Repentance is an Act of Hope

Sermon from February 22nd, 2015. The texts for this sermon were 2 Samuel 12:13-23 and Luke 19:1-10.

Repent With Hope

On Ash Wednesday this week we kicked off the season of Lent. Lent of course is a season of the church calendar that commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness with a strangely-calculated 40-day fast that culminates in Easter. It’s been celebrated for 1500 years as a time of penitence, prayer, and fasting, and probably coincides with some traditional Germanic spring fasts that are much older. But if you’re the kind of person that doesn’t really appreciate the explanation “because it’s old and we’ve done it for a long time,” you might wonder, “Why do we have long seasons of repentance in church?”

Why do we take so much time to emphasize how sinful we are? Why do we take 40 days in Lent and then 4 weeks in Advent to repent and pray? For that matter why do we confess our sins every single week? Other churches don’t make such a big deal over this. Preachers on TV tell you you should feel good about yourself. Why does the church devote so much time to telling us that we should feel bad?

I’m going to spend the next few weeks in church talking about repentance. And I’m going to try to answer those questions: Why is repentance such an important part of the Christian life? Why is it so important that we do it? And what does it say about us that we choose to remember our fears and our failings?

This week I’m going to talk about the why of confession and repentance. Why do we confess our sins each week and take special times to consider our failings in Lent? Because confession is an expression of hope. We confess because we believe in mercy. We believe in God’s mercy and grace, that if we confess our sin God will be merciful with us. If we did not hope in God’s mercy, we would not confess. Adam and Eve did not know of the Lord’s mercy, so they hid themselves. When a company makes a mistake, they do damage control and don’t admit to anything, because they know public opinion is merciless. But we open ourselves to God because we hope that in confession we can become better and in asking for forgiveness we might be relieved of our burdens.

Perhaps you know the story of David and Bathsheba. David has Bathsheba’s husband Uriah’s killed so that he can take her as his wife.

When a child from that union is born, it is terribly sick, and David is absolutely distraught. He loves Bathsheba and he loves the child, but he knows that God is punishing him for what he has done. David prays to God for mercy. And he fasts so much that his officials get worried about him. Sackcloth, ashes, the works. Every night he lies facedown on the floor of his room. When his officials try to get him, he refuses to even speak with them or eat anything.

After a week, the child dies. The officials are all terrified. None of them wants to be the bearer of bad news. If David was this bad when the child was sick, he’ll be ten times worse now that the child has died. Eventually David notices how everyone is avoiding him. He asks for the truth, and they tell him. They all cringe in anticipation of what David is going to do. But David gets up, takes a bath, combs his hair and goes down to breakfast. When they ask him what happened, he says, “While the child was alive, I still had hope that the Lord would be merciful to me and let the child live. But now that he is dead, why should I fast?”

David fasted because he hoped for the Lord’s mercy. He stopped his fast when he no longer had that hope.

To repent is a hopeful act. We repent because we believe, we hope, we trust in God’s mercy for us. We’re not shaking our fist at a cruel and angry world. We are admitting that something has gone wrong that we cannot fix alone. And we are hoping that God, who is infinitely merciful, will make us whole again. When we talk about our sin we are saying that we believe that mercy exists for us. To confess our sin is to say that we believe things can get better for us, through the help of our Lord.

Our Gospel story comes from the book of Luke, and is about a tax-collector named Zacchaeus. The Romans used a system called tax farming to collect their taxes. Instead of trying to collect the taxes themselves, they would simply put out a contract for an amount of taxes to be collected, say four thousand denarii. Someone would then buy the contract for that price. And they would go out and collect as much money in taxes as they possibly could, say six or ten thousand denarii. They’d make a profit by squeezing every dime out of the local populace. To Judeans tax collectors were worse than traitors. Not only did they work for the Romans, they made money by taking more than what was owed from people who didn’t have much to begin with. If Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor, Zacchaeus stole from the poor to give to himself. This was, without a doubt, a sin in the eyes of God. There are pages of Biblical condemnations for those who have a lot but choose to take from someone who doesn’t.

You can imagine how this might lead to an unfortunate cycle. Zacchaeus collects taxes. Everyone hates him. He holds parties and gives gifts, but that requires money, which means more taxes. Everyone hates him even more. Much has been made of Zacchaeus’s small stature, but it’s possible that Zacchaeus couldn’t get a good spot in the crowd simply because not a single person there to see Jesus was willing to step aside so that he could have a view. But of course he is the one in the crowd who needs Jesus. He’s the one stuck in a prison of his own creation.

And lo and behold, Jesus sees him. And here this great man, this righteous man, wants to come to Zacchaeus’ house. Even though he is a sinner, Jesus wants to eat with him. Jesus shows him what it is to be loved and appreciated and cared about for who he is, and not what he has. And Zacchaeus can’t get enough. The kind of love you pay for is nothing compared to love that is freely given. And that opens up a whole world for Zacchaeus. And Zacchaeus begins to hope that he might be able to live in that world, instead of the world of hypocrites that he has made for himself.

