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In Peace There Is No Fear (April 28, 2019)

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Ah, yes. Doubting Thomas. We’re not messing too much with him today, other than to say he doesn’t react any differently than anyone else did upon hearing of the resurrection.

Then there’s that whole “if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” Nah. We’re not going there this year either other than to say forgiveness is preferable.

If you are really disappointed that I’m not getting into either of those, then I gotta say I’m a little impressed you’re paying attention! You can go to my sermon blog (Pastor Rob Moss Sermons) and find a whole bunch of sermons I’ve done on both of those. And not just me, but pretty much every pastor whose ever preached a sermon ever has done that. Because they’re good and important topics.

I’m struck this year with Jesus’ repeating the phrase “peace be with you” three times in these few verses. The resurrected Jesus comes where disciples are gathered and says first thing, “Peace be with you.” Shows them hands and feet, and says again, “Peace be with you.” Later, when Thomas is with them too, he comes and says (guess what?), “Peace be with you.”

Apparently, they’re not at peace. This is evident, because they were meeting behind locked doors huddled in fear. When we’re afraid, it’s hard to feel at peace, right?

One night this week the dog had to out. Because of coyotes, we go outside with her because she’s so small. So at 3:00 in the morning I was startled in the dark to discover a tent that had been pitched in my back yard. Someone has set up camp my back yard! I don’t know if they’re dangerous—but they shouldn’t be in my back yard. At 3:00 in the morning fear has a lot of power. I swear that part of the tent was moving; obviously someone was in there. Let me tell you, peace is the last thing I was feeling right then.

While I’m waiting the few seconds for the dog to finish her business, I began to realize this wasn’t a normal looking tent. As I kept looking at it, I realized it was actually the patio umbrella that had somehow been blown up from the patio table out into the yard.

Whew! No uninvited campers behind my house.

But at 3:00 in the morning I was mostly reacting out of fear. If I had made a decision right then as to how to respond, it likely wouldn’t have been the best one. And certainly not one based on the peace of Christ. We can’t help feeling afraid, but we aren’t likely to make good discipleship decisions from fear.

In the midst of fear, peace is not present. I can only imagine the lack of peace these disciples are experiencing. The Jewish authorities who, in John’s gospel, were responsible for killing Jesus are looking for his followers. Plus, dead Jesus is standing in front of them. So it makes sense that Jesus has to offer peace to them three times.

More than just words of peace, Jesus offers the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of peace, comfort, and assurance. He gives that to them to replace the fear.

That would make a great ending to the story. The disciples are afraid, Jesus comes, wishes them peace, gives them the Holy Spirit as a comforter and advocate, and they now live happily ever after, never being afraid again.

But that’s not exactly how this goes. There are a couple of things that happen. First, Thomas isn’t there when Jesus gives the Holy Spirit, so Jesus has to do this over again a week later. And notice, the other disciples who were there the first time and received the Holy Spirit are still hiding behind locked doors a week later when Jesus is present the second time. So, apparently putting away fear isn’t necessarily instantaneous. Not a once-and-done thing.

Second, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit not to eliminate fear for its own sake, but to eliminate fear so they can continue what he had come to do, i.e., forgiveness. To do that, they need peace, they need the Spirit, they need to move past fear.

So Jesus comes and gives the Holy Spirit to remove fear so that they can continue this work of forgiveness—moving past any offense and calling out the image of God in all people.

And, this apparently isn’t a quick thing, but takes some time.

I think we make too many decisions based on our fears. We’re afraid of failing, so we decide not to try. We’re afraid of looking stupid, so we don’t take risks. We’re afraid of being hurt, so we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We’re afraid of certain groups of people, so we find different ways to keep them separated from us by avoiding them, making generalized statements about what a threat they are, building walls in front of them, or blaming them for our woes.

But whenever we are making decisions out of fear, we’re not making good discipleship decisions. In the midst of fear, peace isn’t present. And peace is what Jesus offers three times to these disciples; and backs it up by giving the Holy Spirit. Peace casting out fear matters to Jesus. Not only for our own life, but for our ability to follow him as disciples. Consider how different our own decisions would be if made from a peaceful place of trusting Jesus rather than our own fears.

