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I Was Almost a Priest

Like many, my faith journey has been far from conventional. I grew up Methodist in a small town in North Carolina.  My family attended most Sundays.  Back then, going to church meant wearing your “Sunday Best” which for us featured a coat and tie.  I do not need to tell you how wildly unpopular that is for a young boy.  Combine that with being kicked out of youth choir on a regular basis for talking, and you can see it was unlikely I was anyone’s first choice for ministry.   Yet, something about church appealed to me, but I wasn’t sure what.  I certainly experienced a spiritual longing and I had an insatiable desire for self-improvement.  Occasionally this drifted into the religious realm.

Long before the likes of Tom Cruise and couch-jumping, I recall enthusiastically approaching my minister,  Reverend Fred Jordan about this “fail-proof” book I found in the library called “Dianetics”, a primer to the world of Scientology. I didn’t know anything about it, but this book promised everything from increased confidence, the removal of worry, to a noticeable increase in intellect.  I was sure it could even make me taller, although I, and presumably Mr. Cruise, ultimately concluded otherwise.  Or at least, let’s hope so.  Reverend Jordan kindly, and without judgment, redirected me to the Bible.

But the Bible seemed confusing and obtuse to me at the time.  There were interesting stories, but I wanted black and white answers!  I even tried the trick where you conjure up a question in your mind, open the Bible, and then plot your finger down in the middle of the first page you open where you would find the answer to your question.  But Leviticus rarely had the answers for a 13-year-old.

My grandmother sensed something religious in me as well.  Every time I donned a tie for any occasion she would pull me aside and whisper, “are you sure you don’t want to be a preacher?”  Despite my reassurances that I didn’t have the goods, she would still overlook every other person in the family and insist I give the prayer before every meal.

The spiritual yearning continued into high school.  Yearning such as this often creates naiveté or vulnerability, especially for a searching soul.  I joined my friend at her Pentecostal church only to sit in noticeable discomfort as my she rose and shouted out in tongues during a service.  I was jealous of her fervor.  I awkwardly tried to replicate it only to be sternly corrected and informed that the language comes only from God and wasn’t something you could learn through study.

My friends still cringe when I recount desperately burning in the driveway all of my Eagles and Led Zeppelin tapes after my geometry teacher informed me they contained embedded messages from the devil when played backward.  Religion seemed to offer me more confusion and frustration than the clarity and direction I craved.  College didn’t offer a promising outlet either. Usually awash in guilt from a weekend of partying, I would sheepishly attend an InterVarsity meeting, a Christian fellowship group on campus, hoping for some connection.  But I just didn’t fit in.  So for years, I drifted.

And then I met Kristan.

I won’t bore you with the details of our courtship, but let’s just say she was a devout Catholic and I was so smitten she could have been in the Manson Family and I likely would have followed.  We attended church together regularly and something in my soul awakened.  I was drawn to the beauty of the liturgy- the candles, the incense, the prayers, and music.  It was almost as if I was finally given that roadmap to the divine I had always craved.

After a year of weekly classes and study, and after promising my grandmother I wouldn’t “worship beads,” I officially converted to Roman Catholicism. Kristan and I were married in the Catholic Church and I proceeded to be the most obnoxious Catholic in Christendom.  All of our children were baptized Catholic.  I joined the Knights of Columbus and brought my own missalette to mass.  I refused meat on Fridays and loudly renounced behaviors inconsistent with canon law. I collected prayer cards like they were first edition Babe Ruth rookie cards and if a friend was selling a house I would suggest they bury a statue of St. Joseph.   I scowled at people who left mass after communion, convinced they were turning their back on the presence of Jesus.

Yet something else was brewing inside of me.   It became clear I had tapped into something far deeper and meaningful than anything I had ever experienced.  At last, I felt I had direction not only in my faith journey but also in my life as a whole.  For years, I had struggled to find my vocational footing.  I had tried many different jobs and nothing seemed to fit.  I was earning a good living in insurance, but something inside me told me that I was meant for something else.

After a camping trip with some friends who were seasoned in their faith, I discerned something I had never considered: I was called to ministry.  I was on fire.  I hiked out of that gorge with an enthusiasm I hadn’t experienced in some time.  My life had a purpose and I was ecstatic.  Perhaps my grandmother had been right all along.

It wasn’t long before I realized my path to ministry had some obstacles.  I was a married Roman Catholic with, at the time, 4 children.  How could I be a priest? Although not impossible, that path was far too complicated, for obvious reasons.  Perhaps I could be a deacon, I thought.  So I scheduled an appointment with our parish deacon.  My heart sank when he abruptly and devoid of any emotion, announced, “you don’t want to do this.”

Reluctantly I began to look outside of the Catholic Church.  I briefly attended area non-denominational churches, and they were suitable for a time.  In fact, they were fun and exciting. It was like a kid who was allowed to drink caffeinated soda for the first time. Nevertheless, it became clear that the theology didn’t feel right, and the laser shows, expensive technology, and impressive marketing did not provide the lasting faith expression I was seeking. My wife was struggling even more than I was.  She was quickly seeing her dream of the perfect Catholic family dissolve right before her eyes.  It was not an easy time in our marriage.  Yet she resolved valiantly that she would rather be a married “whatever” than a divorced Catholic.  I will always be grateful for this graceful, selfless act of love.

Through a series of fortunate connections, God eventually led us to the Lutheran Church.  The first Sunday, Kristan vocalized unbridled joy to be entering a church with an actual steeple and not needing to insert logo-branded earplugs to dampen the electric guitars.  She and I both embraced the Lutheran liturgy, which closely resembles that of the Catholic Church.  It incorporates many of the traditions and symbols that were so vital to the awakening of my faith and precious to hers.  In fact, the similarities to Catholicism are so close many refer to it as “Catholic Lite”.  We had found our home.

For us, we cherish a faith so close to the one that drew us together, but without the unsettling aspects.  Both of us always struggled with how the Catholic Church, at least in its policies, continues to be unwelcoming to gays, limiting to women, and harsh to those who have experienced divorce.  We also could not support the systemic cover-ups from clergy abuse and bristled when we were handed “voter guides” around election time.  This works for many, but it wasn’t the path for us.

Our lives as Lutherans have been everything we could have dreamed it would be.  I eventually was able to attend seminary part-time while working and earn my degree.  God showed up in extraordinary ways, and I was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) almost 2 years ago.  I currently serve a church less than 5 miles from my house and the experience has been everything I dreamt it would be.

Occasionally I miss some of the cultural aspects of Catholicism.  It still gives me pause when I’m greeted as “Father” in an elevator or in the hallway of the hospital because I’m wearing my clerical collar. And I notice the looks I get when I enter a grocery store after church, my 5 kids in tow.  I’m sure they think I’m this gallant priest shepherding a gaggle of orphans.

I’ve learned to weave into my faith life all the beautiful elements of the Catholic faith.  I still cherish the beautiful symbols, prayer patterns, and traditions that lead me to God.  It will always be part of me.

But from time to time I still sit in awe of my faith journey.  For all the ups and downs, I remain grateful.  God walked me every step of the way and still walks with me today.  I guess it goes to show you never know where life will lead you.  But when you open your heart and put your trust in God, you eventually find your way.

Citizens of Heaven

Philippians 3:12-4:1

In today’s passage, Paul is speaking to the people of Philippi, which was a prominent Roman colony in the gold-producing region of Macedonia just north of Greece.  It was named for Alexander the Great’s father Phillip.  Roman colonies were strategically important locations for the empire, usually placed along major trade routes.  For Philippi, this was along the Egnatian Way, which was the route serving as Rome’s direct link to its Mediterranean territories. This location and its strategic importance made Philippi prestigious and prosperous.   It was a city of dignity and privilege.   As a Roman colony, citizens of Philippi were actually legal citizens of Rome, which granted them the same rights and privileged status.  And this was something that was celebrated.  The citizens of Philippi embraced this connection thoroughly- they wore the Roman dress, spoke the Latin tongue, embraced Roman morals, and used Roman principles of justice.  They were proud to be Roman citizens.  In fact, it was often implored that the conduct of the citizens of Philippi must match the prestige of its Roman citizenship.