And Zacchaeus repented. He gave half his money to the poor and promised to repay 4 times what he had taken from those he had cheated. Jesus didn’t beat him up into repenting, he didn’t tell him he was going to hell if he didn’t change his ways. He loved him. He showed him something that he could hope for. And it turned Zacchaeus’s life around.

The story of Jesus is a story of hope. It is hope for the downtrodden, hope for the miserable, hope for the sinner, the lost, the empty, and the angry. And the center of that hope is the grace of God. We are loved even when we do not deserve it. We can be forgiven for the things in our past. We can be made new in Jesus Christ. We can be born again.

We confess because we believe in that hope. We believe that our slates can be wiped clean. That our sins can be forgiven. We don’t have to carry around every mistake we’ve made in our past. We don’t have to hide ourselves. We trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness to open us to a better life, lived in the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is why we confess. Because like Zacchaeus, we long to be free from the cycles and patterns of brokenness that can control our lives, and in Jesus we find hope for something more.

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The Benefits of Wandering Off

Rev. Harrison’s sermon from Sunday, February 15th, 2015. The text for this week was Mark 1:29-39. May God guide you this week as you wander through the world.

The Benefits of Wandering Off

When I was in Boy Scouts as a kid, when we had finished everything for the day, and dinner was over and the dishes were done, the other guys would go play a game or hang out in the tent and tell stories, and I would take a walk. I’d walk to the edge of camp, then turn off my flashlight and wander among the trees. And I’d look up into the tree tops, and I would think. I’d think about big things and I’d think about small things. I’d think about God and I’d think about the girl that I had a crush on. Those are some of my most cherished moments, just wandering around in the woods all by myself.

When I got older I sought other ways to find peace and tranquility. On camping trips I used to wait until everyone had gone to bed and then sit in silence and write in a journal about my day. And the first semester of college I had a special place, a bench behind one of the dorms, where nobody ever went, and I would go and sit on that bench and watch the sun go down every evening and pray.

I wish I could communicate better how important those times were for me, but it’s hard to explain the experience. I can only hope that you have had times in your life where you have experienced something like it: some sense of sacred time, some moments of peace and tranquility in your life.

Our story in the Gospel of Mark is about Jesus healing people at Simon’s mother-in-law’s house in Galilee. But I’m more interested in what happens afterwards. The next morning, Jesus wakes up before everyone else and wanders off. It isn’t the only time Jesus wanders off. In fact he makes it a sort of habit to take time for himself. When the crowds are too much, he takes a boat to the other side of the lake. When his disciples are too much, he takes a nap in the boat. The night that he’s arrested, he wanders off from his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane to find some time alone and pray.

Even Jesus needed to take a break every once in a while. We try to squeeze more and more activity into our lives. We run ourselves ragged trying to do more and more and more. I sometimes have so many lists of things to do and worry about that I have to make a list of all my lists. But when the Creator of the universe walked this earth in the form of Jesus Christ, he took breaks. And incidentally God took some time to rest after creating the universe as well. Rest is an important spiritual and mental discipline, and one we give ourselves far too little of.

Rest is important because we can’t function without it. You are a treasured gift from God, and such a gift is too good to be neglected. God has called you for a purpose. You have a part in God’s great plan of salvation. And you are your best resource to fulfill that calling. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us to run the race that has been set before us with perseverance. But you cannot accomplish your task if you wear yourself out before you finish the race.

There’s an old story from the tradition of the desert fathers. Abba Anthony, an old monk (later St. Anthony), was out taking a break, resting and enjoying the companionship of his brethren, and a hunter walked by. The hunter was scandalized that Abba Anthony was taking a break from work and prayer. Anthony told the hunter to get out his bow and shoot an arrow, and so the man did.

“Draw it again,” Anthony said. And so he did, shooting another arrow.

“Draw it again.” The bowman shot another arrow.

“Draw it again.”

“If I keep drawing my bow the wood will wear out and it will break.”

“And so it is with people,” Anthony said. If we stretch ourselves beyond measure, we will break. Just as any musician cares for his instrument or a handyman cares for his tools, we too have to care for ourselves if we hope to remain useful.

Taking time to rest can also help us make progress when we’re stuck. It seems counterintuitive, but sometimes taking a break is exactly what gives us the distance and creative energy to make a breakthrough in our work. I don’t know how many times I’ve found myself stuck on a problem, whether it’s how to say something in a sermon or how to fix something in my house and I’ve decided to take a break. And ten minutes into my book or walk or whatever, boom. There it is, the solution to my problem.

Setting aside some time for peace and quiet also gives us the opportunity to reconnect with God. Perhaps one of the best ways to regain the strength and energy is to spend time in prayer. When Jesus took time away from the crowds and the disciples, it was often so that he could pray. When you pray you’re reminded that you aren’t alone. You can ask for help and guidance and receive the assurance that God is with you as you go about your day. When Simon finds Jesus after he has had time to pray, Jesus is energized and ready to work again. It’s hard to experience God fully when you’re too busy to think straight. Taking time away from our busy lives to rest and recover are important because they open up space in our lives to invite God’s presence in.

