I Saw the Sign

Sermon from September 7th, 2014. The text for the sermon was Exodus 12:1-14.

I Saw the Sign

Every once in a while I get an email of funny church signs. Since photo-editing became so easy, it’s hard to tell if any of them actually existed in real life. But they’re usually good for a chuckle. For example, one of the ones sent to me was a sign in a church parking lot that said, “Church Parking Only; Violators Will Be Baptized.” Or another one that may not be heard for its intended meaning: “Having trouble sleeping? We’ve got sermons? Come hear them!” Now to add to these, when Hannah and I got lost on the way to the airport last week, we ran across a sign that didn’t seem to mean what they think it means. It said, “Tired of life? Come try the alternative.”

Signs are an important and necessary part of our daily life. They help us navigate traffic, find businesses, and know where we are going. A sign is something that points to something else. Golden Arches point to McDonald’s, a yellow diamond signifies warning, and a red cross signifies that help is on the way.

The Exodus story continues this week with the Hebrews still stuck in Egypt. Moses has heard God’s voice from the burning bush, and he and Aaron have told Pharaoh “Let my people go!” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he said, “No.” So God unleashed plagues upon Egypt. The Nile ran with blood; their flocks all came down with disease; the whole country was plunged into darkness, but still Pharaoh said, “No.” And now God is about to unleash one of the most devastating acts of destruction found in the Bible. God will take the life of every firstborn, human or animal, in the land of Egypt.

God gives the Hebrews a sign to put on their doorframe, so that God will pass over their houses. And as God gives them this sign, God declares a festival for them, the festival of the Passover, so that this great and terrible night will be remembered forever.

The sign that the people are given is the blood of the lamb. They are to roast the lamb over a fire and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs with their loins girded and their sandals on. In other words this is the first instance in recorded history of “fast food.” They must eat ready to run. And God declares that they should not only do this on the night of the plague, but every year from then on.

Their year will be ordered around it, the Passover will mark the first month of the year. Every year they will gather dressed to leave and sit down at the table to eat lamb and crackers, to remember the night they put blood on their doorframes and God passed over them on the night of the final plague.

I spoke a month ago at our 140th anniversary about the importance of remembering what God has done for us. God gives us signs to help us remember what God has done, and this is what is happening in our text. God is giving a sign to the Hebrew people. Genesis 12:13 and 14: “The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”

The blood is a sign that they will be passed over. And the meal is a sign that they will be delivered. God orders them to keep this sign as a festival for themselves, so that they would remember what happened here. Future generations of Hebrews, long after their slavery in Egypt, would be reminded that God delivered them from slavery. The Passover would come to represent freedom from slavery. It was a sign that existed to remind the people that their God was a powerful God who cared about them. It would remind the people that they were unique and special, chosen by God to be God’s people. It was a sign for them when they were in Exile, that God would deliver them. It was a sign for them when they were under the thumb of the Romans, that God’s power was greater than Caesar’s. This festival would be maintained for hundreds of years, so that the Hebrews would not forget their redemption from Pharaoh through the work of God. And it is still celebrated today.

Like the Hebrews, we too have been given a sign of our redemption. The sacrament of Communion is a sign for us, it shares with Passover the image of blood and the image of the lamb. Communion signifies something similar to us: freedom from sin. On the night that he was handed over, Jesus took the cup and offered it to his disciples. He told them that this cup is the new covenant in his blood. The sign of communion is a sign to remind us that Christ gave himself over to free us from sin and death. It is a sign to remind us that no matter how strong the chains that hold us, through Christ we can be free. But above all, it is a sign that God cares about us. God sees the mess we’re stumbling through, whether we created it or someone else, and God will deliver us from it, through his son who offered his life so that we might be free.

And the incredible thing about this sign of our redemption is that it is not limited to people who deserve it. Back in the early days of the Reformation and the Presbyterian Church, Communion was done a little differently. I’ve mentioned before that Calvin said that Communion should be done as often as possible, as many times as twice a year. It seems strange that Calvin would think of twice a year as frequent. But at that time it was the custom for the elders of the church to go out and interview each and every member and see whether they were sure enough in their convictions to receive communion. When you were interviewed, they would give you a little wooden token, that you could bring on communion Sunday as a sign that you had been approved for communion. You can imagine that that might take a while. It’s a practice known as fencing the table, and has long since been abandoned.

The reason we no longer do this is because we have a stronger understanding of God’s sovereignty and grace. We don’t come to the table together because we deserve it, or because we have earned it, but the opposite. We come to the table because we do not deserve it, but God gives it to us anyway. We come to the table in the awareness that we are imperfect, unholy people, whom God chooses to make holy and perfect through his Son. If you feel one day that you are not worthy to receive this gift from God, then that is the time that it is most important to take communion, because it is at that time that we can see that it is not about our goodness, but God’s. God’s love for us is powerful enough to reach through our own weakness and sinfulness and failures, and shape us into something better.

I talked a lot about two signs that help us to remember the past, but signs are also essential for us to know where we are going. Street signs, road signs, highway signs, are all there to point us down the road. When the Hebrews were in the wilderness, God gave them two great signs that God was present with them, a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. That’s what our sacraments are. They are visible signs of God’s presence among us. They show us where we are going. They proclaim for us, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, that we are loved by a great and powerful God. God delivers us from the chains that hold us: the chains of oppression, the chains of sin, and the chains of fear. This is the character of God’s love for us. We are loved, we are forgiven, we are set free. Let us share it with each other.

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A Lot and Nothing

Sermon from August 24th, 2014. The text for this sermon was Exodus 1:8-2:10.

A Lot and Nothing

Last week I talked about how important it is for us to know who we are and whose we are. It is easy to answer the question of who we are or whose we are with a simply answer, “I am a child of God,” for example. But simple answers, as true as they may be, can rarely do justice the complexity of life in a messy world. So the Bible isn’t full of simple answers but messy stories, so that we might know who we are in a messy world. This week we begin one of the formative stories of Israel’s history, the Exodus from Egypt. And at the beginning of the story, we find ourselves in a difficult, but familiar place. The Hebrew people have forgotten who they are.

We begin the story with a new Pharaoh over Egypt. The text says, “He did not know Joseph.” In other words he didn’t know that Joseph and his people were a part of Egypt’s prosperity, and he didn’t know the grateful Pharaoh who gave them sanctuary in his land. The new Pharaoh did not know who the people were. And fearing that they could turn against him, he oppressed them. The Hebrews were forced to build great cities for the Egyptians to live in and great pyramids for the Egyptians to die in. For 400 hundred years, we’re told, they lived in slavery. And 400 years of oppression and slavery will grind a people down into nothing. After 400 years the Hebrews, too, had forgotten who they were.

It takes a lot and nothing to oppress a people. It takes a lot because you cannot hold a person down without constant pressure. It takes nothing because if you aren’t under that pressure, you might not even ever know its there. It takes a lot because if you watch it happen to your child, it’s a never-ending stream of insults and indignities, each more unbearable than the last. You catalogue all the ways the world was brutal to your child and you can see the whole apparatus, hundreds of people and institutions that all work together to make your child think he’s nobody. It takes nothing because if he’s not your child, and you only see it one piece at a time, it was just an odd comment, a strange coincidence, an unlucky break. You don’t understand what the big deal is.

