The Christ in Me Greets the Christ in Thee

Sermon from November 23rd, 2014. The Text for this sermon was Matthew 25:31-46.

The Christ in Me Greets the Christ in Thee

There was a wonderful old lady I met who used to greet people in an unusual way. When you saw her on Sunday morning and went over to say hello she would say, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in thee.” It’s an old-fashioned way of saying hello. But it’s a very beautiful way as well, and I wish more of us would take it up. It recognizes that Christ dwells in each one of us, and so when we greet one another we aren’t just greeting another person, but we’re meeting the presence of Jesus Christ within that person. It doesn’t matter how we feel about that particular person on that day because at some level our encounter with them is an encounter with Christ.

The flip side is that it requires us to acknowledge that Christ dwells within us as well. So many of our problems come from not being able to recognize the Christ in ourselves. We abuse ourselves because we don’t think we’re worth treating better. We behave badly because we don’t think we’re capable of being better. We get down on ourselves because we can’t find it in ourselves to forgive our mistakes and failures. “The Christ in me greets the Christ in Thee” reminds us that you may not feel particularly Christ-like on any given day. But nevertheless Christ abides within you too.

I read a post recently by a blogger named Juan Carlos Lopez that brought this idea to the forefront for me.[1] He says he was on his way to grab some lunch one day when he noticed someone looking at him. He averted his eyes, but he could still feel the stare. As he got closer he pretended to be on his phone so that he could pass by without being bothered, but the man spoke up: “Can I have some change?”

He wanted to shrug him off and say that he didn’t have any, but it wasn’t true. He was going to buy lunch. “Maybe on my way back?” he said.

On the way back he wanted to avoid him but it didn’t sit right. So he walked back by with his lunch and handed him the leftover dollar in his pocket and do his duty. “It’s all I have,” he said. “But you have lots of food,” the man said. “Can I have some?”

He kept walking, but he couldn’t get away. After that meeting Juan Carlos started seeing him everywhere. On the off ramp to the highway. Standing on the sidewalk next to a breakfast joint. Everywhere he looked, there he was. Homeless Jesus seemed to be following him around.

“It’s so easy to have a personal relationship with a Christ you never see,” Lopez says. We show up on Sunday, say our prayers, read inspirational books and watch Christian television. And we try to do the right thing so that we can count ourselves as good people. But then Jesus shows up, in the form of a man in dirty clothes holding a sign on the highway, and knocks us off balance. When you start to see the world this way, it gets much harder to have that personal relationship. Because everywhere you go, there Jesus is, asking for things you don’t want to give to people you don’t want to give it to.

There, at the laundromat at 9pm, still in her work uniform, there’s Tired Jesus. Down on the highway, walking with a dirty bag on his shoulder, that’s Can’t Get a Job Jesus. Or maybe it’s Veteran Whose PTSD Means He Can’t Hold a Job Jesus. At the food pantry there’s Working Two Jobs and Still Not Enough Jesus. And in the prison down the highway there’s Doing a Five to Ten for Assault Jesus. At the Immigrant Detention Center in Karnes City there’s a Jesus running away from gang violence who wants a better life.

There they all are. There Jesus is. Trying to reach out to us. The Christ in them longing and needing to meet the Christ in us.

When I was younger I used to love those stories where the king would go out in disguise among his people, to see how they were really treated. And at the end of the story the king would throw off his cloak and reveal himself to them and be either delighted at their kindness or dismayed at their mistreatment of their fellow citizens. But of course those were stories. In the real world, most of the time no one is watching.

But our passage from Matthew tells us that the King is here, not even hidden or in disguise, right there for us to see him if we choose to. The King is everywhere, and he is watching. Not looking to trap us but to offer us salvation. He’s reaching out to save us. To save us from apathy and indifference. To save us from living our lives without paying attention to the people around us. To save us from judging others for their situations. To save us from walking blindly past while others suffer.

The passage teaches us to see Christ in all the people that we meet. Not just those with whom it is easy. But those who ask for more than we want to give, and those who push us away even as they need us to come close. The hungry and the thirsty. The sick and the ones in prison. The naked and alone. “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.” The Christ in me greets the Christ in thee.

If we do this we will no longer see other people through our own eyes but through Christ’s eyes. We will no longer hear with our own ears but with Christ’s ears. We will no longer reach out to each other with our own hands, but with Christ’s hands. We can’t see the Christ in all of these without coming face to face with the Christ who dwells within ourselves. So open your eyes to the reality that your king dwells among you and within you, and let the Christ in others introduce yourself to the Christ in you.

[1] Lopez, Juan Carlos. “Homeless Jesus” Running La Carrera, 1 July 2014. Accessed 23 November 2014.

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Finding Your Drill-o-matic

Sermon for this week comes from Matthew 25:14-30, and it references this article about a man who was unusually proficient at an arcade game.

Finding Your Drill-o-matic

Every few summers my Dad and my brother and I go on a big canoeing trip. We go up to the Boundary Waters, the lakes on Minnesota’s border with Canada. We put all of our gear into canoes, and we paddle across a lake. All of these lakes are glacier-made, and a lot of them flow into each other in little creeks too small to canoe down, or in big waterfalls. When it’s no longer navigable, we pick up all of our gear and then we carry it and the canoes to the next lake. That’s called a portage. At the end of one of these portages, we were loading the canoes back up in the shadow of a big waterfall. And we sent off the first canoe, and then my partner and I got in ours, and started paddling. They warned us not to go to close to the waterfall, but we scraped across a branch under the water that sent us back towards it and had a little trouble turning around because of the current. Once we finally got turned around, we breathed a sigh of relief. Only to realize we were being sucked back in towards the waterfall. The churn of the waterfall was causing an eddy that pulled us back towards the falls and we had to paddle our arms off just to stay in one place. It was then that we realized one of the great truths of the world. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. There is no room for staying in one place in this world.

This isn’t just true in business or competition; it’s true in our spiritual life as well. The great monastic Bernard of Clairvaux said that those who do not progress in the spiritual life regress. There is no stasis.[1] Martin Luther describes faith as semper in motu, always in motion.[2] If we aren’t moving forward in our spiritual life, we’re moving backwards. That’s what makes Sunday School so important, even for adults. There are thousands, perhaps millions of Christians in their 30s, 40s, even 50s, who are living their lives with the religion of their teenage years, the last time they really thought about faith.

In our Gospel for today we have the story of a wealthy man who entrusts three of his slaves with great sums of money to hold on his behalf. He gives ten talents to his best slave, 5 to the next, and one talent to the third. He goes away for a long time. The first two slaves take the money and put it to work as their master expected. They invest it, and by the time the master returns they have doubled his money for him. The master is proud. He commends their work. “Well done good and faithful servant,” he says. “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

The third slave, however, figures that the safest thing to do is to protect the money he’d been given. He buries the money. The law at the time was that if you bury money, you aren’t liable if it gets stolen.[3] The third slave was sure not to lose, because when his lord returned he could dig it up and return it to him, and if not, he couldn’t be blamed. He was trying to tread water. But there’s no room for staying in one place in this world.

In Greek, the word talent doesn’t make any reference to our skills or abilities. A talent was a measure of weight used for silver, between 50 and 65 pounds, something like 10,000 silver denarii. To make a modern comparison a talent would be something like $50,000 dollars.

