Acts 3:12-19 Health and forgiveness through the risen Jesus
Psalm 4 The Lord does wonders for the faithful. (Ps. 4:3)
1 John 3:1-7 The revealing of the children of God
Luke 24:36b-48 Eating with the risen Christ
In our prayer of the day, we remembered that God, who is the author of all life, adopted us their children. We are born of earthly parents and adopted by God. Here at Bethlehem, we understand the spirit of adoption. We see it in action in our own lives. Would I be wrong to suggest that each of us see the children in the congregation as our own adopted family? But when I was a kid, I didn’t understand adoption as being a good thing. When I was little, my brother used to tell me that I was adopted, to put me off. My parents used to laugh and tell me what if I were adapted that would just mean that they had chosen me specially to love as their child. It’s obviously a good thing, even a great thing.Sometimes having siblings can be annoying and sometimes it’s a good thing. One of my most cherished memories of being with my brother was when I was visiting him one summer. He was in Army Lieut. Probably 23 or 24 years old. I was still in school, probably 19 years old. And I had just finished jump school and got to spend the rest of the summer with him in Stuttgart.
We went out to dinner one night and although we each ordered our own entrée they served it family-style. So were sitting there and I’m kind of nibbling on my dinner. My brother finished his plate and started on serving dish for his meal. When we finished that, he polished off the serving dish from my meal. Then he just casually reaches across the table and started eating off of my plate. Did I mention that he was 23 or 24? As a young bachelor, he didn’t really keep food in his house and would just eat when he was on post.As I try to tease out what is so very special about this memory I come to realize that sharing food creates and strengthens relationship. Eating together is a very humanizing experience. It’s hard to find an appetite when we feel angry or defensive and it’s hard to feel angry or defensive or afraid after a shared meal.
Maybe this is why he asks the disciples if they have anything to eat. “Come, we’ll break bread together, talk a little bit; you’ll feel better.” And so they did. Can you just feel the tension draining away as Jesus reminds them about everything they had been told before he was crucified? The world may seem like a dangerous and capricious place. Violence and chaos seem to rule, but Jesus says “no, this is how it had to be.” It is not possible to create a new way of being when the old way of being has a tight grip on our ways of understanding.
We will see the Rule of Heaven on earth, but not while our earthly ways rule our hearts and minds. When the psalmist writes “You mortals, how long will you dishon- | or my glory; how long will you love illusions and seek | after lies?”, they are directly addressing our limited ability to understand God’s creation and God’s intention for us. The social norms we hold as fixed and universal are illusions and lies. Countries have borders, but only because people believe in the concept of countries and take action to enforce a line in the sand.
Lately, I’ve been reading about social norms and the conflict that arises when they are challenged. the cycle of health, disease and healing. Living organisms are never healthy all of the time. Disease is a dimension of creation. It may even promote greater vitality by helping the body slough off dangerous viruses and bacteria.
This book also talks about the role relationships play in the cycle of health, disease and healing. Healthy relationships tend to promote health in the body. And God tends to heal through relationship. In our reading from Acts, Peter heals and then has to tell the crowd it wasn’t his own power or piety that healed but God working through him.
My parents had ulterior motives for making that summer happen for me and my brother. It was part of their long and steady work to get me away from an abusive boyfriend. They thought that spending a summer with someone who actually liked me might help me remember myself. To me this is just one more story about God’s long and steady work to bring out the best possible outcomes.
So, the next time someone leans over and says to you, “you gonna eat that?” remember, they are really saying “I love you.”
Psalm 133 How good and pleasant it is to live together in unity.
1 John 1:1--2:2 Walking in the light
John 20:19-31 Beholding the wounds of the risen Christ
Wouldn’t it be lovely to be a member of the church described in the story from the book of the Acts of the Apostles? We know how pleasant it can be when everyone lives in harmony. We long for a life, for a world, without sin.
But it’s hard to believe it could ever happen. We have so many examples of it not happening. Attempts to recreate the early church devolve and become cults, where the human leadership is worshipped. Rather than bringing people closer to God and the death of sin, they tend to expose people to abuses (the sinfulness of their leadership) and eventually lead people to their own physical death.
Expectations that the church on earth will be little islands of holiness, free from sin, disappoint us. Sometimes the difference between this idyllic image of church and the lived experience of church discourages people, not just from going to church but also from believing in God.
What if this story of the early church is told, not to create an expectation of what church should be, but is told to open our imagination to what church could be? What would the world look like if people could let go of their fear of death and meaninglessness? How would the world be different even if just one person let go of their need to feel important?
What if leaders could let go of the need to leave a legacy? What if all the energy that is going into building the Great Wall of Broken Relationship between the US and Mexico was instead spend on repairing the relationship?
What if I could completely let go of my fear of being taken advantage of? I know I’m a lot happier when I am not constantly on guard. And I think the people around me are too.
What if you could let go of your fear?
How beautiful when kindred live together in harmony. Then we could trust. Then we could believe.
But this story about Thomas isn’t about doubt. It’s not about the opposite of faith. It’s all about faith as relationship. It’s all about relationship as story.
In fact, at the Pastoral Conference this past week, we shared stories about relationship with God. Although we were not talking about this text, we did talk about faith. Ray Picket, a seminary leader, told a story about the Greek word for faith: pistos. In the ancient world, it was primarily used in terms of relationship, not as we use it today to suggest acceptance of a statement as fact.
We can look to our legal system for examples. Legally, we talk about parties “acting in bad faith”. This describes a breach of contract. The relationship between the two parties is broken.
We live in a world of broken relationships. Sin is best understood as a break in our relationship with God – although we tend to express this brokenness in our own fears of inadequacy in ourselves and others.