You have to wonder how Pharaoh turned the Hebrews from treasured friends into slaves. He may have begun by suggesting that Hebrews simply aren’t as civilized as Egyptians. They’re uncouth, and lazy; if you say it enough times people will start to look for it. Any Hebrew who isn’t perfect will be proof that he’s right. If a Hebrew gets angry about these nasty rumors, Pharaoh would say look, see, didn’t I tell you? Those Hebrews are quick-tempered, dangerous. Word would get around. Jobs would dry up. They would tell the Hebrews, “I know you’ve got bills, but there just aren’t any jobs for people like you. But I’d be happy to give you a loan against your truck. Interest rate’s double, of course, but you’re a risk.” Can you imagine what they said in the Egyptian court when they heard that Moses had struck the foreman and killed him? What a shame, more Hebrew violence. It was nice that the princess tried to raise that Hebrew with some culture, but you know what they say. You can take the boy out of the bulrushes, but you can’t take the bulrushes out of the boy.

It doesn’t matter that the foreman was hitting a man when Moses hit him. That wasn’t violence, that was discipline. It takes a lot and nothing. You normalize the violence of the system. Then you call them violent when you . For the Hebrew man 400 years after the first Pharaohs start “acting shrewdly,” the whole system is too great to bear. His whole life, everyone has told him that he’s violent, lazy, wild, uncouth. Doesn’t even bother him anymore. It’s the surprise that hurts the most. When he does something good or kind, or intelligent, and the response is total surprise, as if they didn’t even think it possible for a man like him to behave like a human. That’s what makes him know that his life is worthless to them. (And because he knows his life is worthless to everyone else, it is worth less to him, too)

And into this story come two women. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. And they have a different view. The Egyptians say that Hebrew boys are dangerous. But Shiphrah and Puah say that Hebrew boys are to be treasured. They remember who they are. The Bible says that Shiphrah and Puah feared God more than they feared Pharaoh. Pharaoh tells him that in order to protect the people’s safety, these Hebrew boys cannot be allowed to survive their birth. But Shiphrah and Puah disobey. But they cannot disobey Pharaoh directly, so they tell him a lie.

So both the Pharaoh and the midwives lie, but the midwives are righteous and the Pharaoh wrong? Yes. There is a lot of lying and trickery in the Bible, both by the righteous and the unrighteous. David does it. Jacob is famous for it. And Abraham and Moses aren’t far behind. But what you’ll find is that the Bible still stays consistent. When a powerless person tricks a powerful person, the Bible praises the man. When a powerful person tricks or tries to trick a powerless person, the person is punished or condemned. Think of David. When Shepherd David sneaks out the window and leaves an idol with horsehair in his place to escape from Saul: good. When King David wants to trick Uriah into raising his bastard: bad. It’s just what my Dad taught me. Don’t ever hit someone smaller than you. If you’re going to fight someone, punch up. And so it is with the midwives and Pharaoh. When Pharaoh deals shrewdly with the Hebrews, it shows that he is evil. When the midwives deal shrewdly with Pharaoh, the Bible uses it to show us that they are clever.

And this clever little lie? It is nothing less than the same lie the Pharaohs told of the Hebrews.

“Of course Pharaoh we would love to do what you ask, but you know those Hebrews, they’re so rough, and wild, and dangerous, labor isn’t anything to them. They pop those babies out before we can even get to them.” It is a tiny little lie, and a great heroic act. It was nothing to pretend to believe the system’s lies, and it was a whole lot to stand up to Pharaoh. And without them, there is no Moses, no Exodus, no plagues, no Promised Land.

One of the great things for me about the Bible is learning about people like Shiphrah and Puah, the minor characters of the Bible. It reminds me that there are so many more stories than the ones we’re most familiar with. And it reminds me that the Bible isn’t made up entirely of extraordinary spiritual superstars, but of ordinary people doing the little things that make ordinary people great.

Shiphrah and Puah found themselves in a unique position where they had the ability for a small action of theirs to make a big difference in the lives of many. And they chose to turn the machinery of oppression on its head, and save the ones it was going to destroy. We all have opportunities like this. Because the truth is that history isn’t changed through grand sweeping actions, but many small ones. It’s done by looking at our unique position in the world, and thinking about where we have the opportunity to make a change. Where a small thing from us, whether it’s a word of encouragement or reprimand, an expression of support and solidarity, a few dollars or a few hours, can make a huge difference in the life of the world. It’s done by punching up, making sure we’re never in a position to take something from someone weaker or more vulnerable than we are. It’s done by rejecting the lies that keep people from flourishing, and hanging on to truths about who God is and who we are.

It takes a lot and nothing, to take apart our structures that tear people down, and to build something in their place that lifts people up. It takes a lot, because it will take the work of all of us, together, for years, to shape this world into what it can be. It takes nothing, because it will take nothing more than refusing to forget who God calls you to be.

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Remember Who You Are – First Presbyterian’s 140th Anniversary

This was the sermon from our 140th Anniversary Celebration. We had an outsanding service, including many friends and family who had come back to celebrate with us, and a luncheon followed where we shared old stories from our Presbyterian churches in San Saba. The text for the sermon was Deuteronomy 6:4-21.

Remember Who You Are

When I was in seminary I worked at a church in New Jersey. During Sunday School one morning, our pastor introduced one of the older members of the church and then she asked him what he had in his pocket. He reaches into his pocket and he pulls out a little ragged piece of paper. Written down, he has an account of the best day of his life. He’s had that same little note in his wallet for more than 50 years. When it gets worn out he writes it again on a new piece of paper. And when she asked him why he carried that little note around everywhere he goes, he said, “I don’t ever want to forget those great things that happened to me.”

The Old Testament text I’ve chosen for today is one of the most important texts in the Bible. It begins with the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” What follows is what Jesus called the greatest commandment in the scriptures: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

And then it gives instructions: “Keep these words that I am commanding you in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” In other words do not forget that the Lord is your God. Make signs for yourself. Go to great lengths to remember that you are God’s.

Why should we not forget? Because of the great things that God has done for us. The passage reminds people of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of a land of milk and honey and a covenant that would last generations. The passage brings up their spectacular escape from Egypt, the plagues God sent, and the parting of the Red Sea to escape Pharaoh’s armies. The message is that we should not forget what God has done for us. Because when we forget what God has done, we might begin to think that God can’t do anything for us now and in the future. We might try to find security and salvation somewhere else: in our own hard work, in money, in friends. We might look to some other god for comfort and salvation, and find ourselves empty and lost. Remembering where you come from helps you get where you are going.

This call to remember happens over and over again through the scriptures. Over and over again the biblical community is told to remember who you are and to remember who your God is. When the people are afraid of the Canaanites and don’t want to go into the promised land, God says,

“Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the Lord your God brought you out.” – Deuteronomy 7:18-19

“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness.” (Deuteronomy 8:2)

“He made water flow for you from flint and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know” (Deut. 8:15-6)

When people need laws to help them treat each other with kindness and respect:

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.” Deuteronomy 24:17-18

When they bring the ark into Jerusalem, David says,

“Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered,” 1 Chron. 16:12

When they return from the exile, and the people rededicate themselves to the law which they had abandoned, Nehemiah tells them

“You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted insolently against our ancestors. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day.” (Nehemiah 9:9-10, part of a much longer passage of remembrance)

At every critical juncture the call is there. Remember where you come from. Remember what God has done. The miracles God has wrought, the salvation that God has brought. So that as you go into the future you do not go fearfully, but boldly, confident that what God has done, God can and will do again.