This isn’t uncommon among various countries.  Citizenship is often a source of pride;  an important part of one’s identity.

The United States is no exception.  Many citizens are deeply proud to be a citizen of the United States.

Lee Greenwood even wrote a song about it, right?

And you don’t have to go far to catch a glimpse of an American flag, either waving proudly from a front porch, affixed to the bumper of a car, or emblazoned upon a t shirt or ball-cap.

For many, US citizenship is a source of pride.

It means something.

This wasn’t any different for the Philippians.  They were proud of their Roman citizenship and Paul knew this –he too was a Roman citizen so he “got it”–and played to it in his letter.

He knew that being a Roman citizen was cherished, not just because of the benefits and protections, but also because it wasn’t just given to anybody.

To be a Roman citizen you had to be born a Roman citizen, have a parent who was a Roman citizen or be appointed.

Being a US citizen isn’t altogether different.

To automatically be a citizen of the United States, you must have either been born in the United States OR have parents who are citizens.

But in the absence of these criteria, you must apply.  And to do this requires a level a commitment.  I think in some ways we as Americans might take our citizenship for granted.  Maybe we don’t fully appreciate the benefits and opportunities of being an American.  But there are 4.4 million people with legal visas awaiting approval. And in addition to all the hoops for which they’ve jumped through have also promised to demonstrate the following:

  1. good moral character
  2. a basic knowledge of the United States government
  3. read, write, and speak basic English (which judging from much of what I see and read on the internet today disqualifies a large majority of our population)
  4. be well disposed to “the good order and happiness of the United States under the law” – whatever that means.

Thank goodness all current citizens meet these criteria…right?

Obviously, the goal is to help folks seeking citizenship in the United States to understand the responsibility of citizenship.

Learning to be a good citizen is an important part of the fabric of any society.  And it’s not always easy.  But it’s an expectation that you will live your life in accordance with the values and principles of your country.

Paul leverages this understanding with the people of Philippi;  tapping into their deeply felt patriotic pride in hopes of connecting that with the expectations of being a disciple of Christ.

He’s heard rumors of folks in their area living in a way that differs from the expectations of a Christian, and wants to call them out on it.  Their behavior might be acceptable as a citizen of Philippi, but it falls far short in what’s acceptable as a citizen of heaven.

So Paul is challenging them to behave in a way that equates their respect for their Roman identities with their heavenly identities.  Borrowing patriotic language, Paul contrasts their earthly expectations with their heavenly ones, reminding them their heavenly citizenship always holds priority over their earthly citizenship.

It’s not to say that the laws and norms of the Roman empire are no longer valid-no, Jesus himself spoke to “giving to Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is God’s”  Paul is making the larger point that your true citizenship is in heaven.

You might live and work and be within the Roman rule, but the ultimate authority is in Christ.

Your behavior might be governed by Rome but your life is governed by God.

The same is true for us today.

Although we might be citizens of the United States, governed by the Constitution and the laws of the land.  Our true authority is in Christ and his teachings.  This understanding should always dictate our behavior more than anything else.

We might pledge our allegiance to the flag, but may it never supersede your allegiance to Christ and his teachings.

On the surface living as a good Christian seems straight-forward.  Even easy.

Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal.

Be a good person.  Share a little.  Go to church.  Don’t break the law.

But is this all Paul was after?  Is this all Jesus was after?

If living a Christian life in the United States is easy for you, my guess is you’re not doing it right.

Or at least not fully.  Because it’s deeply counter-cultural.

It challenges us to step outside of our instincts; step outside our cultural norms, setting our minds not on earthly things, but on heavenly things and letting this drive our choices.

Not breaking the law might be easy.  But simply obeying the laws isn’t a demonstration of good citizenship.

Being a citizen of heaven requires you to always be striving to live into the expectation of the Kingdom of God.  And that’s a tall order.  Jesus used many metaphors to describe the Kingdom of God, and we know from our reading of the Bible that the Kingdom of God is about love, justice, equality, and forgiveness.

Jesus was clear in his ministry that simply following the Law was not the goal.  Just following the Ten Commandments isn’t enough (although it’s a good start!) Jesus pushes us to go past the Law and go deeper.

There are lots of things in the United States which are technically legal and acceptable, but not necessarily line with our Christian values.  Let us not forget to that at one point in our country’s history, slavery was legal.

Every day we are faced with choices that place our earthly values in competition with our heavenly ones.

Paying your employees bare-bone wages in order to boost profits.  Is this heavenly minded?

Buying those shoes you really, really love but you know was made in a sweatshop in some 3rd world country.  Is that being heavenly-minded?

suppose a homeless shelter was proposed right next to your house or your place of business.

It would be understandable, especially as a good, upwardly mobile American, to not be crazy about this idea for fear of its impact on your investment value.  But I’m not sure opposing it would be consistent with heavenly values.

Millions of personal finance books, DVDs, and podcasts hammer us with messages and lessons rooted in a fear of scarcity – proclaiming that in order to avoid “running out” we must reign in our generosity and keep more of income for ourselves.  This is an earthly perspective reinforcing the false narrative that any of it was ever ours to begin with.

Thinking in terms of earthly citizenship rather than heavenly citizenship requires an entire reordering of priorities.

Heavenly citizenship urges more.

IS more.

Abundance over scarcity.

Trust over fear.

Love over judgment

Minds set boldly on heavenly things.

How does this shift in understanding impact your decisions?  your actions?  your positions on key issues?

Paul is encouraging us to live our lives in light of a deeper allegiance– an allegiance to Christ.

Of course doing so in no way “earns” you heavenly citizenship.

But there is good news.

We don’t face the same hurdles for heavenly citizenship as someone seeking Roman citizenship or even US citizenship.

No need for a privileged birthright.

No difficult tests to take or rules to memorize.

No years of waiting or thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Our heavenly citizenship was secured for us in the waters of baptism.

But that doesn’t mean we are free of obligation.

Martin Luther wrote, “… we are no longer citizens of earth.  The baptized Christian is born a citizen of heaven through baptism.  We should be mindful of this fact and walk HERE as if native THERE.”

It’s a call to live differently.

And friends, this citizenship offers us far more benefits than simply life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Among the citizenship promises true freedom, deep joy and contentment, and eternal salvation.

So today, I challenge you to consider your true citizenship– beloved children of God; citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And go forth and act accordingly.

On earth as it is in heaven.

Amen.