If someone had pitched a tent in my back yard, my fearful decision wouldn’t have been good—for them or for me. But who knows, as a disciple of the one who brings peace, the risen Christ, a different decision could have shown compassion, mercy, forgiveness. Maybe not. I won’t know, because it was only an umbrella. In the meantime, may the peace of Christ continue to grow in each of us so we can trust Christ rather than fear when a tent is pitched in our backyards.

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Posted by on April 27, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Where There’s Suffering and Fear, God’s Love is Shown (Nov. 26, 2017)

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

There are some events that change history. Pearl Harbor for the Greatest Generation. Nothing would ever be the same after that.

For me and many around my age it was the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK.

For many now it’s 9/11.

If you live through events like these your world is forever changed.

That’s true with Matthew’s community, too. To really hear this gospel, we need to know the life-changing events that forever changed Matthew’s community. Their “Pearl Harbor” event, their “9/11” event was the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by Roman forces in 70 AD.

This gospel was most likely written between 80 and 90 AD. All the original eye-witnesses of Jesus’ ministry are long dead. The Apostle Paul has been dead for 20-30 years. Every Christian living at this time was part of the 2nd generation of the church.

Matthew’s community probably was located in Syria. They were mostly Jewish Christians, who may have scattered and relocated in Syria after the Roman invasion of Jerusalem.

In about 66AD or so, Israel got tired of unjust (sinful) taxes they had to pay to Rome, and they revolted. The revolution escalated until Jewish zealots were killing off Roman citizens in Jerusalem.

Rome, of course, retaliated and plundered the temple, taking all the wealth there, claiming it all belonged to Rome anyway.

The plundering of the temple led to an all-out rebellion by the Jews against Rome.

Rome sent in armies from Syria to put it down and restore order, but by then the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem had already set up their own autonomous government. Because Jerusalem was so well fortified (with three thick walls surrounding the city) and well defended, Rome sought out rebel strongholds an eradicated them, beginning in Galilee.

This sent Jews from Galilee fleeing to Jerusalem as refugees. Which would have been fine except that the Galilean Jews had formed their own government too, which now clashed with the rebel government in Jerusalem. That internal conflict escalated too.

So in 70AD, (ten or twenty years before Matthew’s gospel was written), Rome attacked Jerusalem directly. After a 7-month siege, they broke through the third wall, sacked Jerusalem, and destroyed the temple.

The Jews that weren’t enslaved scattered throughout the region, perhaps with the author of Matthew’s gospel among them. The tensions between he Jews and Rome continued for decades, breaking out into two more wars in the 2nd century.

In any case, this particular community of Jewish people who were disciples of Jesus now lived in Syria with the tension of Roman conquest changing everything. They weren’t native Syrians, they were Israelites. Still living within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, they were still vulnerable.

With all that these Jews had been through in the last 15-20 years, they had to be wondering how God was going to deal with all of it. What does Jesus the Messiah, resurrected 50-60 years ago, have to do with it?

The author of Matthew takes the last couple of chapters in his gospel to address some of that. What will Jesus do to the world at the end of time? This text is part of that speculation.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . all the nations will be gathered before him.” All the nations. Including Rome and all the other Gentile regions. Jesus will be on the throne then and will decide the fate of all these Gentile countries. And the same Jesus who taught the Beatitudes, who preached love for enemies, who revealed God as merciful to all, is the same Jesus who will judge these nations.

God hasn’t forgotten the persecution of these Jewish followers in Mathew’s community. God knows their suffering at the hands of some, and also knows the kindness shown to them by others.

On the day of the Lord, at the end of time, when Jesus is rightfully sitting on the throne of judgment, he will separate nations and peoples according, in part, to how these nations have treated “the least of these who are members of my family.”

Do you hear how that would sound to these people whose family and friends are either enslaved or who have had to flee for their lives? God remembers them, the least and most vulnerable of all people, and looks with favor on the nations that have shown them kindness. These refugees matter to God.

