.  This church and all churches.

They are watching to see how we respond to the cries of the marginalized and oppressed.  To see whether we will advocate for and serve the least of these. Because they know that this is what Jesus commanded.

They are watching.

They are watching the church, and I can assure you that they have come to trust these words from Maya Angelou:
When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

This is one reason I put on my clergy shirt, grabbed my rain jacket and headed downtown for the Families Belong Together rally yesterday.

I spotted a couple of other presbyterians there, but no other clergy in a collar or stole. Perhaps the raincoats hid them, but I made sure mine was visible, even in a downpour.  

Because people are watching.
And the church needs to be seen living in the light,
being a physical manifestation of the love of God for our neighbors.

The coalition of neighbors that organized yesterday’s rally includes groups representing the minority and immigrant communities directly affected by recent policy changes and rulings.  

Being love to our neighbors sometimes means standing in a downpour, giving away your umbrella and praying for speakers who are sharing their stories of fear and grief through tears in front of a huge crowd of strangers.  

Offering light and love to our neighbors also means thanking police officers who are out in that same rain to assure that everyone is safe.  

Loving our neighbors means showing up.
I believe this with all my heart.
Because I have seen that loving our neighbors has ripple effects we might never expect…

Which leads me to a story that Jan Edmiston shared last week.  Jan was elected co-moderator of our denomination at the 2016 General Assembly, sharing the duties with another minister, Denise Anderson.  They both participated in the protest march that took place in St. Louis.

I was also among the several hundred of our commissioners joined with local activists and pastors in their efforts to end an unjust cash bail and work house system in the city. While GA offerings typically will go to support a local cause, this was the first time we added voice, hands and feet to the effort. And we were quite noisy walking from the Convention Center to the courthouse.

But that isn’t the story I want to share… just the background. Listen to what Jan wrote on her blog about her ride to the airport:

I took a Lyft to the airport last Friday, leaving General Assembly early for a wedding in Philadelphia. It had been a great week for a long list of reasons and I was staring into space and relishing the memories when this conversation happened:

Lyft Driver Kevin:  Were you here for a conference?

Jan:  Yes, the Presbyterian Church USA.  You might have seen us on the news Tuesday night.  We were on the local Fox channel.

LDK: Why were you on the news?

Jan:  We marched from the Convention Center to the Courthouse with $47,000 to bail out some people who couldn’t pay their cash bail.  It was our worship offering from Saturday.

LDK:  Your church did that?

Jan:  Well, it’s not just my church.  But yes, we did that. We paid the bail to release about 3 dozen non-violent offenders.  It was pretty great.

We got to the airport, pulled over, and when we went to his trunk to retrieve my luggage, Kevin said, “I feel like I’ve met a friend today. That’s the best thing the Church has ever done.”  

And he hugged me good-bye.

This is what the world is looking for, my friends:  less talking, more concrete ministry that helps those in need here and now.  It wasn’t the very best thing the Church has ever done, but – like I said to Kevin – it was pretty great.

It was pretty great because the church was being the church.  And I can assure you that among that crowd of commissioners and delegates marching, there was a lot of diversity of opinion.  When we got back to our meetings, there was plenty of debate and plenty of contested votes. But trusting that Jesus would have us fight this injustice, were were out there- together- being love for God’s children in the city.

Living in the light, building koinonia.

It was a really just a drop in the bucket, when you look at all the work that our siblings in Christ are doing up there.

Much like Orlando, St. Louis proper is fairly small, with lots of cities and municipalities squished up against each other.  There is a lot of history there, much like there is here, some of which has remained unconfessed, unrepented and unresolved.

The events surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson – no farther from the Saint Louis convention center than this church is from downtown Orlando-  those events laid bare some of that history, some of the sin that needs confessing by our churches and the civic structures that Jesus followers have been part of.

And so much has happened since… in Baltimore, Dallas, Baton Rouge, New York, Detroit… even here in Orlando.

A lot of folks would like to pretend that racial injustice doesn’t exist.
That strongly held religious beliefs are fine reasons for refusing to treat all people with the same dignity.
That talking about loving everyone
is all that Jesus requires of us.  

But when I read this first letter from John, I see a call to the church that says exactly the opposite.

I see a call to integrity.
A call to a life in which our words and actions are a coherent whole.
A call to make sure that people really can know us by our love…
Because they see us doing exactly that – loving.  

I hear in this letter a call to community,
A community of relationships in which we confess and trust that we are forgiven… and not only by the one who embodied the amazing grace of God by taking on flesh.
We are also called to be a community in which WE are the embodiment of that grace and love for one another. Right here in the flesh.

Becoming that community – that church… living in the light together?
That is walking into hard stuff… making yourself vulnerable stuff.

Because what we’re talking about is the kind of work that requires spiritual courage and maturity.

Confessing the sins that have held us captive:
Sins of our own and those who came before us
Sins of commission and omission

Approaching those who have been sources of pain,
Opening up about wounds kept hidden and fighting the urge to lash out.   

Listening to those who were wronged.
Listening with hearts that are open to confession and repentance,
even as we fight the urge to reframe or tuck our sins back into those dark hidey holes.

We’re talking about a pathway to letting go of the past and
trusting God for a future in which we are truly being the Body of Christ

It can be hard work, learning to live in light.
No… not can be.
It is hard work, learning to live in the light and persisting against all the ways that the world would have us go back to old patterns.  

But it is only when we commit to that hard work that we can experience the truth of this invitation:

28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  (Matthew 11:28-29, NRSV)

What a paradox:
Committing to the hard work of living in the light of Christ… That is where we will find rest

Laying down the burden of sin, our shared sin, our common separation from God’s love and from the depth of love we can offer one another.
Laying down the burden of conflict.
Laying down the burden of shame.

That is where we will find rest

Living in fellowship – community – family – that is built on a foundation
Of mutual care,
Of Confession and forgiveness

That is where we find rest, dear friends.
Rest for our souls, weary with trying to find our way in this present darkness…

Let us pray…  

** I am deeply grateful for the written commentaries and podcast for the 1 John series posted at Working Preacher for articulating some of these big themes with great clarity.

No Fooling (A sermon that really doesn’t care about April Fool’s)

Reading from Scripture: John 20:1-18

Sitting in this beautiful sanctuary,
light streaming in through stained glass,
surrounded by shining faces and gorgeous flowers…
Hearing beautiful music echoing and reverberating
and the sounds of alleluias and greetings of He is risen, indeed…

It’s hard to put ourselves back into that garden, in the darkness before the dawn. And it’s even harder to put ourselves in Mary’s sandals, so to speak. In the sorrow and fear and concern that she must have felt as she made her way to the borrowed grave in which Jesus lay.

Remember, without the help of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, Jesus’ followers might not have been able to take his body, much less gather the herbs and ointments needed to prepare him for burial.

And wasn’t it just like God to provide a tomb just as it was needed? An unused tomb right there in the garden. So faithful to provide… But it’s not just that God is faithful.

For John, it’s the particular ways that God is faithful:
The one who spoke all the plants and trees into being
The one who provided everything the first humans might need in that very first perfect garden

Until it all went sideways…
But then even in the moment Adam and Eve were cast out, God was faithful to care for humankind and in every moment since, continuing to invite and teach and rescue and provide, and ultimately to redeem us – the image-bearers of that Master Gardener.

John made clear in the prologue that Jesus was there in the beginning
The Word was God and the Word was with God

The fact that Jesus is arrested, dies and is buried in a garden makes clear once more that the Word was indeed made flesh.
And bone.
Fully human.

Jesus was a man.
A man who knew the sting of betrayal.
Who knew the love of a mother and a father
He knew the kind of friendship that feels so much more like family
And the grief and pain of a loved one’s death.
He experienced the temptation of pride and power
The solace of time in quiet meditation… often in a garden.

Jesus was a man who experienced life fully.
And then knew a real and violent death.

And so, it makes sense that Mary found herself walking in the shadows through the garden
Walking through the shadows of grief
Grief that only grows deeper and more intense when she sees the stone was rolled away.
The body – his body – gone.

I mean… Who does that?
Who messes with a grave? In the middle of the night?
No one with pure and helpful motives.
No one who was a good Jew.

It was just not right.
How dare thy?
And who is going to help her?
Has no-one else noticed?

She can’t see properly
Can’t think properly.
She can’t face this alone.
So she goes back to the others…

Peter and the other disciple hurry to tomb
They see that she is right.
He isn’t there.
There seems only one explanation: He is gone, so someone must have taken his body.

The men go back to their homes, and Mary stays.
Alone again in her grief
Grieving for a teacher and friend
For all the days that he would never see,
For the meals they would never share…even the crazy ones with 100s or 1000s of people and only enough food for a few, but somehow…

She cried for the dreams that would not be…
For the people who might never know healing or hope,
Who wouldn’t experience forgiveness and true belonging the way she had

She grieved for Mary, Jesus’ mother, knowing the pain she was already feeling at his death.
Now this…

What would she say to Mary?   To Lazarus and his sisters?

Of course she was crying.
Maybe no longer an ugly cry, but the tears seemed to come from an unending supply…
like that well of living water Jesus spoke of.
They left tracks on her face and dark damp patches on her clothes and splotches on the earth

Even as she peeked down into the tomb
Even as she tried to make sense of the angels in there
Even as she found the words to answer their question..

Why was she crying? She was crying because he was gone.
And she had no idea where or why…

Ok. Deep Breath.
Come on Mary… pull yourself together.
Maybe the gardener will know…

He was, I suppose, technically the gardener.
Though Jesus had claimed to be the vine, and God the Father was the one tending the vine.
But Mary wasn’t thinking metaphorically at the moment.

She couldn’t think of anything but her Lord.
And finding him.

That question again… why are you crying???
And then “Who are you looking for?”

Surely the gardener heard her speaking to those two…
Perhaps a practical approach would help,
after all they did just kind of “borrow” the empty tomb…

“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

It just took one word.
Mary.

The good shepherd knows his sheep by name
The sheep know the shepherd’s voice

Mary

One word, and right there, in the garden,
A new was dawning.
Mary’s eyes were open to a new reality,

Mary was the first to experience this new creation
This new world in which Jesus was risen.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, will not, cannot overcome it.
Now God’s resurrection power was on display!

And while death was and remains the reality of life, Jesus’ resurrection points to the reality of abundant life. Not simply eternal life or some heavenly reality beyond our death.

