It’s Worth It

Text: Matthew 10:24-39

I think it’s safe to say that for the disciples, being associated with Jesus is a dangerous thing.
Are you with me?
Week after week, As we’ve journeyed with the disciples through the readings we constantly hear Jesus warn them that following him will not be easy to say the least.
It will involve risk.
And not just little risks, but risks to their freedom, their personal safety, even the safety of their families and friends.
With every step, their very lives are on the line.
To us modern Christians, it might seem strange that the teachings of Jesus could be so dangerous.
It seems strange that lives marked by love, equality, forgiveness, and justice would be such threatening forces.
But it’s important for us to remember the context of Matthew’s gospel.
Remember the power of the day was the Roman Empire. And Rome crucified those who threatened its control over society. It’s how they maintained their control.
And any movement, regardless of how seemingly peacefully, would be perceived as a threat and dealt with severely.
This is the reality of empire.
Empire makes no room for co-existence.
Empire does not compromise.
Empire sets the rules and stomps down any resistance- any questions of or challenges to
its authority.
And yet, in spite of all this, Jesus urged the brave disciples on.
Warning them of the risks but encouraging them of the rightness of the cause.
That serving the God of Creation is far more important than serving Empire.
But for many, it will challenge the usual way living.
Because God’s way doesn’t conform to the realities of the world.
In fact, it’s often the opposite of customary norms.
And with that comes great risk.
The way of Christ was a call to resist the norms of empire—
the oppression of the weak,
the hoarding of resources so few had much, and many had little.
a life lived under the shadow of fear
Jesus and his disciples resisted these norms, challenging them— speaking up for the oppressed and encouraging lives marked by sharing and equality.
Jesus and the disciples describes a life where fear didn’t have the final word
that trust and hope were the guiding forces.
But this didn’t make it easy for the lives of the disciples
It complicated not just their interactions with the authorities
but their personal relationships as well.
Those living under empire weren’t keen on the disruptions folks challenging empire invited.
Because it usually invited trouble
and that trouble had a tendency to trickle down to everyone
making everyone’s lives more difficult
Most were content with living under the radar
Maybe not thrilled with the reality but not interested in inviting trouble either
Just go about your business
Don’t cause any trouble
and we will all live to see another day.
Jesus warned the disciples that their actions would cause conflict with those wishing to stay under the radar.
He says in verse 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”
Surprising to hear that, coming from Jesus, isn’t it?
But what Jesus is saying here is not that His message is one of violence—
quite the opposite
he is advising them that their countercultural actions
their resistance- even peaceful-
will likely bring division and conflict even among those who love them the most
man and father
daughter and mother
daughter-in-law and mother-in-law
that even in their own households, the change they are seeking will be met with division.
But still he urges them on
and seeks to reassure them
Reminding them of the divine source of their plight
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”
Jesus reminds them that their mission is aligned with the God of Creation.
And that they are protected by God
maybe not in the way they might expect
Jesus doesn’t promise they won’t suffer
but that what’s important- the soul— will be protected and kept intact.
Because they matter
they are seen
They are loved and valued by God.
every hair on their head is counted
Jesus seeks to align their mission with its eternal significance.
Reminding them of their importance and the importance of this mission
Its not just their mission, but God’s mission
To usher in a new reality.
Yes, Jesus warns the disciples of the dangers
but reminds them of the divine protection they are afforded for it.
And the theme behind of all of this
The ultimate message Jesus gives them for all of their sacrifice
all of their risk
He’s telling them- It’s worth it.
And they won’t be alone.
Jesus was with those disciples who suffered for their faith.
Supporting them.
Advising them.
Encouraging them
Loving them.
And in the same way, Jesus is with those disciples today who suffer for their faith.
Because in some ways the situation is the same for many
There are still those
Who jeopardize their lives, risking it all for their faith.
There are those who live in parts of this country and around the world where they continue to suffer for their faith in ways we will likely never experience and can scarce imagine.
And yet Jesus is with them in the same way.
Reminding them that every hair on their head is counted
and that God has their backs.
That this is a divine mission.
And that in spite of it all, it’s worth it.

The same is true for us.
Because we might not experience the same risks for standing up for our faith.
It’s unlikely that we face death, arrest, or imprisonment as the disciples in Matthew’s community or even those in places around the world might
But we still face challenges.
There is still the risk of division for holding fast to the way of Christ.
In many ways, following Jesus is still countercultural
It still threatens many of societal’s norms.
Doesn’t it?
Many of our traditional values, rooted and based in our understanding of the Christian norms established by our faith
are mocked in society for being “old-fashioned” and “dated”
In our pluralistic world which is becoming more and more secular, standing up for our faith oftentimes opens us up to ridicule, judgement, mocking

How many of us have been in that freshman religion class where the professor seemed to almost delight in mocking our Christian values.
Or how many of us have been teased by our more “enlightened” friends- maybe even those who deem themselves “spiritual but not religious” who mock us for some of the elements of our faith traditions.
Or how many of us have been called names or politically labeled for taking stances for justice and equality, again rooted and based in our understanding of the Christian norms established by our faith.
It seems no matter which way we turn, living out our faith—following the way of Jesus- offers us up for ridicule and judgment.
Perhaps the division Jesus speaks of in this passage
applies to us as well today.
Perhaps the meaning is the same
that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Jesus knows that a life of faith brings challenges.
It resists the norms of the world and oftentimes empire
and with that often comes division and discord
But he tells us, over and again
it’s worth it.

Jesus tells the disciples— and us today- “whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it”
This is our goal
to find the life that is truly life
to live a life worth of our calling as disciples of Jesus.

Folks, this is what we are here for.
And its worth it.
Jesus tells us
All the risk
All the threats
all the division and discord
It’s worth it.

Every hair on our head is counted.
We are seen
We are valued
We are protected by a loving God
the creator of the universe who promises to be us now and forever
guiding us
protecting us
loving us.
So stand strong, people of God, when you take a stand for your faith.
It’s worth it.
Stand up for those values that you hold dear, even when those at your work, in your social circles, or even your family mock them
Because its worth it
Stand up for those on the margins- whoever you perceive them to be-
because it’s worth it
Continue to be the living presence of Christ in a world in desperate need of it.
And just as Jesus was with those early disciples
Jesus is with us as well
amid the discords in our personal lives, families, communities, congregations, nation, and world.
Jesus is with us
Urging us on
and reminding us that whatever lives we might think we are losing
we are actually finding them
lives that are truly lives
Lives of true purpose
And its worth it.

