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I recorded this video at our early service on 10/22/2017. At our early service, attended by a smaller number of people, we preach from the floor and not the pulpit. Our pastor, Rev. Eric Hoey, read the Gospel scripture before the sermon.

 

(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we utilize fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print.)

The Anatomy of Sin: When Disciples Deny Christ

Luke 22:31-34; 54-62

31 “Simon, Simon, look! Satan has asserted the right to sift you all like wheat. 32 However, I have prayed for you that your faith won’t fail. When you have returned, strengthen your brothers and sisters.” 33 Peter responded, “Lord, I’m ready to go with you, both to prison and to death!” 34 Jesus replied, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster won’t crow today before you have denied three times that you know me.”

(vv. 35-53 contain the accounts of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane while the disciples fall asleep. Then Judas completes his betrayal of Jesus into the hands of the chief priests and elders of the Temple.)

54 After they arrested Jesus, they led him away and brought him to the high priest’s house. Peter followed from a distance. 55 When they lit a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. 56 Then a servant woman saw him sitting in the firelight. She stared at him and said, “This man was with him too.” 57 But Peter denied it, saying, “Woman, I don’t know him!”

58 A little while later, someone else saw him and said, “You are one of them too.” But Peter said, “Man, I’m not!”

59 An hour or so later, someone else insisted, “This man must have been with him, because he is a Galilean too.” 60 Peter responded, “Man, I don’t know what you are talking about!” At that very moment, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter, and Peter remembered the Lord’s words: “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62 And Peter went out and cried uncontrollably.

When Jason and I were first married, we lived in the county, near Cairo on Old Madisonville Road. We lived in a small neighborhood on the highway, with several homes lined up on our side of Old Madisonville Road and a corn field right across the street. It was not uncommon for us to encounter a variety of creatures, great and small. Often, we saw deer in the field across the road. People would dump their unwanted cats and dogs in our area, so it was a frequent occurrence for us to have an extra one of those hanging around. Mice could be an issue, so one season, we welcomed one of those abandoned cats into our home–and she had four kittens shortly after, both tipping us off to why she had been dumped and gifting us with six weeks of cuteness while the kittens got old enough to rehome.

But one morning, when dawn was just breaking, before anyone in the house had gotten out of bed, I became aware of something making a noise that seemed like it should be familiar, but it was not entirely familiar. I opened one eye and sat up a little bit. I tilted my head and tried to figure out where it was coming from. Relieved, I realized it was definitely outside the house. In fact, it sounded like it was right outside our window. I sat all the way up and peeked between the slats of the venetian blinds and found the culprit.

A little black rooster was perched on our porch railing, crowing happily into the morning. Now, understand, until that moment, I’m not sure I had ever seen a rooster up close and I am pretty sure I had never heard one crow at the break of day. I’m from a city and until my seven years in Henderson County, had never lived more than a block away from a busy city street.

I did not think of today’s gospel passage on that morning, but since that day whenever I read this passage, I picture the little black rooster clinging to our red deck porch and lifting his voice above the morning. And considering our passage, although  I may have had little experience with such exotic farm life until that day,  Simon Peter was from rural Galilee. He likely had heard roosters crowing all of his life, their wake up cries as familiar to him as that of the beeping of the alarm I set each night before I go to sleep. “Before the rooster crows” was perhaps even a common marker of time in ancient Galilee, and so when Jesus said that Peter would do something unfathomable and terrible, within the span of time between dinner and daybreak, Peter no doubt was hurt and outraged. But then, it came to pass and I’m going to guess that after the night narrated in our gospel reading this morning, Peter never heard that sound in quite the same way again. From that day on, even after he had made things right with the resurrected Jesus and knew the forgiveness of God…even after he had planted churches and discipled countless others…even after he had spent nights in jail because he refused to ever deny Jesus again, I’m going to guess that the crow of a rooster brought Peter back to this night and the memory of Jesus’ words to him after dinner and Peter’s act of denial.

I know that I am a lot like Peter, and I suspect you might see yourself in him as well. “Oh,” we might be tempted to say, “But I never denied knowing Jesus. And I certainly never was so intentional about it that I did it three times in the same night.” It’s easy to give Peter a hard time–I mean, here’s the disciple who proclaimed that he’d go with Jesus to his death. He’s the one who left everything behind to follow him, who victoriously walked on top of the water with Jesus, who boldly confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” What was he thinking?

But if we consider that perhaps another word for “denial” is “sin,” then this story becomes crucial and even precious to us as you and I may see ourselves after all in Peter’s words and actions. As we consider this important night in the life of this disciple, we might consider our own tendency to sin and deny Christ ourselves. I think there are four pieces to consider in telling the story of this sin committed by Peter, and I think every one of them relates to us as well.

The first thing we can be sure of is this: Jesus prays for us and knows we are frail.  “I’ve prayed for you, that your faith won’t fail,” Jesus tells Peter on that night in the upper room. Our sin does not catch Jesus unaware, nor does he despair helplessly over it. Instead, Jesus prays for his disciples.

I would like to invite you to take great comfort in this. Jesus knows exactly what Peter is about to do, even when Peter still believes this possibility is ludicrous. Peter proclaims he’s planning to go with Jesus all the way to prison or death–I mean that’s commitment. And yet, Jesus knows the reality and he knows that Peter will not be so bold in just a matter of hours.

In John’s account of this night, we’re told that Jesus would wash Peter’s feet along with the other disciples. Peter is still invited to follow Jesus to the garden. Peter is still included among Christ’s disciples. And those of us who know the rest of the story know that this horrible night does not limit Peter’s role as a leader of Christ’s church.

“I have prayed for you that your faith won’t fail,” Jesus says to us. “I know that you will be tempted to deny me and I know that you will.”

Jesus knows our frailty down to the intimate details. Jesus prays for us, calls us, and claims us anyway.

Despite our best intentions (or sometimes due to wrong intentions), we sin. When we sin, we give into fear and deny Christ through our words or actions.

For Peter, standing in the courtyard outside of the high priest’s house, this is a moment of sifting. He gathers with the servants and guards of the house around a firepit and warms himself on the cool desert night. The first person to question him couldn’t have been particularly intimidating. Scripture is clear in the description, it is a servant woman who first approaches him with the possibility. Likely, she wanted some information. She had no power and probably no interest in seeing Peter arrested, but she was likely curious about what was going on in the house on that night. Staring at him, the observation is simple, “this man was with him too.” Peter’s reply is swift and definite: “Woman, I don’t know him!”

I heard a preacher say one time that all sin is born out of fear, and that’s something I’ve evaluated on a regular basis in my own life. It certainly does seem that Peter must be driven by fear in his denial.

Perhaps Peter was afraid of what would physically happen to him if it were revealed that he is a follower of the man just arrested and facing a death sentence. He seems to be worried about the servants and others in the courtyard figuring it out for certain. It could be that he was afraid for his own physical well-being and so, in hasty self-preservation, and a lack of trust in the promises of God, he denies rather than claims his relationship to Jesus.