Taking time to rest is important, but it is hard to fit into our lives. There is a never-ending list of things that need to be done, and never enough time to do it. It is so easy to get so focused on all of the little things we want done that we can never find time to remember the bigger things. In order to have periods of rest and peace to bring us strength and encouragement, we have to prioritize our rest. If we don’t value peacefulness, we won’t get it.

We also need to know what works. Not everyone finds peace in the same way. My Dad finds peace out on the golf course, but knocking a ball into the water three times in a row isn’t my idea of a good time. I find relief in spending time outdoors. But three days without running water isn’t someone else’s idea of a relaxing vacation. Some people are rejuvenated by being around people, some people are rejuvenated by avoiding them. Know what it is that gives you peace and seek that peace.

And finally, keep trying. Just like anything else, getting into the practice of taking care of yourself can take a little bit of work. If you’re trying to get in the habit of taking time to pray every morning, or spending some time away from your responsibilities and you fall off the wagon for a few days or a few weeks, don’t be discouraged.

When we come together to gather around the table, we take bread and wine and we proclaim them to be the body of Christ, and together we celebrate the mysteries of God. The bread and the wine remind us of the miracle of God’s grace. And it strikes me that the ingredients of the Lord’s supper, both need rest to come into their fullness. In order to make good bread or good wine, you have to let it rest. So it is with the godly life. In order to live up to the calling that we have been invited into, we must rest. God put the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments so that we might know how important it is, and Jesus rested even as he worked for our salvation so that we might follow his example.

The harvest is plentiful, and the laborers are few, but do not let that discourage you. Find some time for rest in your life. It will bring you joy and happiness, and it will make you a more effective follower of Jesus Christ, who told us to “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

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Skipping to the End

Sermon from March 22nd, 2015. Text for this sermon was John 12:20-33.

Skipping to the End

This past month I read a book called The Giver. It’s an older book that most everyone I know has already read. When I told Hannah I was going to read it, she said, “Tell me what you think about the end.” But the end was my problem. The deeper I got in the book, the further it seemed like I was getting from the end. Things were happening that couldn’t be resolved quickly or easily, and I started to get anxious. I was wondering how she’s going to wrap up this book with only a few pages left. In my younger years, I would have just skipped to the end and read the last page. If I read the last page then I would know the end of the book and wouldn’t have to have so much anxiety about how it’s going to end. This time, though, I decided that I was going to stick to it until the end. I was going to live with the tension of not knowing what would happen.

In the book of Mark, when Jesus is on the cross, he cried out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Those are his last words. In the book of Matthew his last words are the same. Luke and John on the other hand, report a much calmer Jesus on the cross. In the book of Luke, Jesus seems in complete control of his faculties and with no sense of abandonment. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” he says. And in the book of John, Jesus says simply, “It is finished.”

Most Bible readers never notice the differences in Jesus’ last words. Close readers will notice that there seems to be a contradiction. People who are familiar with the context will understand that we’re listening in on a conversation. In the years after Jesus’ death, many people were telling the story of what happened. And just like any story, there were different tellings and different versions. Think of an old married couple telling a story. They interrupt each other, they correct each other, they contradict each other. But you get a clearer picture for hearing both versions. Each writer has their own way of telling the story, their own things they think of as important, and sometimes those key points have a way of seeming rather pointed at the other.

In the Gospel of Mark the author is telling the story as a story. Mark wants us to experience the dramatic realization of what it means that Jesus is the Messiah. Mark wants us to be looking over the disciples’ shoulders and thinking, “How could they not see?!?!” and be inspired to believe and act on our own. So the book of Mark ends ambiguously. There are no resurrection appearances. There is just an empty tomb, and a fearful group of disciples. In the way that you might yell, “LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU!” at a horror movie, Mark makes you want to shout at the disciples, “HE IS RISEN! CHRIST IS VICTORIOUS!”

The author of John, on the other hand, is writing a very different narrative. The author of John wants to inspire confidence and conviction, and so the book of John is an empirical proof. John is giving a list of signs performed by Jesus so that we might come to believe and have life in His name. There are other signs, the author says, but these seem to be enough. There is no narrative tension in the Book of John. John wants us to skip to the end. John wants us to know from the beginning what it means that Jesus is the Messiah.

Which gets us to today’s passage from the Gospel of John. In our passage, Jesus seems to ridicule the idea that He would be found praying to the Father to save him from this hour. But that’s exactly what happens at the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46).

The book of John was written much later than the other Gospels, so the author of John had most likely heard other versions of the Gospel, such as the ones written by Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The other Gospel writers emphasize that following Jesus involves a difficult road ahead. They want us to see the humanity of Jesus, to know the anguish and the uncertainty, and the weakness.

But the community that John writes to already knows anguish and uncertainty and weakness. John’s community has seen persecution. They are being shunned and kicked out of the synagogue for their faith. They don’t need to be warned that it will be painful. They need to know that the pain will end. They don’t need to be told that Jesus went through what they are going through now. They need to be told that Jesus got out of it. And that’s what John wants us to know. So John writes his story in response to those other versions. In it, John wants us to flip to the end of the book and see that death is not the end of the story. John wants us to know that the victory has already been won.