Mountaintop Moments: A Sermon for Transfiguration

Luke 9:28-43
Erik Weihenmayer was the first blind man to summit Everest as well as the first blind man to solo kayak the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.  Clearly, this is one extraordinary man.
In 2005 he founded “No Barriers” an organization dedicated to helping people with varying levels of abilities break through perceived obstacles, discover their purpose, and contribute their best to the world.
One of the key efforts of No Barriers is their annual Summit, which is a weekend experience that helps folks with disabilities discover and harness their potential through a variety of activities like mountain biking, kayaking, climbing, yoga, and music
Motivating these efforts is their motto “what’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way”
Kristan was invited to her first Summit in Lake Tahoe 2 years ago;  they even allowed her to bring the whole family along, giving new meaning to “no barriers”! Ya’ll probably remember it.  It was an inspiring, hopeful, and motivating experience.
I met Billy Lister, a man who suffered a stroke at 17 and developed partial paralysis.  After attending a Summit, he not only learned that he could ride a bike but learned how.  He’s now a paralympian and professional cyclist, traveling around the world competing.
I met Mandy Harvey, a musician who lost her hearing but learned to feel the rhythm of the music through her feet.  After the No Barriers Summit she went on to compete in “America’s Got Talent” where she was awarded the “Golden Buzzer” by Simon Cowell, moving her on to the next round.
I met scores of equally talented folks; countless individuals who after the Summit used the experience to break through, conquer challenges, and go on to inspire and serve others.
At the end of each Summit, before leaving to return home, participants are provided a flag with the No Barriers logo and they’re told to plant that flag to commemorate the accomplishments of the weekend and to capture their newfound motivation and hope.  But while planting that flag, they’re told to make a goal- a big goal- a life-changing goal they commit to accomplishing that next year.
They don’t leave the flag on the mountain.  After planting it with the promise and the hope of a changed life ahead, they take the flag with them to remind them to stay on track.
To remind them of their potential.
To encourage them to keep up the fight and to continue their journey.
This is Kristan’s flag.  And this represents her goal- her dream- to start a private practice in counseling.  And we’re happy to report she’s done it.  She’s loving her work and her practice has really taken off.
She’s moved from being unsure if she would ever be able to live independently, to being a small business owner and a pretty popular motivational speaker.
Her mountaintop experience gave her the courage to move past her perceived limitations and harness her education and experience to help people.
Because
The point of mountaintop experiences is not to stay there–
The point is not to be stagnate—
Mountaintop moments are always to propel us forward.
When Weihenmayer had summited Everest, when he was literally standing on the top of the world- his guide turned to him and said,
“Congratulations Eric you did it–now don’t let this be the greatest thing you ever do”
Mountaintop moments are best at motivating us to keep going, to go out and serve.
In the Bible, the tops of mountains are usually the location of divine revelation and inspiration
In today’s Gospel, Jesus takes his “inner circle”- Peter, James, and John, up the mountain to pray.
And there, he is transformed before them.
his face changed and his clothes dazzling white—
And there he is joined by Moses and Elijah.

This must have been quite the experience—
Having your leader revealed as divine and also
Being in the physical presence of the heroes of the faith- Moses and Elijah
Moses-representative of the Law
Elijah – representative of the Prophets
Talking about a true mountaintop moment.
So of COURSE Peter wanted to stay in the moment!  He didn’t want it to end
Luke writes, “Just as they were leaving him…” Peter races to capture the moment, offering what he knew to do— to preserve the moment- to commemorate it— by building 3 tents or 3 booths for each of them which is was what they did during the Festival of the Tabernacles – to commemorate the exodus.
He was searching for some way to keep the moment going.
But that wasn’t the purpose
Luke notes “Not knowing what he said”. A polite way of saying it.
So what would the purpose be?  Why would Jesus reveal his glory like this?  Why would Moses and Elijah appear?
Luke offers some hints–
“They speak of the “departure” which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem”
Greek word for “departure” is exodus
We know from the Bible that “exodus” also meant the Liberation of Gods people
In Jerusalem Jesus would accomplish“the liberation of God’s people”
Through his death and resurrection
But it wasn’t going to happen on that mountain.
In order to move forward
In order to go forth
they had to go down the mountain
It wasn’t going to be easy
Jesus knew this.
And Jesus knew it wasn’t going to be easy for us either
But he promises to be with us always.
To send us the Holy Spirit.
That’s good news
We might have to go down the mountain, but we don’t do it alone.
In our baptism we are named and claimed as children of God- a truly mountaintop moment that propels us forward.
To equip us to go be Christ’s disciples!
And in response to this, when we affirm our baptism, we make the following promises:
  • to live among God’s faithful people;
  • to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper;
  • to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed;
  • to serve all people following the example of Jesus;
  • to strive for justice and peace in all the earth
Or in other words, not stay on the mountain, but go down and out and into the world.
But on that mountain, Peter, James, and John experienced the glory of God revealed in Jesus. And not just that, they heard the voice of God
“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
This might sound familiar.   God said something similar at Jesus’ baptism- the start of his ministry.
And from there, Jesus “immediately” went into the wilderness.
What follows for Peter, James, and John is something similar-
Luke writes, “the next day they had come down from the mountain” and are immediately met by a child possessed by a demon.
The work had begun.
Jesus doesn’t promise us it will be easy. And we shouldn’t expect it to be so.
But we are often provided with life-changing, inspiring God moments-  mountaintop moments— that equip us for the work at hand.
You might have had your mountaintop moment.  Or who knows, it could be just around the corner.
I invite you to claim those moments as God’s work in your life.
Consider that moment as a transfiguration.
Where glory is revealed
hope is restored
And your heart is filled.
But I invite you to resist the urge to stay put.
Resist the urge to get comfortable.
Resist the urge to play it safe
or keep it to yourself
Plant your flag!
And Don’t let it be the greatest thing you ever do
Fill up your heart with God’s glory
and go and serve!
use that mountaintop moment to change the world.
Because “what is in you is stronger than what’s in your way”.
Amen.

Blessed Are

Sermon on the Plain
Luke 6:17-26

It’s good to be back.
Out of fatigue I’m returning to my manuscript this morning because I wanted to make sure my sermon was somewhat coherent.

As many of you can see from my social media posts over the last few weeks, we had the most incredible pilgrimage to the holy land. In fact, I’m still processing it in many ways- in part because of the magnitude of the experiences, but also because I’m just exhausted!

So many memories- we will certainly try to do a slide show presentation once we get our act together. So stay tuned for details.
And I will likely be leading a group back next February. Assuming I get the ok from Kristan..so let me know if you’re interested.

Yes, so many powerful experiences- too many to count.

Imagine- a pastor getting to shepherd his first church to the holy land.
And while there, having the privilege to perform a baptism in the River Jordan.
The River. Jordan.
I hid tears on the bus afterward just trying to understand how in the world God called someone like me to participate in such sacred moments.
To say I felt (and feel) inadequate is an understatement.
But that’s how our God works, isn’t it.

I even got to perform a renewal of vows for 4 couples in the wedding chapel in Cana.
I mean, really?
My bucket list trip was far more than I could imagine or even deserve.

We traced the footsteps of Jesus, starting in the towns along the Sea of Galilee and continued down to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
We were able to walk where Jesus walked, and to be present where he taught and lived 2,000 years ago.
I was able to physically touch the site believed to be where Jesus was born.
I was able to place my fingers on the rock believed to be Golgotha where he was crucified.
I stood in what could have been the entrance to the Temple in Capernaum where he preached to the crowds.
And yes, I was able to stand on the grassy slope looking out onto the Sea of Galilee where he preached the Beatitudes.

Many of these places look different than they would have so long ago. Most of them are enshrined with big beautiful churches, adorned with gorgeous mosaics and inspiring artwork.
But you still get a sense of what it must of been like. And it’s almost like your Spirit knows that where you are standing was indeed hallowed ground.

In many ways, these places are trapped in time.

Like in today’s gospel, Jesus preached these words in that particular place to a particular set of people, at a particular time.
On the same grassy slope – in Luke’s gospel he stood on a level plain— he preached his sermon to a large crowd.
I can imagine what the crowd would have been like-
children and women lingering in the back maybe
In the front the Zealots— those political activists hoping Jesus was going to give words that would fuel their quest for an uprising overthrow the oppressive Roman rule.
Also in the mix would have been the tasseled robes of the Pharisees, eagerly monitoring every single word of his sermon, hoping to catch him in some theological misstep.
But there were also the peasants and the common tradesmen and shepherds, respectful and humble, quietly listening and hoping for an uplifting word from the teacher to ease their burdens heaved on their backs.