Resurrection was and remains nothing short of re-creation.

Mary could see Jesus.
Grief upon grief had been answered by grace upon grace

She knew herself again
She knew it was him
And she knew he was alive
She believed he was the Lord

She was elated, and she needed a hug.  

I don’t know if it’s because there wasn’t a word for it in Koine Greek, but I’m pretty sure John meant to include the fact that Mary wrapped Jesus in a great big bear hug.

Because the next thing Jesus tells Mary is that she can’t hold him for long…

because he has somewhere else to be.
And so does she…

Mary is commissioned to go and tell the disciples that Jesus is ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God

In that one prepositional phrase to my Father and your Father… Jesus speaks the whole purpose of his life, death, resurrection, and now his ascension. The one he calls, “Father” is not his abba alone.

In his ministry, and in his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus is opening the way for all of humanity to have the same relationship with God that he has.

This has been his mission and his invitation all along. for all of humankind – all of us! – to enjoy a relationship with God that is like this (fingers interwoven tightly)

Think back again to the prologue…
We are told that the Light came to the world, but the world did not know him.
And that even his own did not accept him.

But those who did receive him, who believed in his name…
To those he gave the power to become children of God.
Siblings in Christ.
Siblings with Christ.

As he returns to the presence of God, Jesus is opening his home and his family to them.
To the world.
To US.

And so Mary goes and tells.
Not in the form of some grand theological or doctrinal statement.
Not even an Easter sermon.

Mary tells them the most important truth she has ever known.
She provides for them a first person claim, a testimony, a witness to what she has experienced:

I HAVE SEEN THE LORD!

5 simple words.

Though I can only imagine she said them over and over….
Under her breath in wonder as she ran
I have seen the Lord… I have seen the Lord…

Almost breathless with excitement as she saw the first  of her brothers and sisters
I have seen the Lord!

With elation and laughter as they needed to hear her again…
I have seen the Lord!!! Yes.. the Lord.  Jesus!

I have seen the Lord!

In that simple sentence, she gives voice once again to the truth that each person’s experience and encounter with Jesus allows them to recognize who Jesus is and to express it to others.

See, Mary’s proclamation is not only a witness to her encounter with the resurrected Jesus, but also an interpretation of it.  She realizes that for Jesus to be raised from the dead, his claims must be true.  Which makes is an assertion about her own resurrection, her own future.

Jesus is Lord.
He is the Messiah.
He is, indeed, the King of the Jews
He is the Son of God.

Mary announces what she saw AND what she believes… simultaneously.

I have seen the Lord.

Sitting in this beautiful sanctuary,
light streaming in through stained glass
surrounded by shining faces and gorgeous flowers…
Hearing Beautiful music echoing and reverberating
and the sounds of alleluias and greetings of He is risen, indeed…

Week after week, we have the opportunity to proclaim Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in community, with family- our siblings in Christ. We do so in our hymns and in our readings and prayers. And on days like today, we get to proclaim Jesus as Lord in the sharing of the bread and the cup.

Jesus is here, as we gather, to be certain. It is often in holy gatherings like this that we hear our names spoken with tenderness and love and intention.  

As we leave this place, as we go out through those doors,
we have the opportunity to bear witness to the world that that we, too, have seen the Lord…  

No, that’s not right. We have much more than an opportunity…

We have the responsibility to assure that
not one beloved Child of God goes one more day
without hearing someone call him or her by name with love and intention.

So that whatever darkness obscures their vision
So that Whatever holds them captive
So that whatever binds their hearts
Is exposed to the light of Christ we carry in our stories of encounters with the risen Lord.

It is good and right to be here, but we have someplace else to be
We must go and tell our brothers and sisters.

I have seen the Lord!

Oh gracious God, may our eyes be open, our feet be swift and our hearts be bold.
That we might go and tell and live for you.
Amen.

Who is Truth?

The cock crowed.
Peter realized that Jesus was right. And as his heart sank, he left the garden of Caiaphas’ house.  The other disciple, the one who was known by the chief priest, he apparently stayed around to witness what would happen next.

We can think of this passage as Part 1 of Jesus trial, the second portion of which will be next week’s lesson. Listen for the Word of God to you from John 18:28-40.

I have to admit, this has always been a fairly troubling passage for me.
Because of the way the people behave
And because the stakes are so high.

Sometimes, you feel like you can understand the folks that John and our other gospel writers tell us about. I mean, it’s not hard to see myself in Peter’s impetuous passion and repeated mis-steps. Or even in James and John’s competition to be the star pupil, the one Jesus would choose as his chief of staff or make his second in command.

Certainly, when we get to Thomas’ moment in the spotlight after Jesus’ resurrection, we get a chance to commiserate with someone who needs concrete evidence, and yet is still beloved by Christ.

But this section of the gospel gives us a group of leaders – spiritual leaders- who act in very non-spiritual ways. And in Pilate, we have a man known for his incredible brutality, seeming to offer a chance for mercy.

Jesus seems almost normal by comparison…

Let’s look first at the first they in our passage, the chief priests and other leaders from the temple. Their actions, particularly because of John’s depiction, have been used to vilify “the jews” for generations.  

I think that has to do with the fact that John rarely speaks of individuals, aside from Caiaphas or Nicodemus.  And any time we can create a nameless crowd of others, they become less human somehow.

You know what I mean, right?  We might name the group – or just call them “they”

Individual people, with lives and hopes and dreams, become part of a collective.  No longer distinct and three-dimensional. They become lesser beings, made generic by a label, faceless, soul-less and worth less than those people we actually know.  

Before long, children of God become caricatures whose worst features are exaggerated
Compassion goes out the window.
Only to be replaced by fear and even hated.
You know… the opposite of love.  

John is not alone in setting Jesus and his disciples up as different from the religious leaders of his day.  But John tends not to point out differences between various sects – Pharisees or Saduccees… all are just “the jews”

I suspect this had to do with his particular context. A need to teach and encourage his stream of the early church, which existed a little later and was a little different from the gatherings of Christ-followers that Matthew Mark and Luke wrote for.

John would like to set up the Jews, especially those in leadership,as the embodiment of the Law.  They represent the old way of understanding our connection to God.  A connection more concerned about rituals and identifying particular sins. This focus on the Law made it hard for these leaders to see and hear Jesus’ teaching about the relationship that God desires with humankind.

John doesn’t need to tell his audience about Pilate.
Pilate was basically the embodiment of earthly power.
Of the sort of power that oppresses others
and amasses wealth and influence for itself.

While not the emperor, Pilate is, for this region, the emperor’s proxy.
He has full authority to wage war, to tax,to build infrastructure for the empire.
Or use forced labor to build a giant palace for himself.
He has the power to create and enforce civil law.
And he can serve as judge and jury for any who break those laws.  

Pilate was not shy at all about engaging in any and all of these activities. He built a reputation for brutality that is cataloged in more than one ancient historical text.

It seems at one point, he actually went beyond what the Romans could allow. The Samaritans once reported Pilate to the legate of Syria, after he attacked them on Mount Gerizim (36 CE). He was then ordered back to Rome to stand trial for cruelty and oppression, particularly on the charge that he had executed men without proper trial.

And so in this scene, John has gathered the Law, The Empire, and Jesus.

The Law looks at Jesus and sees trouble. But the law itself sets limits on what the religious leaders can do about it.
They can call him a sinner.
They can keep him from entering the temple.
They can definitely make it clear that he is not to be welcomed in community.

But what they’d like to do… be rid of him permanently…
Nope. No good.

And no going into the Palace of a Gentile ruler as Sabbath and Passover are about to start, either. But apparently, making clear to this ruler that they’d like Jesus dead… that’s ok.
As is bearing just-this-side-of-false witness on the front lawn of said ruler’s home.

And then it is the Empire’s turn to collide with Jesus. And in this interrogation, Pilate begins to see that Jesus might be trouble. But in order for Pilate to sentence Jesus to death, he must determine that Jesus is a revolutionary.
A political dissident

This is why he asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

In response, Jesus speaks of a “kingdom” — a place where God reigns, a community of those who are of God. Rather than threatening Rome, Jesus is subtly inviting Pilate to enter this place, his place. A place that is not of this world.

This kingdom is not political or violent. And it is certainly not revolutionary, at least not in the sense that Pilate would imagine.

Jesus is Lord of a kingdom that is more like a pasture
Where he has gathered up those who hear the voice of the shepherd
Who drink of the living water
Who eat the bread of life
Who follow the way of love.

Jesus is Lord of those who would love one another and the world that God loves.

That’s how very revolutionary Jesus’ Kingdom is…
It rests on making God known in the world,
On bearing witness to the truth,
On gathering in those who hear the truth,

In other words, if Jesus is a king, it is not of a kingdom Pilate would recognize as such. Because any worldly title fails to capture the fullness of the mission of one who is truth itself.

Jesus invites Pilate to receive his testimony and be part of the truth. And Pilate’s attempt to interrogate Jesus as prisoner is just flat undone. Here we can see the whole of John’s gospel in a nutshell:

The only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth, comes into the world to make God known. Then his servant-friends, also sanctified in truth, are sent into the world to continue the mission of love.

If his kingdom were of this world, he says, his followers would be engaged in violent resistance. But he is not that sort of king, as evidenced by the sheathing of Peter’s sword and Jesus’ healing of the man he attacked.

And so Pilate asks.. “What is truth?”

Of course, an even better question for Jesus…
Who is Truth?

The short answer would be, “I am.”
I am.
I am the light…
the light that dawns even in the darkness of betrayal and arrest
The light that dawns as resurrections defeats death

I am the shepherd…
The shepherd that protects the sheep
The shepherd that lays down his life for the sheep

I am the way
I am the truth

I’d love to pretend that Jesus as the truth is an easy and uncomplicated thing to believe… and to understand. But well, Jesus is complicated.  As are we humans who try to follow God.

My pastor friend Marci pondered the reality that at the close of this passage, the crowd gathered in Pilate’s yard chooses a bandit over Jesus. That word choice- bandit- is intentional.John is bringing back, yet again, the earlier imagery of sheep, thieves and bandits.

Marci pointed out that the sheep in Pilate’s courtyard do not recognize the Shepherd’s voice. “Everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to my voice”, Jesus says.

And both of us wondered, in light of this saying, what it means for a church functioning in a time when we regularly hear the words “fake news”

In a culture that always expects us to align with one “side” or another because they have the right answers and everyone else is lying or just wrong.