Amen.

Why Do You Stand There? My Ascension Sunday Sermon

Text: Acts 1:6-14

“Why do you stand here looking up toward heaven?”

Imagine this scene-
In a grand conclusion to an incredible, roller coaster of a journey-
a journey filled with awe-inspiring highs and terror-inducing lows
a journey of mind-boggling lessons, inspiring promises, and confusing challenges
a journey filled with extraordinary visions and miracles
Jesus is meeting with his disciples one last time.

They’re all gathered together, much like they have been for the last 40 or so days.
And Jesus gives one more promise
the promise that they will all be receiving the power of the Holy Spirit to continue his work here and throughout the ends of the earth
A power greater than what they could imagine
and then

Jesus airlifts out of there in this grand, theatrical departure and disappears into the clouds.

Being a movie guy, I imagine it like the end of ET- remember that movie- when the kids are all standing there watching ET’s spaceship lift off after his family and friends have come back to retrieve ET and take him home
and the kids are just standing there in awe watching the ship as it takes off— wind roaring through their hair and the lights from the ship illuminating their faces and lighting up the night sky.
And just like that, its gone
and the darkness returns
the wind dies down
and the quiet settles back in
and they’re left standing in wonder at the experience they just shared

And at this point in our story
After Jesus has ascended into heaven
two men dressed in white appear beside them and ask,
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up toward heaven?”
Almost like, “guys, guys- there’s nothing more to see here!
Jesus… has left the building.”

In many ways this is the ultimate conclusion to Jesus’ ministry because it officially establishes Jesus as Lord.
Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father.
And this is not a location, obviously
but more of a change of status
And not the change of status like on Facebook where you change from “Single” to “Married” or “It’s Complicated” but something more along the lines of
“Now imparted all power and authority over heaven and earth”
Jesus is now Lord of all
He now reigns over all of Creation.

And this isn’t the end of the story, really.
But only the beginning
The ascension doesn’t mean the end of Jesus’ ministry
It doesn’t mean that Jesus has finally departed forever,
releasing the world to its people and their own devices
The ascension doesn’t mean an absence of Jesus
quite the opposite
The ascension initiates the next chapter in God’s mission in the world

Before he ascends however he reminds the disciples that they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit
Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is and always will be present among them
And this power will now animate them individually and collectively so that they now will become even larger players in God’s mission
they will have a part in continuing Jesus’ work on earth.
God has impressive things in store
The excitement— the real work—has only just begun.

The men in white basically ask them, “why are you just standing there?”
Why are you just standing there?
There’s nothing else up there to see!
Everything is here and now
Real life.
You know what to do
So go do it!
You are now to be Jesus’ witnesses here in Jerusalem and then spread out to Judea and Samaria and eventually to the ends of the earth.
The work now falls on you.
But not just you alone, of course
You now have the power of the Holy Spirit
which is Christ’s spirit working in and through you
to strengthen you
to motivate you
to animate you
to go be active collaborators with God’s redemptive work

But sometimes, we still find ourselves looking up to the heavens
waiting for divine intervention
waiting for God to act in some miraculous way.
There’s this story about

A fellow who was stuck on his rooftop in a flood.
He was praying to God for help.
Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”
The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.”
So the rowboat went on.
Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.”
To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
So the motorboat went on.
Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.”
To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
So the helicopter reluctantly flew away.
Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”
To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”

Oftentimes we are so busy looking up that we miss the active presence of Jesus in our midst.
We are so busy waiting for God’s action that we miss the cue that God’s action is often OUR action
It is God working through us to fulfill God’s mission

Where is God prompting you?
Where are you being invited to participate in God’s mission here on earth?
To collaborate with God.

We are already equipped.
God has blessed each of us with unique qualities
special gifts
that empower us to fulfill God’s mission

“Oh no, not me” you might say to yourself
I’m just a simple person—
Nothing really special about me—
WRONG
God doesn’t make junk, you might have heard people say
and that’s true
It’s likely the case that God is gently tapping you on the shoulder
inviting you to participate
but you, too, might be stuck there, standing around looking up into the clouds
waiting for God to act

Friends, God is acting
right now
in each of us

“why do you stand there looking up to heaven?”

It makes sense that this passage for today is 1st chapter in the Book of Acts,
this exciting, breath-taking depiction of the early days of the church
It reads almost like an adventure novel
with its depiction of the spreading of the gospel
from Jerusalem to the whole Roman Empire
from its Jewish roots
to the Gentile world
The book is sometimes called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” because of the writer’s strong emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit.
How the Spirit formed and guided the new church.
From a small group of Jewish believers
to a worldwide movement

Yes, thankfully, the disciples didn’t just stand there, looking up
waiting on Jesus to return
They eventually returned to Jerusalem
Gathered together in prayer
and waited on the arrival of the Holy Spirit
the same Holy Spirit who makes Jesus Christ present to us and in us today

They launched their destinies of being the church and building the church
around the world

Cross and Crown, how are we being the church?
How is the Holy Spirit working through us?
Are there ministries you feel we should be doing?
important initiatives we should be pursuing?
People we should be helping?
Is there a way we could more actively collaborate with God not just around the world but right here in Matthews? In our own communities?
Let’s talk about it
Let’s mobilize
We have the power of the Holy Spirit
God’s spirit
Urging us forward

Let’s not find ourselves, mouths agape, simply standing there
staring into the heavens
waiting for a “sign”
Let’s open our eyes to the world around us
full experiencing the ongoing presence of the Risen Christ work in us and through us
to continue the redemptive work of God in the world.
Amen?
Alleluia
Amen.

A Mother’s Day Sermon

Text: John 14:1-14

The setting is Jesus’ farewell address at his last supper with his disciples.
A lot has taken place.
Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet and has explained to them what this means.
He has foretold his betrayal by Judas, and Judas has slipped out into the night.
He has told his disciples that he will be with them only a little while longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come, at least for now.
He has also foretold Peter’s imminent denial. So with all this, the disciples as my mom would say, are “fit to be tied”.

No wonder they’re troubled! Their beloved teacher is leaving them, one of their own has turned against them, and the reliable leader among the disciples is said to be on the cusp of a great failure of loyalty. It is as though the ground is shifting beneath their feet.

Ever felt like this?