There is even a festival of remembrance established in Deuteronomy called the Passover. I was once at a Passover seder when I was doing interfaith work in New York, the seder is the big meal of Passover to teach the younger generations what the people went through in Egypt. There’s a part of the seder where they stop and they tell the story of the Exodus, and our Jewish teacher gets up to tell the story. And she didn’t start with Moses, or even in Egypt. She got up and said, “It all began with a man named Abraham….” And she told us just about the whole book of Genesis: the story of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob and Esau, and Jacob’s twelve sons and all of Joseph’s life, being sold into slavery and interpreting the Pharaoh’s dreams before she even got to Moses, and then she took a big breath and told the story of Shiphrah and Puah and every single one of the plagues and every time Pharaoh hardened his heart and the Passover and the people’s escape from Egypt across the Red Sea.

The point with all this is that knowing where you come from matters. Over and over the Bible says remember what God has done for you, and at major points in Biblical history the community gathers to do just that. And today we gather on our 140th anniversary for this exact purpose. We gather to remember what God has done for us and what God has done in this community. We gather to remember what we have built and what our parents and our friends built, and all the fathers and mothers of this church. We remember those who have their names memorialized on windows and plaques and those whose names have slipped our memory. The people who led the charge and those who made everything happen behind the scenes.

We gather to remind ourselves that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and that the only way for us to go forward is for us to remember where we came from. Not to go backward, but to remember all the good things God did for those who came before us and to imagine all the great things God will do through us. Because for the past 140 years God has done incredible things through Presbyterians in San Saba, going forth as Christ commanded, and baptizing all in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, reaching and teaching and preaching the Gospel, and planting seeds wherever they might grow.

The great preacher William Willimon talks about being a teenager. And he said whenever he would go on a date, his mother would say, “Don’t forget who you are.” Not “be careful” or “be back by ten,” or my parent’s favorite, “don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” but “Don’t forget who you are.” She wasn’t worried that young William would forget his own name or his address, but that out alone with his date, or at a party with his peers, he might lose sight of where he came from, the values in which he had been raised, and engage in some behavior that was not who he was. He might forget who he was. “Don’t forget who you are,”[1] she said.

That’s what our passage calls us to. Put it up as a sign on your doorpost, bind it on your hands and on your foreheads, tie a string around your finger. Tell it to your children and tell it to yourself. God has done great things for you. Tell it when you are here and when you are away. God has done great things in this place, and that God is not done yet. Don’t forget who you are. And don’t forget whose you are, either.

[1] Willimon, William H. Remember Who You Are: Baptism, a Model for Christian Life. Nashville, TN: Upper Room, 1980, 105.

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Origin Stories and Jacob at the Jabbok

Sermon from August 10, 2014. Based on Genesis 32:22-31. Come see us for our 140th Anniversary Celebration next Sunday! Join us at church at 11:00 with lunch to follow in in order to celebrate 140 years of Christian Witness in San Saba County!

Origin Stories and Jacob at the Jabbok

I watched Guardians of the Galaxy last week. It’s one of those comic book movies, and it got me thinking about how comic book movies are kind of all the rage these days. When it comes to big summer movies its pretty much superheroes and sequels. They’ll make a superhero movie, and then the sequel, and the third one, and when the story line is all played out, what they’ll do is they’ll go back to the origin of the superhero, and write a new origin story. An origin story is a key device in these kind of movies, because the origin story tells us who the character is. So if you’ll take Batman for example, you’ll remember watching Batman movies and the tv show when you were a kid, and those campy elements like big comic book things like “ZAP!” and “BAM!” and “POW!” and “KABLOOIE!” would show up on the screen. But a few years ago they made a new origin story for Batman, and they moved to realism, and made Batman into a gritty, hard knocks streetwise hero fighting an international criminal conglomerate with little more than unlimited funds and a passion for justice.

Now origin stories are important for Christians too, or any community or individual. The story we tell for ourselves and the way we tell our story tells us who we are. We’re shaped by our stories, even as we’re shaping our stories. One of the big ways that we talk about this is in terms of giving “testimony.” We tell our stories. One of the problems that challenges the Christian community these days is that we’ve fallen into the habit of only telling one origin story for ourselves. We are all familiar with the story of Paul’s life, who was an enemy of Christ, and then converted and became a passionate convert for the Gospel, fired up about telling everyone about Jesus. It’s one of the most powerful origin stories in our Bible. The problem is that it’s so powerful, many of us think that it’s the only way a Christian can tell their story. We try to shoehorn our story to fit Paul’s outline, trying to show a dramatic conversion moment, or all the ways we were evil before we converted, and are better after. But that doesn’t always work? What about those of us who were raised as Christians, who have been following Christ our whole lives? We may never have experienced a dramatic conversion. Or someone who had always had a sense of moral good, but experienced God more distantly, or maybe through another faith. They were never an enemy of the Gospel, persecuting the faithful as Paul did.

What we don’t realize, is that there are so many stories beyond Paul’s, that can give us models for how we can tell our story and shape our lives. And I got excited when I saw that Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok, because it is just that kind of origin story, and in a way I feel like it’s my story.

The story of Jacob is the origin story for the community of Israel. This story of Jacob is the origin story for the community that calls itself Israel. This is the origin story of the name Israel; it’s the first time the word Israel shows up in the Bible. And when you look at later writings, Psalms, prophets, etc., you can see that Jacob, more often than the other patriarchs, is used as shorthand for the whole community of Israel. In the Psalms you’ll read sometimes, “The God of our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” But often you’ll just hear, “the God of Jacob.” or, “Listen up O Jacob, Listen up, O Israel.” When it comes to whom Israel is, this is that defining moment, that origin story for the people who would call themselves Israel.

Now as Christians, we consider ourselves heirs to the community of Israel, and heirs to the promises given to that community. If we didn’t, reading the Old Testament would just be a waste of time for us. And like any good origin story, this story tells us what it means to be a part of the people of Israel, the people of God’s promises. What it tells us is that a life of faith is a life of wrestling with God. We see this over and over again in the Bible, as all of the great characters wrestle with God. Abraham haggles, David cajoles and flatters, the prophets take old traditions and reinvent them to bring a word of God’s justice to the people of their time. Jesus and Paul also inverted and reinterpreted tradition, in service of their vision of a new Covenant and a new Kingdom, full of grace and peace and offered to all. In other words, wrestling with God is a fundamental part of what it is to be God’s people.

And wrestling with God is how I characterize my journey of faith. Like Jacob, I was raised in the home of people of faith, and like Jacob I wandered. And like Jacob, the earliest inklings of my own spirituality happened in darkness. When I was little I would stay awake at night and wonder, what might be out there? What might happen to us when we die? I spent my childhood trying to distract myself from my worries and my wondering. In church, I learned all the stories of Jesus, and the great heroes of the Bible, and I went to vacation Bible school every year, where we’d learn about the exodus, or the journeys of Paul. I loved church, all my friends were there. But as I got older I started dealing with harder questions. If God is good, why do bad things happen? What is the relationship between science and religion, what do stories like Adam and Eve mean if men really don’t have fewer ribs than women do?

My inability to answer these questions led me to doubt the existence of God. And for most of my adolescence, I wrestled with what it means to believe in God, and whether or not I could. I remember wishing that I could have the faith that my parents had, or that I had as a child. Not knowing where else to turn, I remember praying to God about my unbelief. I remember thinking if you’re praying about whether or not God exists, maybe you do believe.

Slowly, and with much anguish, I came to realize that I couldn’t let go. It seemed that faith had a hold on my more than I had a hold on my faith. I would look up into the tops of the trees and wonder if there was anyone out there, and then I would consider the incredible complexity and majesty of the trees themselves and the miracle of life, and wonder how their beauty could not be created. I thought of my community, that had supported and loved me all my life, had challenged me to grow, had taught me how to care deeply about the people around me, and the people far from me, people who had much greater worries than mine. And I thought that all that could come from somewhere.