And how consistent that is with everything Jesus taught and did! Those who are powerless matter. Those who are poor and who mourn are blessed. Those who are frightened and vulnerable are lifted up in love. Live in hope, because God sees you and remembers you!

And God will also look with kindness on those who are kind to you. Not because they’ve tried harder (in the parable they don’t even know they’ve done things God finds favorable), but because they are filled with God’s love and simply live that way.

So, this isn’t a gospel text about trying harder to be nice to people. It’s two-fold: Jesus remembers you when you are suffering and frightened and helpless. But also, that  God’s love is going to be shown. Because God’s love changes people. Even now when our world feels more chaotic and frightening than ever, God’s love is still changing the world. May Christ’s love continue to change us. May we then be among those who show mercy and compassion to refugees, to the poor, to the vulnerable, to the forgotten.

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2017 in Sermon

 

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“Just Get Back in the Boat, Peter” (August 13, 2017)

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Jesus, on hearing of John the Baptist’s death, tried to get away to mourn. Because the crowds followed him and he had compassion for them, he delayed his period of grief and began to heal their sick.

Now, after feeding the 5000+, he tries again to go off by himself. He not only sends the crowds on their way, but he makes his disciples leave too. He orders them to get into a boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He was finally able to spend some time alone.

The disciples, however, didn’t have such a refreshing night. A storm came up and kept them from reaching land. Fighting all night long against the wind and the waves, they couldn’t get to the other side of the sea. Even though Jesus told them to go, the storm kept them from obeying him.

Frightened and exhausted, in the midst of the storm they see someone walking across the water toward them. It was still dark, and I can’t even imagine how terrifying that would be on top of everything else. Of course they think it’s a ghost. What else would they think?

So even though Jesus tries to reassure them, Peter makes a really stupid suggestion, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” I can just hear Jesus thinking to himself, “Peter, just stay in boat with the others like I told you.” But I envision Jesus heaving a big sigh and saying, “Alright, Peter. Go ahead.”

I get being terrified, and I get wanting to be near Jesus. But I’m not sure why Peter would think walking on the water would be the best way to deal with his fear. Why not ask for the storm to stop? Or to be transported to land? Or a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich?

Because here’s how I see Peter’s attempt to walk on water. Not an act of faith, but of selfishness. He not only forgets Jesus’ command to the disciples, but he abandons them in order to ease his own panic. He’s going to do whatever it takes to be comforted in his fear, even if it means leaving the relative safety of the boat and the team effort of his friends. He’s striking out on his own so that he can be with Jesus, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. In the face of his own panic, this is an act of cowardice and selfishness, hardly one of faith.

I keep coming back to one of Jesus’ primary themes in Matthew. You are all in this life together, so you better hang in there together. Quit creating divisions. The parable of the different soils—he seed will still come to you. The parable of the weeds and the wheat—hang in there together. If we abandon others just so we can get closer to Jesus on our own, we wind up sinking.

Now, hear what I’m saying. I’m not saying we shouldn’t turn to Jesus when we’re afraid. But I am saying that sometimes “faith” means sticking it out with the other disciples in the boat. Sometimes “faith” means holding to what Jesus tells us to do even if that means heading into the storm. Sometimes “faith” means supporting each other when we’re afraid and trusting that Jesus will meet us there. Sometimes “faith” means recognizing that God is God, Jesus is Jesus, and we are not. Jesus walks on water, we don’t. Sometimes “faith” means staying in the boat together, which, by the way, is where Jesus told Peter to be in the first place.

I’m afraid that sometimes, in order to seek our own personal comfort with Jesus, we abandon the others in the boat. And I think that is the lack of faith—the doubting—that Jesus confronts Peter with. If we are forsaking others for our own sense of spiritual righteousness, we’ll sink. If we want Jesus to save us while ignoring others in the boat, we’ll sink. If we are so terrified of the wind and the waves that we bail on our community with the excuse of getting closer to Jesus, we’ll sink.

Sure, Jesus reaches out and saves the sinking Peter. But the point of the story isn’t that Peter is a good example. Rather, that even if we panic, even if we abandon others in the boat, even if we are so terrified that we do ridiculous things, Jesus still comes to us and reaches out to us. But Jesus is coming to us whether we’re afraid or not.

