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Fire from Heaven, Threats, and Exclusion (June 30, 2019)

Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village. 57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

About a year ago I got off Facebook. Initially, I stopped because I was beginning a sabbatical, but soon realized I needed to stay off because I was getting too churned up and angry about some of the absolutely evil things people would post. In the name of Jesus, no less.

Over and over, I became enraged at people I knew who were defending the most horrific, despicable, cruel actions and attitudes toward other human beings; toward Muslims and people of color, particularly immigrants; who would justify tearing frightened babies from their mothers’ arms, locking them in cages with no beds or soap; who would use the Bible to explain taking jewelry and medicine away from these people who were fleeing from more horrors and violence than I ever will be able to imagine. I had to express my righteous anger. I needed to defend Christ-like compassion in the name of Jesus. More than that, I felt it necessary to put those pseudo-Christians in their place, to demean them, to rage about how wrong, narrow-minded, evil they were. I wanted to blast them off social media. Or worse.

“When his disciples James and John saw [that the Samaritans had rejected Jesus], they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’” Yes! That! Do that!

Oh, I get it. James and John were just defending Jesus against people who are openly rejecting him. They even have scripture to back them up (some copiers inserted “like Elijah did” after requesting fire from heaven). The honor of Jesus is at stake here. The truth of his message is on the line.

But Jesus turned and rebuked them for defending him. This is not the attitude of those who follow me, he says. Then they went on to another village to do it all over again.

Jesus has to call out the violent and vengeful tendencies among his disciples. Even if their reasons are good. Even if they are confronting evil. Even if they are defending Jesus himself. These threats of violence and attitudes of hatred have no place with him. It will stop—at least among his followers. That includes me.

It’s becoming easier and easier for us to demonize anyone on “the other side” of any issue. It’s becoming more and more normal to draw a dividing line between “us” and “them,” and to hate, threaten, and dehumanize “them,” whoever “they” are. We better check our own Facebook and Twitter feeds because Jesus has something to say about that.

That same attitude is often exhibited with much less drama than “fire from heaven.” When we take the opportunity to respond to anyone we disagree with, we tend to abuse it. We are all too willing to inflict emotional harm, we easily degrade people, we ignore those whose voices aren’t as strong as ours, we put down those who might challenge our way of thinking, we talk about them behind their backs, we create alliances against them. Who is it we’ve been bad-mouthing lately? Because Jesus will have none of it.

Because here’s the thing. Whether his disciples are angrily defending him or the Samaritans are openly rejecting him, Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. He is determined to get there, knowing he will die there. His love for his disciples who seek vengeance, his love for the Samaritans who flatly reject him, his love compels him to go to Jerusalem and the cross. Love determines his actions, nothing else.

And nothing can dissuade him. Not rejection, not threats of violence, not hateful attitudes. He will act in love no matter what. No matter who. No matter what’s in the way.

That’s where the second part of this text comes in. Jesus invites us to follow him in exhibiting this kind of love, to follow him even if it means going to Jerusalem. We too often respond, I will follow, but first I need to bury my father. I will follow, but I just need to say goodbye to my family and friends. And yet, he will go to the cross for us even when we put our own priorities ahead of following him. He will go to Jerusalem for us even when we’re so busy doing good things that we neglect to follow him in love.

It’s worth asking, what beliefs or positions are we so attached to that they come before following Jesus in love? What are we clinging to that is a higher priority than his compassion and non-violence and forgiveness?

So I’m back on Facebook, but with some conditions. I’m trying not to post anything that Jesus would turn and rebuke me for. Even if I think my reasons are good and my anger is just, I’m trying to post only things that reveal the kind of love Jesus has for me. And for any who might read them.

No matter what our attitudes or priorities or actions, Jesus is going to Jerusalem for us. His love for us is that unconditional. And he invites us to follow.

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2019 in Sermon

 

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We Want to See Jesus, But We Can’t (March 18, 2018)

John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–“Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

I have a couple of acquaintances who are homeless. Each of them live primarily in their cars and each one stops by a couple of times a year or so. One sometimes wants a shower to recharge her phone, and just to rest a while. The other usually wants to talk, to update me on his health and work situation, pray together, and maybe get a grocery card if it’s not too much trouble. He’s the one I’m talking about here.