Jesus, with great boldness
with great courage
proceeded to lay out a sermon which articulated the Kingdom of God.
Knowing it might ruffle some feathers
trigger some anger and outrage

Because It would be the great reversal
it flipped everything the audience would have known about how the world worked – or how they thought it should work
Blessed are the poor
Blessed are the hungry
Blessed are those who weep

Blessed- some translate Happy – others maybe more along the lines of “to be envied”
are all used to describe those at the bottom of the heap

Jesus was cultivating a new way of making sense of the world
Proclaiming a world view that flipped on its edge everyone’s understanding of power and privilege.

And unlike Matthew’s Beatitudes – known as the Sermon on the Mount- same sermon, just a different perspective- Luke includes “woes’

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry

Jesus isn’t saying that those who are successful or who have a lot of resources are bad
Not at all.
Jesus is challenging those who are resting in their privilege, resting in their wealth and their power while neglecting the needs of the poor
If you are rich or if you are full now- if you’re comfortable and turning a blind eye to the needs of the downtrodden,
well then woe to you.

That’s Jesus’s message.
And that message resonates today.

As I stood on the mount where he gave this sermon
And while I visited the sites of some of these powerful messages from Scripture it became very real to me that this gospel—
this message – these sermons
might have been trapped in time
but are truly timeless

God intends for them to be listened to and lived into for each and every generation.
Because the truth of the gospel is that God is always siding with the marginalized.
Every time a generation draws a line, there is God showing up on the other side, beckoning us to erase it.

Throughout history there is that triangle of power:
Pharoah at the top, slaves at the bottom-
there at the bottom enters God, flipping the triangle in favor of the oppressed.

Same with Herod- there’s Herod at the top
the marginalized at the bottom
there enters Jesus to side with the downtrodden
And flipping the power structure on its head.

It beckons the questions-
Where are our Pharaohs today?
Where are our Herods?

Because in our generation and the generations to come we as Christians are tasked with coming alongside the oppressed
to proclaim justice and to enact righteousness
wherever we encounter them.

We know from Biblical history that this rarely goes well.
People in power
People with privilege
Don’t like to be challenged

Just as I visited the places of Jesus’ challenging, radical messages
I also visited the place where he was tormented
tortured
and put to death as at traitor.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in haven; for that is what their ancestors did to prophets.”’

Well, I’m definitely no prophet.
But in my Letter of Call it states “Every minister of Word and Sacrament shall speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world”
And that’s often unpopular.
Especially when it challenges someone’s privilege
or deeply held political ideology.

Just like 2,000 years ago, we are in fractured times to say the least, but Jesus made it clear that the church has a voice in these areas, especially when decisions made in the public arena impact the lives of the poor and the oppressed
Especially when equality and fairness and compassion and justice are at stake
And I’ve often failed in this area- failing to speak out faithfully on key issues- especially political ones- for fear of making people angry
or heaven forbid, people not liking me.

But it took a pilgrimage to trace the footsteps of Jesus— to completely immerse myself in the world Jesus encountered —to understand more deeply that the Kingdom of God doesn’t just manifest itself on its own in each generation- it requires the partnership- the coordination-of God’s people at that time.

And I intend to do my part.

Its not easy work.
It’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears
it’s also scary.
Risk is involved.
Reputations can be at stake.

But we are summoned outside of our comfort zones into the realms of the unknown
in solidarity with our brothers and sisters outside the margins.
Whoever and wherever they might be.
We are called to love our neighbor
Our Homeless neighbor
Our black, white, Asian, Latino neighbor
Our immigrant neighbor
Our mentally ill neighbor
Our neighbor with differing sexual or gender identities.
We are called to love— not questions asked.

God always calls us to the side of the underdog.

Unfortunately, God doesn’t call pastors so they’ll be liked. Jesus certainly never modeled a ministry of universal popularity.
I mean, the man was forced to a cliff where the people wanted to throw him off!

But I can’t stand in the very place where Jesus proclaimed justice for the poor and the oppressed and then go back to a ministry of “feel good” theology.

I can’t.

I’m changed. But in a good way.

This hit me in a very real way one day when I was standing on the Mount of Olives looking out over the Kidron Valley at Jerusalem. I was in the same spot where Jesus stood before entering the city. I read from Scripture how he wept while overlooking the city and said, “The time will come when your enemies will build walls around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides”

It dawned on me that that time had indeed come. But it continues to come. Again and again. Generation after generation.
I had just left our hotel in Bethlehem, the very city where Jesus was born- and it is now surrounded by a massive wall, armed with guards.
We continue to fight with one another, hate one another, build walls to keep the other out when Jesus is urging us to remember that our neighbor is always on BOTH sides of any wall.

Ours is a faith of radical love, radical hospitality.
It’s as countercultural today as it was 2,000 years ago.
But it offers us a glimpse of the reality Jesus calls us to

Blessed are the hungry
Blessed are the poor.
Blessed are those who weep.

For the Kingdom of heaven is yours.

Amen.

Some Thoughts on Tradition

At our church, like many churches, we observe the traditional church calendar, otherwise known as the “liturgical year” taken from the Greek word leitourgia, meaning “public worship.” This essentially means we follow an ordering of the year consisting of a cycle of seasons, holidays, festivals, and celebrations that are rooted in religious and spiritual meaning. These seasons are often marked by various symbols, stories, and colors, which serve as guides to deepen our lives of faith. While many of the holidays are familiar (Christmas and Easter, for example) there is a whole lot of time in between, which is filled with various holidays and important dates. Pentecost, Epiphany, and Lent might be a few familiar ones (or at least you’ve heard of them). But all of these serve a particular purpose in our spiritual lives, helping us draw closer to the Divine.

One of these is Advent, and we are right in the middle of it. Advent is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas (yep, that’s what those candles on the wreath represent!). For us, Advent provides a space to prepare for the arrival of Christ. So each Sunday in Advent we light a candle on the wreath, symbolizing that we are drawing closer to the “big day” when we celebrate the arrival of our savior in our lives. We also read passages from the Bible and sing hymns that speak to the importance of preparation and waiting. It can be a wonderful time to reflect on the meaning of the season and remind us of its importance.

Like the liturgical calendar, some of the ancient church traditions can be easily dismissed as “stuffy” and “old-fashioned.” And I guess it’s true that they don’t always resonate in our culture of loud, bright, and fast. But when understood correctly, many of these traditional customs can be rich and meaningful practices, opening up for us beautiful and creative pathways to draw closer to something (or someone) who isn’t always easy to understand or comprehend. Carving out time each week to quiet the noise of the world and to participate in these practices can be life-changing.

So if you’re a Christian, or if you’re someone who is interested in faith stuff, I invite you to explore some of these traditions. You might find them fascinating. And my hope, and my prayer, is that they draw you closer to the wonderful, exciting mystery of God.
See you in church.
Brook

A Question of Priorities: My Sermon from Today

Mark 10: 17-31

Today is a very special day for me. One year ago today, I was ordained into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is hard to believe it has already been a year! From my time here as an intern through this past year as a “Big Boy Pastor”, each one of you have played and continue to play a special part in my formation as a pastor. In addition, you continue to accompany and support my family in ways that I will never be able to adequately thank you. It is a privilege- a true privilege- to serve you all here at Cross & Crown. I’m so grateful God called me here and you agreed!
And to celebrate this anniversary with a baptism! What a true joy. The blessings abound.
So thank you.

Now to the Gospel-

This morning we meet what many of our bibles call “the Rich Man”. He races up to Jesus-the Scripture even says he ran up to him, which in ancient times was not really a dignified thing to do. But in his enthusiasm approaches Jesus asking for his specific checklist of what to do in order to get eternal life.
And Jesus questions him- as Jesus is known to do—pushing back a little. Well, what do YOU think- you know the commandments. And in a bit of a subversive act, Jesus mentions 6 commandments. More on that later–

And this Type A guy jumps at this suggestion, noting that yep, he’s not only done ALL that, he’s done it since childhood! He’s checked them all of his list.
But Jesus, knowing the heart of this man loves him and then drops the challenge: ok, then go sell whatever you own, give it to the poor. Then come and follow me.
Then all that you own, all that wealth, will be heavenly wealth, Jesus adds.
And the man’s face drops. He’s not happy with this challenge. The text even mentions this was the last thing he expected to hear. Because it seems like this Type A guy maybe had expected more of an “atta boy” than a convicting challenge.