We live in a world where death is all around us. There are wars and rumors of wars. People in our lives are getting hurt, getting sick, getting old, or all three. Not only is the future in doubt for many of our most cherished institutions, some wonder if they even have a future. The way they talk about things on television, hope is nothing more than an illusion.

We have much to fear in our own lives as well. We might have big changes coming on the horizon. We may have to let go of something or someone. We may not be able to do what we once were. Or we may have things that we must do but that we fear to do. And if we do, Jesus’ words should reassure us.

Should we be afraid of this hour? Jesus tells us that we should not be. Pain, death, and loss are all part of the process. But we know the end of the story and the end is victory. Jesus says, “Father, glorify your name.” And a voice answers, “I have glorified it.” The victory has already been won. “And I will glorify it again.” My Kingdom will come.

We should not be afraid in a world of death because we worship a God who knows his way out of the grave. Death is not the final word for us but the prelude to resurrection. We proclaim that Christ not only will be victorious but is already victorious, for us and for the world. We have flipped to the end and the end is an empty tomb, a victory over death. We already know the whole story, even though we are in the middle of it.

And because of that, we do not have to go into our world in darkness, but we can walk in the light. In the light of knowledge that death has been overcome and will be overcome. Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil. We can rest in the assurance that God has already planned our deliverance. We do not need to fear the challenges that face us because we know that God will guide us through them, because the end of the story is already written and it is a good ending.

The story begins with a voice calling out from the depths, continues with a voice calling out in the wilderness, and ends with a voice proclaiming that God will be with us,
“he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’”

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The sermon for Sunday February 8th, 2015 comes from a difficult text: Genesis 19:1-11. But even difficult texts have something to say to us about our relationship with God, and we should listen carefully as we read them. This passage in particular deals with some of the things that have come up as hot topics in the last few years, but a close read suggests that they are not the point of the story, and that the point of the story is a much older concept, the concept of being hospitable to the strangers in our midst. Here is Rev. Harrison’s sermon.

Hospitality and Self-Sacrifice

One of the strange things about Biblical people and places that show up in our everyday language is that they don’t always mean what they meant in the Bible. Take Jezebel for example. The modern meaning of Jezebel is a temptress. But Jezebel didn’t tempt anybody. She was a foreign queen and an idol worshipper. She brought in foreign priests of Baal, and arranged for the death of Naboth to take his vineyard. Jezebel’s sins aren’t about sex or temptation, but that’s the meaning of the word Jezebel today.

We have a tendency to make things about sex when they aren’t. When Hollywood remakes classic movies or true stories, they always add a romantic subplot. News organizations have learned that the most salacious stories get the most viewers, so they overreport the sensational and ignore the essential news of our day. Which brings us to today’s Old Testament story. The story of Lot’s visitors in the city of Sodom. In spite of the present meaning of the word “sodomy,” this story isn’t about sex or sexual orientation. The story is about hospitality, a community that rejects it, a righteous man who offers it, and how even the righteous can fail the test of justice.

Hospitality is a big deal in the Bible. Exodus 22:21-24 “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” Leviticus 19:33-34 “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” And there are a number of stories in the Bible about the importance of welcoming and being kind to strangers.

But why are foreigners classified among vulnerable groups like widows and orphans? The key is that ancient Israel was a tribal society. The only people you could depend on were the people in your tribe. There were no police. The only thing that protected you from being a victim was the potential that your kin would seek justice. But if you don’t have any kin, or they are in a far away land? There isn’t anyone to protect you. For that reason, an immigrant was just as vulnerable as a widow or an orphan. There is no one to protect them. And thus God, who hears the cry of the weak and hurting, commands us to care for the aliens in our midst.

This is what the story of Sodom is about. The men of Sodom broke the code of hospitality that made it safe for trade and travel to exist in the ancient world. There were outsiders among them and they attacked them, because there was no one to stop them. They weren’t in it for profit. They attacked because they were foreigners, aliens, people who didn’t belong. Though extreme, it is not an unfamiliar impulse. It is a natural human tendency to make distinctions between who is in and who is out. It helps us develop close friendships and strong communities. But when we demonize people who are outside of our group, whether they are from some other place, or speak differently from us, or look differently, we run the risk of becoming a society that cares more about in and out than right and wrong. It becomes more important to fit in than to do the right thing. This is life or death for teenagers. Kids who don’t fit in get picked on, mistreated, and sometimes brutalized. And I spent a lot of time in youth groups talking to kids about how in school you have to step up and do the right thing even if it means becoming an outsider. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it the pressure to fit in doesn’t end with school.