And here’s what I believe our challenge is as a body…here in this place and as the church universal… 

If we confess (as in proclaim) that Jesus is our truth, (and way, and life), we must come together to discern the truth. 

We need to listen for his voice, and then figure out how our lives can reflect his life and his light to one another, and more importantly, to the world.

In many ways, this listening and discerning is about seeking truth.
Seeking a deeper understanding of who God is,
and who we are when we abide in God.

Seeking truth, isn’t about finding the one right answer.
So much as a willingness to say, “I’m not sure” and remain teachable,

Understanding Jesus as Truth calls us to an openness and curiosity about what others are hearing and learning.

Jesus as Truth is not a list of “right” behaviors
—after all, Jesus kept company with all manner of people,
most of whom were considered to be about as wrong in life as they come.

Jesus as Truth is bigger than our human morality, with its binaries of right, wrong, good, bad.

Jesus as Truth calls us to hold on loosely to the idea that we have it figured out, and to hold on tightly to the knowledge that God does.

Pilate, and Caiaphas, and all of the possible outcomes to this “trial” of Jesus are a sideshow to the Truth of Jesus that is revealed in this story.
To the fullness of God being revealed in this story.

What could any of those actors in this story have done to diminish Jesus, to limit his truth, to keep him from loving his own right up to the very end?

Nothing.

There is nothing any of them could have done to stop the Truth of God’s Love for the world.

When we get distracted by controlling the truth, or fighting over the truth, or denying the truth— we forget that we aren’t the truth.

But Jesus…. Jesus IS the truth.

Thanks be to God.

Of Kings and Kingdoms

This week’s reading takes us further into Jesus’ trial and conviction. We ended last week with a frustrated Pilate, annoyed over Jesus’ non-response to his questions, and wondering “What is truth.  

You may recall that He then went to the jewish leaders and offered them an opportunity to release Jesus, given the Passover custom.  Instead they called for the release of Barabbas, the bandit.

Listen now for the Word of God from John 19:1-16a

John has been setting up this trial for a while. The scene has shifted several times between the front lawn to the Pilate’s quarters, and finally to the judge’s seat on the Stone Pavement

The key players remain the same:
Jesus, the religious leaders, and Pilate.  

And their desires remain the same:
Pilate always needs to keep Jerusalem under control, but especially during the Passover festival.  There would be no unrest on his watch, no uprisings, and therefore no over-the-top responses that might draw negative attention from Rome. If that meant appeasing these religious men, one more death on his record wouldn’t bother him.

The chief priests and their police are hoping for essentially the same outcome, a peaceful passover that doesn’t draw the attention of the Empire. Jesus and his crowds and their excitement over this person they saw as a Messiah, that was a problem. They could nip it in the bud, so to speak, and even do so with the help of the Empire. As Caiaphas said, better one man than a whole population…

What about Jesus?  What did he desire?

From his prayer in the garden, we know that he didn’t WANT to die. And that he DID desire to do exactly as God willed, to complete his mission here on earth. To bear witness to the truth of who God is, and the love and mercy God offers to all of creation, in particular to humankind.

We know that Jesus came to offer life, forgiveness, reconciliation.

But as John tells us in the very beginning of his gospel (1:10-11) Jesus was in the world,and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

The Light of the World stepped into our darkness -darkness of humanity’s own making! – and we couldn’t recognize or accept the gift.

We humans are intrigued by, often driven by, power
Who has it, how to get it, how to protect it.

We are intrigued by our location relative to the power…
We learn – sometimes through stern words, sometimes through swift action, exactly where we stand and what we are allowed to do with our power and influence.
Or lack thereof  

There are a lot of power dynamics at play in this passage.

Where Luke and Matthew recount many of Jesus’ teachings about God’s Kingdom, John does not.  This extended trial narrative is really the one time we get a heavy dose of references to Kings and Kingdoms. It starts in one of the earlier scenes, in chapter 18.  

Pilate asks Jesus directly,  “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus wants to know… does Pilate see this himself?  Or did someone bear witness to him, explaining Jesus’ identity?

Pilate’s response was to make clear that he was primarily interested in what Jesus had done to be handed over as a criminal, as apparently his crime warranted death. Remember Jesus’ answer?

“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

The leaders make clear that they do not want Jesus released, and so Pilate begins the torture that Jesus will endure until his death with flogging, mocking. That’s definitely Pilate, wielding his power.

But when he marches Jesus back outside to the religious leaders, Pilate’s intentions are less clear.

Does he mean to mock the Jewish people by presenting Jesus again as king (having already referred to him as their king when he offered them Barabbas)?

Or does he mean to show that such a pathetic creature as Jesus could not possibly be a threat? Thus reminding the Jewish people how insignificant a threat they appear to Rome?

It’s not clear in John’s telling.
Perhaps both.
Perhaps something altogether different.

What IS clear is the narrative irony in Pilate’s presentation of Jesus as precisely the sort of king he is.

Like the suffering servant of Isaiah 50 (to which the scourging and slapping here may allude), Jesus is the vulnerable embodiment of God’s love for a dark, broken world.  A world in which Pilate and the religious authorities and their soldiers and police become the representatives par excellence of that darkness and brokenness.

Jesus is declared king from the earliest chapters of all the Gospels, though the word used most often is Christ, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. That he will be crucified is an utter redefinition of what this means, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” as Paul would write to the Corinthians.

As Jesus told Pilate, his is a kingdom not from here.

Then, when the chief priests tell Pilate that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he seems to be taken aback. Enough, at least, to go back inside to ask Jesus “Where are you from?”

Jesus doesn’t respond.
He might have said Nazareth… or Judea
He might have recounted his genealogical origins.
But he chose to offer no answer.

Pilate was not amused, after all, no one refuses to speak to the governor.

Can’t you just see it?  Pilate, flustered and angry.
Perhaps going red in the face

If he’d had a smart phone, he might have sent out a tweet-storm

Don’t you know who I am?  Don’t you know how much power I have??

And I wonder if, in that white hot rage, Pilate got quiet.
And  reminded his prisoner in a dangerously quiet hiss

Look, King from Nowhere I don’t care who’s son you are.
I have the power to release you… whether those weak and fearful Jews outside want me to or not.
I have the power to crucify you.
I have power to decide if you live or die.

How strange it must have been for him when this ordinary man,
who was, indeed, the son of God,
the earthly embodiment of the God who is, who was and ever will be
I AM

How strange it must have been for Pilate when the man standing in front of him in a crown of thorns made clear where the power truly resided.

You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.

Jesus’ is kingdom not from here.
And his is a power not of this earth.

And this trial?  It is SO not about Jesus and his crimes.
John has been setting this up – setting us up – from the very beginning.

Pilate thinks he is judge and jury, and even physically places himself on the judge’s seat.  But in John’s gospel, judgment is what individuals bring upon themselves as they respond to Jesus as a revelation of God.

Commentator Karoline Lewis says it this way…
“God does not judge or condemn, and neither does Jesus. Rather, judgment is the result of a lack of recognition of who Jesus is.” Judgment, then, is connected closely to the themes of witness and testimony in John’s telling of Jesus’ story. The trial narrative puts witness and judgement front and center  “in this critical moment for Jesus, the disciples, the Jewish leaders, Pilate and all who witness the last event of the incarnation. Everyone is on trial and in jeopardy of (NOT) recognizing who Jesus is.”

When Jesus states that the one who handed him over is guilty of the greater sin, we might jump quickly to the idea that he means Judas. Or perhaps Caiaphas, or the temple police…

But Jesus isn’t talking about the actions being taken, so much as what is going on in the heart.  

The word sin here is calling attention to what is truly at risk.
What truly matters for Jesus’ trial: Jesus is not the one on trial.  

It is those who sit in the audience.
Those who sit on the witness stands
Those who read and hear this gospel account and hear its truth.

Do they… do WE… hear and believe?
How do we respond?
When Pilate says, Here is your King how do we respond?

I can’t help but think back to the days when the people of Israel first asked God for a King. When they had determined that the prophets and judges just weren’t enough.
As if God as King were not enough…

Now, here is their King.
Their Christ.
Their Messiah

And the leaders of the Temple choose the Emperor.
As if God as King is still not enough

They handed God in the person of Jesus over to Pilate
And did you notice that in that moment, they were standing outside.
Literally, outside in the courtyard, because John wants us to see that they have not entered through the door.   

They are far away from the presence of the very God who has come to save them
From oppression
From injustice
From themselves.

God has not abandoned them,
But they do not hear the Shepherd’s voice and follow
They are blind and not willing to see the one is the very door through which they need to walk.  

And that is the very definition of the sin Jesus came to resolve.

His is the ministry of reconciliation, the end the separation between God  and the world that God loves to much

He came to reconnect our hearts to God’s so that we might know more fully, more completely the power of the love that has been implanted deeply within us from the beginning. 

The power to love deeply and fiercely is the power that can change the world.
Power like that requires vigilance…

Young Peter Parker learns very quickly as he explores his new identity as Spiderman that with great power comes great responsibility

Oh, we humans get all twisted up, to be sure.

See, if we have the power to love, we also have the power to withhold that love
To turn it into personal power,
To Manipulate others .
We have the power to set people free…
or to crucify them

We can easily see that twisted power in Pilate. But we don’t have to look that far away In time or in geography for examples.

We still have the power to free others… or to crucify them
We have the power to bully – physically or emotionally;
We withhold information or affection
We threaten to leave relationships
or stop sharing much-needed resources
We are more than capable of robbing others of their self-esteem, self-worth and integrity;

We have the power to crucify/kill people’s hopes, plans and dreams.
But we also have the power to protect and serve;
to heal; to build others up,
to strengthen their self-esteem;
to feed others’ hopes and dreams.
We have the power to heal one another’s wounds
To bind up one another’s broken hearts

God has given you that power.
God has entrusted all of us with that power.

The question is, how will we use it?
Will we bow to the pressures of the world or give in to the desires of self?
Or, might we pool our God-given power to bring life and hope and joy to the world around us?

Will we use our power to effect good in the lives of others?
Will we use our influence, wealth, voices and strength to only better our own position in life,
or will we—like Jesus—use our power to offer new and abundant life to others?

Because that right there?  That is the powerful sort of love that can most surely change the world.

Hosannas & Horrors

Readng 1: The Triumphal Entry John 12:12-27

And now we turn to our second reading.  The scene shifts dramatically.