I was stuck in that sense that I couldn’t let go of faith, or faith couldn’t let go of me, when we started going to a new church, and I met Pastor Ken. We didn’t have any youth or a youth group, so Ken offered to meet me on Wednesday morning at the Starbucks near my house. I told him about where I was spiritually, and he walked me through the many ways that others have struggled with the same things I did. He introduced me to theology and the theologians who had written about my questions and struggled with the same things I struggled with. Over my senior year, Ken taught me how to be a better wrestler, at least when it comes to spiritual matters.

When I went to college, I was no longer struggling as much with whether or not I believe in God. But I was struggling with what I should do about it. And once again I found a community that helped me grow. Through working with the youth at the Episcopal church in town, I began to see all the ways that my church youth group had cared for and shaped me, and helped me grow. And as I thought through my experiences, I realized how much power the church has, to change the way we live in this world, to make it a better place, a more righteous place. I came to believe in the power of the church to be a force for the reign of God, where through God the crooked would be made straight, the oppressed would me made strong, and our sin and iniquity would be taken away from us.

When I tell people my story of faith, I say that it has been characterized by wrestling with God. I still struggle with what it means to be a person of faith in a broken world. And on some days, I struggle with whether or not I can believe in God. On days like yesterday, when I learned that a 7-yr old shot an 8-yr old in the face in Houston last week. I wonder where God is in the world. But then I remember the words of James Muilenburg, a professor of Old Testament, who would say, “before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again” And I try. I realize the foolishness of faith as Paul would say it, but I hang on anyways.

Because here’s the thing about this origin story of Israel. When Jacob is wrestling with God, and he has been wounded, he refuses to let go. He says I will not let go until you bless me. And in my life, it has always been through the choice to keep wrestling that I have been blessed. I have been blessed through my faith, and I have been blessed through my doubt. God has walked with me in the darkest parts of my life, because I have refused to let go. And God has surrounded me with a community who will carry the promises for me when I can’t lift them, when I can’t find the strength to wrestle another day. The world is a tough place, and struggle is inevitable. But we are God’s people. And while being God’s people means wrestling with God, as Abraham and Jacob and David and Peter and all the saints before us show, if you can hang on, you may come out with a limp, but you will be blessed. This is my story. It too is not the only origin story in the Bible, for the Bible is a collection of many stories. What is your story of faith? And how does telling it shape your faith, and your witness, to the Lordship of Jesus Christ?

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The Skeptical Miracle

Sermon for this week is based on the story of the feeding of the 5,000 found in Matthew 14:13-21. Blessings on you and yours this week.

The Skeptical Hopeful Miracle

When I was in high school I heard a sermon about this story of the feeding of the five thousand that had an interesting twist on the situation. The minister painted the picture in which the people have all come out to see Jesus, and now it is late, and the disciples are worrying about how to feed them. The way we traditionally read the story is that Jesus blesses the bread and it multiplies, becoming more bread and fish, enough for there to be leftovers. And the minister said what if it didn’t happen exactly the way we think. What if this group of people was like any other group of people, some had prepared and some hadn’t, some had plenty, and some didn’t. And those who did have food were afraid to share with those who didn’t, because they were afraid there wouldn’t be enough. But when they see Jesus standing up before the whole five thousand, with just five loaves and two fish, being generous with almost nothing, the people with food are inspired (shamed?) to share their own food, and it turns out there was more than enough.

It’s a beautiful way of explaining the parable, and at 16 it was one of the best things I could hear. I was skeptical and full of doubt, and this was something that helped me reconcile my logical mind with the fantastic stories I was given as a child. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve started leaning back the other way.

The simple reason that I’ve started leaning back the other way, is that I’m not willing to give up on the belief that miracles can and do happen. When we take miracle stories and interpret them to fit into our modern definitions of what is possible and what is not possible, one of the first casualties is one of the great themes of the Bible. God makes the impossible possible. Our definitions of possible and impossible do not mean much to God. And refusing to search for natural explanations for supernatural stories is a way that I express my faith in the God of the impossible. In choosing the supernatural explanation I declare that God is alive and active in history even now. Not only do I believe that such a thing could have happened in Jesus’ day, I believe that such a thing could happen today.

The more complicated reason I’ve started leaning away from this explanation of the parable is that when we try to apply Enlightenment definitions of truth and fiction to the Bible, we usually miss the point. There was a little boy who used to go around telling people that God was left-handed. And when his parents finally asked him, “Why do you say that?” He said, “Because Jesus is always sitting on his right hand!” When we focus on how a miracle occurred rather than why a miracle occurred, we often miss the point the Gospel writer is trying to make. If we’re really interesting in understanding what these first Christians were trying to say, we can’t spend our time applying questions and categories that only make sense 1900 years later. If we really want to understand the message of the Bible, “What did it mean to them?” must inform “What does it mean to us?” In other words, when we focus too hard on trying to explain how a miracle like this could have happened, we lose sight of what the author is trying to talk to us about: why it happened.

So why did this miracle happen, and why was it so important that it’s the only miracle other than the Resurrection that shows up in all four Gospels? Matthew tells us that the reason this happened was that Jesus had compassion on the people who had crowded around. The feeding of the 5,000 is a story of Jesus caring and providing for those who need him. They bring their sick. He cures them. They listen until evening. He provides them food. What we hear in this story is that when we come to Jesus, he has compassion on us, and he can provide us what we need. And when we offer up our meager resources to God, they become more than abundant.

Another reason this miracle may have been important to the early Christian communities is the involvement of his disciples in the performance of the miracle. Jesus uses his disciples to perform this miracle. Jesus blesses and breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples, and then they pass it out to the crowds. It is through his disciples that the crowds experience the bounty of God’s providence. Jesus has compassion on his people, and he sends his disciples to provide for their needs.

And so it is for us. Jesus has compassion on them. The family with a sick kid and no way to pay a doctor. The ones who can’t find work and the ones who have work but still can’t pay their bills. Those stuck in refugee camps in Jordan and Syria, and those in jails and detainment centers here in the United States. The ones with no home and nowhere to go. Jesus’ has compassion on them, and he sends us with his blessing and not much else, a little bit of bread so that we can fill their bellies and their hearts.

Which brings me back to that old preacher’s explanation for the miracle, Jesus’ bold generosity that moved the crowds to action. Sometimes I wonder which is the bigger miracle, the idea that Jesus could make many loaves out of few, or the idea that Jesus could soften our stony hearts and make so many people share with their neighbors in need. There is a bit of unbridled hope in this skeptical version of the miracle. It expresses the hope, the belief, the faith, that we humans have the same capacity for compassion that Jesus had. And it expresses a reality that we are too quick to deny: We have the capacity for miracles within ourselves.

We don’t actually know what happened. If you read the story carefully, you’ll note that both interpretations are equally valid. And I don’t really feel the need to take sides on the issue. Because the more I think about it the more I understand that neither is any more or less miracle than the other. The miracle of God’s providence. The miracle of human charity. As often as not, they are one and the same.

On Easter Sunday, 1979, William Sloan Coffin gave a sermon about being an Easter people in a Good Friday world. He said “to live fully, bravely, beautifully we have to live together, to live lovingly. Then never mind if we are only a small minority. There is no limit to what love can do. Love is a miracle.” Love, he says, is a basket with five loaves and two fish. It is never enough until you start to give it away.[1]

[1] Coffin, William Sloan. “Living the Truth in a World of Illusions.” The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. p. 194.


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God is the One Relationship We Can’t Screw Up

Sermon from July 27th, 2014. The text for this week was Romans 8:26-39. May God’s blessing go with you this week and always.