In the Medieval era, the English language adopted the word talent on the strength of the central metaphor of this parable. The slaves were each entrusted with talents by their lord. And the word talent came to mean what we have been entrusted with by our lord. Not a set weight but the balance of our skills and abilities. Over the years that has evolved into the present meaning of the word talent, skill or ability. To put it shortly, in the Greek, a talent is a large sum of money. In English, a talent is something you have that isn’t money. And in the context of this parable, it’s both. Jesus is talking about everything our Lord has entrusted to us: our skills and abilities, our resources, and our connections.

Each of the slaves was entrusted with something by his lord with the expectation that he would do something with it before the lord returns. And in the same way we are entrusted with talents, both the financial resources we have as well as our skills, aptitudes, abilities and connections. They have been given to us by our Lord. And like the wealthy man in the parable, God expects us to do something with them. What we have, whether it is money or time or an unusual knack for knowing when people are upset, has been given to us for a purpose. They aren’t collectors items. We’re not put on this planet so that we can hang on to these things, and then go back to God with them still in their original packaging. We are put here so that we can use all of our resources to share the love of Jesus Christ.

The parable tells us that if we use our talents well, then they will grow. Using a skill is how you develop it. Practice makes perfect. I remember when I was a teenager I met someone who could raise one eyebrow. I couldn’t do that. My muscles weren’t coordinated for it. But I started trying (wiggle eyebrows). And eventually I developed my muscles and my ability to control them so now when someone in Fun and Worship is doing something a little bit suspicious, I can give them this look, and let them know that I’ve got my eye on them.

The flip side is that if you don’t use your talents they will atrophy and diminish. If you’ve ever been hurt you know that it doesn’t take long for your muscles to get weaker. Spend a week in bed and getting out of bed is much harder. That’s why we have to do physical therapy, so that we can develop our muscles and strengthen them to do more.

Kindness, generosity, compassion, and courage. All of these are like muscles. They grow stronger when you use them. And the grow weaker when you don’t.

A fellow named Owen Good was working for the Rocky Mountain News when he ran into a man at an arcade.[4] The man wouldn’t give his name. But he was sitting in front of one arcade game, called the Drill-o-matic. And hitting the jackpot every single time. He was winning tickets so fast that every once in a while an employee would have to open the machine and refill it with tickets so that he could keep going. Owen was so amazed at what was happening that he sat down to try and get his story.

The man, we’ll call him Robert, had grown up in the independent grocery store his parents owned. And in the store was this exact arcade machine. He played it obsessively, giving back the prizes, until he developed such good muscle memory that he could win the game every single time. He was a perfectionist, and he loved being able to do something absolutely perfectly. Eventually his dad got sick, and then his mother, and they were forced to sell the business to pay for the medical expenses. After they died, with the business gone, Robert found himself out of a job. And he wondered what he could do well enough to provide for himself. And he decided he’d do the thing he was best at: play the Drill-o-matic.

Every arcade you go into has prizes all along the walls. And the top shelf is full of really nice prizes, Xboxes, remote control cars, DeWalt power drills. Only the number of tickets you need to buy them is insane. Whenever I go into an arcade I wonder who it is that wins those prizes, and how long it takes them to accumulate enough tickets to trade them in for an Xbox. Robert is the answer to that question. And it doesn’t take him very long. Robert figured out every joint that has a Drill-o-matic, and he spent the next few years systematically going through each establishment, winning their biggest prizes, and then selling his winnings on ebay. He wins enough that he’s able to make his living travelling from place to place and playing the Drill-o-matic.

And so that’s what he does. Robert figured out the special talent that he had, and he found a way to use his talent in the world. It doesn’t matter how weird or useless that talent may seem, we were given our abilities and aptitudes and resources for a reason. To spread the love and joy of Christ. Each of us has a Drill-o-matic. Or two. Or four. Each of us has been entrusted with skills and abilities and resources. They don’t come from us but from our Lord. And we have also been entrusted with a mission. To share the love of Christ. To proclaim the redemption of the world. To care for the lost, the poor, the captive, and the downtrodden. The call for us is to look within ourselves to figure out what it is we are good at, and how we can apply ourselves to the mission of Christ. We have to find our Drill-o-matic, and use it for the glory of God.

And by investing our talents we will grow them, and we will find ourselves blessed, so that when our Lord returns and we are called to account, he will say “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.”

[1] Steinmetz, David. “Matthew 25:14-30” Interpretation 34 no 2 Ap 1980, p. 175

[2] Ibid, p. 175

[3] Brisson, E. Carson “Between Text and Sermon; Matthew 25:14-30” Interpretation 56 no 3 JI 2002, p. 309.

[4] Good, Owen. “’The Ballad of Robert Jones’: Arcade Tickets Were His Currency” Gawker Media, 4 November 2008. Accessed 16 November 2014.

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Filling Our Lamps

Sermon from November 9th, 2014. Text for this week’s sermon came from Matthew 25:1-13. May God bless you.

Filling Our Lamps

I’d like to talk again about the television show Doomsday Preppers. I love that show. I’ve always been a sucker for survivalists and dystopias, and thinking about how I’d survive without the comforts of the modern world is one of my great entertainments. And I think preparedness matters, though I don’t think that the hypothetical scenarios proposed are likely to come to pass. But I think part of being a Christian is that we have been told that we are living in the last days, and so part of our work is preparing for that time. The parable of the ten bridesmaids is an example of that theme, suggesting that we prepare and keep watch for the Kingdom of Heaven.

One of the things that I struggle with the most about the show Doomsday Preppers, is that nearly every prepper is engaging in a sort of violent fantasy about their particular vision of Doomsday. Sure, these folks stockpile food and supplies, water and power. But what really gets them excited is their stockpiles of weapons. Guns, ammunition, improvised bomb-making gear and more. Why do they put such a strong emphasis on weaponry? Because nearly all of them believe that if things get bad, it will become every person for himself or herself, and they are preparing to gun down their neighbors and friends, in the event that the pillars of our world begin to collapse.

It’s a depressing vision of reality and a selfish response. I prefer a Houston friend’s vision of disaster response. He says in Houston in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, when the storm is gone but the power won’t be back for a few days, every one goes out into the streets with a grill and starts cooking all the meat from the freezer. So whenever there’s a disaster they end up having a block party. This is a much more Christian vision of disaster response. Jesus often compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a feast or a banquet. And on the other hand it’s hard to claim that your Lord is the Prince of Peace while you are preparing to shoot anyone who comes near the house. The Golden Rule tells us that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It’s hard to imagine how stockpiling ammunition so that you don’t have to share qualifies.

In our Gospel Passage for today Jesus tells a parable that describes a similar situation. There are five bridesmaids who are prepared and have enough, and five who are unprepared and do not. The bridegroom is late, and they all fall asleep waiting for him to arrive. When the shout arises that the bridegroom is coming, they awake to find that their lamps have gone out. The five who are unprepared, whom Jesus calls foolish, beg their friends to share some oil with them, but the friends refuse. There won’t be enough, they say, and all our lights will go out.

Should we read this story to mean that the Doomsday Preppers are right? Should we say to our neighbors, “We won’t share, because otherwise we might not have enough?” No! The whole of scripture testifies against that interpretation. When people ask John the Baptist how to live in their new lives, he tells us that if they have two coats, they should give one to someone who has none, and so on. Jesus gets more extreme. He tells us that if a man asks for our coat, we should give away our shirt too. “Give to everyone who asks of you,” Jesus says. We’re told throughout Scripture that we should be generous when we have a lot and when we do not. In the Old Testament, we’re told over and over again to be kind and generous to the foreigners and aliens in our midst, because we were once strangers ourselves.