The trial is complete.  Pilate has determined, with the approval of the leaders of the temple, that Jesus indeed must die. He has been flogged and mocked as a king in rags. He is wearing a crown of thorns. And the time has come.

Reading 2 : The Crucified Messiah John 19:16b-22

This Sunday is called Palm Sunday, for obvious reasons.  But over the past several years, many churches have begun to broaden the emphasis of this first day of Holy Week. Because fewer people attend mid-week opportunities to worship, it is possible for us to skip directly from today’s noisy, palm-waving, excitement to the joyous celebration of Resurrection Sunday.

That is one reason I have appreciated the opportunity our lectionary offered this year… to walk a little more slowly through John’s description of Jesus’ trial. And the opportunity to spend some time in both of these passages this morning, even though it feels a little like time travel

The reality is that the events of this final week of Jesus’ earthly life bring greater depth to our understanding of who Jesus is, both as the Son of God and the Son of Man.

In the mature church, all these centuries later, his suffering has become foundational to our Christian understanding of Jesus as the Christ.  But in the Jewish tradition, from which his earliest followers and the earliest congregations arise, messiahs do not get crucified. And so, what they see in Jesus is not what was expected…

They are looking for a king like David.  Or at the very least, a prophet like Moses. Someone who brings about or signals an obvious, maybe even world-ending in-breaking of God’s presence on earth.

All of that sounds nothing like a criminal, definitely not one who is executed by the state. Really, it’s no wonder that the religious leaders were skeptical. Or afraid. After all, if God started moving right there in Jerusalem, in an obvious or world-ending kind of way – their skin was on the line.

But the people who had little to lose… the people whose lives were at risk all the time, who had little influence and even less power, they were waiting and watching. With eyes and hearts wide open.

The people who greeted Jesus with palms… they had heard stories.
Stories about signs and wonders.
Stories about healings.
Stories about hungry people being fed.
The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead.

This man was not like the other rabbis.  He didn’t seem a lot like David, but maybe that was ok.  After all, these folks were not being helped by Pilate. They needed something closer to a prophet than a king.

They were at the back gate of Jerusalem when Jesus arrived.  Pilate’s folks were at the main gate. He had apparently arranged for a parade that would open the Passover festival, but also celebrate his glory as a military leader and representative of the Empire. It was a handy excuse for a parade, and a reminder of who was in power.

Despite our reenactments of the day with children and choir members, waving their palm fronds in liturgical parades, Jesus’ entry wasn’t technically a parade.  Jesus walked in the gate and found himself surrounded by people who had heard the stories and wanted to see who he was, what he was about.  

He walked in and found himself a donkey to ride. Not a war horse, as Pilate might have chosen, but a humble, peaceful donkey.

Jesus walked in through the back gate and made a claim that both launched a movement and sealed his fate. Essentially, he marched himself straight to the cross to die.
Not out of hubris, arrogance… but obedience.  

This fully divine human might have done a billion other things, but he chose to stay on mission. He marched in there like a king… a king not of this world.

As if to say, “Yes, I am your King- your Lord.”
And in me, The Lord your God, “I am” remains with you
Remains for you.

I don’t know if his followers fully understood the scope of what Jesus was about to do. I don’t know if they comprehended what Jesus meant when he decided to march himself straight to the Cross to die. Did they truly get it when he told them that a grain of wheat needs to fall to the ground?

They may not have, certainly not right in the moment, but we should. After thousands of years, we should understand what Jesus was after, shouldn’t we?

Jesus marched for the sake of those who had their backs against the wall.

Jesus marched right into danger and death for those he spoke to, for those he spoke about about in the sermon on the mount. Those he said were worthy of honor:
the poor, those who mourn,
the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
the merciful, the pure in heart,
the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake

Jesus marched right into Jerusalem for all those who would be reviled and persecuted and for those who would be be victims of evil lies and accusations because of their association with Jesus.

With the church being birthed in an empire, it’s easy to see why early Christians would have needed to  work hard to make sense of their expectations of Jesus, even as they found their way into being a community of faith… a community built on the teachings of this humble and obedient Jesus:
The messiah-King who died on a cross.

This origin story, with its roots in utter political failure, seems like the antithesis of a traditional messiah-king.  But perhaps not…

Jesus is the promised heir of the Davidic covenant, as Matthew helps us see in the genealogy that begins his gospel telling. But to fully grasp the way Jesus comes to save, not just reign, we have to also look at the covenant put in place by God through Moses while the Hebrew people moved through the wilderness.  

The Ten Commandments and then the Torah were given as gifts to guide the people in right relationship with God and with one another. As the fulfillment of the law (the Torah), Jesus becomes the means of atonement – the means of returning humankind to right relationship.
The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

He doesn’t accomplish this by using his power to come down from the cross and live as an earthly king in royal splendor.  Instead, Jesus remains on the cross to become the ultimate redeeming sacrifice, removing all that would separate us from God.
Not just in his day,
not only for a particular generation,
but for all people and for all time.  

This Jesus was the King who came to the world.
To love the world
To save the world
The whole world.

It seems crazy that the very ones he came to save would have rejected him.  Especially in hindsight… which is always 20/20, right?

But I wonder, what kept more of them, especially those who should have been expert Messiah hunters, from seeing Jesus?  Really seeing and understanding who he was?

After all, even random Greeks came asking, after simply hearing stories,  if they might see Jesus.

I was recently listening to RadioLab, which you can catch on our NPR station.  The hosts of this show use storytelling and all kinds of music and sounds to help us not-sciencey people understand some pretty complex stuff.

This particular episode was about Rainbows  (I’m going to mangle the description and details a bit, since I’m going by memory, but you can listen for yourself here.)

They were curious about how different creatures saw color, and they used rainbows to explore the question “what animal would be the champion rainbow viewer?”

It turns out that many creatures have eyes similar to ours that use cones and rods to process the light as it bounces around the objects in the world… including the droplets of water that refract the light into what we see as rainbows.

We have 3 color receptor cones… red orange yellow. But because those three colors blend, we see lots of gradients between, thus ROYGBIV.

Now- RadioLab used music to help listeners imagine the what that might sound like.  I don’t have access to a 300-person choir, but our organ can help… <full clear chord>

If you walked your dog and both looked toward a rainbow, the dog would see a diminished rainbow. None of the reds… just the blue-violet and yellows.  <diminished chord>

But some birds, like sparrows, have 2-3 times the number of cones in their eyes.  Imagine looking up to see an incredible array of reds beyond ours, purples at the other end and lots of variations in between.   <adding augmentation and depth to the chord>

Now – There is a particular species of shrimp – the mantis shrimp – that actually has 100s of cones.  Right… crazy bulgy eyes on this critter that is a really big shrimp.

You would think that would mean they could distinguish between thousands of colors… like all the colors of paint in the Sherwin Williams display… The Hallelujah Chorus of rainbows <huge glorious chord>

That Rainbow that would be crazy amazing… But that turns out NOT to be the case. They have the cone capacity to see all those colors, but not processing power… their minds cannot conceive the colors. So mantis shrimp can probably see a rainbow, but not in a way that would register it in an orderly, harmonious, full spectrum.  Just a bunch of random colors, some that excite them. Some that are frightening.

When people looked at Jesus, some of them really saw him.
They saw all the colors:
all the beauty of miracles and signs,
all the glory of God,
the fullness of this invitation to experience grace upon grace,
and they wanted to see more.

They saw it, and they wanted others to see it, too.
They bore witness to the beauty,
to the truth, to the life
to the LIGHT they saw in Jesus.

They told others, offering the same invitation they had heard

When they gathered at the back gate, they came and saw their messiah
They waved and shouted “Hosanna – Save us!”
“You are the one – Praise and honor to the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  

But then, there were others.
The ones whose hearts were not receptive,
whose minds just could not conceive what their eyes were seeing.
Some people couldn’t see God in the man
They saw the same signs and wonders, but not the invitation
They saw a threat.
They saw trouble.

Perhaps because most of us humans are so much more comfortable with black and white.
With Kings who reign as we expect.
Messiahs who don’t die.
Rules that are clear.
A God who loves and forgives (or not) based on what we deserve.

This was true when Jesus walked on this earth physically, and I daresay it is true today.

So often the story of Holy Week gets distilled down to the green of the palms and the red of Christ’s spilled blood.
In doing so, we lose sight of the fullness of the gospel.
The fullness of God in human form.
Who came to save the world and then to send us to continue the work.

The good news is all about the power of God in Jesus
to turn water to wine, to feed thousands on scraps
to raise Lazarus from the dead,
to bring sight to the blind

The good news is all about the power of God in Jesus to bring us into relationship with God when we do not deserve it,
To offer grace upon grace,
To impart the Holy Spirit
To bring us into the very work he was about:
Loving the world.
The whole world.

What Pilate couldn’t see in his mocking
What the Spiritual leaders couldn’t see in their embarrassment
was the truth behind the sign on Jesus’ cross.
He WAS the King of the Jews

And his story would be told by the Jews who spoke Hebrew,
the Gentiles who spoke Greek,
and the Romans who spoke Latin.
They would go on to tell story of his life, his ministry, his death,
and in due time, the story of his rising.

And I suppose that is what John wants us to see
In the palms,
In the garden,
In the anointing,
In the denials,
In the washing of feet and the breaking of bread,
In the mockery of a trial,
And yes, even on the cross,

God was not simply present, but at work.
God was making a way for us to see ALL that the Light of the World has to offer.

May we see what the people at the back gate  saw
when they Hosanna!  All glory and honor to the One who comes in the name of the Lord.
May we see the the Messiah who would save them.
And the rest of us
In the fullness of his glory.

Oh that we would see Jesus, indeed.  

 

I am the Resurrection

Today’s passage is another long one… most of what we consider chapter 11 of John’s gospel.

It is another description of a sign- a miracle that Jesus performs, bringing the presence and glory of God into full view.

We haven’t talked much about the way John structures the telling of these stories, but the story in chapter 9 – the healing of the man who was born blind that we looked at last week- that gives us a great example of the pattern he develops.

First, a sign.   Like the man’s healing. Then a dialogue – a conversation in which people talk or ask about what happened. And finally a discourse – which is basically a sermon… Jesus explains what has happened and why.

Here in chapter 11, John reverses the order.

This particular event is the last of the signs Jesus performs. And for the Jewish leaders, it is the last straw.  