God is the One Relationship We Can’t Screw Up

One of my mentors, Laurie McNeil, told the story of an old friend of hers when he was a young boy. He hitched a ride with his friend and his parents to family camp so that he could go up early. His parents had to work, and so they wouldn’t be able to get to family camp until the next morning. They told him, “You can go on ahead, just don’t get into trouble.” So until then, Bill and his friend had the run of the camp. They skipped stones in the lake. They caught crawdads in the creek. And they played this game where they took turns throwing a ball as hard as they could up against the wall of the fellowship hall. Until one of them threw the ball, and it went right through the sheet rock. When the director found out, he was furious. “You’re going to have to pay for the damage that you did!” Now the other boy’s father wasn’t pleased, but he was able to pay for his son’s half of the damages and send him on his way with a warning to be more careful. But Bill knew that his parents didn’t have any money to spare. Bill’s Mom and his Dad were both working all the time, just to keep Bill and his siblings in shoes and socks. Bill thought about how mad his Dad would be when he came up tomorrow to find out that Bill had broken a wall, and they would have to pay for the damages. He spent the rest of the afternoon ashamed of what he’d done and afraid of how much trouble he’d been in.

It’s the waiting, that’s the hardest part. When my brother and I boys, sometimes my Mom wouldn’t feel up to spanking us. She’d make us wait until Dad got home, and then present ourselves to Dad in his big leather chair and ask for him to give us the spanking. It was the waiting that was the terrible part. The spanking would just last a moment, but the waiting seemed to drag on and on. I couldn’t do anything to get it out of my head, nothing was fun because all I could think about was the fact that I was in trouble.

The waiting is the worst part because you know that something is wrong in your relationship. And it feels bad to have something wrong in your relationship with someone. Whether it is a harsh word that you had with a friend or colleague or an old wound that festers in your mind, it hurts to not be in right relationship with someone. That’s why we teach children how to apologize at such a young age, even before they can really understand what it means. To apologize is to seek to restore a broken relationship, and we know how important that is. To live life without apology is to live a life separated from and in conflict with our brothers and sisters.

Some relationships, however, are too broken for apologies. Sometimes we do more damage in our relationships than we have the ability to heal. There are conversations we will always regret. Friends we won’t get back. Conflicts that won’t be resolved. Other times, people refuse to see the wounds that they have influcted upon us. There are apologies owed, but never given. Relationships that end because the abuse will not stop.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul is talking about our relationship with God. Many of us struggle to be in right relationship with God. A sin at its very heart, is something that separates us from God. Sin, whether it is committed against God or our neighbor, damages our relationship with God. That’s why we come and confess each and every week. We apologize to God for the sins that we have committed against God and our neighbor as an attempt to restore us into right relationship with God.

I think a lot of us see our relationship with God in the same way that we see our relationships with other people. And for those of us whose lives hold the wreckage of broken relationships, failed reconciliations, and deep wounds, we can believe that our relationship with God, like our past relationships, can be too broken to fix. Or we simply find ourselves stuck. We know that the relationship has gone off track somewhere, but we don’t know how to repair it.

And for all of us who have gotten off track with God, Paul’s words to the Romans are good news. He tells us that our God is not a God who distantly withholds affection when we aren’t doing right. God is constantly seeking relationship with us. God is taking the responsibility to restore us to right relationship, and God has promised that it will come to a good end. In other words, God is the only relationship that we can’t screw up, because God is taking on the burden of restoring us to Godself.

And God does this by sending Jesus Christ to die for us and the Holy Spirit to intercede for us. In 2nd Corinthians 5, verse 19, it says “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” God placed Christ in the position of judge and redeemer. What happens when the jury and the defense attorney are one and the same? Paul says to the Romans, “Do you think that Christ died for you so that he could condemn you to death? No! He died so that he could raise you to life!”

What does it mean for us that God is the one relationship we can’t screw up? When you think you are forsaken, you are not. When you think you are forgotten, you are not. When you think you have made too many mistakes, broken too many hearts and bodies and relationships, and it is too late for you to be redeemed, it is not. Because neither death, not life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!

When Bill’s dad showed up at the church retreat center the next morning, the director was there to tell him what happened. He looked at the hole in the wall, and he looked at Bill. He didn’t say a word. And he asked the director if he could talk to him for a minute. Then he left. And he came back with drywall, compound, and paint. And without saying a word, he started patching up that wall. Bill was absolutely floored. Here he had made this mistake that was going to cost them money and one of their few weekend trips, and his Dad didn’t have a single harsh word for him. He just silently went in and repaired the breach.

This is the love that God has for us. This is who God is. When we have failed too many times, broken too much, hurt too much, God himself, in the form of Jesus Christ, comes in and repairs the breach. This is the kind of love that is hard to accept, but glorious to receive. It is the promise that there is nothing that can separate us from God, and that if we want to be redeemed and set once again into right relationship with God, all we need do is stay close and trust the one who has promised to make everything right. This is the love that we have in Christ Jesus. And if you have experienced that love, either from God or from God acting through someone else, maybe you can help someone else experience it too.

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Leaving the Weeds Until the Harvest

Sermon from July 20th, 2014. The text for this Sunday was Matthew 13:24-43. Praise God for the rain we received this past week!

Leaving the Weeds Until the Harvest

            One of the things that we love to do when it comes to parables is to explain them so that they make sense to us. Nevermind that some ambiguity would be expected with any text that’s from another culture in another language and written nearly 2,000 years ago. And nevermind that Jesus himself said that the parables were intended to confuse and confuddle, so that we would see and not see, hear and not hear. We like things to make sense. So we add little things to try and make sense of the parables in our minds. We like to provide backstories when people’s motives aren’t explained. The story that Cain’s offerings weren’t from the firstfruits of his field? The Bible doesn’t say that. But otherwise why would God reject his offering? But it makes the story make sense.

            For example, in the parable we just heard about the weeds in the wheat. It is a little baffling to people that the owner of the field would tell his servants not to take care of the weeds in his field. Weeding is a pretty basic part of gardening, right? Nobody expecting a good harvest would let the weeds grow out of control. The weeds will grow up and choke out the grain. So we go out looking for a way to make the story make sense. And like most people who read the Bible, we find what we’re looking for, whether it’s really there or not. Scholars have found a weed that looks like wheat until maturation, called the bearded darnel. So they say that must be the exact weed that Jesus was talking about. Nevermind that the Bible doesn’t say it and that’s not the point of the story anyway. We’ve found a way for the story to make sense.

            The problem with this sort of speculation (other than the fact that we’re studying ancient weeds instead of the Kingdom of Heaven) is that most of the time when we try to resolve these narrative fault lines with our own explanations, we end up creating bigger problems than we solve. For example, if the weed that was sown was indistinguishable from the wheat before maturation, how did the servants know that there were weeds among the wheat at all? My point is this: when it comes to reading the Bible, we have a tendency to inject our judgment, instead of God’s.

            The people to whom Matthew was writing had a problem, the same problem that has plagued every Christian community ever. They knew that their church had people who were righteous and people who were unrighteous. They knew that there were weeds among the wheat. And they wondered how do we distinguish between the righteous people and the wrong people in our community? How do we keep the wrong people out? In other words, how do we make sure that our community stays pure from evil influences?

            When Christian communities decide this is a problem, we decide to solve it. We try to judge for ourselves who is weed and who is wheat. And we try to eliminate the weeds. The problem, however, is that our judgment isn’t very good. We obsess over unimportant things and ignore heavier matters. We confuse people who disagree with us with people who disagree with God. We sow division in our church. When we try to judge for ourselves, we have a tendency to make things worse.