We all get terrified at some points in our lives and can’t see Jesus there, right? We all have points at which we want to abandon others for our own safety and comfort.

When we face the first holiday without a loved one, we can be filled with dread.

When the symptoms of a disease we thought was gone begin to re-emerge, we can sense the panic.

As we foolishly tinker with the possibility of nuclear war, we can begin to feel the nervousness.

As we look on, aghast, at the hatred and violence and the evil of racism so boldly displayed in Charlotsville, Virginia, and we begin to get concerned about where this will lead.

As we watch our Muslim siblings, our immigrant siblings, our transgender siblings face very real discrimination and even persecution, we can begin to give in to our fear of what’s coming next. And it can take over our actions. We might simply want to abandon everything and everyone else and run to Jesus. We want to escape our fear and be held in his comfort. Even if that means doing something dumb like abandoning those in the boat and trying to walk on water on our own. Fear can do that to us.

But Jesus is coming to us. Just stay in the boat together.

We may not recognize him, but he’s walking across the fear to us. Just stay in the boat together.

At first, his approach may cause even more fear. But he’s there. Just stay in the boat together.

We’re in a boat together. And we sink or are saved together. And Jesus comes to us across the chaos, through the fear, together. And when we’re all together in the boat, and the storm is stilled, we worship him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2017 in Sermon

 

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What To Do When You Can’t Do Anything (March 5, 2017)

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This is the very first thing that happens to Jesus after his baptism. He’s led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit leads him, deliberately, into the wilderness. If the Spirit is doing it, it must be important, somehow.

In the Bible, the wilderness is always a difficult place. It’s a place of preparation, of waiting for God, of learning to trust God. It’s a place where all the things we rely on are stripped away. Where we are the most vulnerable, weak, and lost. It’s a place where we are alone and where our strength is drained until we have nothing left.

And you can’t hurry through it, either. Which is why it’s often described biblically with a metaphor of “40.”

  • It rained 40 days and nights with Noah and his family trapped in the wilderness of an ark.
  • Moses fasted 40 days and nights on the wilderness of Mt. Sinai waiting for God to inscribe a covenant.
  • The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.
  • Which is why, by the way, that this Lenten season of preparation, repentance, and fasting lasts for 40 days.
  • Now, Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.

Have you been there? I have. I’ve spoken of it before. A “dark night of the soul” when everything within me that I’ve looked to and counted on to sustain me seemed to disappear. My strengths, my gifts and talents, my intellect, even my theology couldn’t hold me up. And I felt like I was falling with nothing to grab hold of, nothing to slow my fall. I was diagnosed during that wilderness period with depression, no amount of strength, perseverance, or endurance could get me out. It was a wilderness.

It’s not that I didn’t believe in God or questioned God’s existence, it’s that God didn’t matter. It’s not that I was hopeless, I was helpless, which is different. I was utterly, completely, and totally without any of my reliable resources. Lost in wilderness. Completely vulnerable.

Have you experienced that wilderness before?

Grief feels like that. When you put out all possible effort and still fail feels like that. Addiction feels like that. I imagine that our new refugee neighbors who have had to leave their homes and their countries, and who have been living in terror for years feel like that. That’s wilderness. And it’s not a place we ever want to be.

So why does the Spirit lead Jesus to a place like that?

Because it’s in the wilderness that you meet God most profoundly. Biblically, that’s what happens.

  • After the wilderness, Noah met God and was given a covenant of life.
  • After the wilderness, Moses met God and was given the law.
  • After the wilderness, the Israelites met God and were delivered into the promised land.

Maybe it’s because in the wilderness there’s nothing else to rely on. Maybe it’s because we’re in such need that we can recognize God. Maybe it’s because we’re so desperate that we actually are willing to trust God. When we live through the wilderness, when we have that experience of being held up only by the mercy of God, our relationship with God changes. What really happens in the wilderness is that we come to know who we are.

This is actually our Lenten journey. A wilderness journey of 40 days where we learn to rely more on God and less on the world. Where we get to know and to trust God more deeply. Where we find out who we really are as God’s beloved children.