Jesus responds to their anxiety by saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
It’s like he’s saying, “look at me—don’t worry”

Jesus calls them back to this fundamental relationship of trust
He assures them that he is not abandoning them as they might fear.
But rather, he is returning to his Father and will prepare a place for them there as well.
So do not despair
There are many dwellings in his Father’s house, he tells them, and once they are there, they will be with him and dwell with him in this intimate relationship.
Jesus is using this image to comfort and reassure the disciples whose world’s are in the midst of being turned upside down.
He’s going ahead to get things all ready for them.
and this will be a place of loving provision, comfort, and safety.

Depending on the translation, different words have been used to describe the image Jesus is employing. Many of you might have grown accustomed to hearing “in my father’s house there are many rooms”
A more literal description is “dwelling places”
But nevertheless, the imagery of houses, rooms, and dwelling places all
describe a place where the disciples will reside intimately with God.
Safe from the troubles that plague them
Protected from the people who threaten their lives

For most of us, at least
Home is a lot like this, don’t you think?
A place of loving protection and comfort.

When I left for college and started life on my own as an adult, any time things got overwhelming or maybe even a little scary-
maybe I was faced with a difficult decision or
experienced a loss or disappointment
or maybe was just stressed out about an upcoming test or presentation
a good respite from life was to go home for the weekend.
Like most, this made my mama very, very happy.
It didn’t happen too often but when it did she made it count

She would have my room all ready-
my bed would be made up and ready
clean sheets and blankets turned down
with fresh cut flowers on the bedside table
The refrigerator would be filled with my favorite dessert at the time- caramel flan
And not just one but usually six!
and for dinner I would have my favorite meal, steak peas and mashed potatoes

This explains a lot about me doesn’t it?

I felt loved and secure and comforted
Whatever was troubling me at that time would melt away
And I would be able to reenter my life recharged and ready to conquer the world

Maybe this describes what Jesus is trying to do with the disciples.

As I studied this passage this week and reflected on the fact that today is Mother’s Day, I was struck by how maternal Jesus’s actions are here.
Yes, Jesus is a man- but doesn’t mean he can’t be maternal.
I think all of us are capable of demonstrating both paternal and maternal characteristics regardless of our gender.
I’ve known several people who actually shared that it was their father who was the more maternal one growing up.
Conversely, I’ve known guys who learned the most about being a man not from their fathers, but their mothers.
When Kristan was sick, I certainly had to hone my maternal skills to close the gap before she was able to come home.
And I was able to do this by imitating the two best moms I know- Kristan and my own mother.

Just like my mom did for me when I would come home for the weekend, Jesus is tabling his own needs and instead focusing on the needs of his disciples. Comforting them, reassuring them, and lovingly preparing them for what’s ahead.
More concerned about making sure they are ok then whether or not he was.
Putting their needs first.
Remember- he’s on the way to the cross and he knows this- but instead, he’s more concerned about their concerns.

He is comforting
He is compassionate
He offers security and gentle guidance.
Sounds like a lot of moms I know.

We can learn a lot about God and Jesus by looking to our own moms or mothering figures

Because whether is was your own mother, or your grandmother, aunt, friend, or really anyone
chances are, someone along the way “mothered” you, in a way that made you feel the same way Jesus is helping the disciples feel at that moment.

There is a hymn called “Mothering God you gave me birth” which we will sing shortly.

The inspiration for this hymn comes from the writings of 14th-century mystic, Julian of Norwich
When Julian was 30 and living at home, she suffered from a serious illness and was presumed to be near death. As a result, a priest came to administer the last rites of the Catholic Church. As part of the ritual, he held a crucifix in the air above the foot of her bed. Julian reported that she was losing her sight and felt physically numb, but as she gazed on the crucifix she saw the figure of Jesus begin to bleed. Over the next several days, she had a series of sixteen visions of Jesus Christ. Julian wrote about her visions immediately after they had happened in a book titled, Revelations of Divine Love. It is believed to be the earliest surviving book written in the English language by a woman.

Julian of Norwich went on to live a life of prayer and solitude and became a noted counselor and theologian. She continued writing, oftentimes focusing on these visions and the impact they had on her faith and her theology. In her work, she described Christ as our “true mother,” one who is wise, loving and merciful. Although she did not have children of her own, Julian emphasized how the bond between mother and child is one of the best examples of an earthly relationship which comes close to the relationship a person can have with Jesus.

One of intimacy and compassionate care.

And the comparisons between Jesus and mothers don’t stop with just the lovey dovey— remember the story of Jesus bursting into the temple and overturning the tables? Yep, that would be my mom also if anyone ever crossed me or my sister.
Hell hath no fury like a mama whose babies have been hurt! Can I get an amen?

Rabbi Maggie Wenig used maternal imagery in a popular sermon she wrote about God. In it she says:

“God holds our face in her two hands and whispers, “Do not be afraid, I will be faithful to the promise I made to you when you were young. I will be with you. Even to your old age I will be with you. When you are grey headed still I will hold you. I gave birth to you, I carried you. I will hold you still”

Trusting in God to
Be protected.
To be loved and assured.
To Safe and comforted.
These are the aims of our maternal figures whoever they might be.

And these are the aims of Jesus with the disciples in today’s passage.

So on this special day when we honor our mothers and mothering figures, I pray that in this maternal nature you will catch a glimpse of Jesus who empowers all of us to act in this manner.
and in doing so you will also draw closer to a God who offers you the same loving care.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Experience is Believing

Text: John 20:19-31

In this scene the disciples are all hovered in fear in a locked room. Their leader and rabbi has just been publicly and brutally executed and now they’re fearing for their safety- maybe even their lives. They’re worried they’ll be arrested and possibly executed themselves for their support of Jesus’s alleged conspiracy against the authority of Imperial Rome.

I would imagine that some might even be afraid that maybe they were wrong about all this. Sure, Mary came and told them that she had witnessed the Risen Lord, but can she be trusted? Maybe it had just been a gardener or a passer-by that spoke to her. Peter and John went with her and all they saw was an empty tomb and left behind linens. That’s not really proof of anything. Someone could have taken him.
I imagine their minds racing with fear and worry, and maybe even sadness and disappointment.
But then, out of nowhere, Jesus appears and says “Peace be with you.” And the disciples were understandably relieved, comforted, and I would imagine affirmed in their faith.

Unfortunately, Thomas wasn’t there, so they rushed out to tell him about their experience with the Risen Lord. But Thomas wasn’t convinced. He quieted them and told them he wouldn’t believe unless he actually sees the marks on his hands with his own eyes and even places his fingers in them and his hands in his side.