The last time he came by, he was contemplating suicide because he couldn’t find work, couldn’t get the medical care he needed, he was in constant pain, and he felt his son (who lives with his ex-wife) is embarrassed to be seen with him. He thought his son would be better off without such a failure of a father. “I think God has abandoned me,” he had told me. “I want to see Jesus, but I can’t see him anywhere.” He was really in a bad way.

I wonder if the Greeks in this gospel text might have been in a similar situation. “Sir,” they said to Philip, “we want to see Jesus.” Because we can’t see him anywhere.

Maybe they just wanted to interview him because he was becoming well known. Get his autograph to impress their friends. Maybe they wanted to be healed of something and heard Jesus did that kind of thing. Maybe they just wanted to see the “water into wine” trick, because that would be amazing.

But somehow I don’t think so. I think there was something much deeper and more significant going on. I suspect something was missing for them, something was wrong. No matter how hard they tried to fix it and make things right, it wasn’t working. They couldn’t see Jesus anywhere.

What do you do when you can’t see Jesus? How do you deal with it when there just doesn’t seem to be any evidence of new life, or love, or compassion, or mercy, or forgiveness that are part of his presence? “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” because we can’t see him anywhere.

What do you do when your classmates are scared to come to school for fear of being gunned down? “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” because we can’t see him anywhere.

What do you do when the person you’ve devoted your whole life to up and leaves you? What do you do when the one you love gets sick and dies? What do you do when you feel betrayed, lost, helpless, alone? What do you do when, despite working hard all your life, your pension is taken from you while at the same time the CEO of your company gets a $300 million golden parachute? What do you do when a so-called Christian university, in the name of Jesus, calls for its students to arm themselves to take care of the Muslims? “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” because we can’t see him anywhere.

Jesus’s answer may not seem very helpful. When Andrew and Philip come to him with this request from the Greeks who want to see him, he starts talking about a grain of wheat dying in order to bear fruit. Although I think we can understand the basic botany behind what he’s saying, that a seed has to die to being a seed in order to grow into a wheat stalk and make grain for bread, what does that have to do with those who need to see Jesus because there doesn’t seem to be any sign of him in their lives?

Then Jesus goes on to say that whoever serves him must follow him, and that following him means giving up our own priorities. Following him means gaining real life. Following him means going with him to the cross and therefore into new life.

Wanting to see Jesus and following him don’t seem to make a lot of sense together until you begin to experience it.

Some young people walked out of their schools, risking suspension or worse, on Wednesday. They did so demanding that adults hear their fear and their experiences and do something about the guns in their schools. In seeking signs of new life, they’ve mobilized a nation. They may not say it this way, but they want us to see Jesus.

Our own youth are preparing to commit to shining the light of Jesus in their schools so that the love and the compassion of Jesus can be more clearly visible. You’ll be hearing more about this, I suspect. Our youth want others to see Jesus.

Our own Renewal Team is going to be entering into a process that will help us all learn how to listen to each other and listen to our neighbors more clearly. Because it’s in the relationships that Jesus is seen. We want them to see Jesus.

Because of your generosity and the hard work of our Samaritan Ministry, we’ll be dedicating 12 new Chromebooks—school laptop computers—for Green Mountain Elementary School today. So much homework, test prep, and learning takes place online that without access to these computers, many students are at a huge disadvantage. We aren’t doing this to benefit ourselves, but to reveal the compassion and generosity of Jesus. We want GMES to see Jesus.

My friend who’s been living in his car and who was so down on himself showed up this week again. This time he came up to me with a big smile on his face. He’s starting a job in May, his health is much improved, and his relationship with his son has never been better. “I showed my son what God’s love looks like,” he said. “I wanted him to see Jesus. I know he was there the whole time, but in showing him Jesus, I could see him myself.”