In John’s telling, this event is the catalyst, setting in motion the events that will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion

So John wants us to pay attention to this sign… so that we might better understand what is coming. Thus the dialogue and discourse come first, as John carefully sets the scene.

Listen for the Word of God….

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus… of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”

9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble,  because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”

11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”

12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”

13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.

20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.

30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.

31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.

32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?”

They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.

39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”

43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  (NRSV)

 

It’s an all too familiar story, really, the story of waiting at the bedside of a dear one, hoping against hope…

The story of crying out in prayer – sometimes literally crying out – sometimes silently but desperately bargaining and begging… but definitely calling out to the Lord…

I would venture to say that we’ve all been there in one way or another, saying to the Lord,
The one I love is sick… The one you love is sick.
You can change that right now!
Please… change it right now…

I can only imagine that sense of urgency and hope
that desire to see Jesus walk through the door….
It would have been even more acute for Mary and Martha…

Because he literally COULD walk through their door.

They know him well, they know for real that Jesus loves them, in the same way that you and I know that our friends love us. And they know for a fact that Jesus loves their brother Lazarus.

They know all that Jesus has done and is capable of…

Don’t think for a minute they haven’t been following all that Jesus has been up to, hearing about all the signs and miracles and teachings, both near and far.

So Mary and Martha know and believe that he could heal Lazarus.
They believe that Jesus would want wholeness for Lazarus.
That’s why they sent for him.

And waited.

But Jesus doesn’t come rushing to Bethany.  Not right away.  

And the one they love
The one Jesus loves.
Loved.
He died.

The women would have done the work of preparation, mixing the spices and oils, binding his body so that as his body returned to dust, his bones would remain together.

And then he was placed in the tomb, a stone covering its opening.

I know… Our hearts want to jump right on ahead to those last couple of verses, don’t they? But we need to sit with this a bit.
Because Mary and Martha… they didn’t know what was coming.
Not for them, not for Lazarus
And certainly not for Jesus in just a few days’ time.

As far as they knew, the next time they would see Lazarus would be at the Day of Resurrection. This is when all the dead would rise as if from sleep, and families would be reunited, the living and those living again.

It was a common belief among the Jews of Jesus’ time that the coming of the Messiah would hasten the Day of Resurrection. This was one of many reasons they were on the lookout for the Son of God.  

And so… as we do to this day, Mary and Martha prepared and buried their loved ones, including Lazarus, looking forward to that day of reunion.  

But until then…  they would grieve.   

Just as surely as we know the pain of wishing, hoping and praying in the midst of suffering, we know the many forms grief takes.

Sometimes it looks like Martha…
taking care of the details, working our way through the day,
holding it together, at least on the outside.

Sometimes it looks more like Mary…
Perhaps more together internally than it appears from the outside. Needing to express the pain and sorrow physically through tears… tears that come unbidden and can seem unending.

Sometimes it helps to grieve in community… Surrounded by and surrounding others…hearing from those who have walked the journey before, drawing strength from those hurting along with us…

Certainly, we can understand how each of the sisters would have come to Jesus, saying
“If only… ”
“If only you had come.”
“It didn’t have to be this way”

Angry, sad, disappointed.
Matter of fact
Resolute
Shattered and weeping.

What must have happened in Martha’s heart as she and Jesus spoke?

At first… Perhaps she heard from him the same mostly empty comfort others had offered… Lazarus would rise.  

Of course he would.
Eventually. Yes.
As would she… and all those they’d already mourned in their lives.

Perhaps she even rolled her eyes a bit at this rabbi she still loved, even though he was 4 days late.

And then perhaps she looked a little deeper into his eyes, seeing something she’d missed before as he answered again.

No… it doesn’t have to be this way.
That is why I am here.
I am the resurrection. And the life.

This was a promise.
Not for someday. Some for distant unknown future.

This was a promise for today.
If she but believed.

And she did believe, didn’t she?
Didn’t she send word for him, knowing that he could heal her brother?
Didn’t she just tell him that he could have prevented this death?
This tearing apart of her heart, of Mary’s heart?
Didn’t she just…

She did.
She believed.
She said it aloud

“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

And in the saying, she believed it more fully, more deeply.

And she believed enough for Mary.
Mary who was shattered.  Bereft.  Unable to stop crying.
Mary, who was surrounded by mourners.
Mary, whose tears called forth tears from Jesus…

As if carried on a wave of those tears, Jesus knew it was time.
They went to the tomb.
They removed the stone.

And the shepherd who knows his sheep by name, called to the dead man
Lazarus…   Come Out!

How a dead man could hear?  I don’t know.
I mean… this is a miracle…

But I know this: the sheep know their master’s voice.
And they go in and come out at his bidding.

Lazarus heard his name
Lazarus came out.
Lazarus was alive.  

Death was and is real.
All too real.

Death is real for the couple looking at the sonogram as the doctor tells them that their long-awaited baby’s heart is no longer beating.

Death is real for the 95-year-old who dies in his favorite comfy chair watching Wheel of Fortune…

Death is real for the soldier who watches as the humvee in front of him rolls over an explosive that they never saw, sending shrapnel flying in all directions.

Death is real for the high school freshman gunned down at school on a random Wednesday afternoon.

Death was real for Lazarus.
Death is real for us.  

But Death was not and death is not final.

Because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. And From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

Because The Word Made Flesh is also the Resurrection.  And the LIFE
Lazarus came out to show us that life is real.

Life beyond what we imagine
Life beyond what we could earn
Life that is available to us as we abide,
As we remain and rest in relationship with God.

And that life, when we unbind it, is powerful.
Powerful enough to bring change to the world
Powerful enough to heal
To forgive
To weep with those who weep
To rejoice with those who rejoice

This is LIFE that is powerful enough to tear down systems and structures that perpetuate injustice

Life that is ready to be unbound and released to bear witness to the love and glory of God.

Life that is grace and reveals grace upon grace

This is life that will be lost and regained, unbound and released again.
Because yes… yes… the resurrection of Lazarus is a preview…
a sneak peak o
f what is to come in the days to come.

The tomb won’t be able to hold Jesus any more than it could hold Lazarus once Jesus showed up. In Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life, death has met its match.

Now, as we gather this morning, I have to confess:
Too much of the time it does not feel like death has been defeated.

Like Mary and Martha, we cry out in pain and ask our agonizing questions — about all of life’s woes… job loss, wayward children, financial crises, chronic illness, gun violence, war and terrorism — all of the ways that death’s shadow is cast across our lives.

And yet, even as we cry out of the depths, we live and wait in hope.
And that hope is what enables us to see that the only way is through…
Through the days of waiting and wondering
Through the the valley of the shadow…
Through the grief

You know, Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite worship services of the year.  But it’s also really hard.  In no small part because I have come to love each of you.   

I know that in life and death we belong to God.  I believe that with all my heart.
But as I place that ashes on your foreheads and repeat those words:
 that we are dust and to dust we will return,
the truth of our mortality…
well… it’s hard..

Because I know chances are good that some of us won’t be here next time Ash Wed rolls around. I suspect that between now and then we will gather for a funeral.

And I don’t like that…

I was talking about this truth with another pastor friend this week.  And it dawned on me that I would not be able to make it through imposition of ashes were it not for what comes next in our worship.  If it were not for the other items on the table next to the ashes.

I don’t think I could make it without having the table set for communion.
Without the opportunity to proclaim not only Jesus’ death, but his resurrection
Without a time in which we claim together the promise of his return and cry out Come Lord Jesus!

In the eating of the bread of life and the drinking of the cup of salvation, we are nourished with the truth that humanity matters deeply to God

We remember that we are the ones Jesus loves,
the ones he weeps over,
the ones he comforts,
the ones he came to save.

Like Martha and Mary, we have learned that God rarely – if ever –  acts exactly when, where, or how we think God should act. But we continue to learn that God will act in God’s good time. And we can believe that death will not have the final word. The day of resurrection will come.

And like Lazarus, we are beloved, known by name.
We have come to know the shepherd’s voice, we can hear and respond to the call of life,
We can and must emerge from the tomb ready to bear witness to the vividness and power of resurrection and so that we might all live with unbound hearts.

We remember together that the world, life, it really doesn’t have to be this way.

Living Generously

This week and next, we’re going to spend some time thinking about the meaning of stewardship in our lives as followers of Jesus and in our shared life as a community of faith. Before we dive in, though, I want to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Or maybe the herd of elephants in the room. 

It’s no secret that our American culture is steeped in capitalism. And as consumers, we are trained to measure our success by comparing our stuff (clothes, car, electronics, jewelry… toys of all sorts) with others.

We may or may not measure up to some, but we can usually find at least one person to place ourselves above. And even as we make clear how much we have, we tend to want to keep how much we make and how much we give a secret.  We go well beyond privacy about money and giving…We flat out don’t want to talk about it…

And that paradoxical thinking about money that most of us grow into means the mere mention of stewardship can cause even the most mature Christians to reflexively cover their wallets and hold their purses a little closer.

That reflex has led many churches to instruct their pastors NOT to speak about money and generosity and how those relate to a life of faith… except when the church needs to ask for money.  And then, because we don’t like to talk about money, we need to cushion the blow by including an out.  Usually in the form of giving of our time and talents.

It’s getting a little crowded in here, but let me add another elephant to the herd…

We pastors are not immune to the money paradox. And we get to add a layer of awkward to the whole thing, given that a good chunk of any church’s budget goes toward …yep… the pastor’s salary.  

Oh, and then there’s the pressure not to preach about anything remotely controversial or uncomfortable for a few weeks before or after talking about the budget and giving… so that people don’t protest by withholding their tithe.

So, here we are, approaching the fall, the time of year when the session puts together the budget for next year, the time of year when my contract needs to be reviewed… the time of year when it would really help for us to know what folks anticipate giving.

Which means it is definitely the time of year when all of us would really just like to talk about something else.
Anything else.
Like the start of football season.
Or the Nelson’s new dog.
Or pretty much anything but money and what God wants us to do with it.

It really doesn’t have to be that way.
No really, it doesn’t.

In fact, I suspect Jesus would be mightily surprised at the church’s squeamishness over stewardship, given the number of references to money we have in the gospel accounts of his teachings and his conversations with the disciples. And the story of the early church, as well as the letters we read from Paul and other early church leaders indicate that finances were anything but a taboo topic.

So… why not just take a leap of faith and join them?