I act unfaithfully out of this sort of fear, too.  I know what the right thing to do is, but something of myself is at stake if I follow through with that. I opt for more safe options rather than take risks that could result in me having to give up my time or my space or my privilege, or might result in ridicule because I’ve chosen to follow Jesus. For example, how many times have I remained silent or turned away when I could have shared about my faith in Christ with someone? Very few of the decisions I have made in my journey with Jesus have put my very life at risk, I think I should mention that. There are still places in the world where being a Christian and claiming faith in Jesus is punishable by death or imprisonment. Peter was likely afraid for his very life in those moments in the courtyard and perhaps he lied about his relationship with Jesus in order to save his own life.

But it could be that he’s afraid of something else. Could Peter be afraid that Jesus isn’t who he claimed to be? Remember that Jesus wasn’t exactly the sort of Messiah his followers, or any Jewish people, were expecting. A victorious King, a conquering hero, a strong military presence–they were waiting for something more like that. The meek and mild, the first shall be last and vice versa Messiah caught them all off guard, to say the very least. Certainly, his arrest does not seem to fit with knowledge that Jesus is the Son of God. What if Peter is really saying, “I don’t know him. I never knew him. I thought he was the One, but now I see he’s not.” This fear that Jesus isn’t really who he claims to be results in the denial.

I deny Jesus all the time because I doubt his truth or goodness. When I sin because I think I know what’s better for me, when I decide to make my own path rather than follow in his way, when I puff up my chest and seek my own glory, I demonstrate my fear that Jesus isn’t who he promised and deny his leadership and goodness in my life. One way or another, fear figures prominently in Peter’s sin and in our sin, too.

As promised, at the completion of his trinity of denials, the rooster is crowing. And then something surprising happens. Verse 61 says “the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.” What does this mean exactly? No one is really sure. Perhaps Jesus was being moved from place to place and saw Peter, maybe through the window. Or perhaps the meaning is a bit more mystical. But either way, the author of the gospel includes this detail. The Lord looked at Peter. I think that our Lord and Savior looks at us, too. Our Lord sees us even in the moment of denial.

When you picture this happening as recorded here in Luke 22, what do you see in Jesus’ face in that moment?

Do you see condemnation? Do you see disgust or anger or annoyance?

Do you see pain or confusion?

Do you see love and compassion on his face?

I am grateful for this detail in the passage. I am grateful that Jesus looked at Peter in the midst of his sin. Because this happened, I can confidently claim that Jesus sees me in the midst of my own sin. I don’t think Jesus’ face was contorted in condemnation or anger. I think Jesus saw Peter in that moment, claimed Peter in that moment, and loved him even still. And I believe that’s what happens when we sin.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean sin is ok with Jesus. That doesn’t mean sin doesn’t grieve God. I believe that it does. And Peter was keenly aware of that in this moment. The scripture says he “wept bitterly” or “cried uncontrollably.” No doubt angry at himself and aware of how he had denied the one who had given him so much life and purpose in the past few years, he cries out of sorrow and regret.

As ones who follow Jesus, too, we know this pain and sorrow. Once we realize what we have done and how it has grieved God, we remember Christ and are convicted of our sins.

When we know, we know. When our sin becomes obvious to us, we are grieved. Scripture is full of this happening over and over again. The moment when King David understands the point of the prophet Nathan’s story about the rich man and the poor man and the little Ewe lamb, he cries out–”I have sinned against the Lord!” When King Josiah is presented with the words of the Law, and realizes how far off his nation has wandered, he tears at his clothes and despairs outright. In the parable Jesus tells of a father and two sons, the prodigal son returns home with the words “I have sinned against heaven and I’ve sinned against you and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”

Part of being a disciple involves acknowledging and confessing our sin. It’s having the humility to acknowledge our own frailty and our frequent denial of Jesus through the decisions we make every day to act or speak unfaithfully. It’s knowing when we have turned away from the one who is always enough and always has a plan and purpose for us.

When it comes to Peter, perhaps you know the rest of this story. You’ve read the book, you’ve heard it preached before, you’re anticipating a morning on a beach after Jesus is raised from the dead. We’ll leave that for our Pastor, Eric, to proclaim next week, the last week of our series and Reformation Sunday.

On this night in the high priest’s courtyard, Peter doesn’t know there is any more to the story. He weeps bitterly and no doubt spent the next few days in agony as Jesus was sentenced to die, crucified, and buried. And so, it seems that we might sit with him and consider our own reflections in his story. We ponder our own sin and ways we turn away from Christ. We feel the gaze of Jesus on us as we listen to the rooster crowing. We weep with Peter as we realize what we’ve done.

There is good news. It is the good news that you hear proclaimed each Lord’s Day from this pulpit, that you proclaim to one another as you pass the peace, that you can carry out of this building and share with your friends and neighbors who are feeling far from God, and good news that we would share with Peter if we could. This good news is this: We may weep at the expanse of our sin, but we no longer weep without hope. When we come up against our own sin, as we often do, we have access to the throne of God, mediated through the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. We know that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ and we know a good God who is loving and forgiving and gracious to us. We confess our sins together in worship each week because we believe that these words are heard by a God who cleanses us from all unrighteousness. We can trust in God’s good promises about this.

What happens next, after the rooster crows and we are convicted of our sins? Let’s read Jesus’ first words to Peter in this passage again.“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” This odd almost fragment of a sentence: “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” is there among the prediction of Peter’s denial. It’s there among our denial, too. You will sin. It will grieve God and it will grieve you, faithful disciple of Jesus. But you are welcomed to turn back, called to turn back. And when you have turned back, you will tell of the goodness of God’s grace, and you will stand with and lend strength to your brothers and sisters in Christ. May it be so. Amen.

(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we utilize fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print and using blue text to indicate the words that fit in the blanks.)

500 years ago this month, Martin Luther, a Catholic monk from Eiselben, Germany, nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church, an action that became the tipping point to a revolution that was already beginning to gain some traction. When Martin was 21 years-old, the story goes, he was a law student and brilliant debater. During that year of his life, he found himself caught in a thunderstorm, nearly struck by a bolt of lightning. He called out to St. Anne, mother of the blessed Virgin Mary, promising that he would become a monk should she save him. Upon surviving, Martin fulfilled his promise and entered into the monastic life.

As Martin sought to walk faithfully with God, God began to reform him in some surprising ways. He was a good monk by all the standards of the day, yet Martin found no consolation in this. He read the scriptures and was tortured internally by the idea of righteousness, which he felt that he, himself, could not possess.

In his course of study, however, he read and studied the letter to the Romans, and he began to understand the righteousness of God as a gift that comes by faith, not something he had to produce within himself.

It wouldn’t be long before the way that God was reforming Martin Luther would soon begin to reform the church in Europe. Even still, the movement he formalized on All Saints Eve of 1517 in Wittenberg would eventually lead to his trial as a heretic. His bold declaration of “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me, Amen” came just before the guilty verdict and his escape to hide away and avoid arrest. He, a former monk, married a runaway nun. In his younger days, he penned words that he would later need to revise and in his older days, he wrote words that he probably should have taken back–harsh, graceless words about Catholics and Jews and even his fellow Reformers.