But God never forsakes us to sin. God never gives up restoring relationship with you. One of the ways God reaches out is through story.
When Thomas says he will never believe unless he touches the wounds, he is not afraid that the other disciples are trying to fool him or make fun of him. He hears their story about their encounter with God and his imagination is opened. He is drawn closer to God and wants his own story to tell.
Exodus 20:1-17 The commandments are given at Sinai
Psalm 19 The commandment of the LORD gives light to the eyes.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Christ crucified, the wisdom of God
John 2:13-22 The cleansing of the temple
The readings for today might lead us to question who has access to God and how we ourselves might be either helping or hindering others as they seek relationship with God. It’s like a toll booth that God waves us through, saying “your fee has been paid already.” God removes barriers and we keep trying to build new ones.
It’s in our nature. We can only understand our world through our senses. We can only understand our world within the limits of our hearts and minds. It is only natural that we try to constrain God to what we can know, or feel, or imagine.
Sometimes it’s helpful to approach scripture with the limitations of those people it was written for and by. The Israelites in our Exodus reading feel they have offended God. This part of their story is set in the desert, during the forty years of wondering toward the Promised Land. Moses was away, sojourning with God and receiving the commandments. Meanwhile, the people grew afraid and demanded a god they could see. A god they could understand. So, they gathered up all the gold they treasured among themselves, rings, bracelets, cups, whatever they had, melted it down and made a statue of a calf and called it god.
The reading from First Corinthians also points to the things the Greeks and the community of the faithful treasured. For the Greeks, it was rhetoric, their ability to reason and argue a point of understanding. For the Jews, it was a sign of God’s covenant with them, the Law.
We treasure what we can understand; things we can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. And we try to understand what we treasure, this God who created us and loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. Each of us.
The Israelites are asking themselves:
What do we as a community need to guard against so we don’t jeopardize our relationship with God?
How do we establish parameters around this awesome relationship to make it fit within our ability to understand?
Over the centuries, we lose much of the meaning and intention around this message from Exodus. Even the language of it seems so harsh. God is jealous? God punishes children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren for the misdeeds of the parents?
Even in the time that passes between the Exodus passage and the passage in First Corinthians, the people have lost the sense of relationship inherent in the covenant and begin to worship the covenant itself, that is the law, the commandments.
How might we unpack words like ‘jealousy’ and ‘punishment’ in order to reveal the relational tones? It doesn’t make much sense to ascribe to God a very human response of thinking one’s spouse has cheated because they are not good enough for them. God is not wracked with self-doubt. On the other hand, we might imagine a certain grieving for the gifts of relationship God knows we won’t experience when we try to create our own gods.
In turn, the ‘punishment’ might not be a promise of retribution for wrong-doing, but a description of how the wrong-doing will have consequences that feel like punishment and linger for generations. For instance, addiction experienced by a parent shapes the child, who in turn shapes their children. The consequences of addiction ripple through generations.
Words like ‘jealousy’ and ‘punishment’ just aren’t big enough to describe God and the relationship God seeks with each of us. They become little toll booths on our faith journeys.
So too, had sacrifices become little toll booths. The idea of ritual sacrifice was given to us as gift, so we might have some sign that it was okay to approach God in prayer. God does not need our sacrifice. We do. We humans can always find some reason to feel ‘not good enough’. We can always find some excuse to explain why we don’t approach God in prayer. God offers us something simple. This sacrifice was intended to be something inexpensive if you are poor and something valuable enough to feel right if you are wealthy.
Somewhere along the way, the well-intentioned faithful who sought to facilitate sacrifice and guide others toward God instead became guards of the temple, blocking the way of undesirables and profiting from anyone with means to pay their toll.
When John, the evangelist, tells the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, he’s really doing two things. First, he is showing God removing barriers, once again. Second, he is shifting the focus from the temple to the Body of Christ.
By this I mean not only the physical body that was crucified, died and was buried, but also all of us who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. We are the body of Christ and we are called to bear Christ to one another and to the whole world.
But what does that look like? Is it possible that our well-intentioned attempts to facilitate relationship with God actually become roadblocks? Might we be clinging to beliefs or practices that get in our way?
While I invite you into a space of self-reflection about the toll booths we may be creating, I also invite you to reflect on the many ways you and those around you do bear Christ to others. And I want you to be assured that each of you do bear witness to Christ.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 God blesses Abraham and Sarah
Psalm 22:23-31 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD.
Romans 4:13-25 The promise to those who share Abraham’s faith
Mark 8:31-38 The passion prediction
We are blessed to be a blessing; not a boss. We are invited, from the very beginnings in Genesis to be co-creators with God. On the sixth day, when God created human beings, God also gave them dominion over what had been created so far. This suggests that creation was not complete, but ongoing.
We are invited to shepherd the gifts of creation, expanding the blessings we have been offered. When instead we try to use the gifts of creation to bolster our sense of self, we are setting our minds not on divine things but on human things.
This is what Peter was doing. The suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus is a gift to all of creation. It is God calling each of us back to the Garden where we see God face to face. It is God saying “here I am, don’t be afraid.” Only Peter didn’t see the gift in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is too much to comprehend. Instead, he saw only his own loss.
When things get crazy in our lives and we can only see what we stand to lose, we tend to react exactly as Peter did. He didn’t like the path Jesus described, so he tried to intervene. He wanted to control the outcome. When things get crazy, we just want to be in control of something.
Jesus didn’t hold back when he answered Peter. In rebuking Jesus, Peter used the same word Jesus used to silence the demons. Jesus throws it right back at Peter and calls him Satan, the tempter. Peter has not been blessed with Jesus’ friendship in order to become his boss.