When two visitors come to the city of Sodom, expecting to be able to sleep safely in the town square (as was the custom), the men of Sodom have violence on their minds. They don’t like outsiders, they don’t want anything to do with people who don’t belong. And what is the cruelest and most violent thing that you can do to another human being? Rape. For the men of Sodom, it wasn’t about sex. Rape never is. The men who gathered had wives and concubines and sons and daughters. It wasn’t about sexual orientation. There wasn’t anything the men could do with the strangers that they could not do with each other. The sex isn’t the sin in the story of Lot and Sodom. It is the weapon used to carry it out. It was about hurting someone who didn’t belong.

But now Lot steps in. And Lot is a good man in a bad world. Lot is a foreigner himself. He came from Haran with Abraham. But he has built himself a household, and Abraham has become a prosperous and powerful man. In some ways Lot has power and in some ways he does not. We know that Lot is a righteous man because Lot sees that an injustice is about to take place, and he steps in to do something about it. It is said “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good men should do nothing.”[1] Lot does something. Lot invites the strangers into his house, thinking that under his roof the men would be safe. But the men of Sodom pound upon his door, demanding that the foreigners be given over to them. Lot is in a tight spot.

There are two ways to interpret what happens next. And I think each of them should inform us on what it means to be righteous. Lot offers his virgin daughters to the men banging on his door. The first way to understand this is the ancient way. In ancient Israel, women were property. And so we should see the offer for what it is. Lot is offering up his most valuable assets in order to protect these two outsiders he does not know. He’s an example of what it means to be righteous. In contrast with the men of Sodom, Lot values hospitality so highly that he’s willing to give up his daughters. It tells us that the righteous care so much about the weak and the vulnerable that they are willing to give up their most treasured possessions in order to protect them from harm.

The second way to understand the story shows Lot in a different light. In modern society, women aren’t property but people. When we look at the story with that in mind, we see that Lot is stuck between a system that is designed to destroy and people he is sworn to protect. And he does nothing to stop the system. He simply points it at someone else. In this case, his own daughters. He wants to do the right thing and protect the visitors from being victimized, but instead he just offers up another victim. Lot isn’t hoping to prevent the violence from occurring; he’s using his privileged position to redirect the violence towards a different target. Sometimes even the righteous fall short of justice. We shouldn’t interpret that to mean that justice is impossible. But we should take care, when we’re trying to protect ourselves or people we care about, that we aren’t doing so by sacrificing someone else.

I want to share a story about someone who chose to offer hospitality in a dangerous situation like Lot did, but who did so without targeting someone else. Her name is Keshia Cole.[2] In 1996, she was an 18-year-old African American girl, still in high school when the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor is a diverse and multicultural place, and the rally attracted a large counterprotest, with people carrying signs on stakes with anti-racist slogans. The two groups were separated by a fence that kept them apart until a woman with a megaphone shouted, “There’s a Klansmen in the crowd.”

Heads turned to see a man in a confederate flag T-shirt, with an SS tattoo on his arm on the wrong side of the fence. He didn’t belong. He was one of their enemies. He tried to walk away, but the crowd turned into a mob. Someone shouted, “Kill the Nazi.” They chased him. He turned to run, but fell. Soon he was on the ground, surrounded by a circle of people kicking and beating him with placards. You might think that a group of people committed to diversity

The situation is not so different from Lot’s. An outsider with no one to protect him, and a mob of people who have chosen cruelty over humanity (hospitality?). Keshia did something that not many of us would do. She dove on the man, covered him with her body and shouted for people to stop. She stayed there, protecting him with her body until the police were able to come. She chose to protect someone who was vulnerable, to offer safety to someone who probably would not have done the same for her.

It was an act not so different from the act that we celebrate each week, as we come to praise the risen Christ, who offered himself up so that we might not die but be saved from sin and death. And in Christ, all the distinctions that we make between insider and outsider, friend and enemy, citizen and alien are dissolved in favor of bonds of unity, kindness and care.

In Sodom we have an illustration of how brutal society can be. There is a tendency in the human heart to divide the world into us and them, and a community can be cruel to the people outside its borders. Lot gives us an example of someone who refuses to follow the group and join in their community. But he does not go far enough. Instead of stopping the brutality, he just points it at someone else.

But Jesus offers us another path. He chooses what is right over what is safe, he takes the risk to love those who aren’t from here, who don’t belong, who are his enemies. He teaches us to care for the other as if they were our own. We know what lies at the end for the people of Sodom. And we know what lies at the end for Jesus, too. But the difference is that in death Jesus was raised to eternal life, and in him we are welcomed into God’s kingdom of righteousness, where no one is in our out, and every single one of us is claimed as God’s own.

[1] It has been said, but it is unclear who was the first to say it.

[2] Wynne, Catherine “The teenager who saved a man with an SS tattoo” BBC News, 28 October 2013. << >> Accessed 7 February 2015.

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Does Love Conquer All?

Sermon from February 1st, 2015. Text for this sermon was 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

Does Love Conquer All?

Love conquers all. It is one of the least controversial statements of Christian theology. It is so universally agreeable that Walmart sells framed copies of the quote to hang up on your bathroom wall. If you interviewed people on the street about it, Christians, atheists, Muslims, whatever, nearly every single one would tell you that they would agree with the statement that love conquers all. But is it true? If it were true that love conquered all we could get rid of Intercontinental Ballistic missiles and send intercontinental love notes to our enemies. If it were true that love conquered all we could close down food banks and soup kitchens and just let love conquer that hunger. If it were true that love conquered all the police would hardly have anything to do.