(Info drawn primarily from http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/theologians/martin-luther.html and a couple of books i had lying around to verify this.)

Martin Luther is an example of how God can take a disciple, one who is passionate and outspoken, willing and imperfect, and do something remarkable with his or her life. Simon Peter, one of the first disciples of Jesus, is another. This month, when we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we are going to spend the whole month with Simon Peter. For five Sundays, we will visit the highest points and the lowest low of his walk with Jesus as recorded in the gospels. Much like Martin Luther, Jesus called Simon Peter into following and he boldly and willingly followed on a new path, called to start a new thing.

Much like Martin Luther and Simon Peter, Jesus calls you and I to follow with boldness and willingness. Maybe you too have struggled with your lack of righteousness. Maybe you too have struggled to be faithful and stand strong in a threatening situation. Maybe you too have been re-called and re-formed by Jesus, or maybe you are seeking to recommit yourself to the journey of discipleship. This month of Reformation is a good one to reflect on all of that and consider what it means to allow Jesus to be Lord of your life and be continually changed and reformed to be more like him.

As we continue to listen for God’s word to us this morning, hear now the word of God from Luke 5:1-11.

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

All of the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus–the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–have a story of how Jesus called his first disciples. The account here in Luke 5 is the most elaborate and the previous chapter provides clues that when we come to the scene in Luke 5, Peter has already known Jesus and witnessed some of his miracles of healing. Jesus healed his mother-in-law, as recorded in Luke 4:39, for example. So perhaps Peter was perfectly poised and prepared to accept the call to follow Jesus, as we see him do in Luke 5.  This is a great passage to read as we consider our own calling to follow, and what that means for us, as we read about what it meant for Peter.

As we explore what it means to follow Jesus, the first thing we see in the text is that following Jesus requires obedience. Early in this passage, Peter demonstrates obedience twice. First, Jesus gets in his boat and asks Peter to sail out a little ways from the shore. Peter complies. Next, after he’s done teaching, Jesus instructs him to sail out farther and let out the nets one more time, a request that might have seemed a bit bizarre. They fished all night and didn’t catch anything. The early morning, we might assume, has passed them by while Jesus has been teaching from the boat. There aren’t any fish to be caught at this hour, Jesus. And yet, Peter basically says, “this makes no sense, but if you say so, I’ll let down the nets.”

As disciples of Christ, sometimes our instructions make good sense. And sometimes, they simply do not. Sometimes the things we are called to do seem so counter-cultural in this day and age.

For me it would have been tempting for me to stick with “that makes no sense, teacher,” had I been in the boat when Jesus commanded the nets to be let down one more time. “Jesus, you’re a carpenter, not a fisherman, so we’re going to give you pass here, but really, letting the nets down again won’t do any good at this point.”

How many times have I read in Scripture or prayed for God’s direction only to think, “well, that will never work?” A lot. For example, a little more than seventeen years ago, I ran across a job listing for a church on a corner in downtown Henderson Kentucky and I. Just. Knew. I was supposed to send my resume. “But God,” I said, “maybe we should look at a map, because Henderson is nowhere near Lexington, and I’m trying to go to Lexington.”

Or maybe we read words like “in humility, regard others better than yourselves” or “have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” who “emptied himself” and was “obedient even to the point of death” like we read in Philippians 2, and we’re tempted to say, “Oh, not anymore, Apostle Paul. We don’t do it like that in America.” When we follow Jesus, we are called to be obedient.

Another word about obedience: in order to be obedient, we have to know what God is asking us to do. Which means one or two things must be true: We must be reading scripture regularly, and allowing God’s Word to reform us and call us to obedience and we must be prayerful about the steps we take in our lives and listen for God to give us direction. Maybe you’re not doing either of those things regularly. If that’s the case and you want to follow Jesus obediently, start with reading scripture and you might be surprised at how clearly you’re able to hear God’s voice in other ways too.

Obedience means that when you know what God is asking of you, you change your actions, thoughts, or words to line up with what God has said.

“We’ve already done what we think is the right way,” Peter essentially insists in Luke 5, “BUT IF YOU SAY SO, we’ll do what you’ve asked us to.”

Luke 5 says the next thing that happens is that the disciples followed Jesus’ instructions and the result was that they caught so many fish their nets began to break and when they worked together to pull the fish into the boats, the boats began to sink. When Peter saw this, the scripture tells us, “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ for he and all who were with him were amazed” at what had just happened. This reminds us that Following Jesus inspires worship. For Peter, it was a natural, unavoidable response to the goodness he had just witnessed. He fell to his knees and honored the holiness that he recognized in Jesus, the Christ.

The Apostle Paul knew well that following Jesus inspired worship. Just in our epistle reading today, from his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul writes, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…who became obedient to death on a cross…and was exalted by God and given the name above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

When God does something and we recognize it as an act of God or we know the presence of holiness, there is no other response than to honor and glorify God.

The problem is, we’re prone to idolatry. And as such, we often misplace that honor and glory and direct it elsewhere. Like towards ourselves. Or towards our things. Or towards anyone or anything else other than the source of every good and perfect gift we have.

Peter, skilled fisherman that he was, could have had a different response. Rather than recognize Jesus as the giver of the nets full of fish, he could have assumed it was due to the skill of himself and his team that when they put the nets down when Jesus commanded, they caught so many fish. Or, maybe even more likely, his skill met with just the right amount of coincidence. He doesn’t have either of those reactions, though. He recognizes the giver of the gift and he responds in worship.

Worship happens in a lot of ways. Yes, we worship as a body here on Sunday mornings and sometimes other times, too. We gather for worship because we each recognize that this is not just about us. It is about the Body of Christ in every time and place and a story that God is writing across the ages that includes all of us.

But as Peter demonstrates, worship is also spontaneous and often very personal. Worship can happen daily, hourly, minute by minute if we seek to live lives that glorify and honor God. Followers of Jesus Christ worship him because we recognize his goodness and holiness and we know that he is worthy of glory and honor. And when we are truly following Christ, we cannot help it. We are called to worship and we must respond.

After Peter worships, and it is noted that it is not just Peter who is amazed and sees Jesus for what he has done, Jesus says familiar words to Simon. “Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people.” And with those words, we are told Peter and company park their boats on the shore and leave everything to follow him. And so, we see that it is the case that Following Jesus calls for whole-hearted devotion.

Peter who has just had this moment of revelation, who has heard Jesus’ invitation to follow, doesn’t just leave his nets and all the fish that the boats just brought ashore–he leaves his whole livelihood and identity behind. He will from that moment on, be known as one of Jesus’ disciples. We who have read the whole book know that Jesus will change his name and Simon will be called Peter. We know that Peter will see Jesus heal the sick and injured and bring people back from death. We know that Jesus will include Peter in some of the most amazing moments and will demand some of the hardest things from Peter. But Simon the fisherman knows none of this. Simon Peter knows that he was obedient to Jesus and Jesus did something miraculous and glorious, and so he worshiped Jesus and then left everything to follow him.