There is a similar dynamic in the Genesis story of Sarah and Abraham, but it is often remembered through rose colored glasses. There is more to the story than our readings today suggest. God spoke to Abraham three times about the promise to make of him a great people. First Abraham complained that his heir would be a slave of his household. God assured him that his own flesh and blood would be inherit the promise.
Sarah was impatient with God’s promise of a son for Abraham and doubted her role as co-creator. It is too much to comprehend. So, she pimped-out her slave Hagar to Abraham. To say that this was a common practice of the day does not make it any less horrific. Abraham and Sarah exploited another human being in order to claim their blessing. It gets worse. It always does when one person uses another. They despised Hagar for what they had done and they continued to mistreat her. They set their sights on human things, but God never loses sight of the covenant.
Nor does God lose sight of Hagar. She runs away from Sarah and Abraham into the dessert. She does this twice. The first time, God appears to her and blesses her with a similar promise. Her child, Ishmael, will be the father of nations. And Hagar does something no one else in the bible does. She gives God a name: El Roi, which means God listens. God listens even to a slave with no social standing, a slave who cannot even say what will happen to her own body.
God returns to Abraham a second time when Ishmael is thirteen and gives to Abraham a sign of the convenient.
The third time, God returns to assure Sarah that she is part of the promise. It will be her child who inherits the blessing. Because she is ninety years old, she laughs. She sets her mind on human things, and God rebukes her with silence until Isaac is born.
All of this is God calling us back to the Garden where we see God face to face. The covenant with Abraham and Sarah is to bless them with abundant offspring who will in turn bless all peoples with the knowledge that God desires to be in relationship with us. Each of us. Face to face.
You shall be a light to the nations. You are blessed, sanctified, made whole and you shall proclaim God to everyone that they may share in this blessing.
It is a lot to comprehend. How can we be so richly blessed? If God provides for us everything we need, won’t someone else get less? And who are we to be magnificent and powerful and whole? These are the questions that keep us from becoming the people God created us to be. They keep us focused not on divine things but on human things.
What would you do differently if you could let go of the desire to control the unfolding of God’s blessing in your life? How will you carry the light into the world?
Genesis 9:8-17 The rainbow, sign of God’s covenant
Psalm 25:1-10 Your paths, O LORD, are steadfast love and faithfulness.
1 Peter 3:18-22 Saved through water
Mark 1:9-15 The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days
Sermon — Driven into the Wilderness
Grace and peace to you from the God who created us, redeemed us and sustains us, Wisdom, Word and Breath of Life, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I’m stalling. I really don’t want to talk about the most recent massacre of children, by a child. I’d much rather hide from that ugliness. I’d much rather pretend everything is okay and that we don’t live in a country where these things happen.
In fact, I invite you to notice that third of the parking lot that was cleared of snow last week. Yup, that we me, with a shovel, practicing righteous procrastination.
It is true that humanity is growing less violent from age to age. Individually, we are far less likely to murder our neighbor and take their things. We don’t worry about armed men raiding the village to steal our food and property.
It is also true that humanity is growing more efficient in killing and more subtle in masking our selfish intentions. From generation to generation, it becomes easier to just pretend it’s all okay.
But we, as people of God, are called to face the brokenness of this world. To speak its name, to do justice.
God the Holy Spirit called Jesus “the Beloved” and drove him into the wilderness; that place where we are forced to acknowledge what is, rather than what we want it to be.
You might be thinking, “No, thank you. If that is how God shows love – driving a person into the wilderness – I’d rather go unnoticed.”
What if these two events are not disjointed opposites? What if the Spirit knows what must come next for Jesus and fortifies him by reminding him who he is and why he matters? Jesus is the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.
In this passage, the Evangelist Mark is invoking images from Isaiah. In a sense, beloved is a code-word for the messiah.
It is also worth noting that, while in the wilderness, he was tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. This sentence seems to progress from bad to good. Does that mean being with the wild beasts was a neutral experience? Or does it mean he was in the creation God intended, away from human pretense?
We seem to have two choices: to follow the Holy Spirit into the wilderness or to be led astray by the powerful people in civilization. And we seem to go back and forth with some regularity. Sometimes it is only hardship that reveals to us our dependence on God. The illusions of the civilized world lull us into a sense of self-reliance.
But we, as people of God, are called to face the brokenness of this world. To speak its name, to do justice.
Dare I say that our democracy is broken right now, that we only have the illusion of a government of, for and by the people? Our particular form of government in this country has always pitted the interest of commerce against the common interest. In general, governance and commerce are interrelated. Commerce requires stable infrastructure and governments need commerce to sustain them.
But today, in our country, and perhaps in the world, the balancing tension between governance and commerce is broken.
One symptom of this problem is the fact that we, as individuals, spend more time considering which car to buy than we spend considering which politician to vote for. It makes sense. A car requires a significant portion of our resources and the decision will impact us personally for years to come. A vote is just one among many and the personal impact is far less immediate.
Another symptom is our inability to “vote with our wallet”. We can write a letter to our representatives, but they are unlikely to be moved by this. If we try to go the next step to boycott their financial donors, we are stymied by the distribution of funds. Most corporations support Democrats and Republicans. And some are simply out of our reach. There is no way to put pressure on a corporation that profits in buying and selling other corporations.
Most people think it’s time to do something to prevent mass homicide and reduce gun violence, but our voices, our many and varied voices are not heard.
How do we, as people of God, face the brokenness of this world, speak its name, and do justice?
I don’t know, but I think it requires some time in the wilderness, listening to the Holy Spirit to find our truth and learning to resist the temptation to pretend it’s all okay.