Eight days later, Jesus appears again to the disciples and this time Thomas is with them. And as if he had overheard his request, Jesus offers Thomas the opportunity to touch his crucifixion wounds. And with that, Thomas is overwhelmed and I imagine dropped to his knees and in a confession of faith, proclaims, “My Lord and My God!”

Thomas and the disciples were blessed to have an actual, physical appearance by Jesus Christ to affirm their faith and to assuage their fears.
On some level, aren’t we all wanting that, too?
Aren’t we hoping to hear the audible voice of God to thunder down and answer our questions?
To tell us whether or not to take that job?
To enter into that relationship?
Or to make that move?

In those times when our faith is waning, don’t we sometimes wish Jesus would just appear as he did to the disciples and say something like, “See Brook— totally real. I told you! Feel better?”

It’s normal to want these things.
We live in a culture where “seeing is believing”
Mystery has no place in our modern existence.
There is concrete proof and that is it.
If we don’t see it with our own eyes, it’s not real.

What I invite you to consider today is that Christ does appear to us
Just like he did to Thomas and the disciples on that frightening night 2,000 years ago.
In very real ways.
He does it through us.
We become the Risen Christ for one another.

German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of this in his book Life Together. He writes:
“Christ became our brother in order to help us; through Christ other Christians have become Christ for us…Other Christians stand before us as the sign of God’s truth and grace…”

Jesus promises to show up in these moments when we need to experience the risen Christ
Sometimes it’s in the encouraging words of a loved one, when you’re experiencing loss
Sometimes its in the forgiveness you offer to someone for whom you’ve had a disagreement.
Sometimes its meals for your family when you have to be out of town 

When we allow Christ to work through us
We help others experience the Risen Christ.
And when we do this
we become the Church here on earth.
Becoming Christ’s hands and feet

Experience is believing.

And that’s the beauty and the power of being the Church today.
As part of the body, we are Christ to one and another
Together, we are able to be Christ in ways we would never be able to on our own.
Collectively, God works through us so our reach can become all the more vast-
So others far and wide may have the experience of Jesus.

Experience is believing.

Recently I met with my friend Chandler, who works for Lutheran World Relief.
Over lunch, we were discussing how the Risen Christ works through us – the church
We talked about how we have the unique opportunity—the privilege- to be the Risen Christ to people not only in our communities but throughout the world.

We started talking about how war and strife in particular are plaguing so many countries now
And how war impacts the food supply chains of these communities.

He shared with me how Lutheran World Relief is building bakeries in Aleppo in war-torn Syria.
The city- one of the oldest in the world- has been laid waste from years of fighting.
And the people who have not already fled the area are left alone to try to feed their families.
A staple in the diet is pita bread – it’s almost an essential part of every meal in that area.
Through building just 2 bakeries- 2! –
These bakeries are employing 30 citizens as bakers in an economy where jobs are scarce and —get this-
are able to produce up to 9 TONS of bread a day
which feeds 80,000 people
with just two bakeries.
80,000.
Imagine that.
By collaborating with organizations such as Lutheran World Relief, we can directly help people from around the world have an experience with the Risen Christ.
that’s the power of the church.

And the symbolism is not lost either
Think about this—they’re bakeries!
As Christians we know that bread is a sign of new life
So as the church we are bringing new life to a country in desperate need.

And whats even more cool is that our original plan for lunch was to eat somewhere entirely different, but at the last minute, we decided to go across the street.
To the Mediterranean restaurant.
So here we are, two dudes in North Carolina, discussing the incredible work of the church, feeding people in need with pita bread—
while eating pita bread.
Only the Holy Spirit could arrange for something so incredible, don’t you think?
Can I get an Amen?

Experience is believing.

We don’t know how this works.
Does Jesus just magically pop in when we need him, like some sort of divine Mary Poppins?
Maybe, but probably not—

Luther writes —
“The evangelist (John) says not that they saw him enter, but that he appeared in their midst which sounds as if he had been there already— hidden and now revealed…”

It’s encouraging when you think about it.
That Christ is always among us
And when we work together
and care for one another
We not only become, but we experience the risen Christ already in our midst.

Because experience is believing.

Like Thomas, it’s normal to seek the proof of our faith in tangible ways.
But perhaps if we take the leap of faith
to expand our imaginations to consider the experience of the Risen Christ in the work of others
it will touch us in ways far deeper and more meaningful than tangible proof.

And maybe this experience will prompt us not just to be convinced
But be transformed.

Experience is believing.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Love’s Power

In many ways our world has never been more divided.
Frustration, fear, and anger are casting shadows all over the world
Governments are dropping chemical bombs on their own children
Tribes are refusing humanitarian aid for their starving people in order to maintain power and control
Even in our own country, families are being divided and communities are falling apart all because of differences of opinion

Watching or reading the news has almost become an unbearable task as we are bombarded with headlines and stories of division, anger, and hate.
It’s easy to feel powerless, isn’t it?

Things weren’t so different in the ancient world.
At the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire was exercising ruthless domination
leaving the people of Israel desperate for hope and salvation

Like many of us today, the people felt hopeless in the face of so much suffering and pain.
They too were looking for a new path forward

In the Gospel reading tonight, Jesus startles his disciples when in the middle of supper, he gets up, removes his outer clothing, and begins to wash their feet.

None of them quite know what to do as this action is such a countercultural move
They’re not even sure what it means
It’s a reversal of everything they’ve ever known
Leaders do not serve like this, they are served!

But Jesus is demonstrating for them a different form of leadership

It’s a symbolic gesture, but a powerful one.
By washing their feet, Jesus isn’t just showing hospitality
He’s demonstrating for them an entirely new way to live.
Jesus is showing them that in God’s Kingdom humble service is the ultimate power.
It is love that dismantles oppressive forces and unites people.
It is love that liberates.

We spend so much of our time and energy searching for these miracle solutions to the world’s problems
We exhaust ourselves, debating and arguing in an attempt to find that silver bullet
when the Bible shows us that the solution is right in front of us-
it’s the power of love

In the interest of pragmatism, we are quick to dismiss the power of love as whimsical folly when Jesus is telling us just the opposite.
that yes, love is the ultimate power.
It is love that will ultimately have the final say.

But loving isn’t always easy is it?
Just like the disciples in that day, we build all these barriers between one another

The color of our skin
how much money we make
how much education we’ve had
our occupations
our political affiliations
even our religious affiliations

Pretty soon, we’ve created for ourselves so many barriers that can we no longer
see each other
or hear each other
let alone love each other.