What leads to this “I got mine” attitude that plagues not just Doomsday Preppers but all of us, is an inability or unwillingness to read Scripture with critical eyes. We don’t make the distinction between passages that should be read literally and passages that should be read in another way, whether as poetry, apocalypse, metaphor, or parable. When we insist on trying to read the Bible only one way, we have to go to more and more elaborate lengths to try to make it make sense, like praying in our closets, or believing in the Rapture. Did you guys know this? The idea of the Rapture was developed in the 1800s by a man named John Nelson Darby, who was trying to make literal sequence of events for the last days. No one had ever heard of such a thing until then. Calvin wouldn’t have recognized it, nor Zwingli or Knox, Augustine, any of the church fathers or even the disciples. It was invented less than 200 years ago by people ascribing literal significance to symbolic words (which required making up a lot of things in the process). But it also contradicts the larger narrative of Scripture. The Bible talks about a God who comes down to us in the world, and walks with the suffering and the miserable, even when it is God’s punishment that causes them to suffer. God never pulls people out of the world. God enters into it.

So what do we do with the bridesmaids, then? What is Jesus telling us about preparing for the Kingdom of God if he doesn’t mean stockpile things and refuse to share? We have to look for another way to look at the parable. And in this case, the best fit seems to be allegory, a type of story where everything in the story is symbolic of something else.

Jesus often compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a banquet or a feast, especially in the Book of Matthew. So we can understand the wedding banquet to be referring to the Kingdom of Heaven. And Christ is often compared to the bridegroom, ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven. The lamps suggest two interpretations. We read in the Psalms that “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path,” so we might read the lamps as embodying or representing the Word of God. And Jesus talks in the book of Matthew about letting our light shine, not hiding it under a bushel, as the song goes. These two are related, in a way. The light we shine is a reflection of what we encounter in Scripture. The light of scripture leads us to shine light into the world through our lives.

Which leaves us with the oil, which is the only symbol that isn’t readily identified by looking at what Jesus talks about in the book of Matthew. The Old Testament talks about the oil, for things like anointing, but of course nobody is being anointed with lamp oil. So we have to expand our search a little bit. We know that oil is fuel for the lamp, so we might think that the oil represents what fuels us, what keeps us going, so that we can shine our light and be guided by the light of Scripture.

One of the things that comes up when you do research on this comes out of the Rabbinical tradition, coming a little bit after the book of Matthew but perhaps representing a tradition that had been going on before. They speak of lamps in the same way that Matthew does. But when they speak of lamp oil, they talk about good deeds. It comes up in an explanation of the book of Numbers, “that the study of the Torah must be mingled with good deeds.”[1] This makes the story make a little more sense. It explains why the five wise bridesmaids couldn’t give their oil to the foolish ones. Good deeds aren’t a commodity that can be given to someone else. We have to do them for ourselves. So perhaps the oil represents our good actions. This resonates a little bit for me because I find that when I do something good for someone else I want to do more, and thus each good deed helps fuel the next.

Like any Bible story, we leave the text with more questions than answers. Why is there no bride in this wedding story? Why is it that the foolish are too late even though the party is still going on? But the deep question that it asks for us today is what fuels you? What is it in the world that keeps your lamp burning? What helps you shine your light in the darkness?

Is it worship? Is it time alone, in contemplation or prayer? Is it friendship? Or study? The challenge for us, as we try to stay ready for our bridegroom who seems late in coming, is to keep our lamps brimming with oil. Talk with God often. Share with each other in pain and in joy. Do good deeds that you may be emboldened to do more. Find what fuels you and fill your life with it, so that when the bridegroom finally arrives, the one whose light outshines the darkness, you will be ready to join the feast.

[1] Donfried, Karl. “The Allegory of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1-13) As a Summary of Matthean Theology” Journal of Biblical Literature 93 no 3 S 1974, p. 427.

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The Weightier Matters of Faith

A Sermon for October 26th, 2014. The text for this week was Matthew 22:34-46.

The Weightier Matters of Faith

While a lot of people might choose to spend the last week of their life quietly at home, or maybe vacationing somewhere they’d always wanted to go. Jesus chooses to spend his last week in the Temple arguing with priests, elders, and Pharisees. The Gospel of Matthew records him hanging out in the Temple and taking all comers. One after another the chief priests, elders, Pharisees and Sadducees all come to Jesus to embarrass Jesus in front of the crowds. And one by one each of them finds themselves on the receiving end of the humiliation.

In our story for today a Pharisee challenges Jesus to name the greatest commandment; Jesus responds with two. He first quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Then he adds a second commandment, from Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “The whole law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments,” he says. This is the second-to last encounter between Jesus and the powers that be. The next time he interacts with the chief priests and the elders, Judas will greet him with a kiss. So how do we get from this interaction to the next?

What is it about these commandments that so upsets the powers that be? Surely they can’t be that upset the commandments, for both are found in the law and were widely seen as among the most important. Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus’, was famous for saying that he could recite the entire Torah standing on one foot. When asked to perform the feat, he lifted his foot stated Leviticus 18:19, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” And then put his foot down. “The rest is commentary,” he said. So how did we get from Jesus giving a fairly conventional and uncontroversial answer to a question of law to the chief priests and elders meeting to plot his death.

The answer is found somewhere in the next two chapters, which I like to call Jesus’ discourse on love. I’m probably the only one who calls it that. And to be fair, I wouldn’t recommend you read them at a wedding: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Probably better to stick with 1 Corinthians 13. But it is about love because Jesus is talking about what it means to follow the law of love, and what it means to love God with our hearts, minds, and souls and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The two commandments Jesus’ offers are hardly objectionable. But Jesus has a very different ideas about how those commandments should be applied, and it becomes clear as he lays into them about spiritual practices and matters of the law.

In the chapters that follow, Jesus’ blasts the legal scholars of the day for making the law impossible to follow except for a select few. Jesus says “they tie onto people’s backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry, yet they aren’t willing to lift a finger to help them carry those loads.” The purity codes and laws, the tithes and sacrifices required all added up to more than the average person could handle, which meant that they were condemned as impure and unholy. And that of course meant more fees, offerings, and payments to the priests for purification of sin.

But what Jesus says is that they have missed the point of the commandments. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” The Pharisees claimed to take loving God so seriously that they even tithed on the plants they grew in their window gardens, but yet they benefitted from a society that denied justice and mercy to those who needed it most.

What Jesus is saying is that the law of love and the law of justice are inextricably tied. What Jesus is saying is that you cannot love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul, if you do not love your neighbor as yourself. The second is like it, he said. And what Jesus is saying to the powers that be, is “Look! Look around you. Look at your neighbor, and tell me that you are loving your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul.”

This is what made Jesus dangerous to the chief priests and the elder. It’s not that Jesus believed in love. It’s that Jesus believed that you cannot have love without justice, you cannot claim to follow the law of love if you neglect its weightier matters: justice, mercy, and faith. That is what turns an agreement on matters of the law into a disagreement. That’s what turns a teacher with beautiful ideas into a teacher with dangerous ideas.

Because tying love to justice is a dangerous idea. More often love is divorced from justice, and coopted to silence its claims. A pastor brings a woman into his office and says, “You need to forgive your husband for what he did to you last weekend.” And when she says, “I’m not sure I’m ready to do that,” he says “that’s not very loving of you.” Forcing victims to console their abusers coopts the language of love for the purpose of avoiding conflict. A parent is angry that her special needs child is being neglected by the school. She comes to the principal’s office, but is denied a visit. “I can’t talk to you until you stop being angry with me.” Justice delayed in the deference to manners.