The same thing happens in our lives. Maybe you decided to follow Jesus, and you had no idea how that was going to turn out or where you were going to end up. But you followed as wholeheartedly as you could. And in every moment, every decision to be obedient, every scripture passage you read that caused you to grow a little more, every act and sight of wonder that called you to worship, every struggle that you prayed your way through, God was shaping you more and more in his image so that your identity wasn’t nearly as important as the identity given to you as a follower of Jesus.

When you follow Jesus, it’s impossible to do it halfway. When we try to hang onto ourselves, we aren’t really following. Jesus would tell his disciples later, “ ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

October 1, 2017 seems as good a day as any to consider your own calling to follow Jesus and how that looks in your life. Are you following obediently, allowing the words of scripture to test and try your thoughts and actions, seeking to prayerfully discern what God is asking you to do?

Are you worshipping honestly and frequently, giving God the glory and the credit for the good things in your life, remembering to turn toward God as often as you are tempted to turn towards yourself?

Are you devoted whole-heartedly, accepting the identity Jesus gives you and laying aside your own will for his?

Maybe you’re like me and when you think about it like that, you see that you’ve missed the mark somewhere along the way this week or in the past month or year or years, and you know it’s time to get back on the path that follows the footsteps of Jesus and leads to life. I think that probably Martin Luther and the other reformers we celebrate this month recognized that feeling as they continued to surrender their lives and ministries to God and find the way that is right and true. Peter knew that place well, as we’ll see in the coming weeks as he seeks to follow Jesus through some tough situations and deal with his own missteps.

The good news is that that we have a Lord who calls us as many times as it takes, out of a love and grace that knows no bounds. Yes, today is a good day to start again at following Jesus.

Let’s pray together, for ourselves and for each other, as we seek to be renewed in following Jesus.

Jesus, you stand at the lakeshore and you invite us to drop our nets and leave our boats and our names and our vain pursuits to be your disciples and to be known by your name. Help us to be obedient to your leading, and call us to be faithful students of your Word. Renew in us a sense of wonder and joy and call us to worship. Make us wholly devoted to you alone, gladly giving our lives for the sake of your Kingdom coming. Amen.

Sermon on Romans 13:8-14

September 21, 2017

(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we have started using fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print and using blue text to indicate the words that fit in the blanks.

And my usual disclaimer: sermons are meant to be heard, not read, but this is the manuscript I used to preach this sermon on September 10, 2017.)

Let’s talk for a moment about light and darkness. On earth, we have a natural cycle of light and darkness which can be tracked and figured way ahead of time for each day in each location on the planet. Our human bodies adapt with a circadian rhythm, which compels us to sleep during the nighttime hours, when for most of human history it was too dark to accomplish anything well, and spending the daytime hours awake, with plenty of light to work, study, and play. If you’ve ever had to work the graveyard shift, which required your body to do the opposite, you may know the feeling of struggling to adjust to a different rhythm. We are in the annual season where the days are becoming shorter and the nights are becoming longer. Some of us long for more light and the long days of summer, while others of us are excited and settling in for cooler weather, shorter days, and pumpkin flavored food and drinks.

In the passage from Romans, Paul notes the difference between light and darkness and continues a theme in scripture that takes the concepts of light and darkness into the spiritual realm. The first words spoken by God, after all, in scripture are “Let there be light!” To his followers gathered on a hillside, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

For the apostle Paul, light symbolizes the new life all Christians are called to live. We are called to be people of light, who live uprightly and in a way that glorifies God, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of our neighbors, too. As we think about light and darkness, we have to acknowledge that darkness is available to us. Nothing good happens after 1 am, I’ve heard parents and grandparents instruct their kids–and depending on how strict your own moms or grandpas might have been, that time is a bit arbitrary. But there’s a sense that the darker the night, the more trouble there is to be had. We live in a time where darkness doesn’t require nighttime anymore, however. We live in a time where the anonymity of the internet provides its own cover of darkness for those who want to anonymously seek what Paul would probably call out as debauchery and licentiousness, or for those who would want to gather to wish or perpetrate hate or harm, enmity or strife on their neighbors. It’s a place where racists or sex traffikers or pedophiles or pornographers can connect to each other–actually there’s a whole internet only accessible to those who know how to get there that allows for this complete anonymity and the most vile of words and actions–and it’s actually called the Dark Web.

We live in a world where the darkest darkness is only a click or two away, and so Paul’s words to his church at Rome, which was plunged into a first century darkness, are needed among us as we seek to heed our calling to be people of the light.

The first instruction Paul has for us who want to live in the light is that We Love our neighbors like it is the Law….because it is!

Paul writes that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Now the Law he’s talking about is the Law. The 10 commandments. The Torah. The 613 expectations provided in the first five books of Scripture. 613 rules for the faithful people of God to remember.

I am going to guess that many of you have been the YMCA in Henderson. I’ve become a frequent visitor to our local Y in the past few years, and we have a great Y facility. The creative folks there, probably both employees and board members, have made a lot of great updates and upgrades to the facility, and there are so many activities to choose from at the Y. But here’s what I always think when I’m walking in and around our YMCA: They certainly don’t need to buy any decorations for the walls here. Why not? Because they cover just about every available square inch of our YMCA with signs informing readers of all kinds of rules, like they should not wear perfume in the fitness center, that they have to sign their kids out at the front desk, that they should clean machines this way and wash hands because of flu season, and that they should use that weird scrubby brush thing outside the door to get dirt of their shoes–has anyone ever done that?

There are so many reminders of the rules, guidelines, and expectations of the Y on the walls, it can be a bit dizzying. You know the guy who wrote the book about how he followed all of the commandments in the Bible for a year? His name is AJ Jacobs and I kind of want to invite him down to Henderson to see if he can spend a week following all the rules at our YMCA.

Rules matter to us. We have rules we follow in our offices, in our homes, as citizens of our city or state or nation. Our After School ministry has a list of rules. Every year, we write an after school covenant that the kids and adults who participate in our twice a week program sign. Here is this year’s covenant. (Read a little of it)

Here’s the thing: What I really want to write each year on this covenant is “Love God. Love Others. Don’t Bleed.” To me, that should sum it up.

I think that’s probably how God might have preferred to present the Law all along. Well, probably just the first two things–Love God, Love Others. It’s not like God didn’t think of it. Deuteronomy 6:4 contains the words of the Shema–Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” and Leviticus 19:18 reminds “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” In the gospels, you’re likely most familiar of Jesus’ words about loving neighbor in connection to the story of the Good Samaritan, and Jesus’ reminder that our definition of “neighbor” cannot be limited to geography or religion or skin color or socioeconomic status.

The Law was never about a list of do’s and don’ts. Why do we need 10 commandments? Or why does the Torah have 613 separate rules or laws? Because humanity is fallen. We forget how to love God and how to love our neighbor. Things that should be common sense or common courtesy aren’t always commonly understood. It has to be broken down and spelled out line by line for us sometimes…but the problem is that the list of rules makes us feel like we’re just if we simply do not break any of the rules. And yet, throughout history, priests, kings, prophets, and finally God incarnate remind us that the point of the Law isn’t following the rules…it’s love.