In our passage from First Corinthians we find ourselves eavesdropping on a 2,000-year-old conversation that pertains to this topic of love. It is a conversation about food. Perhaps you have come to discover like I have that food and love are often closely related. Specifically, there was a debate raging in the Corinthian church concerning whether or not you should eat meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan idol.

At that time in Greek cities when you brought a sacrifice to the Temple of Artemis or Dionysus or whoever, the priest would take it, slaughter it on the altar, take his cut, and then give the rest back to you. And you’d cook it up and invite all your friends to a feast in one of the Temple’s party rooms (yes, a Greek Temple had rooms for parties, like a roller skating rink). And there you’d serve the meat. If you’re a Christian, but you’ve been invited to the birthday party of your nephew who is not, can you eat the meat that’s been sacrificed to an idol?

Some people argued that they shouldn’t eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. Eating meat of some other spiritual significance seemed like they were being unfaithful to God. And maybe some of them were tempted by their old lives, to believe that the meat really was blessed, so to eat the meat was to participate in the blessing. So they avoided meat sacrificed to idols all together. On the other side they argued that since the Greek gods don’t really exist, it didn’t really matter who mumbled what while they were being slaughtered. Their words had no meaning, so why waste good meat? They weren’t going to skip the brisket just because someone else thought it was magical.

Paul’s response is what we have in 1 Corinthians 8. He says to the second group, you’re absolutely right. Meat that has been sacrificed to a pagan god is no different from any other meat, because those rituals have no significance. But don’t eat the meat anyway. Don’t eat the meat because you might become an obstacle to someone else. Just because you have this more enlightened understanding doesn’t mean that you should disregard the feelings of others. Paul is saying that they should choose to be gracious to their neighbors over being right. Your neighbor is more important than your doctrine.

Fred Craddock tells this story about these folks who lived up the street from him.[1] They had three or four daughters when the divorce happened. And one of those daughters, was maybe fourteen years old, and always in trouble. She skipped school, she smoked pot, she was doing all the things that parents hope their children wait to do or never do. Fred says she was, “hanging on the tail end of every motorcycle that went roaring through the neighborhood.” Finally the judge sent her off to a reform school. And probably the fourth or fifth month she was there she gave birth to the little baby that she had been carrying.

Well word got around the neighborhood that a few months later she was coming home. That day she came home, everyone in the neighborhood had found something to do out in their yard. Mowing the grass, watering the daisies, trimming the hedges, and watching the house. Fred too. She didn’t show up and didn’t show up and didn’t show up. Hardly anyone had grass on their lawns left to cut. And then the car came. And out this little girl comes with her baby, and people come rushing out of the house to hug it and to hold it. They’re all laughing and joking, and pretty soon another car pulls up and another pulls up, to the point that a righteous Christian couldn’t drive down the street, blocked for all these people coming in to welcome this baby.

Now Fred was the preacher in this town, watching this thing, and suddenly he got awful nervous. What if someone saw him and asked him to come by? What if someone saw him out there, laughing and joking with that unwed teenage mother and tickling the little baby’s feet? He went inside.

I could tell you a hundred stories of people who will never again warm a pew on Sunday morning because someone chose to be right instead of loving them. I could tell you a hundred more stories of people for whom the same thing is true about their own childhood home.

And I could tell you a few stories about people whose place in the pew will always be warm because someone chose to love them instead of being right. But more important than these, are the stories that were told by Matthew and Mark, Luke and John. When the law of love conflicted with the Sabbath law, Jesus said “Come out of him, demon. I don’t care what day it is.” When Jesus saw a mob of people ready to stone a young woman, Jesus said, “Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.”

For Jesus and for Paul, if there is ever a situation in which you have to choose between being right or righteous and being loving, the answer is clear. Of course you should love them. If that means inviting in that longhaired boy your teenage daughter has been following around, of course you should love them. If that means cleaning up your alcoholic uncle knowing that he’s going to go right back to it tomorrow, of course you should love them. If your grandchildren show up to Thanksgiving with blue hair and nose rings and tell you that meat is just a gear in the system of capitalist oppression, break out the Tofurkey. Of course you should love them. If someone stops by your office asking for you to donate so that those poor little Muslim children will have schools, and your buddy says, “Feed them today, fight them tomorrow. I’ll give my money somewhere else” Of course you should love them.

The Gospel message is that if you ever have to choose between doing what is righteous and right, and loving someone, the choice is clear. Because it is true that love does conquer all. But only if you let it.

[1] Craddock, Fred, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 35.

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Doodling in God’s Presence

Sermon from January 18th, 2015. Text for this week’s sermon comes from Exodus 35:30-36:7.