Love divorced from justice can be coopted to tell us that we have to love oppressors and oppressed in the same way, so that we tolerate systematic abuse and abject poverty. Without justice, love can be coopted to silence dissent: if you love me you wouldn’t criticize my actions, some say. Or if you love your country you shouldn’t acknowledge its failures.

We’re much more comfortable thinking of justice and love as separate concepts that are unrelated. But love without justice and justice without love both bend towards brutality. One it toothless, covering the sins of the powerful at the expense of their neighbors. The other is nothing but teeth, and lacks the potential for reformation and resurrection. And neither, Jesus is saying, lives up to the fullness of God’s call to us.

What upsets the Pharisees, then, is neither the command to love our God with everything we have, or to love our neighbors the way we wish to be loved. Neither of these is controversial or arguable, then or now. What upsets the powers that be is the implication that they are the same thing. That’s what got Jesus in trouble so many years ago. And if we’re serious about following him, that’s where we’ll look for trouble now.

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The Present Mystery

Sermon from October 19th, 2014. The text for this week was Exodus 33:12-23.

The Present Mystery

At the beginning of chapter 33 of the Book of Exodus, God makes a change in the plan of how the people will enter in to the land of Canaan. “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey,” God says, “but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” Up until this point, God has been present among the people in the wilderness. There had been a tent, and when Moses wanted to speak with God, he would go to the tent of meeting, and the pillar of cloud would descend upon the tent, and Moses would speak with God face to face. God and Moses had even been planning a more permanent installation, the tabernacle, through which God would always be present with the people. But following the Golden Calf incident, something had broken in the relationship between God and the people.

The Golden Calf had exposed the difficult reality of the relationship between humanity and God. It is the reality of any relationship, which is that if it is a real, meaningful, deep relationship, we have the power to hurt each other. It is no secret, of course, that God can hurt the people. It was not that long before that God Godself passed through the land of Egypt, killing every firstborn. Only the blood of the Passover lamb, spread across the doorframe, established the Hebrew people as distinct from the Egyptians, and God spared them. But it becomes clear with the Golden Calf that we are not the only ones who can be hurt. God feels the sting of the people’s betrayal so strongly that God withdraws, separates Godself from the people lest God’s righteousness consume them. And thus God decides to send an angel to guide them into the Promised Land. The tent of meeting will be left empty.

For Moses and the people, this felt like a significant downgrade. This was especially true for Moses, who wouldn’t have even begun this crazy adventure if not for the promise at the burning bush: “I will be with you” And so Moses goes out to argue with God. Arguing with God is a great biblical tradition. Abraham does it, and David, and Elijah and Jeremiah, all of them argue with God. They say what they think and what they feel and they don’t tone it down or pretend everything is okay when it is not. It’s a shame, in my opinion, that we have largely lost this tradition. Nowadays we’re more likely to be told that we should be happy with what we have from God and not ask for more. But not asking for more in this case would have left the people with an empty tent. They would no longer be distinct and blessed above all other peoples.

So Moses goes to argue with God. And Moses is a good negotiator. There’s a story in the Muslim tradition, that Muhammad went up to see God, and passed Moses on his way back down. He told Moses that God had told him and his followers to pray 50 times a day. Moses tells him that’s never going to work, you’re people won’t pray 50 times a day, it’s too much (Moses had some experience working with stiff-necked people). So Muhammad goes back up, and comes down and says, “Well I got it down to forty.” Still not good enough, says Moses. And so it goes that the number of prayers goes down to thirty, then twenty, and then ten, and finally five times a day. And Moses still says it’s too much. But Muhammad, perhaps feeling bad about asking for so much leniency, says, “No, five will be fine, I’ve haggled enough,” and that’s the story of why Muslims pray five times a day. But the implication of the story is that if Moses had been negotiating, he would have had it down to three, or maybe even one. The point is that even a thousand years after our story was written, Moses was still famous for being a great negotiator.

And Moses is a great negotiator. He argues with God like a husband or wife. He brings up the past. He throws all of God’s words back at God. You said “Bring up these people,” but you won’t go with me? You said “I know you by name and you have found favor in my sight.” But if I have “found favor in your sight” then show me your ways, so that I can find “favor in your sight.” And by the way, don’t forget, God, that this nation is your people. You brought them out from Egypt. They’re your responsibility.

And God relents. “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” But Moses keeps pushing. “If your presence won’t go with us, don’t take us up from here. For how will anyone know that we are your people unless you go with us? Your presence is what makes us unique above all other people.”

And God says, “I’ll do exactly as you asked.” But Moses still keeps pushing. “Show me, your glory,” he says. And here is where God draws the line. “I will make my goodness pass before you,” God says. “But I will be gracious when I want to be gracious, and I will show mercy when I want to show mercy. But you cannot see my face” It’s here where we see that God is still God. God is still the ultimate, ineffable mystery, not tame by any means, but holy and mighty and great.

When God sets this boundary with Moses and says, “I will go with you, but you cannot see my face,” it becomes clear that the nature of the relationship has not changed. God is still God, as holy and righteous and powerful as ever. And we are still us, stubborn and stiff-necked as we’ll ever be. The dynamic between the people and God that existed at the beginning of the story, where the people and God are vulnerable to each other, is still there. God’s righteousness still cannot abide our stubborn sinfulness.

But God has chosen to be present with us knowing that God will be hurt by us. We are still vulnerable to God, and God is still vulnerable to us. To be in this relationship is a risk. But we learn in this story that God is willing to run that risk, the risk of suffering on our account. And the rest of the Bible accounts the many ways in which that has happened, all the way up to Calgary. The question is, are we?

Are we willing to run the risk of a real relationship with God? Are we willing to be open and honest with God, bare our hearts and ask the real questions on our heart? Are we willing to argue with God, to demand, to cajole, to use live ammo with our living God, instead of old platitudes towards a dead one?

Because if we aren’t, we don’t have a living, covenant relationship. We have something else. Richard Feynman talks about these groups they called cargo cults in the Pacific. Groups of islanders with little contact with the outside world that suddenly saw some of the world’s biggest battles fought on their shore:

During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing                   to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the          sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on       his head to [be] headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the                controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form   is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land.[1]

If we stick to platitudes and a question and challenge-free existence where God asks little of us and we offer little in return, that’s what we have. A runway with no planes. We have form, but no substance.

In essence, we have exactly what Moses rejected. An uninhabited building. An empty tent.

I want to challenge you, this week, to have a heart to heart conversation with God. This may be something you do already, and if so see if you can dig deeper in that relationship. But if for you it has been too long, like it has for so many of us, I want to challenge you to find a time to have an open and honest conversation with your God. Don’t worry that by not using the right language you might offend God. Worry that by not speaking your truth you might offend God. Speak with God face to face, as Moses once did, and not be afraid to say what you really think, what you really feel, and what you really need. Because when we do that, when we pour out our hearts and open ourselves to God, is when we are able to experience God’s glory, and be filled with God’s presence, who will go with us, and lead us to the Promised Land.

[1] Feynman, R. (1974, May). Cargo Cult Science. Commencement Speech at California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA.

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The Making of a God and the Making of a People

Sermon from October 12th, 2014. Continuing with September’s theme of Exodus, the text was Exodus 32:1-14.