Last week, in preaching the passage before this one in Romans 12, Eric gave us a list of what real love looks like. Real love is sincere, pure, devoted, passionate, enduring, generous, merciful, compassionate, humble, peaceable, and missional. This is the love Paul wants his church in Rome, and us by extension, to understand and demonstrate.

When we love our neighbors, Paul says, we won’t harm them or steal from them or be unfaithful or covetous toward them. Love, by definition, means we want the very best lives possible for our neighbors, and we do not purposely cause them or wish them harm for any reason.

When we love our neighbors, we fulfill the Law. That’s the first way we live in God’s light.

This passage also reminds us is that we live in the light when we wake up and stay awake.

There’s an urgency, Paul reminds his church in Rome. There’s a timeline with a definite ending. It’s interesting to me how we understand this concept in our modern society. I had a group of kids at Camp Loucon last fall for our Presbytery’s Fall Retreat. We climbed up, up, up through the woods to the top of the zipline, like we do every year, and as kids one by one put on harnesses and attached to the line and jumped off the cliff to ride to the bottom, just about every other one of them would yell YOLO! As they jumped. Y-O-L-O stands for “you only live once!” It’s intended to convey the idea of urgency–that there’s a timeline here and the timeline has a definite end. But it’s interesting because the idea behind YOLO is that you only live once, so you may as well live however you want and do whatever will make you the happiest. This mindset is honored in our society, right? Find your passion, live life to the fullest, obey your thirst, just do it…YOLO. YOLO is very self-seeking and self-gratifying.

Paul’s version of YOLO has to do with waking up fully and being aware of God’s calling and God’s timing. Instead of living like we think we have all the time in the world to straighten up and honor God, we live each day like it might truly be the last day. Because we are reminded all the time, that it very well might be.

But here’s the thing: we aren’t called to keep awake simply because we might meet our maker sooner rather than later, and we want to be ready ourselves…as Christians, we know an urgency beyond that. The task of living in the light is big! It is nothing less than partnering with the Creator of the universe to bring about the transformation of the world! The world is full of darkness and we know the One who overcomes that darkness, and so we stay awake for the sake of our neighbors, the ones we are loving to fulfill the Law.

We stay awake and we continue to hold out the hope we have–hope in a Kingdom coming where all that is broken will be made new, where all that is wrong will be made right, where all pain and sickness and death will pass away. Wake up and keep awake, beloved church, and use the one life you’ve been given to shine light in dark places.

Finally, living in the light requires that we clothe ourselves with Jesus at all times. Paul writes “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; 13let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Clothe ourselves with Jesus? What does that look like? How can we tell?

Well, Paul says, go to your closet and make a choice.

We’re familiar with choosing what to wear. Most of us have to do it on a pretty regular basis. It is a chore for some, a joy for others, simple for some of us and whole lot more complicated for others. Some of us have uniforms we wear regularly, whether they are actual uniforms we are required to wear in our workplace, or a limited selection, color, or style we’ve decided is our look. Some of us have to make a choice every single day and try on multiple articles of clothing before settling on the thing that will be just perfect for the day ahead.

If we Christians want to live in the light, we have choose to wear the right things, says Paul. And the things we need to choose are the things of Christ, not the things of the world around us.

Paul gives us a list that is not exhaustive, but it gets the heart of what his instructions are. I looked up the Greek for the words Paul uses, because even if his list doesn’t intend to cover everything that could possibly be of the flesh or of darkness, I thought it was certainly a good place to start. Verse 13 says, “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in κώμοις (feasting) and μέθαις (drunkenness), not in κοίταις (that’s actually the word for bed, which is rather to the point, but to clarify, Paul is talking about immoral sexual behavior) and ἀσελγείαις (indecent conduct), not in ἔριδι (which means contention or strife) and ζήλῳ (which is the word for zeal, but it seems when Paul uses this word, he is usually using it to talk about zeal for self and a rivalry with others–so jealousy is overwhelmingly the preferred translation.)

Basically Paul gives three types of sin–gluttonous eating and drinking, immoral sexual behavior, and strife in relationships. Three categories of sins that show lack of regard for our neighbors and their well-being, and sins that demonstrate the darkness of Paul’s day…and ours.

In v. 12, Paul instructs laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light. Paul telling us to put on armor…does that sound familiar at all? Before starting Romans, we finished a series on Ephesians, also credited to Paul, which ended with a sermon about the Armor of God.

The belt of truth,

the breastplate of righteousness,

The shoes of the gospel of peace,

The shield of faith,

The helmet of salvation,

The sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God…

The armor of God. The armor of light.

But here’s a crucial thing. Paul is saying that the armor of God is none other than Jesus Christ.

Put on Christ’s truth.

Put on Christ’s righteousness.

Put on Christ’s faith.

Put on Christ’s salvation.

Put on Christ’s spirit–the very Word of God.

We are not the source of the light. We wear the light that John 1 says has already come into the world. We wear the light that has already conquered the darkness.

None of this is easy. It requires loving people who do not love us back, or loving people who aren’t very loveable. It requires setting aside our own desires and requires putting the well-being of others ahead of our own. It requires choosing to live so much like Christ that we are wearing him and allowing his light to shine through us. None of this happens by accident–we have to lay down our own clothes and our own selves and put those things on.

May we live as those who love our neighbors, stay awake, and love and reflect the light of God. Glory be the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon on John 4:5-42

March 19, 2017

(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we have started using fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print and using blue text to indicate the words that fit in the blanks.

And my usual disclaimer: sermons are meant to be heard, not read, but this is the manuscript I used to preach this morning. This one began with a dramatic reading of the scripture by three members of the congregation.)

Scripture: John 4:5-42

We come this morning to a story that I have always loved. No doubt, I’ve read this passage of scripture more than just about any other. I’ve written papers about it. It’s regularly taught in youth group or Sunday School classes around here. I’ve preached about it from this pulpit at least one other time, but I think maybe twice.  

This passage contains the longest recorded conversation in any of the gospels and it happens between Jesus and a woman of Samaria. I love the rhythm of the conversation, the flow of topics from actual thirst and actual water to spiritual thirst and spiritual water. I love the way God changed this woman’s life in the course of an afternoon.

And I love the way that we once again bump into The Kingdom of God. Even when Jesus wasn’t explicitly talking about the Kingdom of God, Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom of God. And once again, we are reminded that when the Kingdom of God is set against the kingdom of this world, they could not be more different.

And right away we see that in the Kingdom of God,

outsiders become insiders.

Jesus and his disciples, walking the distance between Jerusalem in the south and Galilee in the north, make a stop mid-way between in Sychar, which is well within Samaria. It is noon and Jesus is tired, so while the disciples go to try to buy lunch, Jesus sits down by a well.

“A Samaritan woman came to draw water” is how the interaction begins. Two descriptions about her that make her an outsider to Jesus and his disciples. First, she’s a woman. The societal norms were clear on this one–a man, and especially a man who is a Rabbi, should not speak to a woman that is not his wife or family member. Further, she’s a Samaritan woman, which also makes her a religious and political outsider, since the Jews considered the Samaritans to be unclean.