Let’s all breathe deeply and offer up a prayer before we read our scripture lessons for the day…   We’re going to start with a portion of Paul’s letter to Timothy.  1 Timothy 6:6-19

And now we’ll turn to a brief snippet of Luke’s gospel.  A scene with Jesus and his disciples that should sound familiar from earlier this year. Luke 20:45-21:4

—-

If ever the word of God was a rejoinder against a pastor standing in her pulpit wearing a long robe asking her parishioners to give until it hurts… so that she might live all the more comfortably… there it is.

To be honest, this passage makes me think of my grandmother, who gave generously to her church, but then would set aside change in a jar that eventually went to at least one of the evangelists she watched on tv. All of whom had more than enough money for their ministries, for their homes and for their sometimes bizarre projects. In the meantime, my grandmother had no choice but to live quite frugally until she died.

To this day there are plenty of famous ministry leaders or pastors we can point to who fly around in jets and live in mansions. It’s not difficult to find stories – even right here in Central Florida – of ministers worth millions whose parishioners give above their means in the hopes that God will bless them with the same sort of prosperity they see their leaders enjoying.

Let’s just say that you will never see this pastor in a Lear jet.  Or making promises that increasing your giving to the church will lead to an unexpected cash windfall for you. That’s not the way God works and it is certainly not what Jesus taught.

Now, Jesus did say at one point that we must be willing to give away all we possess if we want to truly follow. He told the rich young ruler to do just that… and the man couldn’t. Few of us could.

I do know of a few Christian monastic communities that have been founded in the last several years.  One is called the Simple Way, and each of its members take a vow of poverty. They have a common purse, into which any earnings go, and from which all their needs are met. And then the rest is given away. While I admire that level of faith and community, it’s hard to imagine taking on that call myself. And I honestly don’t know that all believers are called to that kind of living.

So I have to believe that somewhere in between running after wealth in the name of a God of Prosperity and running toward poverty in the name of the God who had compassion on the poor… surely we can find a sweet spot… a faithful way of living in relation to money?

That, actually, is where our conversation around stewardship needs to start.  As followers of Jesus, what is our relationship with money meant to look like?  

There are a couple of commonalities between Paul’s words to Timothy and Jesus’ observation about the widow.

The first is that our relationship with money is rarely neutral.  Money – wealth – can be used for good or evil. It has utility…  particularly in a market-based economy.

As I mentioned before, our society teaches us from an early age that our level of success or failure is in large part judged on how rich and/or how powerful you can become.  Just look at the most powerful people – in politics, in business… they are the ones with the money.

Yes – we can point to some exceptions…. But think about the influence of people who own billion-dollar corporations. And now think about the influence of people who work in the minimum wage jobs.

Still not sure this is true?

In July, Forbes Magazine estimated that the members of the President’s cabinet had a combined worth of at least 4.3 billion dollars…
Yes, I said billion.  With a B.

Fewer than 20 people in that room, all sitting around a table, holding the power to change the nation’s laws and to shape the policy direction of every government agency.
For good or for evil.
And they got there because of their wealth.

In the United States in 2017, clearly, money is power.

And yet, we are here to worship a man who never had his own home. We have gathered to worship a man who never even took up a collection, unless it was food to feed the people around him.

So it makes sense that the Christian tradition would have us reframe this notion that money IS power.
Our tradition points to the truth that money HAS power.
And thus, that money can have power over us.

When we allow money to take a place higher than its proper order, it begins to define us, it begins to shape who and what we value, and we can begin to measure our own self worth based on our possessions in ways that are really unhealthy. Our relationships are affected, including our relationship to God.

Our possessions can come to possess us.

In the end, stewardship is less about managing our money… Less about being wise about spending and investing… And more about understanding our relationship with money.

Like any relationship, this one needs tending and awareness. I mean, if the love of money is, indeed the root of all kinds of evil, it makes sense that we need to pay attention.
Really close attention.

And not just personally…  As a body of believers, we must tend to our relationship with our gathered money.

In what ways might spending or saving or tracking or investing our money distract us from our other relationships?

Does anxiety and conflict over finances come between couples?
I’ve seen it… in my own house.  

Or between members of the church?
I’ve seen that too, in more than one house of God.

Can we have conversations about money without fear of fighting, and if conflict happens, without the threat of someone leaving?

These are important questions… And the answers help us to understand our unspoken priorities.

Priorities that need to be spoken aloud.
Honestly and openly.

See, we need to be honest about our priorities because… any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol, breaking the very first and greatest commandment.

And any relationship that keeps us from loving our neighbors… Well, that would be the second half of the law of love broken.

Whether we’re talking about a relationship with food, a person, sex, sports, some other possession,  or money, any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol.

And because of its connection to power and influence, even within the sacred community of a church, our relationship with money is the one most likely to get out of alignment.  The root of all kinds of evil, indeed.

Thankfully, Paul provided Timothy with some relationship advice for people who have money.   Let’s look again at the end of that passage, starting at verse 17:   

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

Step 1….
Make sure your trust is where it ought to be. Not in money, but in God.
God has and always will provide for us.

This idea runs against our culture, which tells us to place our trust in the goods and systems and financial reserves that we’ve created.  But even as we trust them, we know in our hearts they can fail us.  We don’t have to look back but a few years to see the widespread consequences of systems crashing.

So what do we do?  We worry and work to amass even more, so that we might feel safe again. So that we might trust the numbers in our account statements and investment portfolios to cover our needs.

In a recent essay on trust in God as a key to stewardship Marcia Shetler wrote,
Trusting in God is part of our responsibility as followers of Jesus. It allows us to joyfully and generously let go of what we think is ours and release it for God’s use. Those acts of generosity are our witness to the world, sharing God’s abundance as channels of God’s love.

She went on to share a few examples from scripture….
Elijah asked the widow of Zarephath to be generous by sharing her last meal and trust that she and her son would not go hungry. …A small boy gave his lunch of five loaves and two fish, [trusting he would not be left hungry] and more than 5,000 people were fed. Moses’ mother trusted God with her son’s life. Twice.

The first time she placed his life in God’s hands when she put him in a basket in a river, Moses was returned to her and she was able to raise and love her son while he was young. Later, she gave him up again, and Moses ultimately fulfilled God’s call as leader of the Hebrews.

And then Ms. Shetler turns to the widow’s coin, saying
…there have been numerous interpretations of this incident. But perhaps what was most important was not only the widow’s ability to give to God totally, but to trust God completely.

Truly, the only explanation for the widow’s generosity is that complete trust.  She had faith that the God who had faithfully provided for her in the past would continue to do so.

When we truly trust God to provide for us, we are free to give as lavishly and generously as God. Not because by giving we have earned a prize, but because God has promised to care for us, and we believe – we trust – that God is faithful.

In verses 18 and 19, Paul encourages Timothy to see all that God provides, not simply as the means by which we survive, but the means for us to do good in the world.  Speaking of those who have money, Paul says
They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

This is the sort of giving that moves us beyond a transactional, quid pro quo understanding of stewardship into a life that is marked by generosity.  

When God gives to us, when God provides for us, and when we acknowledge the gift, there is no transfer of ownership. No paperwork to be completed and filed and accounted for. Instead a link, a bond is established between us. Gifts connect the giver and the receiver.

This bond is what makes a really good gift, really special. And why a really bad gift can make you question a relationship.  I mean, think for a second… I bet you’ve gotten a gift that made you scratch your head more than a little. 

INSERT STORY ABOUT REALLY BAD GIFT….

It made me want to ask… Do you even KNOW me?  Why would you think I would enjoy/want that??

But think about a time someone gave you the perfect gift.
You know… something that was exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time.  

That kind of gift makes you feel known, loved, truly cared for by the one who gave it. 

Theologian Miroslav Wolf reminds us that no object on its own is a gift.  Not until the act of the object being chosen and given. Like this pen.  It’s just a pen.  Until I look at it and think, you know who could use this even more than me?  R.  

Here, R, I want you to have this…

Now the pen is a gift. I gave it to R and now he has something he needed because I saw that need and met it. The pen, now a gift, is also a social relation, an event between us.

This happens to us regularly, as God continues to offer the gifts of grace, of life, of air and all that we see around us. The more aware we are of these gifts, the more aware we are of the bond those gifts create between us and the God who loves us.

Wolf says it this way – “To live in sync with who we truly are means to recognize that we are dependent on God for our very breath and are graced with many good things; it means to be grateful to the giver and attentive to the purpose for which the gifts are given.”  

In other words, God gives to us, not only so that WE might enjoy God’s gifts, but so that we might know the joy of giving as we pass them on to others. As people who have received from God, we need to give to others. It is vital to our identity as humans. It is at the core of our identity as image-bearers of a gift-giving God.

Living a generous life requires an awareness of all that God is doing in our lives, all that God is providing.  Thus generosity begins with a heart of gratitude for a relationship that is not contingent upon us  and our ability to reciprocate God’s perfect love.

Generosity begins with a heart filled with gratitude for grace. Gratitude which leads us to love and serve and give in return. It leads us to live the life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.

Generosity leads us to use the spiritual gifts, the skills and talents and passions within us – all to the glory of God wherever we go… at work, in the community and in our homes… and at church.

Living generously means sharing from our abundance and even from our scarcity with those who are in need. It means taking the time to care for our own bodies and minds, taking a Sabbath rest away from the busyness our society worships.

Living generously and boldly as a church requires taking time as a body to look around, to take a fresh inventory of all that God has given to us.

Living generously and boldly as a church requires being grateful for the past and trusting God for a future.  And then following Jesus out into a world that needs the gifts we’ve been given to share.

Living generously requires us to receive new gifts with open hearts and open hands… courageously letting go of those things we’ve protected by holding them tightly…  So that our hands are able to gather up today’s blessings with gratitude and joy, offering them in turn to whomever might need them.

Living generously and boldly means trusting God enough to hold today’s blessings loosely so that we might open our hands and hearts to receive and give away God’s gifts again tomorrow…. and the next day… and the next.

Until one day we realize that our receiving and giving are a single inseparable stream, a river of life and love and grace flowing into and through us.

Next week, we will talk in more detail about some of those other aspects of our lives that are gifts from God which allow us to live and to love generously. And in the coming weeks, we will be talking about budgets and our household contributions to our shared life as a church.  