And he turned and walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, the text reads, and not about to let go.
Jesus asks us to let go of many things and follow him. That’s the key to discipleship. It’s a surrender.

Maybe that’s what makes it so hard. We want to be in control at all times. It’s about us. We want to set the roadmap, the timelines, set the agenda, set the plan.
Our entire identity gets wrapped up in our achievements.
So it’s only fitting that our instincts will be, “show us what to do and we’ll do it!”

I’m guilty of that for sure. And so is the man here.
If you notice in the passage, it starts with an inquiry of what to do, do do.
But Jesus shifts the direction of the narrative to one of receive.
What must I DO? He asks.
Jesus’ response is –well, “nothing if you think you can pull it off by yourself. But every chance in the world if you let GOD do it.”
If you simply receive.

When asked about what he must do to gain eternal life, if you remember Jesus answers with just 6 commandments. And we know there are 10.
The commandments Jesus left out were the ones involving a surrender of self—you shall have no other gods before me, you shall not make for yourself an idol, you shall not take the Lord’s name in vain, and remember the Sabbath.
Isn’t that interesting? Maybe Jesus intentionally leaves out those 1st 4 commandments hoping that this devout man would notice that the list was incomplete. How good really is that checklist? But like most of us, it flies right over his head.

It can often be easy to feel like you’ve accomplished a lot—to feel productive and good about yourself–it can often be easy to feel pious—

–when that which you are serving is you.

Jesus is challenging us to step outside of ourselves and to serve God. But he recognizes the challenge. He even says, Look its difficult. REAL difficult. So difficult it might even be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
But the easy path isn’t part of the deal. That’s not what Jesus calls us to. That’s not the life Jesus wants for us.
Even the disciples sort of panic a bit, with Peter asking, “well then who has any chance at all?”

Because it’s hard on our own. But that’s also not part of the deal.
Again it seems like we are encouraged to go it alone. Rewarded, in fact.
So we try to push through our own agenda in life. When what God wants from us is to break free of that.

Like the man in this passage, even when we are offered a better way, a more meaningful way, a more godly way, we too hold tight to a lot of things and aren’t about to let go. We want control, even if it is an illusion.
The Good Soil group is watching and discussing some of the videos from the Nooma series. Many of you have studied these. They have been around a while, but they are so good. Nooma is a collection of creative short films featuring one of my favorite pastors and writers, Rob Bell. Each film focuses on a specific topic or theme usually at the nexus of faith and life. They’re wonderful.
Last week we watched and the discussed the film, Shells.

This one tells the story of how his young son was at the beach searching for seashells. And he was gathering them up left and right. None of them particularly special- most of them just the broken half-shells and colorful shards that litter the beach.
But then as he’s walking in the surf, he stops and spots in the near distance, a starfish.

His eyes light up with excitement. He looks to his parents and dashes off into the surf. Right up to it.

He pauses for a moment, and then turns and dashes back.
He looks up almost desperately at his parents and rushes back toward the starfish, standing there looking at it.
Again, he returns to his parents.
His parents ask him “Buddy what’s the matter? Why aren’t you grabbing that amazing starfish??”
And he responds with exasperation, “Dad, I can’t! Because my hands are filled with shells!”
So often our hands are filled ‘with other things—things we are unable or unwilling to let go of – which prevent us from taking hold of the right things.
Sometimes we need to be able to say “No” to things- even good things– so that we may say “Yes” to the right things.

This passage isn’t just about money.

Jesus isn’t convicting the man for having great wealth. That’s not the point here.
Jesus is challenging the man to examine his heart to determine where his true treasure is. Jesus is challenging the man to focus not on his accumulations- whether its his money, his accomplishments, his status,- but on God.
Jesus is challenging the man to consider his attachments and to reflect on whether these things are keeping him from a meaningful life with God.
So much of our culture encourages us to “have it all” when the “all” that really matters is our faith in Christ. Our commitment to Christ. The rest of it—it’s all trimming.

Our biggest resource is our time.

We are all busy. Really busy. Probably too busy. And it’s become this embarrassing “badge of honor” to brag about how busy we all are. And in our heart of hearts our intentions are pure.
But it seems like this passage suggests maybe we’re missing the point.
We’re saying yes to all these things deep in our hearts-things we believe are the right things. But in reality, we’ve forgotten to check with the true priority, to determine if they’re the best things.

Are we going to that extra meeting, when we really need to be enjoying a glass of wine with our spouse.
Are we pounding away at that laptop, when we should be sharing a story with our kids.
Are we allowing our kids to participate in a million different activities while allowing ourselves to get out of shape with no time for exercise and stress-relief.

Or are we focusing so much on our needs that we aren’t allowing the time and space to serve others, denying ourselves the unique, life-giving energy God offers when he care for others.
It can be a myriad of things. None more important or more common than the other.

But it’s worth taking a look at.

So today I challenge you. Prayerfully look at your commitments. See where you might be saying “Yes” to things which are preventing you from doing the things that closer align you with your faith.

Who are we truly living for? Are our commitments reflective of a life worthy of God’s kingdom?
What are you saying “Yes” to when it’s requiring you to say “No” to something far more meaningful?
What are things you’re holding tightly to that are keeping you from fully entering God’s Kingdom?
What is it that you can let go of?
I know I’ve got mine. I’m sure you have yours.

Let go of some of those shells, so you can grab hold of the starfish.

Amen.