Jesus obviously knows all of this. He knows she is a woman, he knows she’s a samaritan, he knows the expectations and he willingly reaches out to her with a simple request for a drink of water. Time and again, we see Jesus do this with folks he encountered, whether it’s touching a leper to heal him from disease to engaging a sychophonencian woman in a theological debate.

But there’s something else. It is noon and this woman is coming to the well. In the middle eastern desert during the hottest part of the day. Other women would have already been to the well, choosing instead to go in the cooler part of the day when the sun was just rising. A village well was, and still is in communities that have a common well for water, a gathering place. A place where women gather in the cool of the day before the chores at home need attention. For some reason, this woman goes when she knows she would be there alone. I imagine it’s more than the possibility that she was an introvert who wanted some time to herself.

If we jump ahead for just a second, we realize that this woman has been married multiple times and she’s currently residing with a man who is not her husband. Jesus will tell her this and she will confirm its truth.

Often we read scripture through modern eyes. In this instance, we might assume this woman is somehow to blame for this, that she was rightfully ashamed of how she had been living and that’s why she came to the well in the middle of the day and that’s what Jesus is going to talk to her about.  But we have to read this passage in the ancient context. In the ancient Middle Eastern world, this woman had little or no agency. We don’t know the circumstances of her five previous marriages, whether her husbands had died or abandoned her, how she even came to enter into those unions or even if she had wanted to be married. In the ancient world, no one really cared if a woman was willing to say “I do,” and marriage was more of a transaction, usually arranged by the father of the would-be-bride. Further, it was not advisable or even possible for a woman in the ancient world to live without a man. Women couldn’t provide for themselves. It’s possible that just about everything that was true about her situation were things she could not have changed.

But the actual circumstances do not always matter when it comes to shame, do they? Often, people with little ability to change their circumstances are blamed for the circumstances and are shamed by their communities, whether it’s deserved or not. I think about groups of people in our society in this day and age who are often blamed or shamed, maybe those who are dealing with disabilities or living in poverty. Or people who contract lung cancer–because lung cancer is the cancer that people assume must be the sufferer’s fault. Or I think about circumstances that cause individuals to feel private shame for things they could not have ever controlled, perhaps couples struggling with infertility or who have experienced reproductive loss and struggle in very personal ways, often quietly and alone. People can experience this isolation and separation from their neighbors for lots of reasons, many beyond their control, and I think this is where the woman here now at the well has been living.

This woman is an outsider to Jesus’ Jewish disciples, and she is also an outsider in her city or village, possibly all for reasons beyond her control. It is here where Jesus meets her and invites her into a different, wonderful story. And I think it is a beautiful thing that Jesus met this woman right where she was, and that it was Jesus who crossed those boundaries to reach out to her.  She had no idea when she walked to the well, her head bowed, her eyes to the ground, that she was going to meet the one who created her and that he was about to change her life forever.

In the Kingdom of God, outsiders become insiders because in the Kingdom of God, there are no more outsiders. The King of the Kingdom welcomes all to himself. This is good news not just for the woman standing with Jesus at the well, but for all of us who have found ourselves on the outside, separated from God or from each other.

And so now we come to the rest of the story. Our second point on the outline is that in the Kingdom of God,

dry wells are abandoned and living water flows.

Jesus has crossed lines to engage this woman in conversation and then he does something interesting. Out of the blue, he instructs the woman to go and get her husband and come back. And then, of course, she tells the truth, but in an ambiguous way–like we all do sometimes. “I have no husband.” And then Jesus speaks truth to her about her situation.

Considering the context and all of the things about shame and her outsider status, I do not actually think Jesus is talking about a sin problem, here. This is an assumption that is often held about this text. But I don’t think Jesus is addressing unfaithfulness in marriage…I think what may be happening here is that Jesus is acknowledging a deep emptiness and longing that has not yet been satisfied for her. The love she had experienced had not lasted, for whatever reason. Each relationship had led to a brokenness of some sort. She kept hoping for security or love with each dip of her bucket into the metaphorical relationship well, and that thirst was never permanently quenched.

Jesus offers her living water–a love that will never abandon her, a God who will always meet her needs. This is truly an opportunity for this woman to experience a permanent change in her life.

So I started thinking…what would Jesus have said to me if we had met at that well? He wouldn’t have asked about my husband, I don’t think. I thought and I thought and then it hit me.

Jesus would have looked at me from across the well and said, “Go get your perfect seminary transcript and bring it back here.” And I would have said, “Sir, I don’t have a copy printed.” And he would have said, “You’re right, because you don’t have a perfect seminary transcript because in Dr. Colyer’s doctrine class last semester you ended the term with a B.”

Because for me? That metaphorical well I keep revisiting hoping for permanent satisfaction is the well of approval. I want you, any of you, all of you, all of the people out there, all of my professors to approve of me and like me. It’s in my nature to go to whatever ridiculous length necessary to gain approval. But guess what? That’s a well that dries up fast. Because sometimes I make mistakes. Or I have to say something people don’t want to hear. Or someone just doesn’t like me. And even when I am well-liked, or my professors think I’m smart, that relief only lasts for a little bit…and then I need more praise and agreement and affirmation. But I was created and called to seek living water–the approval of ONE, the approval of God. That’s the water that will last.

What else might there be? What are the other wells that people go back to over and over again hoping for permanent satisfaction only to end up empty again?

On Sunday nights in the Fellowship Hall, a group of about 12 have been meeting to discuss Jen Hatmaker’s book “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.” As we read the book, we are thinking about the things that we have in our lives that we have a hard time using in moderation, and how sometimes those things become replacements for God. We’ve talked about food. We’ve talked about clothing. Tonight, Jesus be with me, we are talking about media.

One of the things we are really talking about, though, is that fact that in general, us humans have an emptiness inside of us, and that emptiness can be relentless. And sometimes, we try to fill that emptiness with…well, stuff. We buy bigger houses and seek promotions and we earn more money and we buy more stuff…and then we’re still empty, because those are not things that are eternal, and what we are really longing for, us humans, is something eternal.

So we go back to the same wells. For this woman, it was hope that the next relationship would last and bring security. For me, it’s approval and assurance that I’m good enough.

For someone else, Jesus might have talked about love of money or worldly success. Or the purchasing of new things–retail therapy. Or maybe about an addiction to drugs or alcohol or pornography or facebook. All wells that might fill someone up for a little bit, might quench a particular thirst for an amount of time…but not forever.

But Jesus offers another way, and a water that will truly quench those longings inside of us. If we would come to his well and drink deeply of the living water that comes to us through scripture, through prayer, through worship in spirit and truth, through trusting in God’s grace and listening for God’s call to us, seeking the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of this world…we will never be thirsty again and our lives will be changed forever. And through our changed lives, God will change the lives of others. Because point number 3 is…

changed lives change lives.

In this one afternoon, this one woman’s life is changed forever. Jesus offers her living water and in it she finds a new identity as a child of God, loved and accepted, and a call to worship in spirit and truth.