When I was falling in the wilderness, feeling utterly helpless and vulnerable, I met God in a way that was entirely new. Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t meet God. God met me in the wilderness. I realized at some point that I was no longer falling, but instead, I was being held, lifted up. As weak and helpless as I was feeling, I experienced the reality that I was worth something to God. Without access to any of my own personal resources that I had been able to trust my whole life, I came to understand that I am gifted by God.

I went into the wilderness with fear and trembling, God met me there, and I came out with deeper trust in God and greater clarity for my life.

Why wouldn’t it be the same for Jesus? He went into the wilderness having just heard in his baptism that he was the Son of God, the Beloved. How could he live up to that? So he was led into the wilderness, God met him there, and he came out with deeper trust in God and greater clarity for his life.

When you find yourself in the wilderness, when you are feeling helpless and vulnerable and weak, Jesus assures us that God will meet you. 40 days is a metaphor for a long time, but God will meet you. You eventually will have the opportunity to experience God in a new way, to recognize how trustworthy God is.  You can, after the 40 days, know how loved and how worthwhile you really are.

I don’t ever want to go back into the wilderness. But if I find myself there, I will cling to the promise of a God who will meet me there.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2017 in Sermon

 

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The Good Samaritan, Fear, and Transformation (July 10, 2016)

video of this sermon can be seen at: http://www.facebook.com/lcm.lakewood

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty tired of the divisions that seem to be deepening around us and among us. The “us vs. them” mentality seems harsher then ever. The black and white thinking of “I’m right, you’re wrong” seems more entrenched. We seem to be less open to dialogue, moving instead to argument. We have come to believe that our opinions are facts, by virtue of them being our opinions,. We demonize and attack anyone who disagrees with us because, if they disagree, they are not only wrong, but evil, unpatriotic, ungodly, or just “one of those people” and can therefore be written off and disregarded.

That was apparently happening in Jesus’ day too. It’s what’s happening in the parable of the Good Samaritan. “A lawyer stood up to test Jesus,” we began. If he wants to test Jesus, he believe he knows the answer, right? He wants to see if Jesus knows what he knows, believes what he believes. He wants to know if Jesus is “one of us” or “one of them.” So he tests him to see if Jesus is right, which will be revealed if Jesus agrees with this lawyer’s interpretation of the law regarding eternal life. I don’t think the lawyer really cares about eternal life. I think he believes he has the right answer and wants to know if Jesus can be counted on to back him up.

We don’t ever find out what happened to this lawyer. But one thing we can be pretty confident about: Jesus didn’t pass his test right then. This man is not an attorney like we understand it. He’s a teacher of God’s law, a religious expert. And Jesus’ answer to “who is the neighbor?” wouldn’t be what a teacher of the law would believe. Jesus says that a heretic, a Samaritan, reveals God better than a priest or a Levite—both of which are religious experts too.

Samaritans had a falling out with Jews centuries before, when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was overthrown. Samaritans, from Samaria, were the Jews who were left behind and weren’t killed off. Left behind in Israel, they corrupted the Jewish faith by intermarrying other religions and incorporating some of those practices into their own. By Jesus’ day, Samaritans represented everything that was abhorrent and opposed to God.

Yet Jesus chooses in his parable to lift up a Samaritan as the one through whom God’s mercy is recognizable. A Samaritan! One of “them!”

Part of Jesus’ point, it seems to me, is that God is seen, revealed, can work through anyone. Even those we consider wrong, or evil, or “one of them.”

Have you ever recognized God in the words or actions of someone you disagree with?

I initiated several conversations with friends on Facebook about gun legislation. Yes, I did that. On Facebook. On purpose.

I started badly. I called out a government official with whom I disagreed and used the word “disgusting.” Not a great way to start a conversation. Like the lawyer in this parable, I was testing people on Facebook to see who agreed with me and who didn’t. When someone from this congregation took offense at my language, and called me out on not wanting to have a conversation, it eventually caused me to rethink my approach. After, of course, I said a few more argumentative statements. At least the lawyer had the good sense to shut up when Jesus called him out.