Radical Discipleship

Mark 9:42-50

This is some passage, isn’t it? The language is obviously quite strong. The descriptions, severe. From the dramatic imagery and the emphatic tone, it is clear that Jesus is making an important point.
On the surface, it seems straight-forward- that Jesus is warning everyone not to be a stumbling block to others’ faith, especially those who might be vulnerable. This is most certainly true.
But it’s also possible that pulling the camera lens back a bit, Jesus might also be making a larger point about how we are to live as Christians.
Jesus might be describing, in quite colorful terms, the importance of proper discipleship.
No, no, no proper discipleship isn’t about maiming yourself! That’s not what I mean.
What I mean is proper discipleship as an orientation toward the well-being of others, oftentimes at the expense of yourself. It isn’t always easy and one which asks a lot of us. But Jesus spent a lot of time imploring this behavior. He describes good disciples as those who would rather sacrifice their own wholeness than threaten the well-being of the community. In this passage he discusses those things which might be stumbling blocks for others. Being mindful of those stumbling blocks and being willing to remove them is a requirement of proper discipleship.
There are many things we do which could be stumbling blocks for others. In fact, we might not even know they are stumbling blocks. The Psalmist acknowledges this in verse 12, “who can detect one’s own offenses?” It’s not always easy.
But for the greater good we, as disciples of Christ should be mindful of them and seek them out.
A friend of mine is an Army chaplain. And in his work he encountered a lot of soldiers struggling with a variety of issues, but many of them struggle with alcoholism and addiction. So years ago when they were deployed, understanding the heightened stress of the situation, he personally abstained from alcohol during that time in an effort not to be a stumbling block for his unit.
And although he often needed a beer. Really needed a beer, he chose what was best for the group, rather than his own comfort.
That’s discipleship.
Discipleship means focusing more on the whole than on your individual part. It’s a selfless worldview. And that’s not always easy. Especially these days, with self as the focus.
Self-esteem.
Self-motivation
Self-care
Self, self, self.
Not that these are all bad, mind you. Of course it’s important to take good care of yourself. But Jesus calls us to a life that requires us to reach beyond the self with a focus on the other.
It isn’t easy.
But Jesus never suggested it would be easy. And on top of this, he even suggests that his demands are to take priority over everything else. His commandments are not convenient, cozy, self-affirming add-ons to whatever else you might hold dear. They replace everything, no matter the cost to us.
My friends that isn’t just proper discipleship, its radical discipleship.
Legendary Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a lot to say about discipleship. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer strikes a hopeful tone when he writes of the commandment to follow him.
“Those who follow Jesus’ commandment entirely, who let Jesus’ yoke rest on them without resistance, will find the burdens they must bear to be light. They will receive strength.
Jesus’ commandment is harsh, inhumanly harsh for someone who resists it. Jesus’ commandment is gentle and not difficult for someone who willingly accepts it.”
By grace Jesus Christ calls us to follow him.
But it’s not normal grace.
It is costly grace.
Again, Bonhoeffer writes,
“It is costly, because it calls to discipleship;
it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.
It is costly, because it costs people their lives;
it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.
It is costly, because it condemns sin;
it is grace, because it justifies the sinner.
Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s son.”
The Trinity teaches us of God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus on the cross; God on the cross
That is the ultimate in self-giving love.
And that’s what Jesus is calling us to.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your eye causes you to stumble, cut it off.
These are dramatic commandments and although they are not to be taken literally.
They are to be taken seriously.
Our focus as disciples should always be lasered in on what is in service to the other. To the community.
Jesus explains that it’s better to be without these stumbling blocks-
A hand
A foot
An eye
Than to be thrown into hell.
Ouch.
Now this concept is also one which merits consideration:
Hell is depicted throughout Scripture as a place of torment and judgment. The fiery imagery, the horror of gnashing of teeth, and the eternal pain leaves little to the imagination in terms of its desirability.
Theologians for centuries have argued about whether Hell is a literal place. And I’m certainly not going to wade into the debate.
But I will speak to the theological implications of hell. Theologian Daniel Migliore defines hell as “the terrible weariness and incredible boredom of a life focused entirely on itself.”
Because a preoccupation with self makes it extremely difficult to experience love. And God is love.
So for me, and maybe for others, an eternity without love; an eternity without God. Well, that’s certainly Hell.
Discipleship calls us away from selfishness and toward self-giving. Discipleship calls us to be willing to sacrifice our well-being for the benefit of the community.
Pat Tillman was a linebacker for Arizona State University who as a junior helped his team make it to the Rose Bowl. That year he was voted the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
In the 1998 NFL draft, Tillman was selected with 226th pick to play Safety for the Arizona Cardinals. He started 10 of the 16 games of his Rookie year.
Two years later, in 2000, Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman picked Tillman to his 2000 All Pro Team after Tillman finished with 155 tackles and 2 sacks, among others.
But everything changed for the young football star the next year when on the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, terrorists launched 4 coordinated attacks on the United States, killing 2,996 people and injuring 6,000 others.
8 months later in May, 2002, Pat Tillman turned down a contract offer for $3.6 million dollars from the Cardinals to enlist in the United States Army.
Soon after, he joined the Army Rangers and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because for Tillman, his personal comforts, his personal career, even his personal safety was secondary to the needs of his country.
For Tillman, what benefitted the community was more important than what benefited him.
And sadly he paid the ultimate price. In April of 2004, Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire while patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan.
In some ways, the life Pat Tillman lived, the sacrifice he made, was the life Jesus calls us to- an ultimate, all-or-nothing commitment.
It’s daunting to consider, isn’t it? But it’s nevertheless what we are called to do.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your foot, causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your eye causes you to stumble cut it off.
What is it in your life that is preventing you from living the selfless life Jesus calls us to?
What is distracting you from radical discipleship?
Revisiting the imagery of the passage, it’s easy to interpret this passage as an exaggerated illustration for keeping clear of sin. But maybe the dramatic imagery can be translated into more helpful, practical terms for our lives of faith.
Maybe…
Jesus uses the image of the hand to conjure up images of one’s handiwork, what one does or produces, or how one makes a living. And if that vocation or work is causing others to stumble or keeping you from the life God wants for you, well then maybe Jesus is inviting you to revisit whether it’s something you should be doing. “Cutting it off” in other words, for the sake of Christ’s call. Challenging words for sure.
Maybe…
Jesus uses the image of a foot, to conjure up images of our direction- what moves us toward a destination. Where are we going? What are our aims? Are our goals in life keeping with the goals of being citizens of God’s kingdom? If it’s not, well maybe Jesus is asking us to stop and change course.
Maybe…
Jesus uses the image of an eye, to represent what attracts our attention. Wandering eyes aren’t just in reference to sexual attraction. “Decisions about how one uses time, spends money, and establishes priorities are all based on where the eye is focused.” What are we focusing on, and is that in line with a life pleasing to God?
Jesus calls us to radical discipleship. A discipleship that requires us to focus less on ourselves and our personal needs and more on the needs of others.
These words are convicting and the challenges are great. Jesus has again raised the bar.
But his words are also infused with hope.
Because this self-giving, this self-sacrifice, this way of living will ultimately give us the peace that frees us.
Amen.

No One is Beyond Hope

(painting by C&C member Pam Hancharik)

Acts 9:1-19

Chuck Colson served as Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969-1973. Once known as the President’s “hatchet man”, Colson gained notoriety at the height of the Watergate Scandal.

To put it mildly, he wasn’t highly regarded.

Slate magazine writer David Plotz described Chuck Colson as “the ‘evil genius’ of an evil administration.”

He collaborated with a group to break into the psychiatrist’s office of Daniel Ellsberg, the man known for releasing the Pentagon Papers. He had hoped leaking personal revelations about Ellsberg would help discredit the anti-Vietnam War cause.
When that wasn’t successful, he distributed information from Ellsberg’s confidential FBI file to the press.

News stories claimed Colson once boasted that he would run over his own grandmother to re-elect Nixon.

By most measures, Colson would be considered a very bad man.

It was Colson’s fierce intensity that struck fear in many who encountered him.

When it was revealed that the think-tank Brookings Institution possessed politically damaging documents, Colson proposed firebombing the place and stealing them while firefighters put the fire out.

By his own admission, Colson noted he was valuable to the President … “because I was willing … to be ruthless in getting things done”.

In March of 1974, Colson was indicted for conspiring to cover up the Watergate burglaries.

But this wasn’t the end of the road for Colson.

As he awaited arrest, his close friend, Raytheon Chairman Thomas L. Phillips gave Colson a copy of Mere Christianity, the classic theological book by C.S. Lewis, which articulated in the plain speech the fundamental teachings of Christianity.
After reading it, like a flash of light, Colson was transformed, devoting his life to Christ, and become an evangelical Christian.

Although several in the media ridiculed his conversion, claiming it was a ploy to reduce his prison sentence, Colson was undeterred. He joined a prayer group led by members of congress from both parties and set out to be a new man.
After prayer and consultation with his fellowship group, Colson approached his lawyers and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
As a result, Colson was given a one-to- three-year sentence and fined $5,000
He served seven months in Maxwell Correction Institute in Alabama— from July of 1974 to January of 1975.

While in prison, God continued to work on Chuck Colson.

He became increasingly aware of what he saw as injustices done to prisoners and noticed shortcomings in their rehabilitation. He became convinced that he was being called by God to develop a ministry to prisoners with an emphasis in promoting changes in the justice system.

After his release from prison, Colson founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, which today is “the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families”. Colson worked to promote prisoner rehabilitation and reform of the prison system in the United States.