But Jesus is showing us that

True love requires mutuality
True love requires vulnerability.
True love requires humility

And only when we open ourselves to these elements can the power of love truly be harnessed.

Jesus shows us all of this when he gets on his knees and washes the feet of his disciples.

Loving is not always easy, that’s for sure.
It often requires us to move past ourselves and our own needs in the service to the other.
It sometimes asks us to place ourselves in uncomfortable situations
It sometimes asks us to love someone we don’t want to love.

When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, he knows its a difficult task indeed.

But we must remember that sitting at the table of the disciples was also Judas.
And Jesus knew good and well that Judas was going to betray him.
And it pained him deeply.
But in spite of this,
Jesus washed his feet, too.
Perhaps that is what is asked of us as well.

Maybe- just maybe- in the washing of feet Jesus is modeling for us true Christian community
commanding us to serve one another in love
to cast aside any notions of superiority
to humbly care for one another’s needs.
To break down those barriers that are keeping us from loving one another fully.

Jesus is setting up a pattern of service, of humility, of bearing one another’s burdens.
He says, “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: just as I have done, you also must do”

This is radical love.
Putting yourself out there when maybe you really don’t want to.
Offering yourself in service when maybe you feel like it is you who should be served.
This is servant leadership.

Knowing that the hour was near that he would no longer be with them, Jesus offers a final commandment or in Latin a “mandatum” which is where we get the name, Maundy Thursday
It is one that is to be the shaping motive for all of Christian community:

He says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And when we do this, we are living in to the promise of ushering in the the kingdom of heaven.

So equipped with the power of love
and motivated by the promise
we can be Christ to one another
we can make true progress in healing some of the wounds which plague us.

We can begin to dismantle some of these barriers.

No longer will the color of our skin keep us apart
No longer will how much money we make divide us
How much education we have and don’t have will no longer be a factor in our relationships

our occupations
our political affiliations
our religious affiliations
none of these will continue to divide us
none of these will stand a chance against the power of love

But we can’t do this on our own.
Quite frankly, left to our own devices, none of this really is possible.
Left to our own devices, we stay mired in our own selfishness,
paralyzed by our fears

To be liberated from these forces it will take an event bigger and stronger and more powerful
than anything we could ever imagine.

Friends, that is why we are here tonight
That is why we are walking together through the holiest of weeks
We know this big event is just around the corner
beckoning us
It is the event that will offer us the power of new life.

But for tonight, as a community and as the church we stand together in hopeful anticipation
locking arms in support
holding one another in love
knowing that we must get through the pain and sadness of Good Friday
to get to the glorious liberation and freedom of Sunday.

It’s just around the corner.
and for that we say,

Amen.

Palm Sunday Sermon: Who Is This?

Text: Matthew 21:1-11

It’s the year 33 AD or so
It’s probably a Sunday
And the setting is Jerusalem, now a world class city and the center of Israel’s religious life with its newly renovated temple that rivals any in the ancient world.

The city is filled with pilgrims in town for Passover.
everything is noisy and bustling
Merchants are actively selling their wares, families are moving and shuffling about.
Dust is likely filling the air as animals hauling belongings and supplies are shifting and plodding
this way and that
Chatter is everywhere.

And then, people begin to take notice of this scene developing at a distance, toward one of the entrances of the city
People are starting to whisper and point into the distance.
The interest and curiosity seems to be building
Some are grabbing each other by the arms and racing toward all the action
Something is going on but no one is quite sure what.
It appears that the crowds are noticing this man riding atop a donkey entering the city.
people are gathering on the edge of the road like its some sort of parade
many are even running alongside him seemingly to get a closer look
They’re shedding their garments and throwing them on the road in front of him for the donkey to tread upon
They’re ripping palm branches from the trees and waving them in celebration—
Gestures that everyone in the crowd know are symbols for victory—
They shout Hosanna!
Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
In Hebrew, Hosanna means “save us” -which considering the story is interesting, but here it is likely just a shout of praise.

But who is this guy?
And why are they all responding to him like teenage girls to the arrival of Justin Bieber?
Who is this, making such a scene?
Surely it must be someone royal and powerful, considering this level of welcome.
And this enthusiastic welcome would indeed be appropriate
if what they’re saying is true-
Because the Messiah was understood to be from the lineage of King David, Israel’s greatest king.
being a descendent of David was a prerequisite for this new king
So when they shout out “Hosanna, Son of David” they are acknowledging that he fits all the criteria of the one who is hoped for
In other words, this could be IT.

This is the image they have likely dreamt about for years.
Perhaps lifetimes.
The arrival of the Messiah.
It fits all the descriptions they’ve heard in prophecies.
Almost to a “t”
So in their hopes at least- The Messiah has come to rescue them at last
To liberate them from the tyranny of the Roman Empire.

But who is this?

Well, they know his name is Jesus.
But this is a common name at the time
Almost like John or Bob or Richard of today—
so the name wouldn’t be a big indicator
But chances are they had a good idea of who this guy was
the word was on the street, so to speak
it’s likely the word was getting out about about this traveling rabbi from Galilee who had started up a movement of sorts
He’s creating quite the buzz
People are beginning to follow him from town to town to listen to his teaching.
many even consider him to be a prophet
And all this hubbub has been getting under the skins of the religious leaders
Everything he has been saying has been challenging them

Now we have this scene which will likely only make matters worse

Because from the looks of things, people are soaking it all in and starting to get excited.
As the text says
The city was all stirred up.

Jesus knew what he was doing by setting this all up this way.
He’s no stranger to provocation

He knows good and well that the people of Jerusalem will recognize the statement he is making
They’re steeped in Scripture.
They know the prophecies.

So, just before he enters the city, he stops by a suburb of Jerusalem known as Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, and sends two of his disciples to secure a donkey and a colt for which he was to ride.
this way, he’s intentionally linking himself to, and placing himself in, the prophecy in Zechariah 9:

“Tell the daughter of Zion (which is Jerusalem)
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

If you continue on with Zechariah passage, it goes even further in describing this king.

The image of a divine warrior
Promises to “set your prisoners free”
To return you to your stronghold
To restore to you double

By taking these well-understood symbols and reappropriating them, Jesus is deliberately claiming to be the promised king of Israel who will re-establish the throne of David

And they respond accordingly

When they throw their garments on the ground for him to ride over, it is reminiscent of how crowds acted when Elisha commanded the anointing of the prophet Jehu as King of Israel in 2 Kings 9:13. “hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king’”

With his dramatic arrival into the city, Jesus is announcing that he is the king they have been waiting for. He is the Messiah that has been foretold for so many years.
And yes, he has arrived
And yes, he will save them.
And yes, he will liberate them.