So I deleted that post and tried again with others. This time, actually listening and acknowledging the possibility that perhaps I needed some transformation too. Maybe I needed to see what God was doing beyond my own opinion. Perhaps I could recognize the voice of God in the words of those I disagree with.

And the conversations were civil, mostly. I respected the opinions of those I disagreed with and they respected mine. And I learned a few things, and I heard God’s voice.

It’s not that anyone’s mind was changed. It’s more that I saw and heard something we have in common that God was addressing. Gun rights advocates and gun legislation advocates are both afraid. We’re all looking for something to bring security in the midst of that fear. Fear causes us to test others and see who rallies to our position. Fear causes us to blame others for the things that are wrong. Fear causes us to label people, to jump to conclusions, to scapegoat, to draw lines of division. If we’re afraid, we seek the security of closing borders to “them,” to keep “them” away. Police shootings of two black men in Baton Rouge and in St. Paul bring out our fear. Snipers mowing down police at a peaceful march in Dallas bring out our fear. And it is our fear that separates us.

In scripture, whenever God is going to do something big, why do you think the first words God speaks are, “Do not be afraid”? Because fear separates us from each other—and from God. And the point of this parable of the Good Samaritan is that God works through “them” just as well as God works through “us.” And that is the part we need to pay attention to, to be open to.

But I’ll tell you, when we’re open to God’s activity, we will be changed, transformed. Isn’t that the heart of this whole Jesus thing anyway? New life? Death and resurrection? Dying to the old and being raised to the new? That can be uncomfortable, even frightening. We’re back into fear. So, to comfort us in our fear of being changed, we use Jesus to defend our opinions and positions. Too often we use our religion to prevent change instead of initiating it. We must be transformed, which is the work of God and the purpose of our faith. And transformation comes when we embrace God’s activity, even when it is revealed by those we disagree with. Even if it is done by those we hate. Even if God speaks to us through those we are afraid of.

The violence and division are eroding us, diminishing us, enslave us in fear. It must stop. God is in the midst of it doing something new. That’s what we need to watch for, what we need to pray for. “Do not be afraid.” We will be changed. God is at work. Even through our enemies. Even through those we fear. Even through those we disagree with. Even through us. The neighbor, Jesus says, is the one who shows us God. Go and do likewise.

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2016 in Sermon

 

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The Dismantling of the Church (John 2:13-22)

What is Jesus so mad about? Are the temple moneychangers cheating people or being dishonest? No.

Is this whole setup of exchanging money that declares Caesar as Lord for money that declares God as Lord not working? No.

Is this temple system ineffective? No, it’s working quite well, actually.

Is it dishonoring God? No, not really.

So why is he so angry?

The whole temple system, which operates quite well and efficiently, isn’t empowering people with God’s love, forgiveness, and generosity. It’s not pointing people to Jesus, who brings that into the world.

The fact that it works isn’t what counts. The fact that sincere, God-loving people like it isn’t what counts. The fact that it’s been around for centuries isn’t what counts. The fact that it’s good religious practice isn’t what counts.

The temple system of sacrifice, even though it functions well, doesn’t reveal what God is doing. It doesn’t bring people into forgiving others, loving others, being generous to others. It doesn’t allow for Reign of God, the Heart of God coming in Jesus. It’s a system of religious practice that functions in a cul-de-sac all by itself. But it’s not connecting with God and God’s mission of forgiveness, love, and generosity happening in Jesus.

Jesus comes into the temple and is dismantling the system, taking it apart. Any system that bears God’s name but isn’t about God’s work—isn’t empowering, even compelling, people into forgiving, loving, being generous ought to be dismantled.

That’s all well and good. But here’s where this gets hard. God’s doing it again. A religious system that operates well and that lots of God-fearing people like is being dismantled. Church as we know it is being taken apart—by God, I believe. For similar reasons. The church we are familiar with isn’t set up to reveal the fullness of God’s will as revealed in Jesus. Christianity as an institutional church is more about self-perpetuation than forgiveness. It’s more about numerical growth than unconditional love. We care more about fellow Christians than we do about atheists, Jews, Muslims, or non-religious people. We, the Christian Church, are a well-functioning, religious, well established cul-de-sac that functions far too often separately from God and God’s mission. And we are being dismantled. Look around at all the countries that we used to call “Christian.” Every one of the traditional Christian countries is losing members hand over fist.