Psalm 51:1-17 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. (Ps. 51:1)
2 Corinthians 5:20b--6:10 Now is the day of salvation
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 The practice of faith
Sermon - God Loves You, You Dusty Thang
God’s story, our story, is all about our fall from Grace in the garden and God’s work to win us back. Rather than abandoning us to death and grief, or letting us pretend death and grief do not touch us, God walks with us through it.
The psalmist proclaims
4Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil | in your sight;
We might want to take exception to this, especially if we have been on the receiving end of someone else’s evil. But what is sin but distancing one’s self from God? We do something we feel guilty about and we hide, just like Adam and Eve. We feel ashamed about what someone else has done and we hide.
What is God’s response to this?
To wash away the guilt and shame.
In a little bit, we’ll receive a symbol of this cleansing in the form of ash. Why ash? It is a primal cleansing agent. In the absence of soap, the ancients would use ash. Even today, ash plays a part in making soap. Perhaps you’ve made soap before and you know that all you need is water, lye and lard. Maybe you didn’t know that lye is produced by letting ash sit in water for a period of time.
Anyway, we sin, feel guilt or shame, lie to ourselves and hide from God. But God never leaves us in that place. Instead, God gives a symbol of the cleansing we think we need, so we can begin to live into the fullness of life God intends for us.
Again, the psalmist explains:
6Indeed, you delight in truth | deep within me, and would have me know wisdom | deep within.
Only the truth can set us free. Jesus is the way, the truth and the light. God does not abandon us to death and grief, or let us pretend death and grief do not touch us. Instead God reaches all the way to us through the cross and experiences it all with us.
2 Kings 2:1-12 Elijah taken up to heaven and succeeded by Elisha
Psalm 50:1-6 Out of Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth in glory. (Ps. 50:2)
2 Corinthians 4:3-6 God’s light seen clearly in the face of Christ
Mark 9:2-9 Revelation of Christ as God’s beloved Son
Sermon - Basking in the Glory of Christ
Being frightened and wanting to do something, this I understand about Peter. Suddenly things got real and Simon Peter needed to do something. Anything.
I imagine we can all relate, perhaps some more than others. I know that when I get stressed out Jan will gently offer up a project of some sort. For example, a few years ago, when my mother had her stroke, we flew back east and bunked with my sister. Jan and I would take one shift at the hospital with Mom and Dad, my sister and her husband would take another. I was fine at the hospital. I knew what to do. I was not so fine at my sister’s house. Until I noticed the lawn.
Now you need to know that my mother’s stroke followed my niece’s wedding by about two weeks – there was a reason the lawn was a little long. So, I mowed. In November. And I made artistic patterns in the grass. It was lovely. Until I discovered a water main had burst in the front yard. But then, this gave my sister a project.
Turns out there is a name for this kind of activity: righteous procrastination. Helping my sister by mowing the lawn was obviously much more important than grieving my mother’s health.
And it seems that Peter’s desire to make tents was more important than processing the presence of God right there in front of him. But there is a little more to the story. Peter is actually recognizing something about the situation that isn’t immediately obvious to us, because we don’t live and breathe the Hebrew Scriptures the way he did. Here I am not just talking about the words of scripture but the rabbinic interpretations, what later became the Talmud and is now the most significant text of the Jewish faith.
We have a hint in our first reading when Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Peter was also aware that Moses didn’t die in the regular way either. He was claimed by God and his body was never found. Because both Elijah and Moses joined God at the end of their time on earth, it was considered possible that either might be sent back to usher in the end times. Is occurs to Peter that the harvest time is near.
His offer to make tents is really an offer to prepare everyone present for the Festival of Booths. This was one of the three pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem made each year. This one occurred at the harvest time, and lasted seven days. People were instructed to make temporary dwellings, like the ones farmers set up in the fields during the harvest, eating and sleeping in these “booths”. The festival was also a time to remember the forty years of wondering in desert when God fed them with manna. Peter is suggesting that God is about to usher in the new age, the age of peace.
To which God answers, “close, but not quite.”
“Yes, the time of the harvest is near, no I don’t need you to make booths for the festival. Just listen to Jesus.”
Elijah is not the messenger of God. Moses is not the messenger of God. Only Jesus is God’s son. Only Jesus is the Messiah. Only Jesus is God made human.
When Jesus’ robes become a dazzling white, brighter than human hands could make anything, that was God shining through Jesus.
When Paul writes in Second Corinthians:
6For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
He reminds us of this metaphor of God as a light that no darkness can overcome. A light that guides our path.
And we don’t have to get busy preparing things. This is not a time for righteous procrastination. No. God says to us, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Isaiah 40:21-31 The creator of all cares for the powerless
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c The LORD heals the brokenhearted.
1 Corinthians 9:16-23 A servant for the sake of the gospel
Mark 1:29-39 The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law
The Bear and I were talking the other day and he reminded me that when I was little, my Mom and I would kneel at my bedside for prayer. How do you pray at bedtime?
(Posture and words “God bless ….”)
The Bear and I were also talking about the big game today. And that made me think back to when my children were little and played sports. Whenever someone got hurt on the field, the players would take a knee. They would stop playing and use their body position to let other people know someone needed help.
Sometimes we kneel in prayer to ask God to help someone. Sometimes we kneel during a game to let the grown-ups know someone is hurt. The people in our Gospel story today bring their friends to Jesus so he can help them.
Sermon — Hut 8, 1, 4 Hike!
My peace I give to you. I start here because I may have annoyed some of you with my children’s message. You may think I was deliberately trying to invoke images of professional athletes disrespecting the national anthem. You may think I was “poking the bear” so to speak.