In addition to these efforts, Colson wrote best-selling books and received numerous awards and honorary doctorates for his Christian advocacy. He was a well-regarded public speaker, using his experience to share a gospel message of hope to a world in desperate need of it.
Colson once said,

Where is the hope? I meet millions of people who feel demoralized by the decay around us. The hope that each of us has is not in who governs us, or what laws we pass, or what great things we do as a nation. Our hope is in the power of God working through the hearts of people. And that’s where our hope is in this country. And that’s where our hope is in life.

Power, pride, shrewdness, and corruption led to the collapse of Colson’s life. But after public humiliation and paying his debt to society, Colson elected to place his hope in Jesus Christ.
In doing so, Colson found redemption in the wake of corruption. He became an instrument of Christ, improving the lives of millions of inmates and their families across the globe and sharing the gospel.

Once known for hurting people, Colson later became known for helping people.

Once considered beyond all hope, beyond redemption, Christ used this man to become a vocal advocate for the gospel.

Because if there is one message of the gospel, it’s that no one—no one—is beyond hope.

My prayer is that this message brings comfort to you.

Because we all know people – or know of people-, whom it seems as if all hope is lost.
They’re too far gone.

Maybe it’s someone who has hurt you so badly that forgiving them is 100% out of the question. Time and again they’ve exhibited inexcusable behavior to the point where you have written them off.

Maybe they’re loved ones who continue to make bad decision after bad decision, putting themselves and others in harm’s way.
Repeated attempts for assistance- maybe from you, maybe from others, have come up empty. And it’s drained you of everything you have.

Maybe its someone who seems to have had every possible opportunity- every conceivable advantage– but never seems to be able to lift themselves up out of their challenges. We see this a lot with famous actors, athletes, and musicians.

Sometimes it’s addiction. Sometimes it’s mental illness. Sometimes it’s just poor judgment.
But regardless of the reason, hope seems to have escaped them.
They’ve ruined every opportunity.
They’ve burned every bridge.
Hope is lost.

To many, Paul would have fit this category. If you were a follower of the Way, as the writer of Acts describes early Christians, Paul, or Saul at the time, was about as bad as one could be. He brought terror to those outside of his worldview. He was known to not only threaten, arrest, and imprison Christians, but torture them as well. It is no surprise that when Ananias heard God order him to go tend to Saul, he was reluctant.

To early Christians, Saul was lost. Without hope. Lost to the dark side.
But that’s usually when Jesus makes an appearance. And he does on the road to Damascus.

But if you notice, Saul isn’t instantly restored through this appearance.
Jesus works through Ananias. Jesus appears to Ananias and has him go, lay hands on him and says,
“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

And immediately, he regained his sight. He arose and was baptized.

Ananias became an instrument of Jesus to help Saul restore his hope and step into the future God has planned for him.

Thomas Phillips became an instrument of Jesus to help Chuck Colson restore his hope and step into the future God had planned for him. By something as small as handing him a copy of an inspirational Christian book.

Where could Jesus be using you to help someone the world has deemed hopeless? How could you be an instrument God uses to restore someone’s hope and help them step into the future God has planned.

We can all become instruments of God’s grace. We can all become like Ananias, summoned to go to someone and offer them the love of Christ. A love, which can have transformative power.

They usually aren’t dramatic scenes as Paul experienced on that road. Oftentimes, they are as simple as offering someone forgiveness. Reminding them of your steadfast love. Staying persistent in prayer. Or offering them a book.

No one is beyond hope.

Paul experienced this personally and deeply. And he shared this experience most notably in his letter to the Romans when he wrote,

I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In Christ, hope is ours.
In Christ, hope is for all.
No matter what.

May it be so.

Amen.

A Matter of the Heart

Mark 7: 1-8; 14-16; 21-23

I will never forget when I was younger my sister and I, who were occasionally prone to bickering and fighting, were in quite the heated altercation. I can’t even remember what it was about. But in a moment of anger, pure white-hot rage, I yelled at the top of my lungs,
“GO TO HECK!!!”
Now my sister thought little of it. In fact, she was probably reveling in the fact that she had clearly gotten under my skin. But it’s at that moment when I heard the dreaded sound. Like a fierce warning. That loud, rhythmic clip clopping of high heels colliding with hard-wood floors.
My breath tightened. My sister and I both knew what this meant.
The moment seemed to hang in balance. Neither of us saying another word. I dare say we barely moved.
The dreaded sound drew closer, the heavy pounding of hard wood floors shifting to the muffled, progressive stomp ascending the stairs.
In an instant, my sister’s door threw open and there in the doorway was my mother.
All red hair and fury, glaring at me.
“Justin Brook Seaford. What did you just say?”
In a panic, I responded, “I said go to HECK, Mom! I didn’t even say the word!!”
“But you MEANT it,” she responded. “Which is just as bad. Now go to your room.”
I slinked off in shame, baffled at how my strategically edited verbal assault on my sister had backfired.
I’ve never forgotten that experience, so props to my mom for some effective parenting! And although different in scope, it illustrates one of the messages in today’s Gospel.
In the passage, Jesus is trying to teach the disciples, Pharisees, and even us, that it’s the meaning behind the purity laws that are important, not just the rote adherence to them. The motivations of the rituals.
It’s what they mean.
Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees and legal experts at the time who are calling him to the carpet, wondering why he and his disciples are not living according to the “tradition of the elders”, by not purifying their hands with water before eating.
Jesus lashes out, quite forcefully, accusing them of being hypocrites by quoting Isaiah 29:
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me.
To Jesus, it is apparent that the Pharisees and legal experts aren’t concerned with hygiene, they’re more concerned about making sure people are publicly following of the rules.
Because this was a big deal at the time. And before we get too judgey, it’s important to note that the intention of the officials was mostly sincere and devout. The observance of the law was meant to be a witness to the nations around them; to give glory to God. In the midst of Roman occupation, these laws were seen as a way to protect and preserve the Jewish faith.
But in execution, well, let’s just say the intention was lost. These rituals or traditions had devolved into legalism, where the intention was no longer the driving force. Legalism takes into account outward actions, but not inward feelings.
There’s an old story about this criminal who was a devout Muslim. As you know, a follower of Islam is required to stop everything and pray at certain times during the day. As a result, they have to carry prayer mats with them at all times. Well this story has this man chasing someone, knife raised in the air, ready to pounce and murder him. Just then, the bells ring out signaling him to pray. So immediately he stops, pulls out his mat, says his prayers as fast as he could, and then rose to continue his murderous pursuit.
Legalism can make what were once devout, meaningful rituals into meaningless external exercises.
The focus becomes more on appearances than honesty.
It’s sort of like when you catch your kids breaking a rule and you call them on it and they passively snap, “Sorry” and then continue on, without truly expressing regret or remorse.
Jesus is announcing that he isn’t concerned about the outward appearances as much as what originates from the heart. Jesus is more concerned with what’s animating the ritual. What’s behind it. Jesus is more interested in what it means.
Because rituals and traditions, in and of themselves aren’t bad as long their meaning is sincere. This is why Jesus doesn’t reject the Mosaic Law or reject the issue of defilement. What he’s rejecting are the interpretations of these laws, referred to as “traditions of the elders.”
Some background:
Originally for the Jew, the Law meant two things: first and foremost, the Ten Commandments, and also the Pentateuch, which are the first five books of the Old Testament. Now it’s true that in the Pentateuch there are a certain number of detailed regulations and instructions. But in the matter of moral questions, they were content with Jews interpreting and applying these moral principles for themselves.
But in the 4th/5th century before Christ there came into being a class of legal experts known as Scribes. These folks needed definition. The needed these principles expanded and detailed into a thousand little rules and regulations governing every possible action and every possible situation. Life was no longer governed by the principles, but by these rules. Originally known as the “Oral Law”, eventually these were written down and became known as the “tradition of the elders”.
And to Jesus, these interpretations—these “traditions” had deviated from their intended meaning.
They no longer served their intended purpose, to draw us closer to God.
Depending on the tradition, many of us grew up having to don our “Sunday Best” when we went to church. Any of you remember that? Now at my church in Elkin growing up, you didn’t set foot in that place unless, for guys, you had on a sport coat and tie, and for ladies, you had on a dress and perfect hair. That was just what was expected.
Now if the intent for dressing up is to demonstrate respect and reverence for God, then dressing up is perfectly appropriate. Should maybe even be encouraged. But if its real intent is to show off and bring attention to yourself, well then, Jesus would maintain that its missing the point.
It’s all a matter of the heart.
It’s sort of like volunteering, serving, doing good deeds not for the service itself, but so you can be seen as a “good person”.
Let’s be honest. We are all occasionally guilty of this, aren’t we?
In this passage Jesus is imploring all of us, really, to focus on the heart. Jesus has rarely been about the externals. He urges us to be mindful of our motivations. Not to do things just for appearances, like a ritual whose meaning has been manipulated. But to behave in a way that is an authentic expression of a pure, loving heart.
His heart.
And that is available to us through Christ.
Because as a result of our Baptism, we are indeed joined to Christ. His heart becomes our heart. His purity becomes our purity. In doing so, Jesus is able to work through us so that our actions are HIS actions- pure and sincere.
Each and every day.
I really mean it.
Amen.