But not exactly how they think…

The entire story in fact is a study in contrasts.

A king riding not on a majestic warhorse….but a donkey.
Instead of royal robes, the clothes of the poor and marginalized are rolled out on the ground like a red carpet
Here is a leader who conquers not with force, but with love, compassion, and forgiveness.
This is a kingdom not of glitz and splendor, but of lowliness and servanthood.

Now this is NOT what the people were expecting.

And we know that once they learn that their expectations are not as they think
Their shouts of Hosana will turn to hisses of “Crucify!”
But for those developments,
and to fully experience how this story unfolds,
you’ll have to come back later in the week.

See you Thursday.

Amen.

Love Letter to My Hometown

Last night I returned to my hometown of Elkin, North Carolina for the night. My parents recently converted their guest house into an Airbnb (shameless plug: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/11062826) and I decided to take advantage of one of its rare vacancies to work on the upcoming essays and paperwork I am required to complete in preparation for ordained ministry. It was a treat beyond comparison to have the luxury of a quiet house all to myself, let alone to be able to walk next door at dinner time for a delicious meal prepared by my parents.
After a restful sleep and a delicious breakfast of homemade granola and fresh scones (thanks Mom!), I decided to go for a run through my hometown. To say it was nostalgic is an understatement.
Parks have sprung up in the most wonderful of places.
There is shade where it didn’t used to be.
Beautiful structures and bridges have been erected “in memory of” friends of my parents’ friends who it seemed like just yesterday were cleaning my teeth, or playing tennis at the park downtown.
I have incredibly fond memories of my childhood hometown. As I have become a parent, I only wish for an upbringing like I had. The town is fresh from the pages of a Norman Rockwell book. Many towns such as this one, experience the ravages of time, and suffer the consequences of urban flight and neglect at the hands of either disinterest or lack of funds. But time has been kind to Elkin. In fact, over the years, it has only gotten better.
There is now an extraordinary nature trail that snakes along Big Elkin Creek, replete with waterfalls and bird sanctuaries. I had hiked along these paths and played in these areas for years as a kid, but now I suppose they have been revealed to the world and declared “official”.
There are now breweries, wineries, antique stores, and coffee shops in our historic downtown, where we used to ride our bikes and line up to watch the annual Christmas parades. The old movie theater, where we would hide in the last row and sneak our first kisses in the dark, is being renovated to be a state-of-art performing arts center.
Change is inevitable. Time has a way of doing this. Thank goodness for our memories. Our bodies might ultimately fail us, but our memories are forever shelved in our minds, free to be dusted off and revisited as often as we like, for joy and warmth.
This is how I felt on my run this morning. It was a journey through time, but it was also an exciting glimpse into the future. I could write volumes on the memories I revisited as I jogged along the landmarks of my youth. But no one would be able to truly experience them in the same way I do. Those are special glimpses, preserved only for the eyes lucky enough to have seen them first hand. I will continue to share these memories to anyone who will listen- don’t you worry about that. But for now, I wish for new and exciting memories to be formed today by this next generation of Elkin youth. My message to them: one day you’ll wake up, like I have, and realize you’re a grown adult (even though you’ve fought it the best you can!) And you will realize how lucky you are to have grown up in such a special place.
So to all the incredible people of Elkin, North Carolina, thank you for making me the man I am today. Although I wish you would have made me a little taller, I carry with me the wisdom and insights of my youth you instilled in me so many years ago. I hope to make you proud.

With love and admiration,
Brook Seaford

Ash Wednesday Sermon 03/01/2017

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Oftentimes we hear that and interpret its meaning as some sort of depressing reality.
Some sad curse.

I think of Solomon lamenting in Ecclesiastes, “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

Or that horribly depressing song from the 70s by Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”
“everything is dust in the wind”
“all we are is dust in the wind”

Is that it?
Is that all there is?

To be fair, it is indeed meant to be a confrontation with death, so to speak.
Ashes are a symbol for death
thus are a reminder of our concrete, fixed place in the world.

But friends I invite you to expand your envision on this a bit and see this as blessing.
Not a curse.

Because understanding that we are dust and to dust we return is also a reminder that we are connected to creation.
And not just creation, but the heavens as well.
Quite literally in fact.

From a scientific point of view, the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff.

We are made of star dust.

And by being connected to creation and the heavens— which were all been deemed “good” if you recall—
we are connected to the creator

The ashes remind us of this.
Ashes, the usual sign of death, are put on your forehead
but not in some random pattern— but in the shape of a cross.
This alters the starkness of the message of gloom from

“you will die, you cannot change that”
to
“yes, you will die, but you can die in Christ, whose death transforms your own demise into everlasting life. Christ has conquered death.

It’s important to note that we follow these ashes- this concrete symbol of death-
with the very real, living presence of Jesus in Holy Communion

So we move from this concrete symbol which reminds us of our finality
to the very otherworldly reality of divine power in holy communion
Because in Holy Communion we actually receive Christ.

This is very intentional.

In this movement in the service, we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ.

So all is not meaningless as Solomon might have suggested
And we are more than just “dust in the wind” as the song says

We are not stuck in death
In Christ we are reborn

So may this ritual remind you and prompt you to live into the life offered through Christ.
A new life that stands in contrast to the death of a life outside of Christ.

As Paul writes in Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor 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.”

Amen.

Wilderness As Preparation: 1st Sunday in Lent

*Automatically posted from http://www.sawdustandstone.com

Audio version available at http://www.crossandcrown.org

Text: Matthew 4:1-11

How many of you have ever found yourself in the wilderness, so to speak?
A place in your life where you seem somewhat adrift; not knowing the next steps and maybe even unsure how you got there.
Where the ground seems to be shifting
And the usual comforts and supports seem distant and far away
Where nothing seems familiar
And you’re craving direction
Guidance
Some sort of map to lead you out of your pain.