If the eighth commandment comes to mind, you might work with this first impression. The eight commandment is “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Luther explains this to mean that not only are we to tell the truth but we are to interpret our neighbor’s actions in the best possible light.
If you’re working with that first impression of me poking the bear, you might recall that I’m neither a news hound nor a sports fan. And that might lead you to interpret the children’s message at face value and think that I was just being a clod. You would not be too far wrong in thinking that I had not made the association on my own.
And here is where the sermon begins. What if someone pointed out the connection to me and suggested that I risked offending people, and then I had a few conversations with some of the people that I might offend and reached an agreement with them that this situation is a darn good sermon illustration? This is what happened and is probably the best possible interpretation of my choice for the children’s message.
The whole series of conversations around this idea of taking a knee are a study in healthy conflict. There is a lot of controversy and there are deeply held convictions that differ from one another. For the sake of the gospel, I will keep my opinions to myself. For the sake of the congregation, I will hold this up as an example.
When we focus on ideas instead of people, we can talk about anything, even how people might be affected by the various options proposed to resolve the conflict. When we remember to interpret our neighbor’s actions in the best possible light, we are immediately rewarded in two ways. First, we ourselves can remain calm and non-defensive. Second, we keep tensions from escalating. Each commandment has an inherent reward. This is why God gave them to us.
Luther begins his explanation of each commandment in the same way “We are to fear and love God.” Fear and love are pretty basic emotions, when we experience them both at the same time, we experience awe. God is awesome, far beyond our ability to comprehend and is deserving of our respect.
The first commandment is “You shall have other gods.” Luther asks, “What does this mean? We are to fear, love and trust God above all things.” Even more than we trust ourselves. Even more than we trust our firmly held convictions.
The letter from the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth is built on an idea like this. They were a church in conflict; that is to say, they were a church made up of human beings and not so very unique. In a recent issue of The Christian Century, Douglas Campbell, a professor of New Testament at Duke, suggests the church in Corinth could have benefited by being nicer to each other. Indeed, in the excerpt we read today, Paul seems to be distancing himself a little bit even as he offers to be closer. First, he reminds the people that preaching the gospel is not a consulting job for which he is paid handsomely. Preaching the gospel is an obligation laid on him, and woe to him if he does not do so. Next, he empties himself. He reminds the people that it’s not about him. He says, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
This being “all things to all people” is something a real person can only do one on one, one at a time. I’m not talking about my role in this congregation, but our responsibilities as Christians. Delivering a sermon on a Sunday morning is only one way of proclaiming the gospel. Being community is another. Helping our neighbor is another. Praying for each other is yet another.
But how can we do this if, instead of trusting God above all things, we try to be all things to all people, all at once? When everyone tries to be heard, no one is listening. When everyone is waiting, no one is doing.
Authority is a thing easily abused and a thing rightly to be questioned and held accountable. A principled use of authority is specific in duration and purpose. For instance while our parents are always our parents, even after we are grown, it would be an abuse of power to continue to treat us like children after we are grown.
God gave authority to Jesus to heal the sick and to cast out demons and to proclaim the Word. And God gives us authority and responsibility as well, so that things will go well for us and we will live long on earth. We are Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, blessed to be a blessing. Healed, she hosts the community to meet Jesus. We are the whole city gathered at the door, bringing the sick and possessed to be cured. We are the sick and possessed, accepting the help of our neighbors to bring us to Christ.
The prophet speaks with God’s authority
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Limits to liberty: the case of food offered to idols
The healing of one with an unclean spirit
Prologue to the Sermon (Morning Announcements)
Good morning and welcome to worship this 4th Sunday after Epiphany. Later today, we’ll celebrate being church together with, what is essentially, our annual mid-winter family picnic where we catch-up with each other about what’s been going on this past year and what we hope the coming year will bring.
Our readings today and this past week at Bethlehem point me toward one theme in my sermon: conflict between individuals and God’s choice to let it play out while also working to bring about the best possible resolution. In order for it to make sense though, we all need to know what the conflict was. Essentially, the council told me what they were planning and that there was no room for discussion. I felt silenced and reacted badly. Very badly. The sermon is not only an explanation and an apology, but more importantly it points to God’s work among us.
Also, I want to share a word about personal boundaries. I want you to know that I feel pretty good about my own boundaries, about my ability to choose what to disclose about myself, when to disclose it, and why. In my role as pastor, the “why” is always about you.
Sermon - Bear With Me
Sometimes I wonder, what the devil thinks we are capable of, that it works so hard to block our ministries in the world. Right now, I’m thinking maybe these occasions for stumbling could actually be the convulsions of the unclean spirits Jesus is casting out again and again.
In the ancient world, the idea of people being possessed by demons didn’t seem weird or superstitious. Not so today. At best, you hear my talk about the devil and unclean spirits as metaphor and are wondering where I am going with this.
Today the metaphor we most often apply to unclean spirits, or demons, is life experiences that continue to haunt us. Sometimes the demons that haunt us cause us to hurt others.
Another thing that was common in the ancient world was too take on the teacher’s name and share what you learned from them as if speaking in their voice. So now, I’ll put on the mantel of the Apostle Paul, who wore the mantel of Jesus Christ, and try to share Paul’s message for us, here today.