What do you do when you can’t see Jesus? You show him to someone else. When someone says, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” that’s what we do. We show them Jesus. We show them love, compassion, forgiveness, grace. It’s in following him that we see him.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2018 in Sermon

 

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It’s Not Always Easy to Listen (Transfiguration B, February 11, 2018)

Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

According to some scholars, the Old Testament prophet Zechariah writes that on the day of the Lord, those who aren’t keeping the festival of booths will be punished by God. The way one keeps the festival of booths is by building little dwellings, tents, booths, to remind one’s self of the flight from Egypt and the 40 years wandering in the wilderness.

If that was on his mind, I understand Peter’s outburst about building three booths for Jesus and his important companions. That doesn’t mean, however, that even as these words were coming out of Peter’s mouth he was already regretting them. “It’s good to be here at the end of the world. Why don’t we settle in and do something religious.”

He is so scared out of his mind that the world was coming to an end that he tries to do something godly, religious. I don’t know what it is he’s trying to say, but I empathize with him. Have you had that happen? Some words come out of your mouth and you immediately think, “Oh. That was a mistake.”

What regrettable thing would you say if suddenly you saw Jesus as he really is—as eternity sees him? What would you do if, suddenly, the authentic, full-blown Jesus became real? Like, really real. More than a historic figure, more than a symbol, more than an important person that whose teachings we ought to follow. But, undeniably, in your face, without question, life-changingly real?

Because that’s what just happened to Peter, James, and John. This whole Messiah-thing with Jesus just got real. Jesus is changed right before their eyes. Moses and Elijah suddenly appear, chatting with him, the two all stars of All-Stars. The voice of God from the clouds declare Jesus as the Son, the Beloved of God. And then commands them to really listen to him.

I think it would be a really good day if the worst thing I did right then was utter something religious.

But that’s what’s going on in the Transfiguration. Jesus suddenly gets real for these disciples. He’s something really unique and special to God, no messing around with this. God says listen—not to Moses or Elijah—but to Jesus.

So the question for us as we head into Lent is, “Is Jesus real? Is he worth listening to?” And the question to ask right after that is, “If so, how can we hear Jesus more clearly? What voices are we listening to instead?”

Whether Jesus is worth listening to above all other voices is up to each of us, I guess. I’m here to tell you he is, and I’ve been telling you that for 20 years here, and some of you must agree at some level because you keep paying me to tell you that he’s worth listening to. But the “realness” of how deeply we listen, how seriously we take him, is up to us.

I think it’s easy to listen to Jesus when he’s healing us, or when he’s Transfigured and looking all-powerful. But it’s not so easy when, as he tried telling his disciples right before this text, he’s going to be hanging dead on a cross. It’s not so easy to listen then. God’s beloved? I like saviors who aren’t killed. I like winners.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he tells you to follow him—even to a cross.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he tells you that you have to forsake voices that are contrary to his. Even if it’s family, church, boss, or government.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he says that the way to fully live is to give yourself away. Even to those who hate you or make fun of you.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he says that the way to get ahead is to serve those who are behind, who have less power or status or money or privilege.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he says that in order to see him you have to look for him in the faces those who are different than you, in race, language, politics, citizenship, sexual and gender identity, or religion. Not just see Christ in them, but treat them as if they were Christ himself—because he tells you they are.

We begin Lent this Wednesday. The season of really listening to Jesus. The season of taking him even more seriously. The season where we might want to consider turning down the voices that are contrary to his, so we can focus on listening to him with more attention.

It won’t be easy. Lent never is. But perhaps a way to see Jesus as he really is—transfigured, glowing, full-blown Messiah and Beloved of God—is to listen to him. And not just hear his words, but actually follow them.

Join the rest of this community in some Lenten disciplines to help us listen more clearly. Download the daily devotional booklet we’re using this Lent. Spend some time each day with it. Come on Wednesday evenings and practice listening to Jesus in different ways. If it would help, follow the practice of giving something up for Lent. But not for the sake of piety, but so you have something to remind you to listen to Christ.

The Transfiguration of Jesus happens so that we can know how important it is to listen to him. Whether in the brightness of his glory or in the depths of our fear, God still says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2018 in Sermon

 

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Step Out into Failure (Matthew 14:22-33)

There’s a lesson in this text for all who wish to be disciples of Jesus: If you are faithful and obedient to Jesus, sooner or later you’ll sink.