The Making of a God

and the Making of a People

I’d say that the Hebrews camped at the bottom of Mt. Sinai were getting antsy, but the truth is that they were long past that. Moses told them that God would be with them where ever they would go, but where was God now? Moses had been up on Mt. Sinai for near 40 days and 40 nights. And they’d heard nary a word from anyone. They were long past antsy. They were fed up with this God who dragged them around the desert and then went off on a mountaintop for weeks at a time. Who even knew if God was in that cloud anymore? God could be long gone by now. They needed a new God. So they asked Aaron to make one for them.

They lived at a time when new Gods were as easy to find as shaping them out of clay or stone. And near every nation had not just one but a pantheon of gods, and families did too. Individuals had personal Gods, Households had household Gods, nations had national Gods and then pantheons of associated international Gods. They lived in a God-saturated society. Praying to one God wasn’t working for you? Go pray to a new one. Don’t feel like your god has the skill set you need to deal with a problem? Borrow your neighbor’s. So when God dumps the Hebrews at the bottom of the mountain to talk to Moses about how many cubits wide the tabernacle should be, the people dump God in favor of a golden calf.

To the modern ear the idea of choosing your God seems a little ridiculous. But it’s not foreign to the reality of spiritual life in the 21st century. The great revolution of the second half of the 21st century has been a sea change in the number of choices available to us. We have more choices than ever before. In most areas of life that’s a good thing. I certainly want my daughter to have the choices afforded to women now as opposed to the ones, say, her great-grandmother had. And people complain about having a lot of channels, but I don’t mind. Even if I do only end up watching about five of them.

Even when it comes to church we have more options than ever before. If you don’t like the preacher on the TV, you just change the channel. If you don’t like your church, there’s another one across the street. And the thing about this explosion of choices is that it puts all the power in the customer’s hands. Because we have so many choices we want everything to be shaped perfectly to please us. And if something doesn’t please us we go choose something else. More than ever, the things we consume and interact with are shaped to give us exactly what we want. If something isn’t what we want, we just change the channel.

And that’s exactly what Aaron did for the people. God stopped giving them what they wanted, so Aaron makes them a new god. Aaron takes their earrings and rings and money and presents them with a golden calf made of all their wealth. This is bad religion at its most obvious. It takes all your wealth and what do you get in return? Something pretty but ultimately meaningless.

But the people loved the statue anyways. They even pretended that the calf brought them out of Egypt, showing humanity’s ever-present capacity for self-deception. They loved the golden calf because it was the opposite of the God who dragged them all over the wilderness. The statue of the calf wasn’t going anywhere. With Moses’ God they had to follow the pillars of cloud and fire. But it didn’t matter where they went, the calf would follow them.

That’s the problem with the customer-driven channel surfing spiritual model. The tail starts to wag the dog. The most successful TV preacher is not the one who most faithfully describes what God wants us to hear, but the one who most faithfully tells us what we want to hear. Churches compete with each other to see how little they can ask of their members. People go to church and ask, how does this church fulfill my needs, and not how can I fulfill God’s kingdom. And the end result is that instead of believing in the God of pillar and flame, the I am who I am, who is dangerous to touch and who takes us out of our comfort zones, we get the Golden calf, who takes everything we have and leaves us in the wilderness. Instead of following God we make ourselves a God who follows us.

We make golden calves for ourselves because the God we have isn’t always the God we want. But the God we want isn’t always the God we need. We need a God who pushes and challenges us to be something more than what we are. We might say that’s what we want but we gravitate towards the opposite. There’s a fellow named Howard Moskowitz who used to work for coffee companies to do customer research. When you ask someone what kind of coffee they like they’ll tell you they like a dark, rich, hearty roast. But Howard did taste tests. What percent of people actually prefer a dark, rich, hearty roast? Somewhere between 25 and 27 percent. Most people, most of us, like milky weak coffee. But no one will ever tell an interviewer that they want milky weak coffee.[1]

Whether or not they were willing to admit it, the Hebrews in the wilderness wanted a milky, weak God. One who would give much and demand little. Look at what happened. All God said to them was, “wait here” and they’re off making themselves another God. And more often than not that’s what we want too. But the God we want isn’t the God we get.

And what’s interesting about the second half of this story, the crazy thing about the second half of this story, is that we may not get the God that we want. But God, God didn’t get the people God wanted either. God and Moses are up on Mt. Sinai and God says, “You better get down there, Moses, look at what your people are doing.” That’s the way this sort of thing goes, when they’re doing something good, they’re mine, when they’re doing something bad, they’re yours. My dog, knows how to play dead. Your dog peed on the carpet again.

And God says to Moses, “Let’s just start over. Let’s get rid of these people and I will shape a new people, a people worthy of my love. We’ll start from you, and I will make a new people.” And in this one moment, what the people are doing and what God is doing are the exact same thing. The people are unsatisfied with God and so they make a new people. And God is unsatisfied with the people so God wants to make a new people.

But Moses, thank God for Moses. Moses talks God down. He says think of what the Egyptians will say. You destroyed an army of chariots to save these people only to wipe them out in the desert. And look at all the work you’ve put into this people. Do you want all that to go to waste? Look at all the things you can do through these people, and the promises you made. Do you want to throw that out?

And finally God says, “Okay.” Okay I will work with these people. They will be my people and I will be their God. As God has promised so many times in scripture. And what that tells us is that this thing we’ve got going with God. It’s not a one-way thing. This is a relationship. This isn’t a God-gives, we get relationship. Nor is it a we give and God gets relationship. It’s a two-way street. It’s push and it’s pull. It’s up and down.

We get from God, we receive from God, but we also give. We offer ourselves to God. And God asks of us, God commands us, God demands from us. But God also promises to us.

And what the story tells us about this promise is that in the midst of this weird relationship. In the midst of this “You’re not who I want and I’m not who you want,” we will find that each of us is what we need them to be. And the promise, is that if we can hang on. If we can stop fashioning, shaping Gods to follow us around, then God will shape us into a people who can follow.

[1] Gladwell, M. (February 2004). Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, Happiness, and Spaghetti Sauce. Retrieved from:

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Being Connected

A sermon for World Communion Sunday about being connected with each other. The text was John 15:1-8. For more information about Presbyterian programs like Solar under the Sun, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and Presbyterian Mission Agency and how you can help, just click on their names!

Being Connected

Pastor Gretchen Anderson in Lodi, Wisconsin told this great story about a newspaper reporter who’d been sent to interview a successful businessman. “How did you do it,” he asked. “How did you become such a great success?”

“Well, it’s actually a wonderful story. When my wife and I first married, we hardly had a roof over our heads. Between the two of us all we had was five cents. So I took that nickel, and I went down to the grocery store and bought an apple. Shined it up and sold it for ten cents.”

“Then what did you do,” the reporter asked.

“I bought two more apples, shined them up, and sold them for twenty cents.”

“Then what?” The reporter could sense that he was on the trail of a great rags-to-riches story.

“Then my father-in-law died, and left us $20 million dollars.”

The man didn’t find success because of his ingenuity. He found success because he was connected.[1]

Friends, we like to believe that its best to do things alone. But the reality is that its much better to be well-connected. Being connected can make a big difference in a person’s life. It can be the difference between finding the job of your dreams and struggling to find a job at all. It can be the difference between feeling overwhelmed by your life and feeling able to take on anything. The same is true for a church. Churches thrive by being well-connected: to each other, and to other communities of faith.

Connectionalism is particularly important for Presbyterians. That’s why we come together each week to connect with God and each other through worship. And that’s why we celebrate things like World Communion Sunday, which help us remember that we are connected to so many beyond the walls of our church. And the reasons that Presbyterians value connectedness are that it makes us stronger, we can’t survive without it, and it is a fundamental part of Christian practice.