I ask that you would join me and our church officers in prayer for wisdom and clear guidance for our church as a whole and for each household…  That we would discern together what God is calling us to do with the gifts God has already given and those we trust God will give in the years to come.

Let us pray.   

Stay Thirsty- Sermon on Communion

Primary texts –  1 Samuel 21:1-9 and  Mark 14:10-31
The assigned Old Testament reading this week is obviously quite- well, interesting.  And as much as I enjoy taking time to give context to our scriptures…  I really just want to point out a couple of things about this odd episode in the life of David, which happened as he was running from Saul.

First,  the bread of Presence mentioned in the story isn’t quite the equivalent of communion bread.  The Holiness code called for what is sometimes translated as showbread to be kept on the altar. It is described as twelve cakes or loaves baked from fine flour, and arranged in two rows or piles on a table standing before God.

Each loaf was baked with specific ingredients by the Kohathite clan. They were  stacked along with the frankincense on the altar, in a way that seems reminiscent of the stacks of stones left in various locations as memorials to moments when God was uniquely engaged with humankind.  

The bread would only be left on the table for a week, replaced with new fresh loaves each Sabbath.  The priests were allowed to each the bread once they were removed, as long as they did so in a holy place. After all, this was holy bread.  Set apart for a purpose

And so, when David seeks to take the bread with him, he is asking for the priest to bend the rules, perhaps break a few. Ahimelech did help David and his friends, providing 5 loaves.  He was later summoned into Saul’s presence, and accused of disloyalty for assisting David, based on the information of Doeg the Edomite.

This is a complicated story – as most stories involving David are…He was not a priest… and yet, he was set apart. He was chosen by God. He needed bread, but he lied… he wasn’t sent by Saul. He was there because he was on the run and he was hungry

The only food that was present at the tabernacle was the bread of the Presence. There was nothing in the letter of the Law that allowed the bread to be given to anyone else, and Ahimelech was- as a priest aware of every letter, every jot and every tittle of the law. Ahimelech also knew the Law was given to further life, and that the spirit of the Law demanded that feeding the needy must be put ahead of ritual if the two ever seem to conflict.

Jesus later appealed to this incident to justify His practice of ignoring the Pharisaic traditions that put preserving religious ritual above helping the hungry. Following such traditions leads only to bondage to sin rather than leading to freedom according to the law of love.

I think that is part of what happened the night Jesus was betrayed.

Everyone was familiar with the words to be spoken.
The order of the questions.
The answers.
The foods they would eat.
It was passover.

And passover is all about family.
And being family for those who are far from home or whose family is no longer with them.
It was comforting and familiar to recite the story together
To eat the symbolic foods
To drink the symbolic wine

The middle portion of our reading from Mark is familiar.  They are one version of what we call the “Words of institution”  The words that recall how this sacrament was instituted, came into being.  If I had my way, I’d change that nomenclature…

—  Tell story of attempting to memorize WOI for Dr. Shaffer’s class —

The assignment – memorize and demonstrate for the prof… Struggling to get the words right.  All week, I would try to get it right and forget/freeze every time.  It’s not like I hadn’t heard them hundreds of times in my church-going life, should have been easy…  But there I was, standing in front of classmates in an unfamiliar church, hot dog bun in hand.  Hopelessly stuck.  Finally Dr. Shaffer says to me.  It’s ok.  Just tell the story.

Because that’s what the words of institution are – the story.
The story of that night when they were gathered together.
The story as remembered by Mark. And Matthew. And Luke.

The story that Peter and the others must have told Paul – Or perhaps he heard it while he was blind and the Lord spoke directly to his heart… But Paul gives us in his letter to Corinth a testimony of what had been passed on to him, so that those who heard the letter might bear witness, too.

I added a few verses this morning… before and after. The part of the story in which Judas betrays him.And the part in which Jesus warns Peter that he, too, will fall away…

You see, it’s important to understand the human context in which this divine promise, this new covenant as Luke and Paul describe it, is being made.  Jesus is 100% aware of the betrayal and denial that is coming. He cannot and will not stop them, any more than he would avoid the pain and death that is looming.  

This is the world in which he lived.
This is the world in which we live.
Sinful, broken, not-yet-God’s Kingdom,
Not yet fully reconciled and awaiting an upgrade to the Resurrection Operating System

But Jesus loved those people gathered at the table.
Loved them like family.

And because he offers forgiveness in his broken body
BREAK THE BREAD

And because he offers forgiveness in his spilled blood
POUR THE JUICE

We are one family.
Claimed and adopted by God

Baptised into one church
Sharing one communion
Proclaiming his saving life, death and resurrection until he comes again.

Knowing that very night that some of his family would fail him, Jesus still bears witness to God being with us – all of us.

I could talk at length about the myriad ways theologians have argued and written about the sacrament….

There were the reformation era debates about Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation or just plain memorial.  Is Jesus really in the bread, in the room? How do we square that with his being ascended???  

For the record – Jean Calvin’s response is the one most Presby’s cling to: It’s a mystery, but we can trust that the HS is in us and with us. And that power allows our hearts to be in the presence of Christ as we celebrate the sacrament  

Argue over who can preside.
For us – generally an ordained MOWAS

Argue over who can partake and when.
Baptized… or at least being raised in the community of faith 
and learning what it means to participate. There’s that whole letter vs Spirit of the law thing again

I could talk about the way coming back to the table again and again is like sanctification, whereas baptism reminds us of justification – once and done.

But I want to talk about what it means for our hearts, for our lives
The how then shall we live part.

It starts by thinking about what a family meal means.
Gathering- family, bonus family (guests)
Remembering – meals past, people here and gone, good/bad convos
Celebrate- holidays with rituals and traditions
Nourish – eat, feel full hearts and bellies

Have people who brought dishes tell their stories…
Prompt Questions

  1. What did you bring?
  2. Who taught you how to make it (maybe you just watched)?
  3. What memories does it bring to mind…
    • who do you think of?  
    • What table does it remind you of?
  4. With whom do you most want to share this?

Food – especially comfort food…  It’s all about Love
Family
Coming together
Being nourished heart soul mind strength

Tell story about Pork Pie becoming part of my history when married into New England family.

Take bread to everyone as tell story about Monkey Bread, Mary Helen, hospitality, love.

Talk about the Smell of Grape Juice

  • Takes me back to family filling all the communion cups in the vestibule
  • First communion
  • Watching the Table –  the men and women who helped raise me along with parents standing, praying, telling the story in those words
  • Tell the story of Sarah Bell – frail, ravaged by stroke, barely able to swallow… but when she tasted and smelled communion… countenance changed, face relaxed, mouth formed words “Our Father”…

She was, in those moments truly present. With us, with God.
I was, in those moments, in the presence of God.
And when I stand at the table and smell the bread and the juice…
I remember… I am with the saints from my past and present.
I am loved…  I am thankful.
I am in the presence of God.

As the cup is passed, smell the juice, dip the bread, allow yourself to experience the mystery of the presence of Christ for you.   TAKE CUP TO PEWS FOR INTINCTION

That is what this table should mean… to us.
We should walk in, see the bread and the juice and stomachs growl
Because we are hungry for that company, fellowship
Because we are thirsty for the stories that remind us who we are
Belonging to one another – blood relatives, thanks to the blood of Christ.

Stay hungry, dear ones.
Stay thirsty.

Stay Wet – a sermon on baptism

This week and next, we’re going to take some time to talk about the sacraments that are central to our lives as a community of faith: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Today, I’d like us to start by reading Psalm 46 – a glorious reminder that God is not just with us. And not just for us. God’s presence is so powerful it is akin to a place – a safe place in which we find refuge from all that is evil.   Psalm 46

And now we will turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans, a church that apparently needed a strong reminder about what it means to live in a complicated world in light of the lavish grace of God. In the selection we read today, he addresses one of the questions that we still wrestle with…

If God’s grace is so big, so healing, so cleansing…  What does that mean about following the law?  Or following Jesus? If, as Paul says, where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, should we just keep on sinning and leave the forgiveness up to God?

Listen for the Word of God from Romans 6:1-11

Like Psalms 23 and 91, also psalms of assurance and confidence in the Lord, we don’t hear a guarantee in Psalm 46 that life will be easy just  because God is with us.  Rather, God promises to remain with us, no matter how dark the valley gets or how difficult the troubles that surround us. The writer of this Psalm has clearly been there… experienced that… and has earned faith enough to share this truth.

When he writes about mountains shaking such that the seas roar and foam, the reference is less about natural disasters than the cosmic forces that would seek to tear God’s creation apart. Forces that – because God is present – we need not fear.

The writer knows what it looks like when political powers and principalities are doing the shaking, seeking to unseat rulers and nations. To bring chaos. In our time, he might have written about terrorist threats and actions.  

Whatever the turmoil, we are told, God offers a point of stability that shall not be moved.
God is our help.

The writer knows the folly of placing one’s faith in any power but the Lord’s.  God’s presence is the genuine source of refuge, of strength, of comfort.
Of salvation.

God’s presence is the source of restorative waters… rivers that offer joy and gladness. Rivers, that in the person of Jesus, will be called living waters, waters that assure that we never thirst.

The psalmist tells us that it is in the city of God where the rivers and streams make the hearts glad.  The city of God  is where the baptized are gathered. Not a literal city, so much as, well… a church.

Where the baptized are gathered, the Spirit of God is present.
And thus  the church- the gathered body -is also a place of healing and hope.
A place of refuge.

Over and over again, from creation to the new Jerusalem described in Revelation, images of water evoke God’s care and God’s presence. It is no wonder then that approaching the waters of baptism requires more than instructions for completing a ritual.

Understood more fully, and more communally, baptism is not simply something that is done, it, too is a place.  A refuge to which all are called. A refuge to which all are re-called

And as we noted in our reading through Ephesians, there is but one baptism.  There is no special baptism for those who had been near, and no alternate baptism for those who had been far off…

One baptism for all….
Jews and Gentiles, enslaved and free, men and women, old and young.
All.

All who hear and whose hearts respond to the news of God’s great love for them.
All who believe that God’s grace is greater than any sin.
All who belong to the family of God are invited to repent and be baptized.

And then, from the moment we are baptized into a community of faith, we are called and equipped by God in the Holy Spirit to walk in the way of Christ, to live worthy of the calling to which we were called.  

I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that the early church, including those meeting in Rome and Ephesus were dunking churches.  OK – technically, that would be baptism by immersion. But you know what I mean.