And then God uses her newly changed life to change the lives of others in her community. This unnamed woman is often regarded as the first evangelist. She’s the first one who calls others to faith in Christ as the Messiah. Look–(read the come and see part of the passage).

All of a sudden the woman who went to the well at noon to avoid her neighbors is calling for them to come. In that interaction, Jesus changed her life, her identity, her understanding about who she was so dramatically that now she is inviting others to come and see.

And they did come, they left the city and came to the well and they heard this woman’s testimony and they believed in Jesus as the messiah. And they invited him to stay and even more Samaritans came to follow Jesus because of this one interaction at the well between Jesus and this woman whose name we never even learn.

She was living her ordinary life and Jesus broke in, reaching across many barriers, called her to him and offered her the thing she had been truly longing for, changing her life in such a way that God used her life and story to change the lives of so many of her neighbors.

Maybe you’ve been someone like this woman. Maybe God has changed your life in such a way that you’ve been able to offer this witness to others and maybe God has used your changed life to change the lives of your neighbors near and far. Maybe you’ve been unable to contain the gratitude you feel for a God who would call you in from the outside and claim you as God’s own, and you’ve shouted it from the roads and rooftops.

Or maybe you’ve known someone like this woman, and someone else’s story of how God has been visible and at work in his or her life has been the vehicle for change in your own life.

Did you know that this is God’s plan for evangelism? Did you know that God uses people–often ordinary, broken, flawed people at that–to bring the gospel to light for others? That the plan for the movement of the gospel involves one neighbor at a time, experiencing the love and grace of God and then sharing that same love and grace with others.

Where does Jesus find you this morning? Are you feeling like you’re on the outside, looking in? Is Jesus calling you to stop going to the same dried up well for joy or relief, and instead drink deeply of the living water that will bring joy and relief eternal? Are there people around you who are thirsty and in need of the hope that comes from the good news of a God who cares and loves and changes lives?

May we know Jesus’ calling, allow God to continue to change and challenge us, and be willing to bear witness to the goodness of God for the sake of our neighbors. Praise be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

The Good Samaritan - Luke 10:25-37; Jesus Mafa, Camaroon, 1973; Held at Vanderbilt Divinity Library

The Good Samaritan – Luke 10:25-37; Jesus Mafa, Camaroon, 1973; Held at Vanderbilt Divinity Library

[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. All that said, I suppose I can trust the Holy Spirit to work in the reading of the manuscript as well. Here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]

“Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve, the neighbors we have from you.” The school year before this last one, we did a series of monthly intergenerational Sunday School lessons that used this song as a theme song. Monthly, we asked the question, “who is my neighbor?” The kids soon learned that the answer to this question is “everyone.” That’s the nice simple answer, but as we know, a more challenging answer is…well, more challenging.

“Jesu, Jesu fill us with your love, show us how to serve, the neighbors we have from you.” This is the chorus of a folk song from Ghana and a hymn in our hymnal that invites a similar question invited by our Scripture today. Who is my neighbor? Who are our neighbors? It was a question of great importance to the Jewish folks living in Israel/Palestine in the First Century and it is an important question for us living in the United States in 2016–maybe it’s more crucial than ever after a week like this one. Listen now for God’s word:

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’

Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?

He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Here is a parable that is so familiar, it is likely that for some of you, I could have even skipped the reading of it this morning. It is so familiar that it is a parable that has a place in our modern culture–we have “Good Samaritan Laws” and we understand “Good Samaritan” as a description of someone who stops to help someone in need. It is tempting for us to read this as a nice story about how Christians are supposed to be nice to others–but a nice story, it is not. This is a nervy parable about the radical compassion extended by someone who was perceived to be practically inhuman by his literal neighbors.

Jesus is approached by a Scribe” — an expert in the Law of Moses. The scribe’s aim is to “test” Jesus. It’s a common question, a question I’ve heard some of you in this room ask, a question I’ve asked: What must i do to gain eternal life?” Jesus puts the question back to the man–this expert in the law. “What does the law say?” Jesus asks.

Love the Lord your God with your heart and soul and mind and strength…and love your neighbor as yourself–the whole law is summed up in this, the man claims and Jesus affirms. Jesus had become, by this point, an expert in leaving well enough alone. He wasn’t looking for an argument with this scribe.

But the scribe cannot leave it alone. The scripture says he had to justify himself and so he pushes Jesus further by wanting to know who qualifies as his neighbor? Who is the one he is supposed to love as well as he loves himself?

Jesus replies with this too familiar parable. Jesus is a good storyteller. He starts with something familiar: a dangerous road and a Jewish man travelling alone. The road from Jerusalem, City of peace,  to Jericho, 20 mile away on the banks of the Dead Sea, was full of wilderness and trouble and most Jews would have learned to avoid such a troubling journey by going the long way and few would have traveled it alone. A predictable result–this man is attacked, beaten, and left for dead. Inexplicably, almost, a Jewish priest also happens to be travelling that road alone…but when he sees the man’s lifeless body, he crosses to the other side and moves along. The same thing happens with a Levite–another highly esteemed religious figure. Why don’t they help? Well, we don’t know, but it should seem shocking to us and to Jesus’ listeners that they do not. It’s possible the implication is that both religious leaders were reluctant to touch the man’s body, not knowing if he were dead or alive–touching a dead body would have made both ritually unclean, but truthfully, there is not actually anything that outrightly implies this, and even in Jesus’ day, it would have been a worse offense to not help a fellow Jewish person who was in need. Jesus may have made this a bit ambiguous on purpose because of what is coming next–something even more  unexpected.

A Samaritan. To the Jews, there was no such thing as a “good samaritan!” They despised their neighbors, would never have considered there to be anything worthy or redeeming about the Samaritans. But this fellow traveller on the road probably didn’t take much time to reflect on who he was helping or why he was helping–this particular Samaritan Jesus brings to life for the sake of his story would have likely stopped for anyone. This was not a political act–it was a moral one. A wounded man needed care. “Who wouldn’t stop to help?” the Samaritan might have replied to a reporter at a modern day press conference asking him why he had. Jesus’ point is clear: a Samaritan has compassion and mercy. A Samaritan cares for the wounded traveller extravagantly–wine and oil are prizes in the ancient world, and yet the Samaritan applies them generously. A Samaritan carries the wounded Jew to an inn and pays his fees and offers to come back later and settle any debt that the man might incur. A Samaritan is the one who is truly a neighbor and acted with mercy that mirrors God’s mercy.

A common misconception about Jesus is that he was nice–we may be tempted to envision him as a benign, charismatic speaker. The pastor that everyone likes. The kind-hearted healer improving lives one person at a time.

But here’s the truth we cannot ignore as we read the Scriptures: Jesus was not nice. He was challenging, confrontational, and counter-cultural…and he had a lot of nerve, really.

Jesus often used his words prophetically, not prophetically in sense of telling the future, but prophetically in the sense of speaking God’s truth. If we truly understand his words, we understand that he here and many other places was quick to speak God’s truth to power and truth about the brokenness of the religious structure of his day. This familiar parable we’ve heard over and over would have shocked the first hearers of it and angered the religious leaders of his day.