Rev. James Reese, an African-American preacher from Detroit came to speak with General Assembly while I was there. He was 90 years old, and he had been to every General Assembly since 1974. He knew a few things about being connected. And one of the things he said about his experience was this: “I have sat at dozens of tables of decision making, and things didn’t always go as I wished. I felt marginalized, separated, ignored. But one thing I have never done: I have never left the table.[2]” He emphasized ten words. He even made us repeat them: We are richer with us, we are poorer without us.

This is a deep truth about life and a present reality for our church. When you fill your life with people you love and treasure and value, people of all walks of life and opinions and personalities, your life is richer for it. And when a church shares their resources and abilities, the life of the church is richer for it too.

So much of the church’s ministry is strengthened by our working together. For example, our Synod, one of the mid-councils through which we connect to other churches, runs a program called Solar of the Sun. It’s in partnership with the Synod of the Living Waters, who have a program to provide water purification in places where there is no clean water. But places with clean water are often lacking other things, like consistent electricity. Solar of the Sun provides training and support to build solar installations to power those pumps and more. Could one church start a program to build solar installations in places like Haiti all by itself? Probably not. But by connecting with each other, we make this ministry a reality. And a church like ours can be a part of it through prayer, through financial support, or through sending a person to be trained or a team to build a solar installation. Through this connectedness, we’re able to do more.

This isn’t the only such thing that Presbyterians are able to do because we’re connected. We have remarkable mission partnerships all over the world. Our Congo Mission Network works to provide hospital supplies to six hospitals in Congo founded long ago by Presbyterian missionaries. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is working across the country and on 6 continents through partnership and connection with local congregations and with us. The Presbyterian Mission Agency sends missionaries and partners with local organizations around the world. Presbyterians have huge effects in missions around the world because we value connectedness, with other Presbyterians and with partners around the world. In fact, Presbyterians believe so much in connectedness, that we allow other denominations to send representatives to our General Assemblies. Before every vote, General Assembly commissioners get an advisory vote to hear what representatives of other denominations and faiths have to say.

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus gives us the image of the vine and the branches. He says that he is the vine and we are the branches. We should abide in him. In other words, we should stay connected to the vine. Branches that stay connected bear much fruit, and those branches that disconnect wither and die. One of the ways that we stay connected is through participation in the church, which is Christ’s body. When we stay connected to our church community, our faith is stronger and our lives are richer. When we disconnect, our faith often withers. How often have you known someone who stops attending worship and gathering with other Christians and soon has trouble finding faith or navigating life? How often has that happened to you? The same thing can happen on a bigger scale. Too often we hear of a major scandal with a pastor at its center. It is almost always a pastor who has rejected connectionalism in favor of a structure with no accountability.

It’s not that being connected makes one any more righteous than another. But the choice to be connected is an acknowledgment that all of us have flaws and failures. We know that we make mistakes, but we choose to be connected to others so that they can pull us back in when we go too far. When they wrote the Scots Confession, one of the founding documents of our church, almost 500 years ago, they wrote that the marks of the true church were not piety or righteousness or number of members. They proclaimed that the marks of the true church were true preaching of the Word of God, right administration of the sacraments, and “ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered.[3]” In other words, one of the marks of the true church is that we stay accountable to each other. We choose to be connected, because we trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us through, even when we err.

Finally, I would tell you that we are more connected than we realize. Did you know that people are praying for us? Yeah. We are surrounded by prayer. Every week, churches all across the country pray for us, just like we pray for the other churches in our communion. Most likely, given the hour, a church is praying for us right now. One of the things that has come to mean a lot to me of late is the practice of reading the Necrology, which occurs every March in our Presbytery. We have a special part of the service to read off the names of all those elders in our churches who have died in the past year. I used to think it was boring. It’s just a list of names of people I don’t know. Until I realized that someday I would be on that list. When I pass, not just my congregation, but the whole congregation of the faithful, will pray me home. They will be praying for me. That’s the incredible part about being connected. It means that even though people worship in different places and in different ways, we are all one body, united in Christ, and gathered for his purposes. And that we gather not just by ourselves, but as a part of the great cloud of witnesses who forever surround us giving glory to God’s name. And through these connections and this one body that we make up, we are given the strength to run the race which has been set before us with joy.

[1] This story was told to Lodi First Presbyterian Church by Pastor Gretchen Anderson in her sermon titled “The Constant Gardener,” on May 12th, 2012.

[2] Rev. James Reese, “Speech at 221st General Assembly” (speech, Detroit, MI, June 15, 2014). You can watch the speech here: 221st General Assembly Sunday Afternoon Session Part 2

[3] Scots Confession, 3.18.

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An Opportunity of Crisis

Sermon from September 28th, 2014. The texts for this week were Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 3:3-14.

An Opportunity of Crisis

Do you think that the chief priests and the scribes believed that John’s authority came from heaven or was of human origin? That’s what gets me about the Bible passage for today. Matthew tells us the exact calculus that was going on in the heads of the chief priests and scribes when Jesus asked them that question. If they say heaven, they will have to account for why they refused to follow him, why they rejected John’s message of baptism and repentance. But if they say human origin, the crowds (who supported John) will reject them. But we don’t ever get to hear what the chief priests and elders actually thought about John. Did they think that John was right and his call to repentance was exactly what they needed? Did they think that John was wrong and he should go take his camel’s hair suit somewhere else?

They don’t say. We never hear what the chief priests and the elders actually think about John the Baptist, because it doesn’t matter to them. What they believe about John the Baptist’s message is irrelevant to their answer. Because to them, the right answer is whatever will protect their reputation and authority.

Our passage for today happens shortly after Jesus raids the Temple, overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers and refusing to let anyone through. His behavior was a direct challenge to the system that the chief priests and the elders stand on top of. And so the elders have come to challenge Jesus’ authority. “By what authority are you doing these things,” they say. “And who gave you that authority?”

The chief priests and the elders had been given all the signs of authority. They are well educated. They studied under the great rabbis of their day. They are well employed. They’re priests; by their positions they represent God’s voice. They are well to do. The priestly class had huge landholdings outside the city, and villas in the city with servants to order around. And they are well-protected. The chief priests and the elders were kept in power by the Romans to keep the people of Jerusalem passive and non-resistant. If need be, they could count on both Temple guards and Roman centurions to be on their side.

The chief priests and the elders, the most powerful people in 1st-century Jewish society, have all the signs of authority, but they don’t feel secure in that authority. Every decision they make is done with an eye to how it will affect their influence. They’re so heavily invested in their own authority, they’re now more interested in keeping that authority than they are in using it for a purpose. Like a politician who chooses reelection over righteousness, they’ve inoculated themselves against new ideas that challenge their established way of living. So it doesn’t matter if they believe John or Jesus, because they still won’t follow. They’re unwilling to follow any authority but their own.

When the chief priests and the elders challenge Jesus’ authority, Jesus flips the script on them. Where did John’s authority come from, he asks? Their answer reveals what they truly value. Knowing that Jesus has caught them in the question, they claim not to know, for fear of the crowd. Though they claim to have spiritual authority, when spiritual matters come to light, their answer shows that God hardly figured in their reasoning at all.