1Now concerning our personal demons: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary people-skills for the occasion. I speak from first-person experience here. 3But anyone who loves God is known by God. 4Hence, as to unclean spirits, we know that none of our demons is stronger than Christ and that “there is no God but one.” 5Indeed, even though we know that our demons can drive us to idolize things that actually hurt us, things like affluenza and addiction, pride and lust for power, and even a certain love-hate relationship with our demons, so that we are reluctant to let them go—6yet for us there is one God, the Mother/Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Over human history, the world has come to know that your demons open a back door to your heart. And so, we guard our demons and try to keep them hidden, sometimes even from ourselves. We who are in Christ know that nothing we do or experience can separate us from the love of God. We know that our choices about when and what to share about those experiences do not bring us closer to God. 9But take care that this liberty of ours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, choosing to hold back parts of your story, that is, hesitating to be vulnerable to relationship, might they not, since their conscience is weak, also hesitate to be vulnerable to relationship? 11So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if my choice to withhold part of my story is a cause of their falling, I will share, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
Last week, my own demons where crying with a loud voice and convulsing me and causing distress in others as Jesus cast them out yet again.
What caused this? An unexpected gift.
I hate gifts, especially gifts that were unexpected, or expected, or have expectations attached to them. Have I ever mentioned that I hate Christmas? Gifts are everywhere. We are expected to give the perfect gift at the right time. We are expected to receive gifts graciously and behave a certain way regardless. But a gift tangled with obligation is not a gift.
Of course, there is another reason I hate Christmas and am mindful that children are vulnerable when adult family members visit out of a sense of obligation and make poor choices because their demons are raging. There is a reason I am so passionate about standing between the vulnerable and those who would hurt them.
I kind of knew, as an adult, that my grandfather touched me inappropriately, probably when they visited for Thanksgiving and Christmas. And I kind of remembered my sister asking me, when I was in my late thirties, if there had been any weirdness with Grandpa when we were kids. I told her I didn’t think so. She doesn’t remember asking or what caused her to ask. Maybe it didn’t happen, doesn’t matter either way. The point is, I think this may have been the work of the Holy Spirit readying me to face my demons.
But this business with Grandpa is just the tip of an iceberg that had nothing to do with him.
My faith story is most influenced by a memory I don’t quite have. Something happened when I was little, maybe three years old, not quite four. Best I can figure, I was blindsided and sexually assaulted. I have a sense that Jesus came to sit with me, to distract me and to protect my developing psyche. He promised to help me deal with it when I was ready.
Apparently, he thought I was ready in my late thirties when I decided to go to seminary. I was taking a class on pastoral care. The practical portion of the class included video tapped role play in groups of three, where each person took a turn being the time keeper. The pivotal moment came when the only man in our triad tried to hand me his watch. I gave him a look of utter distain and refused to take it, until a split second later I understood it was my turn. On the video tape, you could see the shock and hurt and despair in his face.
The follow up conversation with my professor led me to seek counselling in order to understand, as she put, why I was pole vaulting over mouse turds. She put me in touch with a gifted therapist who helped me understand 1) that grandpa’s behavior was not acceptable and 2) that the hole in my memory was worth acknowledging.
The gaping hole in my little child boundaries was a lure for the demons who haunted my grandfather. And his giving of special gifts to me is intertwined with his behavior and something I can’t quite remember. The therapist also taught me that some pedophiles use special gifts to groom a child.
Fast-forward to today. God knows I haven’t finished dealing with the sexual trauma of my childhood. God knows that wounds can never be un-experienced, only tended. And maybe God knew I needed and was ready for another major tending.
The events of Thanksgiving and Christmas always stress me out, but I love the worship services. The many conversations about #MeToo and talking with the confirmands about the commandments and relationships and personal boundaries were excellent and helpful I think and also stressful. And vacation time with family, no matter how wonderful and loving and free from obligation, is stressful. It just is.
But remember God nudges us toward healing, always working toward the best possible outcome. Sometimes, I complain and ask God to be a little more obvious about the nudges, but this week I finally had to cry out, hey, you’re being a little heavy-handed here.
Anyway, with God’s help, I understood the council was not trying to blindside and silence me, but were offering a gift, prepared for me out of great love and concern for my time of rest. With this gift, they were also offering to be the fall-guys with tough recommendations about our budget. Realizing this, the events of the past week began to make sense. It was a water-shed, ah-ha, kind of moment and perhaps a turning point in my growth as a pastor and as a person.
I had opened this unexpected gift and looked at the givers with utter distain and refused to take it. Because I was pole vaulting over mouse turds, I developed tunnel vision. It is no wonder they reacted with shock and despair and anger.
I also came to understand something about the watch. My grandfather gave me a grown-up Timex watch when I turned four. It’s no wonder it took a watch-related incident to open me to the possibility of healing. And it’s no wonder my perception of being pressured to meet a certain timeline threw me into a tizzy.
In Mark’s gospel, we don’t know what kind of a relationship the man with the unclean spirit had with the other people in the temple. Was he a member of their community or a complete stranger to them? What impact did this unclean spirit have on them? And why did Jesus first silence the demon, then cast it out?
But if we note the similarity between that man and this woman, we know that neither could ask Jesus for help. Only the demon could call out to Jesus.
Jesus sees our needs and helps us.
Seeing the very obvious work of the spirit here at Bethlehem, not just this past week, but from the congregation’s very beginnings, I have great faith that God wants to use the work of our hands and will find ways to help us.
Luke 1:46b-55 You, Lord, have lifted up the lowly. (Lk. 1:52)
Romans 16:25-27 The mystery of God revealed in Jesus Christ
Luke 1:26-38 The angel appears to Mary
Sermon — ImpossibleThings
Do not be afraid, for nothing will be impossible with God.
But God may not provide the impossible things we think we want when we want them.
David tried to box God in and that didn’t work out as he expected. When he told Nathan that he wanted to build a house for God, Nathan reminded him that God is with him. Go ahead, favored one, he says.