I grew up in a tradition that required full immersion, as opposed to the way we baptize from the font here. Which is still more splash than sprinkle, but not all the way in…

Anyway, chances are good that like John the Baptist, other Jewish prophets and rabbis would have used a river or lake to baptize. The person would walk into the water, repenting of their sins, receive a blessing and be immersed into the water.

Down into the water
Down into death
Up into the air
Up into new life.
Into the water dry and dignified
Out of the water looking like a drowned rat.

And in that baptism moment, they were changed.
Not just outwardly in their dripping robes; they were no longer who they had been.

Paul would like us to see this as a direct comparison to what Jesus experiences in the time between Good Friday and Easter morning.  Jesus went into and through death to life.
Resurrection life.

Because of that journey, the power of resurrection becomes evident in the body of Christ in two ways: Baptized followers of Christ celebrate his victory over death. We trust that we will live with him forever. And baptized followers of Christ share in his victory over sin. We can and will live holy lives right now.  In this world.   

That is the power of resurrection: the power of grace for the individual, the community and the world.

In Paul’s view, it is the power of resurrection that makes the idea of a sinful baptized person a laughable oxymoron. It is a silly contradiction in terms.  Paul essentially says,  “You are dead to sin.  Stop acting as if you are even capable of sin.  Live like you know who you are.”

Perhaps you have experienced one of those moments when a friend or neighbor or even family member has said or done something awful… Told an egregious lie, destroyed a relationship… Committed a crime and was arrested…

And because that act was so out of character, all you could think to say in your shock was “That is not like him at all.”  Or “she’s a better person than that…”  

Confronting them directly, you might ask… “Who are you?” or “I don’t think I know you any more…”  

Well – a baptized person is a whole new person.  A person that the powers of darkness no longer recognize. And a baptized body of believers looks nothing like the rest of the world.

This is true for all of us, no matter how long ago or how early in our lives that baptism happened.  Even if you can’t remember the water touching your skin or who was there, you can remember your baptism. At least in the way that is most important to our community of faith being a refuge from a sinful world.

You can remember your baptism by remembering that you belong to God, you are adopted into God’s household.  

No longer enslaved by sin, no longer enlivened by sin’s power, you and I are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  We are empowered – for all of life – by the Holy Spirit.

Let me say that again – through the waters of baptism you and I are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  And that is very good news indeed!

What do you think of when you hear those words.. Dead to sin?

At one point, I thought maybe it meant being a perfectly sinless human.  Which of course, I was completely unable to pursue. For one thing, I am not a very good perfectionist, and being perfectly sinless would require me to make the right decision on how to think and act and speak and move through life a bajillion times a day.
Seriously.
Never going to happen.

But I think now that Paul is really talking more about an operating system. Like the underlying software that allow our phones and computers and other digital tools – to function properly.

So, my old operating system – the old human part – was really glitchy. It was an old version that was created with all good intentions but became corrupted somehow.  That old human OS was a mess and caused me to experience the world – and thus respond and move through the world – in ways that failed to honor God. The hate and fear that leaked out of me was more a reflection of sin than faith, hope or love.

New life in Christ – living as a baptised follower of Jesus –  is like getting a whole new operating system installed.

In this OS, there is no spirit of fear, only the Holy Spirit.  There is no darkness, no hate.  No glitches.  Just a solid platform because there is grace… so much grace. Grace in such abundance that it leaks out of me, leaving a trail of joy and generosity and kindness and love.

When I function using that operating system, and that system alone, the one that runs on grace… my experience of life and the world is changed completely:

I can trust that God is with me, that God’s Spirit indwells me.  

I have entered a whole new Kingdom in which Christ is King and I am living in him.  

And… because we are not baptized into a one to one relationship with God, but into a huge pre-existing family, a giant network of followers of Jesus, we experience that new Kingdom in community.  

Together.

Like the Israelites passing through the river into the promised land, you and I have passed through the waters into a promised life of abundance.
A place of refuge.
A place where we can stay wet…
Practically swimming in God’s grace.
Together.

All that grace? Paul doesn’t really think it’s an invitation to moral anarchy – where we sin more and more and more so that we might experience greater and greater depths of grace.

No… Paul is all about the kind of transformation that comes when we know who we are and who we belong to.  The kind of transformation he experienced and then witnessed in countless others.  

But here’s the thing… understanding baptism as participating in the death of Jesus means that there is a lot of resurrection life to participate in as a baptized believer.

It won’t be perfect… After all, we live in anticipation of the resurrection of Christ.  Rather than erasing our capacity to sin completely, our baptism OS puts sin in check.

The ongoing work of the Holy Spirit allows us to create and maintain boundaries, so that our lives reflect the Law of Love: Love for God and love for neighbors.  All of our neighbors.  And access to resurrection power means we have the capacity to get better at living as a community that exhibits faith hope and love to the world.

In that sense, baptism is a process, a journey toward Christlikeness.

A life that is grounded, shaped and formed by the death and resurrection of Jesus is motivated by and directed by that same Jesus.  Who has defeated sin forever. So, our new way of operating and experiencing the world means we can no longer tolerate, much less cooperate, with sin.

In other words, our faith provides an understanding that new life with Christ is an assurance of salvation beyond death. AND an understanding that this assurance is lived out in discipleship… a life that is dedicated to God in this time and this place.

That means giving all of our lives over to God.
Day after day after day.
Moment by moment by moment.
Facet by facet.

And even with a shiny new operating system… that can be hard.

C. was telling us in a session meeting last month about a baptism story in the book he was reading  about stewardship.  The author was writing about how we sometimes hold back a part of our lives, a portion of our resources, and pretend that it isn’t God’s- that we’ve somehow earned it on our own and can reserve it.  

That might mean holding back a certain percentage of our income we don’t want to give, a particular behavior pattern that we don’t want to change, or a grudge we don’t want to stop holding… you get the idea.

How is that related to baptism?  Well, the author points back to this story from the era of Charlemagne.

You may or may not recall that Charlemagne was the most powerful European ruler in the Middle Ages, leading the Franks to rule most of Europe. He converted to Christianity, which was the beginning of what church historians would call an era of Christendom.

Perhaps as a means of assuring God was on the side of the Empire, Charlemagne expected his soldiers to convert and be baptized into the church.  The soldiers would go down to the river en masse to do just that.  

But by some reports the baptisms were a little unusual.

When it came time to be immersed, they would hold one hand up out of the water, so that it would remain dry.  Yes- it was their sword hand, the hand they wanted to be able to use in battle to kill as needed. As if to say.. I’ll let you change every part of me, I’ll give over all me… except that part…

Now, I’m not entirely sure that’s solid ground, theologically speaking. But I can see how that logic works.  And if I’m honest with myself, search my heart a little, I must confess there are things that I have left dry.  Or perhaps allowed to dry out.

Rogue apps, connecting back to that old operating system.   

There are sins that this faithful believer can’t seem to shake, still needs to confess, still hasn’t trusted God enough to transform.

Shall I go on with those sins, so that grace for me might increase?
No… and here’s why.

I am not alone.
You and I belong to each other, just as surely as we belong to God.  Just as surely as the aches and pains of my little toe matter to my digestive system, my sin affects you.

Not just each of you, but all of you.
And our life together in Christ.
Our health and witness as the Body of Christ.

And the reverse is true.
Your sins matter to me.
And my health.

And it goes far beyond these walls…
Far beyond the membership rolls we keep.

The sins of all who claim membership in the body of Christ,
All who are brothers and sisters adopted into God’s family,
All who are baptized…  no matter how wet or dry they seem to be…

Their sins matter to us, too.
Because we all belong to each other.

The events that unfolded this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, even as I was putting these words to the page, made it really hard for me to claim some of our brothers and sisters. I watched and wept and wondered… 

How much of your heart do you have to hold out of the water to be able to spew such hatred for the Jewish community?

How much of your heart must stay dry to consider people less than human because their skin is brown or black?

How much must of your heart must one give over to hatred to openly choose symbols of intimidation and death used by the Nazi party and the KKK?  I mean… these folks didn’t feel a need to cover their faces! 

And how are we to respond?  

Knowing that yes, there is grace enough, even to cover sins so proudly displayed by torchlight…

How are we to faithfully respond?

I have to start by remembering that those hate-spewing protesters matter to God.
Just as dearly as the Jews matter to God.
Just as dearly as African Americans and immigrants and women and all of us matter to God…
Despite their evil, sin-filled chants.  

And because my operating system is grace-powered, they all must matter to me, too.
The ones spewing hate and the ones they despise.

All of them matter.
All of them belong.
All of them are a part of us.

And – against all logic- I want to invite them back into the waters…

I want to go up and ask…
Do you remember who you are?
Do you remember whose you are?
Do you honestly believe that this is the calling to which you were called? 

That’s when an uncomfortable truth hits me…
I, too, desperately I need the waters of baptism.

My sins are no less harmful to my relationship with God, no less harmful to my relationships with you and others in the Body.

And so I long to be back in the water.
Not just a little damp, but soaking wet.
Holding back NOTHING.
Nothing of mine, nothing of ours.
ALL IN.

Which of course, makes me think of Peter… in that moment when Jesus was teaching the disciples what it meant to be a servant by washing their feet.

And Peter – God bless him- He was having none of it. He knew it would have been much more appropriate for him to kneel down.  For him to be washing his rabbi’s feet. Because in his heart, Peter knew that Jesus was so much more than a teacher or friend.

But Jesus made clear that wasn’t the way it was going to happen.
And Peter relented.  
And then, in his own inimitable, always passionate way,
Peter took it even further: 

Wash all of me, then, Lord.  Not just my feet… all of me.
Wash the dust off my feet, sure.
But there is all the dirt and muck that my heart has picked up along the way.
The words I’ve spoken that soil my mouth.
The silence I’ve kept when your children needed an advocate.
The selfishness and self-centeredness that leads me to treat others as less than. 

Like Peter, I cry out in these difficult times, Wash all of me!
That I might be a better servant
Wash all of your children… Head to toe
That we might be more faithful followers
That we might make a difference in the building of your kingdom

And then that OS kicks in, reminding me that the waves of grace have already washed over us. That Christ has already done the work.

I remember who I belong to.
I remember that God is and will be my refuge and my strength.
I remember my baptism and am thankful.

Remember, dear ones.
Remember your baptism.
Remember who you are.
Remember who we are.
Together.

And be thankful.