            This is a problem that is particularly pressing for us today. More and more people are placing their focus on keeping the weeds out of the church. They’re emphasizing doctrinal purity as a necessary part of being a member of the Christian community. Evangelical colleges and seminaries are installing litmus tests for their professors and purging everyone who disagrees. Prominent preachers are declaring that churches that disagree with them are “Satan’s church.” As if the enemy hasn’t sown his weeds in every church.

            In the midst of this concern about keeping the righteous separate from the unrighteous and anxiety that the kingdom had not come as they expected, Matthew relates to them a story that Jesus told.

            A landowner sows wheat in his field. But an enemy comes in the night and sows weeds right in with the wheat. When the seeds sprout and there’s weeds and wheat together, the servants are upset. It bothers them that there are weeds in with the wheat. They’re a lot like us. Like Matthew’s audience, when we discover that there’s weeds in our wheat we want to do something about it. We want to pull them all out! But the landowner says “No, don’t worry about it. Be patient.” The servants are confused. Isn’t this the logical thing to do when you have weeds in your field? Are you sure you don’t want us to weed the garden? But the landowner says be patient. If you try to pull the weeds you’ll just ruin the crop. We’ll let the reapers take care of the weeds.

            The reformers talk about this in terms of the church visible and the church invisible. The visible church is easy to identify. It’s made up all the folks who gather together on Sunday to offer prayer and praise to God. The church invisible is much more difficult. It is all those who God chooses to enact his plan of salvation for all the earth. And knowing as we do, that our world is full of weeds and like it our church is full of weeds (something the Reformers knew all too well), we understand that the church visible and the church visible are not always the same. There are weeds within the walls and good wheat without, and to claim to know the difference is to substitute God’s judgment for our own.

            So what do we do? The reformed answer, the Presbyterian answer, comes from this Bible story and others like it. We aren’t able to separate the weeds from the wheat, and that’s not what God asks us to do. Weed-hunts, when run by humans, often turn into witch-hunts, and we rip apart the ones bearing fruit in our attempt to make sure we’ve caught all the weeds. The parable suggests that it is not the weeds, but the effort to uproot them that will ruin the crop. And what that tells all of us, who live in messy and complicated world, full of weeds and wheat, is that our responsibility isn’t to decide who is good and who is bad and preserve the good and eliminate the bad. Weeds or wheat, our responsibility is to care for them all until the harvest comes. Who knows, other stories in our Bible suggest that people who once were weeds often end up bearing fruit after being exposed to good wheat. As Presbyterians we don’t claim to have all the answers. And we know that the world is messy and the church like it. We know there are weeds amongst the wheat. We simply say that we are people of God who are trying to bear fruit.

            And the good news, in the midst of this parable about being patient with our messy world, is that it isn’t our effort that will bring forth fruit, but God’s work done in us. Matthew sandwiches his parable about the weeds and the wheat around two short parables, of the mustard seed and of leaven, that tell us that the growth of the Kingdom of God is easier than it looks. Mustard was known for being a plant that was easy to grow and germinate, so much so that people were cautioned about where to plant it, lest it take over the rest of the garden. Such is the Kingdom of God. It only takes a little seed to take root and take over the field. And the leaven makes the dough rise overnight. No amount of kneading will help it rise faster or better. We simply trust that the yeast is good and the Kingdom will rise.

            All three of these parables suggest that one of the great challenges of Christian witness is being patient and trusting enough to see it bear fruit. So let the weeds in your garden grow. Plant seeds and wait for them to take root. Trust the yeast to make the dough rise. And God will take care of everything else.

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What If We’re Not Listening?

This week’s sermon comes from Matthew 13:1-23, which includes the Parable of the Sower and Jesus’ explanation of why he speaks in parables. May God’s light shine on you and yours this week.

What If We’re Not Listening?

            The thirteenth chapter of the book of Matthew is made up entirely of parables, and it begins with a parable known as the Parable of the Sower. The Parable of the Sower is a good parable to begin with, because it has a clear and easy allegorical interpretation. In fact, many of the foremost Parable scholars think that the Parable of the Sower may not have originated from Jesus for that very reason, that it doesn’t live up to the difficulty and obscurity of the other parables, and thus was likely an addition by a later scribe or author like Matthew. I think we might be chasing our own tail on that. When it comes to separating what came from the teacher from what came from those teaching about the teacher, the most that we can ever boldly say is, “I don’t know.”

            But the Parable of the Sower is a good parable to begin with also because it is paired with the only discussion in the gospels of parables themselves. Right after this parable, in all three Gospel versions, the disciples come to him asking “Why do you speak in parables?” And it’s a good question. Why talk in riddles when you could just say what you mean?

            “The reason I speak to them in parables,” he says, “is that seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” Jesus’ response suggests that he speaks in parables because of the blindness and deafness of his listeners.[1] He’s calling back to Isaiah chapter 6, when God calls Isaiah and tells him to prophesy deafness and blindness to the people of Israel.

            So if Jesus is speaking in parables because his audience is befuddled, what does he hope for parables to accomplish? I have always thought that the answer to this question is easy. Jesus tells parables to open our eyes and our ears. Jesus tells parables, common stories about common folks, because they are a much more effective means of getting his point across. The simple images of every day life make it easier for his listeners to understand. But I read an article this week that asked a question that turned that idea up on its head.

            Paul Achtemeier points out that if Jesus spoke in parables to communicate his meaning more effectively, then why would the disciples come up to him afterwards, befuddled and bewildered and asking him to explain? If parables are supposed to make it easier for people to get his meaning, why are the disciples banging down his door to ask what it means? The confusion of the disciples suggests that the purpose of the parable isn’t to provide clarity for our blindness at all.

            So if the parable isn’t intended to be a remedy for our blindness, then why use it? Ken Robinson, in a TED talk about education, told this wonderful story. It’s about a little six-year old girl, who hardly ever seemed to pay attention to anything they did in class. But they did this one drawing exercise, and she puts her head down and starts working furiously with the crayons. The teacher is intrigued, so he goes over to her and he asks, “What are you drawing?”

            The little girls doesn’t even look up, she says, “I’m drawing God.”

            “But,” said the teacher, “no one knows what God looks like”

            And the little girl, still busy with her crayons, looks up and goes, “Well they will in a minute!”[2]

            It’s funny to think about, but I think that’s where most of us are. We have a very specific idea of God, and we’re convinced it’s right and if you sit down for a second we’ll be happy to give it to you so that you can be right too. But she’s a little girl; she’s six. In the next week she’ll be this sure about a hundred other things. At that age I thought chocolate milk came from brown cows. Children try out new ideas all the time, and the moment they stop working they toss them out like yesterday’s paper. They aren’t afraid to be wrong, they’ll just switch to something that works better.

            But adults, on the other hand, we can’t stand to be wrong. So when we get an idea that we like we try to protect it. We invest in it. We learn all the arguments in favor of it and we avoid hearing the arguments against it. We close ourselves off to information that might challenge our ideas. We blind ourselves, without even realizing what we’ve done. And we hang on to that blindness with all our might. Maybe that’s why he said that unless you become like children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

            Achtemeier suggests that the parable may be intended to reveal our blindness. He says Jesus speaks in parables to show us that we’re blind. Let’s go back to that passage Jesus quotes in Isaiah. God tells Isaiah:

            Go and say this to the people:

            ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;

            keep looking, but do not understand’

            Make the minds of this people dull,

            and stop their ears,

            and shut their eyes,

so that they may not look with their eyes,

            and listen with their ears,

and comprehend with their minds,

            and turn and be healed.