Maybe:
You’ve lost job and not sure how long it will take to find a new one or
maybe you have reached this stage in your career where you want a change; a more fulfilling existence, but you’re not sure what that is or even how to pursue it.
Maybe you’re experiencing or have experienced the end of a relationship; and suddenly everything you have known about yourself, about life, is sort of up in the air. Who are your friends when it has always been our friends? how will I provide for myself now that I can no longer count on 2 incomes? These are questions you might ask.
Or maybe its a Life transition / you’re now an empty nester and no longer feel confident in your identity -for years you’ve been the caretaker; running kids here and there; scheduling activities, soothing wounds, and celebrating victories. Now the kids have moved out and starting lives on their own and no longer appear to need you
Perhaps you’re recently sober and are unsure how to navigate the complexities of the world- professionally, socially— it’s all new and unknown; frankly its scary

There are many types of wildness experiences.
And none of them are comfortable.
We spend our lives avoiding the wilderness places
In fact, We employ every possible strategy we know
We try to chart our own courses
creating this illusion of control in our lives

We spend countless hours calculating our decisions and trying to reduce our risk
We remain guarded emotionally so we aren’t vulnerable and maybe won’t get hurt
We temper our opinions so we never “rock the boat” socially
We stay in “dependable careers”, even when they aren’t life-giving, so we can be “safe”

And even with all this effort,
no matter how hard we try
we occasionally still find ourselves in the wilderness.
Off course, and searching for our true north.

We might be tempted to cry out WHY? Why am I here? Why did you send me here, Lord?
That’s a normal reaction I would say.
I’ve said the same thing at various times in my life when I’ve found myself in the wilderness
But whether or not God sent you there is missing the more important point—
and that point is that God meets you there and is there with you

And as difficult as it might seem at the moment
It’s important to remember that
God uses this time in the wilderness to strengthen us.
To prepare us for the next stage in our journey

The text says “Jesus was led UP…into the wilderness”
In Scripture, any time the movement of the narrative was to go “up”
up the mountain
up to Jerusalem
this was usually a cue that teaching was about to take place
or a type of revelation

Wilderness time is a time of preparation.

Nelson Mandela watched his friends humiliated, tortured, and murdered as a result of the brutal oppression of his country’s racial segregation system known as apartheid.

He himself endured this abuse but decided to fight back, using non-violent resistance.
As a result of his role in an attempt to overthrow this oppressive government, he was imprisoned for 27 years in Cape Town.

But rather than wear him down and defeat him, the 27 years in the prison emboldened Mandela.
It deepened his resolve.
Upon finally being released from prison, Mandela went on to become the first black president of South Africa.
He eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the country’s apartheid

He Became an International emblem of dignity and forbearance

and a Prolific writer and world renown advocate for social justice and HIV/AIDS awareness.

When he eventually became president of South Africa, he went as far as to invite one of his white wardens to his inauguration

People are usually astonished by the sense of grace he displayed after being robbed of 27 years of his life.
But Mandela experienced the 27 years in captivity as a time of preparation.

The Apostle Paul had a similar experience;
having wilderness time in the form of prison time

According to biblical sources and biblical scholarship, Paul was likely in prison from between five and six years’ total. He was probably imprisoned in Rome at least two years, two-years in Caesarea and additional prison experiences noted in the Book of Acts.

Seems like a long time in the wilderness.

But consider this-
if Paul had not been imprisoned, we would not possibly have the epistles like Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Paul used the time that he was in prison to write these powerful books of the New Testament.
For Paul, being in prison was a huge inconvenience but for God, it was an opportunity for God to prepare Paul for God’s glory.

Both the Apostle Paul and Nelson Mandela could have just given up while in prison
But God had other plans.
God would use this time in the wilderness for good.

We don’t know why we find ourselves in our varied wildernesses.
But oftentimes we become keenly aware of God’s presence there with us.
In fact, sometimes, the wilderness is when we experience God the most fully.
When we’ve found ourselves in a place where none of our strategies of avoidance, none of techniques of control have worked.
and we are there
in our wilderness.
No map to follow.
No compass to guide us.
Only God.

Perhaps that is God’s intention
To lead us away from the distractions and the idols to have us experience God more fully
to finally depend on God.

When have you been in a wilderness?

Are you there right now?
While Jesus was in the wilderness, the devil kept at him with temptations.
In fact, many of our bibles have a heading for this passage that reads, “The Temptation of Jesus”.

But I argue this story is about much more than temptation.

Yes Jesus was tempted in the wilderness
But what did the temptation mean?

It wasn’t to prove that Jesus was the Son of God— the devil already knew this.
And it wasn’t to provide an opportunity for Jesus to prove to God that he’s up to the test.

Maybe the temptations reveal to us what our idols are
And to show us that the only real dependable source of security and comfort-
the only true guide-
is God and God alone.

Oftentimes temptations are the false promises
The easy way out
That usually offers short term relief but long term pain.
This surely was the case with Jesus-
The devil offers him several opportunities to turn away from God for immediate relief.

The same temptations tempt us today.
But they usually look quite different:

It’s that recently single ex-girlfriend or boyfriend to occupy the emptiness of a struggling marriage

It’s the elicit website glaring in the darkness to fill the void of intimacy

It’s the credit card-fueled shopping sprees to soothe a battered self image

There are many things to reach for when we are in the wilderness
All for the instant relief of avoiding pain

But God meets us there in the wilderness to fill the voids in our lives in a way nothing else can.
Maybe that’s what Jesus is trying to show us in this story today.
You might find yourself in the wilderness
But you won’t be there forever.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.

Lent offers us the opportunity to recreate this experience of wilderness
to draw closer to the one who can truly satisfy our souls.
Lent is a time of preparation

So may you
Look to Jesus as the strength to resist the temptations and false promises that lead to death

May you
Trust in God to use your time in the wilderness to strengthen you and prepare you for whatever comes next in the adventure we call life.

And may you
Find in Christ the only true, dependable map to lead you out of the wilderness

And may you be awakened to the truth that this map and only this map
will lead you home.

Thanks be to God.
Amen

Practice Makes… Perfect?

Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Audio Available at http://www.crossandcrown.org

The gospel passage today provides several examples of Jesus encouraging his disciples to strive in their behavior to be more like God. Turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, giving more than is asked of you.
These rules or guidelines are not easy to be sure. In fact, they are quite difficult. One in particular stuck out at me this week—
and that’s the call to love your enemies.

For the Seaford family this week, the enemy took the form of these tiny creatures known as HEAD LICE. Nasty. Even the thought of it makes my head itch. Jesus might have implored us to love our enemies, but surely he didn’t mean lice.
Folks there wasn’t one ounce of love for these disgusting microscopic bugs who basically turned our lives upside down.

In fact, I dare say my heart was full of hate (Lord, forgive me). It was one of those situations where my poor wife was nervously collecting the children in a room saying, “Kids, daddy might have lost it this time. But everything is going to be ok”.
As much as I tried to reframe the situation and look at it through a lens of gratitude— going that “extra mile’ as Jesus noted— I fell short.
I was as far from being God-like as possible.