But God has something else in mind.
Who knows what had been on Mary’s mind before Gabriel showed up. David thought he should build a permanent structure for the ark of the covenant, but Mary became the ark of the covenant in an embodied sense. I can’t imagine it ever occurring to anyone to wish for that.
I also can’t imagine being as calm as she seemed when an angel appeared before her. Perplexed and pondering don’t quite do justice to what I might be feeling in similar circumstance.
“Do not be afraid, Mary” Yes thank you for that. I certainly would have needed to hear those words. The Rev. Dr. Shively Smith, from Wesley Theological points out that these “…words of assurance have purpose. They offer comfort when the status quo is about to be altered and the rhythms of the everyday about to be disrupted.”
Nathan assured David about building the house for God, but God had other plans. David is not to build a house for God, but God is building a house for David, a house that will last forever.
We might not have a hard time with that promise, but what about the other things we hear in second Samuel?
“I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel;” True enough, God did that.
“and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you;“ Well, maybe up to that point. David had been very successful in battle.
“and I will make for you a great name,
like the name of the great ones of the earth.
And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more;
and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly,
from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel;
and I will give you rest from all your enemies.”
Things just didn’t work out that way. Eventually the people of Israel were over-run by their enemies, the temple that David’s son Solomon had built was destroyed, and the peoples were scattered among the nations. Human greed and avarice seemed to gain the upper hand.
We might wonder if the status quo will ever be altered. We might wonder if the rhythms of the everyday will ever be disrupted. One might especially wonder about this if they have been out driving in this snowy, shopping frenzied, weather. I was out in this mess on Wednesday. Some last-minute prep for youth night. And you know, when the weather gets like this, people often ask about the Mini Cooper. How does it do in snow? Quite well actually, as long as the snow is not deeper than our eight-inch ground clearance. So anyway, I’m out among the million me-first shoppers as the temperature is dropping and the snow is getting higher and like them, I just want to get home. I’ve just left Costco and am heading toward Laurel Road on King Ave. Cars are just crawling up the overpass and I’m beginning to worry I won’t have enough momentum to carry the car through any loss of traction, when, surprisingly enough, it simply stopped moving. Yes, that was me causing the rush hour traffic jam. Four cars ground to a halt behind me.
All I can think to do at this point is to back down the hill a bit and try again. So, I get out of the car to get the other four cars to back down a bit also. While I’m out there, I see someone else has now stalled on the far-left lane, which means that now everyone is trying to squeeze through the middle before they lose momentum also.
Meanwhile the passenger of that car has gotten out and is trying to push the car up the hill. Up to this point no one seems to be thinking about anyone else, so I go over to help push. I have no delusion about being much help muscle-wise, but have seen how big guys jump in when they see a short middle-aged woman attempting the impossible.
And they did. And we cleared that car. Then we went back to the other side of the road to clear the cars behind me. Well the first car behind me wasn’t actually stuck, they just couldn’t find a break in the traffic. By this time, I’m feeling cold and annoyed, so I step into the middle of the road and signal the cars to stop. Did I mention, that is was youth night? And that I was wearing my collar? And that I had rather forgotten that detail?
Well, the cars not only paid attention, they seemed a little more considerate and cooperative after that.
This is not always the response the collar evokes. But at that time, in that place, I think people saw it as a symbol of God working in the world and a reminder of the best of Christianity. The status quo seems to endure, but God breaks through, bit by bit.
When the angel visited Mary, that was God breaking through. We think of the birth of Jesus the Christ as the main event. As something big that happened two thousand years ago. It changed everything but it seems it have changed nothing.
We do not live in peace; we are still afflicted by evildoers. When will this rest from our enemies be granted?
When we ask these things, we are building a box of expectations around God. Just as God asked David, we might ask ourselves: are we the ones to build a house for God? Are we the ones to decide God’s actions and God’s timing?
Or we might ask ourselves, are we the ones to bear Christ into the world, to be a symbol of God’s love to others? Little by little, day by day, God is breaking through to us, through us.
Each time we share the courage of young Mary and say “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” God makes possible peace and rest from our enemies because we see no one as an enemy. And God changes hearts so that someday there will be no one who desires evil.
Do not be afraid, for nothing will be impossible with God.
Psalm 90:1-8 9-11 12 So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Be alert for the day of the Lord
Matthew 25:14-30 The story of the slaves entrusted with talents
Sermon – Perception is Everything
This parable about the talents can be interpreted in so many ways, depending on how we perceive God.
My first boss used to say, “Perception is everything.” He was right, and wrong, and it all seemed so arbitrary. We can’t control how others perceive us. And yet, their perception can change our lives in very real ways.
Think of the kid in school who has a “reputation”. We don’t even have to hear what she has a reputation for, because we have a pretty good idea. Are we going to let our kids go to a party at her house?
Even without social media, rumors, true or not, tarnish reputations and sometimes ruin careers and bankrupt businesses. So, yes, perception is everything.
When this parable of talents is presented as proof that God does not want you to be poor, it becomes terrifying and impossible and so arbitrary. I recall a conversation from way back, when I was studying theology in Seattle, before seminary. I was getting a haircut and when the stylist learned I was going to school, she asked me about this parable.
She started by saying “God does not want us to be poor.” Thinking she meant “God wants us to take care of the poor,” I nodded in agreement. She went on to say that those who have much will be given more, and those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
The divide between rich and poor does seem to expand, generation by generation. The poorest person in biblical times struggled to find food, shelter from the elements, and protection from other people. This was true a thousand years later, and it’s true today. The wealthiest people in biblical times had servants to prepare their food and build their shelters and protect them from other people. But even the wealthiest were not as warm in winter as the poorer people are today. And they could not expect to live any longer than the poorer people do today. The baseline of abject poverty seems to stay steady, but the available riches seem to increase, day by day.