In response to their challenge of his authority, Jesus offers a parable. Two sons, are each told by their father to go to the vineyard. The first son refuses. He says he won’t go, but later he regrets it and goes out to work. The second claims to be obedient. He says that he will go, but he does not. “Who did the will of his father?” Jesus asks. The answer for them as well as for us, is obvious. Saying that you are obedient is not the same as obeying. In the words of Conway Twitty, “Don’t call him a cowboy until you’ve seen him ride.”

The parable’s meaning is a pointed one. Jesus is comparing the chief priests and elders to the son who claimed to obey, but did not. You say that you are under the authority of God, he seems to be saying, but when push comes to shove the only authority you obey is your own self-interest.

Tax collectors and prostitutes was a shorthand that Jesus used for sinners and unrighteous people. They were despised within their society, and good pious people had nothing to do with them. But unlike the so-called “righteous” people of their era, they had the sense to be looking for something. They had the humility to know that their way of living was not necessarily right just because they were living it. And so when John comes calling, with a message of repentance, calling them to a deeper life, they’re ready to jump in (literally). Because these folks didn’t have much to lose, they were able to let go of what they had so that they might gain.

We are at a unique moment in American history. Because over the course of our lifetimes, the structures of authority are shifting. It used to be the case that just about anything printed could be trusted to some degree, because it was backed by some authority with resources to print things. But now truth and fiction sit right next to each other on the internet, and there are no universally trusted sources to help you sift them apart. It used to be the case that there were only a couple of TV channels. We all shared the same information base to make our decisions. But now the television market is so competitive that truth has become subject to the profit. The History Channel has shows about aliens. History. Aliens. Really?

And because the structures of authority are shifting beneath our feet, it gives us an incredible opportunity to retune ourselves towards the real source of authority in our world. We can’t say anymore, “I go to church, therefore I am a good person.” Too many scandals in churches have come out for that to be the case. So if we can’t trust the church to be good on our behalf, it’s an opportunity for us to focus on being good for God. If we can’t trust the voices of authority in our world to tell us what righteousness is, then we have the opportunity to go and discover righteousness for ourselves.

Whenever I talk about the Pharisees or the chief priests or the scribes, I generally like to mention that we are those people in our society. We are the well educated, well heeled, pious people of our day. But at this particular moment, we have the opportunity to mimic the righteousness of the tax collectors and prostitutes. The protective shell that we all grow up in is so difficult to crack, but at this particular time in history it has been cracked for us. It can be tempting for us to cling tighter to broken institutions, to reassure ourselves in the face of the chaos of trying to find our way without them. But let’s give that up. Let’s go out like those whom Jesus praised. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” he told the priests. Because the tax collectors and prostitutes were looking for the kingdom of God, instead of building kingdoms of their own.

So let’s be humble enough to know that we haven’t found the Kingdom yet. Because nothing is more damaging to our ability to be righteous than the belief that we already are.

Let’s be wise enough to recognize that we won’t find it digging up the same holes we’ve been digging in. Let’s be bold. Let’s be transformative. Let’s repent, renew, and resurrect ourselves into seeing that God is the author of all existence, so all authority must be ascribed to God.

Because even if we do have something to lose. Even if we do have everything to lose, we will count it all as gain. As Paul explained in his letter to the Philippians, he had every kind of authority you could have. He was a Jew, a Benjaminite, who studied the law under Gamaliel, a perfect Pharisee in every way. Blameless under the law. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul had everything to lose, and he lost it. And yet he tells us that it was all worthless compared to the surpassing value of Christ Jesus his Lord.

We have the opportunity, today, tomorrow, and the next day, to give up our own authority and submit to a new authority. New life is waiting for us. All we need is the humility to realize that we don’t have all the answers, and the guts to go out and seek them. We need the awareness to know that our own authority comes from a higher authority. And its purpose is not to be protected and preserved, but to be used in service of Christ. And when we have spent all the authority we have, and given up our sure place in the world for a place in Jesus’ flock, we will count it as the greatest deal we’ve ever made.

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The Price of Manna

Sermon from September 21st, 2014. The text was Exodus 16:2-15.

The Price of Manna

Monetize is one of those words that none of us had heard ten years ago, but nearly all of us know it now. It means taking something and turning it into a way to make a profit. It’s the great challenge of the tech world. Google, for example, is basically a card-catalog service, but they’ve monetized that by selling ads and search traffic. Facebook is just a directory if you think about it, but they monetize their website by selling our personal information and habits to third parties. We can put a price on anything. Even individuals nowadays are encouraged to monetize. In a number of industries, full-time work is a thing of the past, so people are told to market themselves. Don’t make friends, network. Use those networks to make a buck. Develop your personal brand, so that your identity can help you make money.

The idea, of course, is that there are markets in everything. Anything that isn’t monetized is simply an opportunity to make money that is being wasted. And we don’t like to waste opportunities to make money. Americans work longer hours, retire later, and take less vacation than any other industrialized nation.

We’re famous for being unable to stop working. If you ask anyone in the country how their life is going, they will almost always say, “busy.” Even if they aren’t. We tend to see the world as a ladder of success, and if you aren’t moving up, you’re moving down. To say that you aren’t busy is to say that you aren’t even trying to succeed.

We live in a world where value is a synonym for price. The value of something is how much money someone would pay for it. The value of a person is how much money they can afford to pay for things.

And the thing about that way of defining value is that it only makes sense if there isn’t enough. You can only be successful relative to someone who is not. As Frederick Buechner puts it in Whistling in the Dark, “If the government declared that the leaves of the trees were money so there would be enough for everybody, money would be worthless. It has worth only if there is not enough for everybody.”[1] In other words we live in an economy of scarcity, where everyone is defined according to what they can produce.

We have two stories in our set of lectionary passages for today that demonstrate a different sort of economy. In our Gospel passage, Jesus tells a parable of an employer who goes around hiring laborers throughout the day. At the end of the day, he calls in those who have worked just one hour and pays them a full day’s wage. When the longest working employees come to receive their wage, they get the same thing. What once was a decent wage now suddenly doesn’t seem like enough, because someone who didn’t work as hard received the same thing.

It’s a tough parable to hear because it flies in the face of what we’ve been taught about work our whole lives. Our self-worth is tied up in how much we can work and how much we make. A few days ago I read an article about a man on a dating website who simply posted a picture of his bank account balance as his profile picture. “This is who I am, this is my value,” the picture said. A better example could hardly be found.

Jesus’ story suggests that our worth is not in what we earn or create for ourselves, but in what God has given to us. The parable is discomforting because it suggests that the way we judge ourselves is wrong. When the payment you receive is not a comment on your hard work but on your employer’s generosity, you can no longer use it to differentiate yourself from others. The landlord’s generosity messes with the system of value for the people who worked all day. There is no prize for being the most hardworking, or the most righteous. Those hierarchies are human inventions that have no place in God’s Kingdom.

The parable challenges the pernicious delusion that some of us are more valuable than others, that some deserve more and others deserve less. Because each and every one of us here on planet earth was created, loved, and cherished by God, not according to what we have done, but what God has done for us. Jesus seems to say that our value isn’t determined by each other, but by God.

Our other story for today gives us a good image of what it is to live without defining ourselves by these values. In our Exodus passage, God institutes the system of manna for the hungry Hebrews wandering the desert. In the morning, the people awake and found a strange, dew-like substance covering the ground. It tasted sweet like thin cakes made with honey. And that first day they walked around stuffing their mouths with it, asking “what is it?” And so it became called manna, from the Hebrew for “What is it?”[2]

The name it was given indicates how unfamiliar it was to the people, this idea of being provided for. It takes some getting used to. Though God commanded them only to collect what they needed, some collected more. When they looked in their baskets they discovered that they had the same amount as those who collected less, just what they needed but no more. God commanded them not to keep any for the next day, but some hoarded it, perhaps afraid that such a miracle might not happen again. But when they awoke, they found it spoiled and full of worms. And God commended to them that the seventh day would be a day of rest, so they should rest and not collect manna on that day. But a few went out searching for the manna on the Sabbath anyway, and they found none.