Doodling in God’s Presence

Bezalel was a doodler. He carved doodles on the trees while he was out tending sheep, and he doodled when it was his turn to sweep the floor of the house. He would swirl the dust into spectacular patterns before wiping it all away so that no one could see. To his family, his doodling was pure nuisance. It distracted him from accomplishing practical tasks, work that would help the family and maybe one day make him suitable to start a family of his own. But to Bezalel, doodling was pure joy. He loved to bring out the beauty from a piece of wood, to turn gnarls and knots into a work of art. Bezalel knew his family meant well. Carving decorations onto the table was never going to put food on it. But whenever he tried to focus and be more practical he always found that his hands had already started on something else.

Oholiab was not so different. Much younger, but he’d still disappear into his own head in the same way, painting cloudscapes in his mind, or wondering exactly how to make a paint the color of sunlight in the afternoon. His mother had even gone to Bezalel’s mother to ask what to do, not that it did any good. She’d set him to gathering firewood only to find him an hour later pulping desert plants to find the right color for a rock mural.

Neither Bezalel nor Oholiab noticed that Moses had been paying extra attention to them these past few weeks. Moses was remembering what God had said to him before he had gone down from Mt. Sinai that first time. “I have chosen Bezalel…and I have filled him with my power. I have given him understanding, skill, and ability for every kind of artistic work…I have also selected Oholiab, son of Ahisamach from the tribe of Dan, to work with him.”

Moses wondered what God saw in those two dreamers. Not that there were a lot of choices to make the tabernacle. The Hebrews in the wilderness had no artisans among them. The Egyptians hadn’t exactly been using them for skilled labor. They knew how to make bricks and that was about it. Moses had imagined something better for God’s house. Lebanese woodworkers, Egyptian goldsmiths, Assyrian ironworkers. Moses had grown up in Egyptian palaces, and it was sad to think that nothing here would rival the walls he used to marvel at as a child.

But that was all before the Golden Calf Incident. While Moses was up on Mt. Sinai, the people became afraid that God had abandoned them, or that God was not with them. Without something that would reassure them of God’s presence, they were adrift. So they convinced Aaron to make them a Golden Calf, a god they could see, a god they could be sure wasn’t going anywhere without them. Moses had been furious. Moses had shown them time and time again that God was with them: the escape from Egypt, the pillars of cloud and fire that guided them, and the manna provided every morning all proclaimed God’s presence. But the people were always afraid and unsure. Every time it seemed that they had come to trust God, something would happen and they’d fall off the wagon again. Moses had racked his brain trying to figure out how to show the people that God was with him. And he wondered what these two doodlers could do that he couldn’t.

God had proclaimed that Moses should have a tent built, a tabernacle in which presence of God would dwell. Then the people would always know that God was with them, because the tabernacle would be God’s home on earth. But how could these two space cadets build a tabernacle worthy of the Most High? And how, Moses wondered, could these two dreamers make the people see that God was with them when Moses could not?

When Moses announced that Bezalel and Oholiab would be spearheading the construction of the tabernacle, Bezalel and Oholiab were stunned. They had never thought of their doodles as anything more than a way to pass the time. They had no idea how to build something worthy of God. But they gathered the tools they had and set about to do it as best as they could.

On their first day, a crowd of people gathered to watch Bezalel and Oholiab work. They didn’t have a lot to work with. A few tools, some brushes, an oven and some woven cloth. But that was what they had, and so they began. Bezalel set to shaping wood for the frame of the tent, and Oholiab began making dyes for the vestments of the priests. It wasn’t long before the crowd was marveling at the colors that Oholiab was making.

“I wish I could do something like that,” someone said. “You can,” said Oholiab, and before you know it they had their hands deep in the dye buckets, making every color in a sunrise. Soon Oholiab was showing everyone how to make the dyes and paints he needed, and Bezalel was showing people how to plane and shape the wood for the Ark of the Covenant.

The next day, even more people showed up to help. And this time they brought their tools and their jewelry too. Everyone wanted to be a part of the construction of the tabernacle, and everyone had an offering that they wanted to share. Bezalel and Oholiab taught them how to make a beautiful work of art for the Lord Most High, and the beams and canvas showed their love of God.

Within a few days they had so many precious metals and offerings that Moses had to call the people together to tell them to stop bringing things to add to the Tabernacle, there was already too much for them to handle.

When Moses finished his announcement, he stopped by to see how the construction was coming. He was astonished to see so many hands working on the temple, many of whom had been laying down before a Golden calf not long before. But Bezalel and Oholiab were not just gifted artisans, they were gifted teachers. They showed the people that God’s world was full of beauty, they simply had to let the beauty be shown to the world. And with time, the people came to know that that beauty dwelled in them as well, and it was a sign of God’s presence within them. As they built and shaped a tabernacle for the Lord to dwell, they came to realize that God was dwelling in their hearts as well.

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Sermon from January 11th, 2015, Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. Text for the sermon was Mark 1:4-11.