I’m not kidding. Jesus just told the disciples to feed the thousands with a little bread and few fish. Now he “makes” the disciples get into the boat and go to the other side of the sea. Then he dismisses the crowds and goes up a mountain to pray.

He’s the one who sends them out into a stormy sea while he is praying by himself. The disciples, who are only doing what they were told to do by Jesus, are fighting the wind and the waves all night long. They are exhausted, having been trying to stay alive. And in the dark, before the light of dawn, Jesus strolls out to them on top of the water. In their exhausted, frightened state, they believe him to be a ghost or a demon, and I can’t blame them. Jesus reassures them, but Peter is willing to check it out.

“If it’s you, command me to get out of the boat and come out into the storm with you.” Jesus tells him to come on out, and Peter does.

Nothing but faith, obedience, and trust in Jesus. Jesus sends them into the stormy sea, and they go. Jesus tells Peter to get out of the boat and step out into the waves, and he does. What does he get for his faithfulness and trust? He sinks. And the rest of us Christians all over the world shake our heads and say, “Yup, dumb ol’ Peter. Never shoulda taken his eyes of Jesus. That’s what he did wrong. Shows he just doesn’t have enough faith.”

Of course, that might mean a little more if we weren’t critiquing him from the relative safety of dry land. The disciples, only because they trust Jesus and do what he commands them, are in the fight of their lives in a storm that’s threatening to sink them. And Peter, only because he trusts Jesus and does what he commands him, gets out of he only protection he has–their boat–and steps right into the waves and the wind.

I hear people all the time saying things like, “If you give your life to Jesus all will be well.” “Trust in Jesus and prosper.” “Everything fell into place; it must be God’s will.”

Uhmm. . . Read this text again. Trusting Jesus, obeying Jesus means we will end up right in the heart of a storm. It means we’ll be fighting wind and waves in the darkness. It means we’ll sink. It means we will fail. The storms and the winds will get the better of us. Follow Jesus and we risk our lives. Trust Jesus and things will be hard. Obey Jesus and we will sink. Jesus doesn’t keep us free from the waves, he sends us into them. He doesn’t keep us from sinking, he reaches down under the water and pulls us up. He doesn’t help us to be successful, he commands us to come to him–even if it means stepping out of the boat and into the storm.

And there we will sink.

Think about it. Can you honestly say that following Jesus–really following Jesus–is safe and easy? Have you failed at forgiving someone whose deeply hurt you? Have you begun to sink in your guilt for not being generous enough? Have you ever passed a homeless person without helping them or a hungry person without feeding them? Have you ever avoided sacrifice for the sake of convenience?

We all have, right? We have all stepped out of the boat and sunk. We’ve all been battered by the waves and beaten by the wind. We try to be faithful. We try to trust Jesus. And we’ve all failed sometimes. We’ve all sunk under the surface sometimes. We’ve all had to cry out, “Lord, save me!” because the wind is too frightening. It’s one of the things we all have in common.

We know what these disciples are experiencing. Peter floundering is more familiar to us than we might think. But because the wind is so fierce, because the waves are so high, these disciples come to the point where they fall down in worship, “Truly you are the Son of God!”

The love, compassion, power, and identity of Jesus are most evident in the chaos of the storm, because that’s when he comes to us and lifts us out of the depths and gets into the boat with us.

Oh, yes, we’ll sink, we’ll fail, we’ll mess things up. Even when we’re trying our very best, we’ll still fall below the waves. Following Jesus pretty much guarantees that we’ll be stepping into the storm. And we will be frightened and we will sink, because the wind and the waves of this world are very, very real. And they are frightening. And who really wants to sink?

When have your failed in your discipleship? What about following Jesus makes you want to just stay on the shore where it’s safe? Where are you sinking?

When we’re sinking, we need to know two things: 1) It’s not because you’re a bad disciple. It’s entirely possible that, like Peter, you are experiencing failure because you ARE trusting Jesus! If you’re not following him, you’re not in the storm right?

And 2) It’s when you’re sinking that Jesus reaches out to save you. And it’s when Jesus does save you and brings you back into the boat, gets in it with you, and calms the waves, that’s when you really say with Peter and the other disciples, “Truly you are the Son of God!”

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Sermon

 

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