What if that is by the leading of the Holy Spirit? What if Jesus has come into our temples and is turning over our systems of practicing religion because they aren’t joining people to what God is doing? What if the people leaving our churches in droves are being led by God to something else?

What if that’s true?

Sure, some of those who participated in the temple system in Jesus’ day were moved to greater love and forgiveness. And sure, some people who participate in the church today are authentically moved to greater mercy and generosity. But it seems the system of church itself isn’t accomplishing that.

Because I don’t know what it’s going to look like. If God would show us what she’s doing with the church, perhaps we could help with it. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. We don’t know, and that makes us uncomfortable at best, terrified at worst. Or else we just ignore it and keep offering our temple sacrifices despite Jesus turning over the tables.

If this is happening, what do we do?

Vs. 22, “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he has said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” I guess we cling to Jesus. I guess we trust God. I guess we follow the Holy Spirit’s movement as we can. What else can we do? God is going to do what God is going to do. Love, forgiveness, and generosity—those things of God—will be the signs of Jesus’ disciples. Why not run full speed to Jesus? Run headlong to forgiveness, love, and generosity. The tables of the church are being overturned. Let’s see what Jesus is up to. And let us follow him.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2015 in Sermon

 

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The Great Divide and the Promise (Mark 13:24-37)

This is only the first Sunday of Advent, and I’m already feeling a bit hectic. At home our trees (yup, we put up two of them) aren’t even pulled out of storage yet. Our friends complain that we haven’t sent a Christmas card in several years. No presents are bought. The mandatory events that some call “Holiday Parties” are filling the calendar. We miss those whom we won’t be able to spend Christmas with this year. On and on and on.

In the midst of a very chaotic time of year, we get this text about end of time when all will be made right, when God’s reign comes in its fullness.

In the midst of the fast-paced world  we live in, especially this time of year, it can be easy to forget our purpose in the world as church is to reveal God’s presence and love and peace. That which this text describes as coming someday—who knows when.

Such a huge gap between that time and now, between God’s will for creation ultimately and where we actually are today. It can be discouraging. No matter how hard we try to be agents of forgiveness, love, grace, mercy, compassion, generosity, and peace in the world, some days it seems like we take one step forward and two steps back. That day of peace seems further away than ever. We still live with:

  • Ferguson, MO and the racial and violent unrest it exposes.
  • Fear from terrorist groups and all the tension of Middle East.
  • Ebola and civil unrest in different countries in Africa.
  • Hatred, bigotry of all kinds—both open and beneath the surface.
  • Self-entitlement, self-centeredness, self-justification, blaming and scapegoating.
  • Churches that bear the name of Christ but are more focused on their own benefit than with their purpose in Christ.

There’s a large divide between what God desires and where we are. For some, this is not a joyous time of year. For some there’s grief and mourning, there’s clutter, there’s pressure, there’s chaos, there’s the anxiety from over-spending on things we don’t need. These things seem to be on one side of a great divide, and God’s grace, peace, and fullness seem to be on the other.

Jesus tells us we better not fall asleep because we don’t know when God’s reign will come across the divide.  Be on alert!   Keep awake!   Beware!

I don’t know about you, but that’s really not my most pressing concern.

There’s more to this text than a warning to be paying attention. No, this is an invitation. No matter how hectic the world is, or how large the gap may seem between our lives and God’s peace, God’s peace is coming. The master of the house will come. God will not abandon us but will keep the promise to make all things new.

It’s not a warning that if you’re not watching, Jesus will pass you by. No! It’s a joyful reminder that God will keep the promise to make everything right. God’s peace and joy cannot be stopped. It’s a reassurance that God comes to us. We can celebrate while we wait. Let’s stay awake together, celebrate together, watch together! The promise will be fulfilled! The divide will be no more! The peace and joy of God are assured. Even in this violent and selfish world. Even in us.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in Sermon

 

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