We eventually succeeding in “delousing” the house- what seemed like hundreds of loads of laundry and scores of black plastic trash bags filled with every stuffed animal and pillow in sight- which is a lot when you have 5 kids I might add. Thankfully these nasty critters spared everyone except little Jeannie, which was indeed a blessing but whew! let me tell you-

I now know how to defeat ISIS. You tell them all detainees will have to pick the knits out of a screaming 4 year old, we’ll have terrorism knocked out in no time!
Alas we are all clean and bug-free in our house.
But I think I might have aged a good bit in the process.

Yes, trying to practice being like God is difficult indeed.

And how are we really supposed to be able to do some of these things?
Jesus notes that if people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left check to them as well. Now in those days, most were right-handed. So for a right-handed person to slap you on the right cheek, it would be a back-slap. A disrespectful move that compromised the person’s dignity as well. It was an insult.
Now to be clear this is a metaphor.
I’m not saying that anyone should endure physical violence from another
And Jesus is not saying this either.
But what Jesus is saying is not to respond to insults with insults.
To try to rise above the fray and offer grace and love.

And then he encourages us to walk an extra mile. In this time, Roman soldiers would conscript Jewish civilians to carry their heavy packs for up to a mile. Jesus commanded them to voluntarily duplicate the legal limit. Could you imagine how hard that would be?

And then, Jesus says to not just love your neighbor, but to love your ENEMY. He explains that loving those who already love you is not that challenging of a task— which is true, I suppose— but to go as far as loving an enemy and praying for those who persecute and harass you? Not easy.

Those are tall orders, Jesus!

Why on Earth would Jesus levy such difficult requests?
Is it a set up for failure?

Maybe what Jesus is trying to show us here is both the generous and merciful character of God and
ways to partner with God is ushering in God’s kingdom.

The passage tells us that “He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good, and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous” (CEB). This tells us a lot about God, doesn’t it? God extends God’s love for us all and never keeps a tally of our shortcomings.
Like a good parent, God loves us regardless of whether we come up short or whether we make mistakes or show our true selves from time to time, warts and all.
God’s love is all-encompassing.
So Jesus wants us to adopt the same radical love God shows to us.

But how in the world do we do this?
I guess its just like with any new thing we are trying to learn.

It takes practice.
And persistence.

We constantly strive to imitate God in our choices and our behavior.
Over and over and over again.
And if we keep at it; if we keep practicing; if we continue to imitate God in our behavior; ultimately God will use this to transform us.

If we practice turning the other cheek, then ultimately we will learn to answer conflict with non-violence
If we we practice going the “extra mile” we will learn the ways of generosity
If we learn to not just tolerate our enemies but to love them, we will learn to treat people as God treats us.

It’s a lot like muscle memory.
Any athlete will tell you that practicing the same movement or act over and over again will ultimately train your body so that the moves become instinctive.
I’m on the church bowling league and on Friday night there was a man on the lane beside us who was consistently throwing strikes. It was unbelievable.
So I looked to Coach Downey and asked him how it was possible.
He told me that this man has practiced the same motion over and again and has been doing it for 30 years.
It was as smooth as silk.
And obviously worked.
Or the tennis player who doesn’t really have to think about the movement of her serve because she has practiced it thousands of times to the point that it is also second-nature.

It’s Repetition
It’s Persistence

When Kristan was first learning to walk with her new leg, she had to relearn the basic movements of walking. The second-nature of this marathon runner was no longer in place, so she had to start from the beginning.
But as an athlete she understood the benefit of repetition and muscle memory to regain her strength and ability.

So she started walking.
First from the porch to the mailbox
and back again.
And then, she added a little more; going from the mailbox to the middle of our cul-de-sac
and back again.
Then a little more- going half-way around the cul-de-sac
and back again
until she eventually could walk around our neighborhood.
Before long, her muscles, although significantly changed since the last time she used them, regained the natural movement they had done for so many times for so many years.
It took practice
and repetition.
she had to imitate what a natural gait would look like.
But eventually, she got it.

That’s a lot like what we are talking about here, with God.
Most of us aren’t instinctively able to turn the other cheek when someone hits us.
or walk an extra mile when we are asked to go one
Most of us aren’t able to love our enemies naturally
But with God’s help
and a little practice
hopefully it will get a little easier.

One might think this was enough of a challenge for one day, but then Jesus seems to throw down the gauntlet.
He says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
WHAT?
Wait a minute..
Perfect?
Now this is really a push, Jesus.
I can practice and imitate all day long, but becoming perfect seems like an insurmountable goal.

Well, fortunately, this is where we get some help with the original language.
The root word that Jesus uses for “perfect” is “telos”
And while one translation is certainly “perfect”, other meanings, and ones which might best capture what’s going on here are “completion, intended goal, or determined end.”
The perfection for which we aim is a goal, an end, not necessarily a state of being. We are not there yet, but with each movement we get closer.

In other words, Jesus is not asking us to be perfect as we understand it, but to persist in the goal Jesus has for us.
He’s telling us that being a disciple does not require perfection but a persistence toward bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to bear.
If we are persistent.
If we practice these things over and over again.
And just like with muscle memory
We’ll start doing them naturally.

It might seem overwhelming to think about trying to do all these things.
It seems like a lot of weight on our shoulders, doesn’t it?
Especially if you’ve been doing the practicing-
imitating God’s love to others
again and again and again and it seems like to no avail

Maybe its a teenager who you’ve shown love and compassion repeatedly but she still seems to shut you out.
Or maybe there is a loved one who seems adrift, who needs to get back on the right track, and no matter what you do, it seems impossible to help them make headway.
We love and love and love and oftentimes we get nothing in return.

Well take heart, friends because the good new is that it’s not just on us.
God is actively at work in all of us; our neighbors, our enemies, as well as ourselves.
Working to transform them as well.
So we don’t need to burden ourselves, thinking that bringing the kingdom of God to bear relies on our actions alone.
As Christians, we trust that God is at work in the other as well.

And the payoff for us as Christians is that when we look for this transformation in others-
when we open our hearts and our eyes to see the redemptive work God is doing in our neighbors, our friends, even our enemies..
we catch a glimpse of God.

You never know when the transformation that is going on in you, will align with the transformation going on in the other.
So keep practicing.
Stay persistent.
Imitate God in all the ways you can.
To be perfect?
Well, maybe one day.

Amen.