            And turn and be healed. It’s a small phrase, you might miss it if you weren’t paying attention, but it suggests that when we give up on the idea that we can see and hear and comprehend, when we finally acknowledge how blind we truly are, we can turn to God and find the healing we were too blind to find on our own.

            So we’re walking along, mistaking our blindness for wisdom, and Jesus comes along, with these puzzling stories that make us scratch our heads. Like that a tiny mustard seed that grows up into a tree where the birds make their nests. You know I once was supposed to teach this to a group of Vacation Bible School students once, and I picked up some mustard seeds from the store, and I thought I’d go find a picture of a great big mustard tree so that kids could see how the parable was really true. I spent hours on this, trying to confirm my idea of what the parable meant (this was in the age of google, it shouldn’t have been that hard). Come to find out later that mustard isn’t even a tree. It’s a weed. Unfortunately for me the kids I didn’t realize my blindness until later. I showed them a picture of some scraggly looking thing that someone said was a mustard tree and tried to pretend like it was big. It was hardly as big as I am. I covered up my blindness by pretending to be excited about it, and teaching it to someone else.

            And so with this explanation about blindness, Jesus explains the parable of the sower, or the parable of the four soils. He says that the seed is the word, and the dirt is us, and he challenges us to be good soil. He highlights all the ways it can go wrong, if we’re soil that’s full of rocks that we’re hanging on to too tightly to receive the seed, or deeply rooted thorns that choke out new growth, or we’ve become so hardened that the message doesn’t even sink in.

            And when Matthew pairs this parable with Jesus’ explanation about blindness, I think it suggests that being good soil means acknowledging our own blindness. If we’re really going to hear the wisdom in the parables Jesus’ preaches, we’re going to have to suspend our own wisdom for a while. We need to look at the parables not to line them up with our way of thinking, but we need to read the parables so that we can line our way of thinking up with them. If the intention of the parables is to shock us in to realizing our own blindness, then we should read them with the expectations that they will shock and surprise us.

            When we read them, either to ourselves or in a classroom, we should be asking, “What blindness does this seek to reveal in me?” Because it is only when we can acknowledge our own blindness, and acknowledge that we’re not about to fix it either, that we can put our trust in God enough to turn and be healed. What Jesus wants for us is not to replace one bad idea with one better idea that we can twist and turn to fit what we agree with. What Jesus wants is for us to recognize that the only way to keep our nature from getting the best of us is relationship. It is to choose to be dependent on God, rather than on our own wisdom. If we’re going to do this following Jesus thing well, we need to follow closely, and that’s the challenge of being good soil. The challenge is to recognize our own blindness, and instead of looking for a cure look for a relationship with God, so that even in our darkness we find that we have a guiding light.


[1] Achtemeier, Paul. “Matthew 13:1-23” Interpretation, vol. 44 no 1 Jan. 1990, pp. 61-65.

[2] Robertson, K. (2006, February) Ken Robinson: How Schools Kill Creativity [Video File] Retrieved from: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity/transcript .

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The Freedom of Obedience

Here is the sermon from July 6th, 2014. Hope everyone had a wonderful 4th of July Weekend! The texts were Romans 7:14-25, and Matthew 11:16-30.

The Freedom of Obedience

A TV show I watch called Louie is about a single dad with two daughters, and in one of the episodes, they’re driving and one of the girls starts to complain that she’s bored. “I’m bored, bored bored bored bored bored!” she says. “Why aren’t you answering me!” And finally Louie gets fed up and says, “It’s because ‘I’m bored is a useless thing to say. The world is an amazing place and you’ve seen none of it.” And I certainly know what he’s talking about. When I used to work with youth they would tell me they were bored, and I’d say, “You have a phone that can play any game made before 2005, i.e. my entire childhood is in your pocket. You’re not allowed to be bored.”

Jesus, in our story from the Gospel of Matthew, has a similar problem and response. He and John the Baptist have been sandwiched between two opposite criticisms. They rejected John because he wanted them to repent in dust and ashes, and that was too hard, he must have been crazy. And now Jesus has come along, eating and drinking with tax-collectors and sinners, and they say he can’t be from God either, because they’re having too much fun!”

Jesus compares them to children, sitting in the marketplace with nothing to do. They refuse to dance and celebrate, but refuse to mourn and weep. And Jesus says to them, “Look, you have no excuse. If John was a madman for wanting you to fast and repent for your sins and proclaiming God’s judgment on the sinful people, you can’t be angry at me for refusing to fast and welcoming sinners into the kingdom.”

Have you ever been in a situation like this? Damned if you do and damned if you don’t? It doesn’t matter what you do, folks will tell you you’re doing it wrong? Somebody always has something to say. Or worse, have you ever caught yourself doing it to someone else? My dad always says, “If you ask someone to do something for you, you’ve got to let them do it their own way, you can’t sit over their shoulder and nitpick at them.” I try to follow that, I really do. But I’m not so good at it.

“Would you mind cutting up the squash?”

“Sure, how do you want it cut.”

“Oh, any way is fine….” (Then a few seconds later) “Oh but don’t do it like that!”

For most of us, I think we’ve been on both sides of this story. We’ve been judged, and we’ve passed judgment. We’re not that different from the folks whom Jesus was talking about. They weren’t happy with the way things were. They could see what was going wrong with the world. The way the rules had been twisted and abused to protect the few at the cost of the many. The way it was getting harder and harder for regular folks to keep their heads above water. But when people came around to try to do something about it, when John came proclaiming repentance, and when Jesus came proclaiming that God’s kingdom was at hand, they balked. They balked because as uncomfortable as it may be to live in an unjust society, it’s more uncomfortable to change it. They would much rather sit back and judge it.

And in order to justify their inaction, they tried to discredit John the Baptist and Jesus. They called John an extremist, because he said if you have a little extra you should give it to someone who doesn’t have any. And they called Jesus a punk, because he said if the righteous folks don’t want to come to the party, bring on the unrighteous. The kingdom is coming whether they’re ready for it or not. They called them names because they would rather do nothing than face the uncertainty of change.

But Jesus had more words for those who would ignore John’s message and his. He pronounced “Woe!” on the cities where he had performed signs and done ministry and proclaimed the kingdom. Woe to them because how could you see the deed of power that he had done, or heard his message of the Sermon on the Mount, and then go back home to your life as if nothing was different? He declared that those who chose the certainty of an unjust life to the uncertainty of the struggle to change it would face another certainty: God’s judgment.

Now we have to remember that wrath and judgment are not God’s nature, but tools that God uses to open our eyes and ears and draw us in to repentance. God’s judgment is not to cause brokenness but to uncover our brokenness that it may be healed.[1] It’s like the doctor who rips off a band-aid. It hurts, but it’s the only way to see and deal with the wound that’s underneath. Jesus reminds us that to ignore the world around us and criticize anyone who tries to fix it is just as bad as participating in it. If you’re not doing something to right the wrongs of our world, you’re a part of them. “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” he says.

Which brings me to Paul’s letter to the Romans and freedom. This weekend a lot of us celebrated our nation’s birthday. And on that day we like to give thanks for our freedom, we talk about how great it is to be free. And it is. But in our country we tend to define freedom as freedom from. We are free from people telling us what to do, or say, or believe. We’re free from anyone telling us where we can work, where we can live, or who we can worship.