A Sermon on Reason & Faith

John 6: 35, 41-51

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.
T.E. Lawrence, the archaeologist, writer, and diplomat who was later immortalized in the movie, “Lawrence of Arabia” was a close personal friend of Thomas Hardy, the poet. In the days when Lawrence was serving as an aircraftsman in the Royal Air Force he sometimes used to visit Hardy and his wife while wearing his uniform. It so happened that on one occasion his visit coincided with a visit from the Mayoress of Dorchester, a lofty, regal person. The Mayoress was bitterly offended that she had to engage in a social capacity with this lowly serviceman, not knowing who he was. Speaking in French, as to secretly communicate with Mrs. Hardy she said, “never in all my born days had I had to sit down to tea with a private soldier!”
No one said anything;
until T.E. Lawrence said in perfect French: “I beg your pardon, Madame, but can I be of any use as an interpreter? Mrs. Hardy knows no French.”
A snobby and rude woman had made a shattering mistake because she judged by externals- by her interpretation of appearance, by worldly standards.
That is what the Jews did in this morning’s Gospel passage.
They kept murmuring about Jesus because He said: “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” They kept saying “is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” Based on their perspective and their worldly standards, it was inconceivable that this man could be what he claimed to be. It defied reason.
It is all the more amusing that their professed knowledge of what is true- that they knew of his father and mother – in itself was wrong. As Jesus’ earthly father might have been Joseph, his real father, of coruse, was the Father in heaven.
Sometimes our “knowledge” inhibits us.
Especially in matters of faith.
In external and worldly matters, by all means, let reason be the judge.
When you’re calculating P&L’s for your business, most definitely use reason.
When you are wrestling with a complicated problem, by all means, use reason.
Reason most definitely has its place. Please don’t misunderstand me.
But in heavenly matters, and matters of faith, it might behoove you to cast reason aside.
Because reason, my friends, will never get us to faith.
Think about it:
Reason is not at work when we consider the transformative work of the sacraments. It just doesn’t make logical sense! Jesus Christ being fully present in the bread, in the wine. There is nothing “reasonable” about it.
Reason comes up short when we contemplate God in 3 persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Reason fails us when we consider the central tenets of our faith:
A man born of a virgin, who suffered death and was buried. And bodily rose again. A man fully human, fully divine, who on the cross took on the punishment for sin we deserved but transformed that into righteousness.
How on earth can that be? It just doesn’t. make. Logical. Sense.
This often happens in matters of faith.
In the Letter to the Hebrews we cling to the words, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
Faith is unreasonable! It defies logic!
So how then can we arrive at this faith? How can we overcome our earthly training and ways of being so that we might have this faith?
Jesus offers us an answer in this passage when he tells us “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (6:44)
It’s not really our choice at all. The Father draws us to him.
Interestingly, the original word used here for “being drawn” is the Greek word, helkuein. And it almost always implies some kind of resistance. It was the same word Jesus used for drawing the heavily laden nets to shore in John 21. It’s the word used in Acts to describe Paul and Silas being dragged before the magistrates in Phillipi.
We are drawn by the Father, but often not without some resistance. And that resistance is often as a result of our reason. Even Mary asked the Angel Gabriel, “How can this be?” Reason suggests that a virgin can’t be pregnant with God’s Son.
Reason cannot accept the fact that Christ came from heaven and is God’s Son, that He is the celestial bread and yet has a father and mother on earth.
But again I tell you, in matters of faith we often must jettison reason to fully embrace the life we are promised.
Luther wrote, “If our God were to present us with sensible doctrines- doctrines which our reason could comprehend- none of us would be saved; we would all be lost”
He continued with his customary, straight-forward style,
“If Christ did say it, then we should cling to it, whether it harmonizes with reason or not, and no matter how it may sound.”
Now, this could lead us to an overly literal reading of Scripture. I’m certainly not advocating for that. But is it possible we occasionally overthink some of the matters of faith, especially when it pertains to Scripture?
Is it possible we say to ourselves, “well, that most certainly cannot be true because it makes no sense at all! I don’t like how that sounds so therefore I’m dismissing it altogether!”
I know there are a lot of areas where I wrestle with that same instinct.
But truth is truth, whether it seems reasonable or not.
As famed writer Flannery O’Connor once said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
Yet it’s become almost fashionable to pick and choose which doctrines we believe, or to tweak them so to be more palatable for our modern sensibilities.
Paul warns against this instinct in his letter to Timothy when he says, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2Tim 4:3)
Sometimes our reason, our desires, conflict with matters of faith.
But there is good news!
We needn’t’ worry about this. We have a great teacher!
Jesus says in the passage, “All will be taught by God”, quoting Isaiah 54:13 “all your children shall be taught by the Lord and great shall be their prosperity”
We are taught by the Father. But how can this be, really? How does this happen?
In his commentary, Luther explains, “The Father draws us to the Son by His mouth, His doctrine, and His Word.”
We learn by studying the Scriptures. We learn by listening to God’s Word preached. We learn through the teachings of the Church.
This is not to dismiss the discerning work of the Spirit. There is most certainly a role for the Spirit. A big role! Seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit is essential. But I maintain that there can be an overemphasis in spiritual discernment that can be quite risky.
Much in the world today elevates spiritual discernment and spirituality. And in and of itself that is a good thing.
But if your spiritual discernment conflicts with the Word of God, I encourage you to proceed with caution. Wrestle with it in prayer. Engage a trusted fellow believer. In the history of the church, spiritual discernment was never an individual enterprise. It was always in a group of believers. So don’t go rogue!
As the body of Christ, rooted in God’s Word, we hold each other accountable, supporting one another, and guiding one another especially in matters of faith.
This is the nourishment Jesus promises.
The bread of life. Which came down from heaven.
What sustains you, what nourishes you is Christ. Nothing else has this power. And it’s offered to you freely. Other things are wonderful- the love of friends, family, the joys of success and accomplishment. Material possessions are nice, too. But they are not life.
Jesus promises, “This is the truth I tell you—whoever believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life.”
And it’s given for you.
It might defy reason. But it is most certainly true.
So again I borrow Luther’s words:
“Believe it and away with your presumption! Do not rationalize and reason it out! Close your eyes! Put down your cup! Quit grumbling! Believe the Word which Christ submits to you, namely, that He came from heaven, that is, that He is God’s Son, revealed to the world, born of Mary… conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
Believe these words. Let them into your heart.
Because they are the words of eternal life.
Reasonable? Probably not.
But true? You bet.

Amen.