When we take this parable to mean that “God does not want us to be poor” it makes sense that the increase in available riches should be given each according to what they already have. When we perceive wealth as blessing, we impoverish the poor. Perception can change lives.
And that seems so wrong, so arbitrary. So far, I’ve been talking about one possible interpretation of this parable, but what if I told you this parable is all about perception? Some might say the talents represent faith. If you have much faith, it will increase, if you have little, it will wither and die. I think these talents represent our perception of God.
Think of it this way: that kid with the bad reputation throws a party at her house. You decide to go, because everyone is going. It will be the event of the season. When you get there, you see all of the important people there, having fun, enjoying each other’s company, and happy to see you. Everything is fine, until you realize they aren’t just there for the food and the fun. They aren’t there despite who is hosting, rather they are there because of the host. If that seems all wrong, it will be hard to focus on anything else.
If a person thinks God is all wrath and judgement, they are likely to spend their time worrying about the behavior of others, fussing and judging and trying to save them. If a person remembers that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, they are more likely to enter into God’s joy, sharing and multiplying the blessing.
The enduring foundation of God’s salvation
O LORD, your steadfast love endures forever. (Ps. 138:8)
One body in Christ, with gifts that differ
The profession of Peter’s faith
Sermon — Mystique & Banality
Messianic secrets. The mystique of charismatic leaders. The banality of evil.
Into all this mist and mire, smoke and dust, enter Jesus.
“Who do the people say that I am?”
In the turmoil of reflection that is my creative process, I’ve been grappling with the fascinating, yet horrifying book called Hitler’s Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss. And I’ve been grappling with American politics and current events.
Amid monuments and violence on both side, yes on both sides, and media that isn’t news, and media that isn’t even diverse in ownership, and Nazi propaganda and vague but inspiring speeches, I wonder, how did Hitler come to be seen as a savior of his people? A messiah.
The messiah was nothing like this! I shudder to think that Hitler was taking a page from Christ’s playbook. But it’s possible that people aspiring to greatness try to take pages from Hitler’s playbook.
A narcissist would never ask “Who do the people say that I am?” That would be to risk too much. They need to believe they are adored by all. They need to believe they are god-like.
But Jesus did ask, and the disciples said “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” These are people sent by God to share a message from God. People sent by God to lead people back to God. These were not people who believed that they could become like gods.
You are God-Incarnate, but you are not God. We’ll come back to this because it is important, it is the key.
“But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.
And Cephas answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
To us, who know the story, this is obvious. But what Simon Peter is saying is that Jesus isn’t just a person sent by God to lead people back to God. Simon Peter is saying that Jesus has a kinship to God that is closer than other people’s. Cephas knows that Jesus is not just another prophet.
Jesus rejoices because this is an expression of faith. An expression of the kind of faith that is the gift of the Holy Spirit. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
He doesn’t say to Peter, “you rock!”, but he says you are a rock! Not a rock star, not world leader, but a rock. When he says, on this rock I will build my church, he is not making Peter the foundation and leader of the church as we know church. One might even suggest that he isn’t talking about church as we know it at all. The word ekklesia, which we translate as “church” in a fuller sense means, “people called out from the world and to God”.
Certainly Jesus is playing with words. But it would have been clear to the listener that the rock that is Peter is not the rock that is the foundation of the church. It would have been clear because the language they spoke, Aramaic, and the language the gospel was written in, Greek, are grammatically gendered. The rock referring to Peter is grammatically masculine and the rock referring to the ekklesia, and the ekklesia, are grammatically feminine.
Jesus was playing with words, but he wasn’t laying the foundation for a cult of personality.
The Holy Spirit has gifted Peter with faith and that rock of faith is what will call people out of the world and to God. Further, Jesus tells Peter that he will give him the keys to the kingdom.
It’s tempting to think that Jesus is referring to some secret knowledge here. Especially when we read this together with the last verse of today’s reading “he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
Secret knowledge is a key element of charismatic leadership. Hitler had Goebbels to build up a mystique of messianic power, an aura of god-hood, around him. Goebbels is considered by many to be the founder and best practitioner of propaganda. Hitler himself was very careful to never offer proof to the contrary. He never offered details about how he would lead his country to greatness again. In fact, he didn’t participate in planning much of anything. Alone he made decisions and set directions. He followers were free to implement these directions and achieve these goals as they saw fit. Here is the really terrifying premise of this book: Hitler gave voice to the baser fears a person tries to rise above, he validated racial hatred, and he gave people permission to act on those fears. He never condemned violence. He did distance himself from specific acts of violence, but he never condemned it.
But Christianity is no more about secrecy than it is about violence. Regardless of how many leaders throughout the ages try to leverage Christian faith to their own advantage, ekklesia is not about political science or controlling the masses.
And Jesus does not keep secret the keys to the kingdom. He begins right away. First, know that heaven and earth are bound together, nothing happens on earth that is not experienced in heaven. This is what he means when he says “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The Gospel of Matthew devotes the next four chapters to demonstrating and explaining the kingdom of heaven.
It all points back to the commandment: love God; love others as you love yourself and it’s corollary: God loves you, so completely, so fully, as if you were the only one; and God loves everyone else the same way.
It’s is difficult to know which is harder to accept, that God loves you unconditionally, or that God also loves the other person unconditionally. When we can accept these teachings, the incarnation of God that is in us shines through and ekklesia happens, the kingdom of heaven is opened.