But Paul talks about a different kind of freedom. Paul talks about freedom for. Paul doesn’t talk about freedom from doing what we don’t want. He talks about freedom to do what we do want, and that’s a lot harder to do. “I do not understand my own actions,” he says. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” Have you ever been there? You wanted to be healthy and save money, but you’re tired and hungry and cooking will take forever, so you end up having drive-through burgers again. You wanted to get stuff done today but you ended up just hanging out on the couch all afternoon. You wanted to be forgiving and generous, but you got so mad and carried away that you gave that woman a piece of your mind, even though it probably wasn’t her fault in the first place.

Being freed from everything doesn’t mean that you’re freed for anything. When you say you’re free from things, you’re saying that you are your own master. But more often than not, we aren’t very good masters. We become like Paul, doing exactly the things we don’t want to do. We end up being a slave to our own weakness.

So it comes to us to choose a different master. The people of Jesus’ time chose stability. Their fear of discomfort made them choose to live in it forever. Others choose moral certitude. We’d rather be right in theory than take the risk of being wrong in practice. Still others choose money, or success, or power, but in the end they all consume you, because there will never be enough, and the more you get the less it seems to solve your problems.

But Jesus offers us another way. He offers a different master, one who loves us. One who is Love itself. God wants what is best for us, he wants what we want but cannot get for ourselves. This is how Jesus can pass judgment in one moment and then say that his yoke is easy in the next. For in service to God we find perfect freedom, through him all things are possible for us.


[1] Saunders, Stanley. “Commentary on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30” WorkingPreacher workingpreacher.org. July 06, 2014. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2099> Accessed July 5, 2014

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A Cleaning Touch

Sermon from June 28th, 2014. The passages for this sermon were Mark 1:40-45 and Mark 3:1-6.

A Cleaning Touch

When I was little, and we were making a cake I’d always want to dip my finger in the cake batter. And my mom would say get your grimy little fingers out of my cake batter you are going to ruin it! You’ll have to wait; you can lick the spoon later. If my dirty finger touched just part of that cake batter, the whole of the cake would become dirty.

And if I didn’t wipe my feet when I came into the house, anything my muddy shoes touched would get muddy too. It’s a general principle in our world that when something dirty touches something clean, the clean thing becomes dirty. Otherwise we wouldn’t ever need to wash bath towels.

A long time ago I asked my mother what it was like to grow up during the time when schools were being integrated in Tennessee. She said, I don’t know what to say, but I’ll tell you a story. When I was in junior high, a couple years after our school integrated, I had an African-American girl in my P.E. class. She forgot her socks one day. I lent her a pair of mine. When I got home I told my mom that I’d lent my socks to that girl. And she said, “Now don’t you worry about getting those back.”

Do you think that little girl know that just one touch of those socks had made them unclean?

The leper did. He knew that all he had to do was touch someone or something, and it would be unclean. Can you imagine what it was like to be him? To shy away from touching and being touched. For everyone else to not just avoid touching but seeing you, because they believed that your disease was your fault. Would you be afraid to touch your own food? Would you be angry with everyone who talked about you behind your back, who refused to look you in the eye, who pulled their children close when you walked by? How much would it hurt to know that you could never hug your family again?

Maybe you know what it is like to feel unclean. Maybe you have been afraid to touch and to be touched. Maybe you have wanted friendship or love or human contact, but people withheld from you, because you were different, or unimportant, or bad. A friend of mine, when she was younger, went to school one day and all her friends weren’t talking to her, and she didn’t know why. She never knew what caused them to act that way. And they never knew how much it hurt her to be treated like that, how it made her question everything she thought she knew, even who she was. Maybe when this happened to you someone told you you deserved it. Maybe you believed them. Maybe you believed them because that someone was you.

For the leper whom Jesus touched, this shame was his life. He was abandoned by family and friends. He was dependent on charity, because he could not work for himself. And everyone told him that it was his fault, God’s punishment for some sin he’d committed. But he did not give up on hope. So when he heard about Jesus he went to him and he said, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” And Jesus reached out and touched him.

According to the rules of both our society and his, to touch this man should have made Jesus unclean. When someone clean touches someone unclean, they are soiled by that persons dirtiness. But instead, the unclean became clean. When Jesus’s clean hand touched this man’s diseased unclean skin, his skin was healed.

I go camping sometimes, and when I do I’ll bring iodine tablets or a water purifier pump so that we can have clean water. But last time a friend brought this Ultra-Violet pen light. All he had to do was turn it on, dip it into the water, wait ten seconds, and the water was good to drink. All it had to do was touch the water and the water became clean.

For Jesus it is that simple. All Jesus has to do is touch and you will be made clean. The holiness of our God purifies us, as Isaiah’s lips were purified when the angel touched his lips with a hot coal. He said, “This has touched your lips, and now your guilt is done, and your sins are forgiven.” To be touched by Jesus is to be set free from everything that forces us to hide, and to be released into freedom and wholeness.

Pay attention to the way this happened. The leper presented himself to Jesus, and Jesus touched him. Jesus took the initiative. Jesus touched him. All the leper ever did was present himself to be healed. Far too many of us believe that redemption is something that we have to create for ourselves, that it is our own sweat and blood and tears that will redeem us, and not the sweat and blood and tears of the man who died on the cross. To believe that is to believe that Jesus died in vain. But this story holds the truth for us: God will do all the heavy lifting. All we need to do is show up with a desire to be healed.

And pay attention to what Jesus says when he heals the leper. The leper says “If you want to you can make me clean,” and Jesus says, “I do want to. Be clean.” Jesus wants to heal us. Jesus wants to bind up our wounds and unbind our fetters. Too many people are allowed to feel unwanted, even in church. Too many people hear that you can’t have Jesus’ blessings until you have made yourself right with God. But Jesus does not withhold himself from anyone. Jesus wants to heal, and the ones he wants to heal are those who need his healing the most. Those who are well have no need of a doctor. And so Jesus wants to heal any who will be healed by him. His holiness is not some prize we earn at the end of our journey, but what he clothes us in so that we can make our journey.

In our other passage for today, a man comes to Jesus with a withered hand in the synagogue. Some in the synagogue knew that all healing had to come from God. And they had styled themselves God’s representatives on earth, so they proclaimed that all healing had to go through them. They established boundaries on God’s grace, they limited God’s healing to those who they thought deserved God’s healing. And they didn’t mind at all that their control of the means of grace made them powerful and important people. So when Jesus was in the synagogue they were watching to see that all their rules were followed, so that their role as middlemen would not be circumvented. There was a right and good and proper way for this man to be healed, and it involved waiting until Sunday and presenting himself to the priest, and paying the priest to give an offering in his name, and then and only then, God might see fit to heal the man.

But Jesus did not wait for the Sabbath to be over. And he was angry with those who tried to limit God’s power to what they could control, and he was sorry for all who thought that God could be limited in that way. And he said “Stretch our your hand.” And the man did.

Jesus didn’t worry about the rules that men wrote to give them control over God’s laws. Pay attention to what that means. You are under no one’s authority but the authority of Jesus Christ your Lord. That means nobody else controls your salvation. You are not dependent on anyone’s approval, judgment, or permission. Only Jesus can has control over your salvation.

Friends there is no better news than this because it is only Jesus who has the power to grant you that salvation. So take comfort, you who feels like every thing you touch goes wrong, because you need only to touch him and he will make you right. And take hope, you who are shamed and shunned and soiled, because he wants to touch you, and his touch will bring you wholeness once more. And take rest, you who are weary and tired from a life of struggle and strife. Because Jesus does not ask you to come to him, he comes to you, with the power to heal, the desire to make whole, and the authority to bring you to glory. Come and let yourself be touched by him, and be reminded of what has always been true. You are not defined by the labels others give you, or the sins of your past, you are defined by the fact that you are his, and his greatness will make you great in him.

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