Immaculata Church, where eight-to-ten thousand people gather every Good Friday to pray their way up the stairs to the cross. Via

Anyone who goes to seminary is bound to run into a few surprises. One of the surprises that I ran into in my Greek 101 class was the meaning for the word “baptizo.” I had sort of expected that to be translated “to baptize,” but there in my textbook it said “baptizo, to dunk.” With a little thought it makes a lot of sense. The modern word baptize now has 2,000 years of historical and traditional significance ascribed to it. We have made baptism into something specific, sacred, and holy. But for those people who stood shivering on the banks of the Jordan, waiting for a smelly camel-clothed man to help them look for something more in life, such things didn’t exist yet. For them, baptizo was just a word that meant dunk.

I have a lot of fun with this kind of thing. For instance, I baptized two donuts in my coffee this morning. And when the All-Star Break rolls around in the NBA, I will watch the Slam Baptize Competition, to see who can best baptize a basketball through the hoop.

What this should make us realize is that baptism was an ordinary thing that was used for extraordinary purposes. To those first people, dunked in the Jordan River, it was something unholy that was used for something holy. And that I think, is a good metaphor for who we are. We are an ordinary people used for extraordinary purposes. We are unholy but we are being made holy through baptism.

John was down in the Jordan river doing this ordinary thing to ordinary people when he looked up and Jesus was next in line. And after a little bit of hesitation John did this ordinary thing to an extraordinary person, and as he should have expected, something extraordinary happened. The heavens were ripped open, and the spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove.

A side note about the heavens being ripped open. There are only two times that Mark uses the word ripped (Gk. schizo) in his Gospel. The other time is when the curtain of the Temple is ripped in two. The curtain of the Temple separated the ordinary world from the Holy of Holies, it protected the sacred from the profane. The symbolism is that Jesus’ death ripped the barrier between heaven and earth. Through him, we are given access to the holiest of holies, God.

Jesus’ baptism demonstrates the same thing. It shows us an opening in the divide between heaven and earth, a crack in the façade. It tells us of an unholy people who are called to holy tasks. And it tells us of our holy God, who chooses to come and be unholy with us, in the form of Jesus Christ. In Baptism we are joined with Christ and made holy through Him. Jesus, the son of God, came down and participated in this ordinary thing. And then he invites us all to participate in this ordinary thing, and through it we become holy. What this tells us is that ordinary people doing ordinary things can become sacred, holy, and blessed.

There’s a church in Cincinnati called Holy Cross Immaculata. It’s an older church, and when it was first being built, the archbishop put a wooden cross up on top of the hill. And people would go up the hill to the cross to pray. Eventually Archbishop Purcell put some stairs up to make it easier for people to walk up to the cross. Over the years it became a tradition, people would pray their way up the stairs on Good Friday. You say a Hail Mary on every step and an Our Father on the landing. Eventually the wooden stairs wore out and they were replaced by concrete steps. But by that time so many people were praying their way up to the Holy Cross that the concrete steps had to be replaced. Twice. Now every Good Friday, beginning at midnight eight to ten thousand people gather at Holy Cross to pray their way up the stairs to the cross at the top of the hill. I don’t think anyone would deny that this is a holy place, for thousands of people to come to pray there every year. But if someone asked you what made this place holy, you’d be hard-pressed to say anything other than thousands of steps. Ordinary people taking ordinary steps, over and over again, until they became holy.

Baptism is an ordinary thing. Ordinary people, ordinary water, not even all that different from what you do in the morning when you take a shower. But in baptism we begin this process of being made holy, a process theologians call sanctification. And this process continues, not in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary way that our lives progress. Ordinary people, doing ordinary things. Staying up late to talk to a friend. Watching the sun go all the way down. Offering forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness. Going to one more doctor’s office. Eating a meal with people you care about.


Our sanctuary.

The miracle of baptism is not that the waters are holy; it is that the waters are not holy. Yet by the grace of God we are given holiness through them anyway, whether we deserve it or not. We embark on this great journey of becoming holy by doing something ordinary, through which the heavens are ripped open for us.

When I bring the Fun and Worship kids into the sanctuary, either for pageant practice or to show them something about the house of God, I always stop them at the door. And I tell them that this is a holy place. It isn’t a holy place because it has beautiful carpet, though it has. Nor is it a holy place because of the candles or the paraments or the beautiful cross hanging from the ceiling. This is a holy place because ordinary people have made it holy. It is holy because ordinary people have shared their lives here. Laughter has echoed off of the walls and tears have dampened the pews. Prayers have been prayed, spoken and unspoken. Hugs have been shared, both in joy and in sorrow. Here we have held baptisms, weddings, and funerals. And in the accumulation of all of these meaningful moments over our lifetimes, it has become a sanctuary for us. It is a place where we can go to take refuge from our crazy lives and find peace, if only for a moment. It is a place where we can go when our lives are falling apart and find people ready to help us put them back together again. It is a place where we can raise our children knowing that they will receive tender care and firm instruction in what is right. It is ordinary people who have made this place holy. Ordinary people who by the grace of God have done extraordinary things. That is the promise that we experience in baptism. We are dunked, dipped, or sprinkled, ordinary people in ordinary water, but because God chose to send the Spirit into the water and the Spirit into us, we can do extraordinary things.

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