All of this goes to show how unfamiliar we are with the idea that God might provide for us, or that we might not be able to get ahead. Manna is something you can’t monetize. There is no way to work get ahead via manna, or work harder than your neighbor. What a strange thing for them to experience. For the Hebrews who lived in slavery, who had to hide and hoard and save and slave to have anything, to be provided for on a daily basis. And for us, who define ourselves by our work, who judge ourselves and each other by what we have and how we got it and whether or not we could get more. Suddenly for them there is no need to worry about getting more, no sense in sacrificing themselves if all their savings are for naught.

What these two stories describe is a different economics than the one we’re used to. In these two stories we run into a sense of God’s economy, which is an economy of enough. There is no way to profit from your daily bread, because everyone has it. You cannot make yourself better than someone else through work. In Jesus’ parable we’re not defined by how hard we work but by how much Jesus loves us. In both stories, there is a rejection of the hierarchies of the haves and the have-nots. God ignores all of the moral justifications we make for the stratification of our society, the reasons we have that some deserve more and others deserve less. And God says each of you deserves enough.

It is enough to turn our world upside-down. Because what happens to our self-worth in an economy of enough? How do we know who we are when we can’t compare ourselves to others? What is our time worth if we can’t put a dollar sign next to it? Because if we can’t assign worth to each other, and who deserves and does not deserve our love, it suggests the radical idea that everyone might.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark; A Theologized ABC (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), 80.

[2] Koenig, Sara “Commentary on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15” WorkingPreacher, August 05, 2012. Accessed September 20, 2014.

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Dry Land Will Come

Sermon from September 14th, 2014. The text for the sermon was Exodus 14:10-31.

Dry Land Will Come

Our Old Testament Passage for this week holds the dramatic climax of the Exodus narrative. After the tenth and final plague, Pharaoh relents and allows Moses to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt. They were sent out from Egypt so quickly that all they have time to prepare is unleavened bread. Man, woman, and child, the whole of the Hebrew people started walking out from the land of Egypt. It wasn’t long before the Egyptians realized what they had done. I imagine Egyptian nobles waking up in the morning and having no one to draw them a hot bath, or Egyptian foremen going to work and discovering that there were no longer slaves to make bricks for them, they were going to have to do it themselves.

All of a sudden they were horrified. They said we’ve got to go and bring them back. Egypt was a dominant power in the world because of their great war chariots. They could move faster and maneuver better than other armies at the time who were stuck on foot, like the Hebrews. And Pharaoh called for his chariot and his armies of chariots, with his 600 elite shock chariots and their officers, and he prepared to chase them down. Make no mistake: when it comes to the dominators, the oppressors of this world, and the status quo changes to not be so tilted in their favor, they will unleash hell on earth to change it back. And that’s what Pharaoh did.

In the meantime, the Hebrew forces were made up of whole families dragging all of their possessions at their backs; the Egyptians chariots had no trouble overtaking them. They caught up to them camped out by the Sea of Reeds. The Hebrews were now trapped between a rock and a hard place. One one side they have angry Egyptians, ready to take them back into slavery. And on the other hand they have the Reed Sea, a marshy body of water difficult to navigate or cross.

And so there they are. Stuck. The way forward seems impossible. The way backward is overrun, and would certainly lead to slavery or death. The people complain to Moses. “Weren’t there any graves in Egypt? Did you bring us out here in the desert to die? … Didn’t we tell you this was going to happen? ….It would be better to be slaves than to die here in the desert.”

There are old traditions passed down by the rabbis known as midrash, stories to comment on the stories in the Torah. And one of these misrashim talks about what that conversation was like between Moses and the people as they see the Egyptian chariots closing in. As the story goes, there were four different factions among the people. The first group said the Egyptians will surely crush us; we should just throw ourselves into the sea and get it over with. The second group said, “Let us go back to Egypt, it would be better to be slaves to the Egyptians than to be dead.” The third group said, “Let us take up arms right here and fight.” And the fourth group said, “Let us raise up a shout to confuse them.” Trapped between the army and the sea, each group had a different idea about what they should do in the face of certain destruction.

Everyone responds differently with his or her back against the wall. Some will say, “Well, it’s fight or flight, man, and I’m no chicken. I don’t care if I’m sure to lose, I’ll go down swinging.” Others say, “There’s no hope. We should just give up now.” Others would surrender, like those who wanted to go back to serving the Egyptians. “It doesn’t matter that we’re choosing to lose, at least this choice is better than the others,” they argue. Better a dismal existence than certain failure. And others would say “We don’t know what to do, but we have to do something,” and so choose the first thing that comes to mind, without regard for its effectiveness. Thus the hope that shouting might confuse Pharaoh’s battle-hardened charioteers.

Whether it’s wasting our energy in vain efforts or making no effort at all, there are a lot of different ways to give up. We can give up by running away from something. We can give up by just going through the motions instead of putting our hearts into our efforts. We can give up by getting reckless, or we can give up by refusing to take risks when we need to.

And each of these ways of giving up are easier than what God asks us to do in situations like this. What God asks us to do is trust. In the story the rabbis tell, the people think they’re between a rock and a hard place. They want to give up because they don’t have hope. They don’t trust that they are in the hands of God.

But Moses tells them, “Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground. Hang on and you will see what the Lord will do to save you today.” And he’s half-right. He’s right to tell the people to put their faith in God to save them. He’s wrong to tell them to stand still.

Because in the very next verse, God says, “Why are you crying out for help? tell the people to move forward!” Can you imagine hearing this order passed down from Moses? You’re being hounded by some of the best troops the world has ever seen and Moses tells you to start walking in the water. But they go. They go in up to their ankles. They get in up to their knees. The water rises up to their waists, they pick up their children to keep them out of the water and they keep walking. The water keeps getting higher but the Lord is with them. The pillar of cloud moved behind them to hide them from the Egyptians. And a great wind blows across the waters, and just as God did at the beginning of Creation, God calls up dry land out from the waters. And they started walking more confidently along the land. They thought they were trapped, but God delivered them and soon they would be home free.

When the people seem trapped in a no-win situation, God tells them to continue in hope. Not to wait around, but to keep moving forward, in sure and certain hope of God’s salvation. It was terrifying for those people walking into the Reed Sea. And it is terrifying for us, when we find ourselves in similar situations.

But it is in the nature of God to save. That’s the point of this story, the Exodus story, and that’s the point of the whole Bible. Our God is a powerful God but not a distant God. God cares about us, and God will deliver us from the trials and troubles of our lives and our world. We might not be able to see it coming, surely those standing on the edge of the Reed Sea didn’t expect dry land to be brought up from the waters. But nevertheless God’s redemption and salvation are real.

There are a lot of things that are uncertain in this world. We wonder about our future. The future of our families, the future of our careers, the future of our health. We worry about the future of our church, the future of our community, the future of our nation. All too often we face situations like this. Sometimes the best that we can do is to keep moving forward. Wade in the water. God’s going to trouble the waters. Walk into the murky waters of the Reed Sea and trust that dry land will come.

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