Shocking for us, I suppose, would be for us to consider Jesus’ words and find the place to put them into practice in our own contexts. There are two things that are important for Jesus’ crowd and for us today to reflect on as we consider this parable.

First, I want to lift from the text the failure on the part of the esteemed religious leaders to act justly. Whatever we or scholars of this text might determine to be the reason the Priest or the Levite acted in the manner they did, it was still a failure to seek justice and care for God’s creation–a fellow human being was in need and both went out of their way to pass him by. Who do we pass by? Who do we go out of our way to avoid? Where are we not acting justly? Whose voices are we excluding altogether? Where have we turned away?

The second thing that reaches to us from this text is the idea of this unexpected person being the vehicle of God’s mercy. If Jesus were to tell this parable today, I wonder what he might have said rather than “Samaritan?” Would he have said “Muslim?” or “Sikh?” or “Jew?” Would he have said, “Gay man” or “Transgender person?” Would Jesus have used “Immigrant?” or “person of color?” Would Jesus have said “liberal?” or “conservative?” or “Donald Trump Supporter?” or “Hillary Clinton Supporter?” Who would Jesus name into this moment as the least expected neighbor for his particular crowd of listeners? I don’t know, but I know that some of those words would challenge me and my understanding of mercy and the Kingdom of God.

There is a theme common in Scripture as a whole, and in Jesus’ ministry specifically: the one who is acting as an agent of God is rarely the person you expect, and the one who seems to be an outsider is almost always actually an insider in God’s Kingdom. It is the Upside Down Kingdom of God, ruled by the King no one was expecting and home to the broken, the weak, and the lowly.

We cannot read this parable without asking the question “who *is* my neighbor?

 

It’s been a hard week. Honestly, I could probably stand up here any week and say, “It’s been a hard week.” We live among such brokenness always. But this week has been a hard week. People created in the image of God have been killed so violently and publicly–Specifically I’m thinking of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa. Each one created in the image of God. The temptation is to choose a side. Pick a hashtag to support and look for ways to further your viewpoints and denigrate the other side’s viewpoints.

Don’t give into that temptation. Lament not just for some, but for all. Lament and weep for all of God’s children who die in violence and leave parents and children and spouses and friends behind. Yes, it is exhausting and messy and difficult to lament for each one, but may our hearts alway be broken for the things that break God’s heart.

Let that sadness, the horror, the anger, the lament have voice in your prayers. Pray for the whole human family mourning loss and the particular families who are mourning loss, for a tiny child who was buckled into her booster seat while her daddy was shot dead just inches away, for police officers who protect and serve us bravely but cannot predict every danger, and for their wives, children, and loved ones who are afraid every time they leave for work, for mamas of children with brown skin who are scared for their safety, for mamas of children with pink skin who are scared for their children, too. Pray the prayer you know by heart–pray for God’s Kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done.

For that is the source of our hope. Our hope is not in the temporary, messy, broken things of this world–Our hope is in the name of our Lord Jesus and in the coming Kingdom of God. One day, God will set all of this right, one day we won’t have to lament anymore. Have hope in that day.

After you remember your source of hope, clothe yourself in love–love for your neighbor, even *that* neighbor or *those* neighbors. Teach your children and grandchildren to love, and remember they learn from your examples and your words. Practice hospitality and care for the greatest and the least. Guard your words and choose them carefully, making sure they are true and kind and necessary–and that goes for your words on social media, too. Remember that you, as recipients of God’s reconciliation, grace, and love, are the agents of that reconciliation, grace, and love. Share it extravagantly as you have received it extravagantly.

Who is my neighbor? Lord, have mercy. Amen.

(We ended the sermon by singing “Live in charity and steadfast love. Live in charity, God will dwell in you.”)

No Room For Fear

July 3, 2016

south dakota[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. But I suppose I can trust the Holy Spirit to work in the reading of the manuscript as well. Here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]

This summer I planned and participated in my 11th Summer of High School Mission Trips with our Presbytery, to the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. The plans began as usual—once the students in our Presbytery had voted on the location, I secured 40 spots with the host company, Youthworks, and made fliers and registration forms so students and leaders could sign up by early January, a week ahead of the deadline to drop spots without any financial penalty. It is understood that deposits are non-refundable, and each church that takes spaces is responsible for paying for the spaces they claim. By the drop deadline, we had almost 40 spaces claimed by churches in our Presbytery and there was no turning back—we had to pay for all of our spaces.

Sometime in the middle of February, my phone rang. It was an elder at one of the churches in our Presbytery, a church that had claimed a number of spots for the trip. She told me about how she and the youth leader at their church had been doing some research on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and she wondered if I had realized what a dangerous place it was? She told me about the high incidence of poverty, and the high incidence of alcoholism on the reservation. I assured her I had done my research on that. “And did you know,” she further questioned me, “that they have the highest crime rate in South Dakota?” I had not stumbled upon that research, but it was not incredibly surprising to me, as high poverty and high crime are unfortunately often cousins in many communities…also, there is the factor of the size of South Dakota relative to its population. It is a big space with few concentrated areas of population to figure into her “highest crime rate” research. She grilled me about how many men were going and could I insure that their teenage girls would be safe. She wanted to know specific plans for travel and how secure the building that would house the students would be. She wondered why, if Youthworks has been serving on the reservation for almost 20 years, there hasn’t been enough improvement that they are no longer needed—a fair question, I suppose, but one that revealed that perhaps she wasn’t very familiar with the tumultuous history of the Native American and our nation’s reservations.

I answered her questions as best I could and put her in touch with our organizer at Youthworks, who also answered her questions about safety and tried to assure her as much as she could about safety concerns. Ultimately, she was not satisfied that her church’s team would be safe and they backed out of the trip, which cost the Presbytery a good chunk of money for spots that could not be refunded to us, even as this particular church demanded a full refund and threatened litigation otherwise. Another youth minister and I decided that we would just offer the refund and that it was probably good not to take adults and students who through research had learned to be afraid of the very people we were going to serve.

But the point of me telling you that story is not to point out what I consider to be less than ideal circumstances for planning the mission trip. My point in sharing is to tell you what happened next and to admit here for the first time publicly that her questions and concerns ate away at me for the rest of February. What if I was taking our high school students and our Presbytery’s high school students to an unsafe place? What if her concerns about the crime rate were wise and I was being foolish? What if this trip was that trip—the trip on which something went horribly wrong  and would turn out to be the worst decision I ever made as a leader?

As usual, Jesus has something to say to me about this. It is something he teaches to his disciples as he sent them out, two by two, to serve and preach. It is something he made clear through the ministry he himself was committed to doing. Listen now for God’s word in Luke:

Luke 10:1-11; 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

 ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’

 The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

Here we have a glimpse into the logistics of Jesus’ mission work. Seventy disciples were sent in pairs to go ahead of him into the towns and villages—a scouting mission of sorts. Perhaps Jesus was making decisions about where he went next based on this scouting…or perhaps he was counting on his missionaries to make a clear path for the Word of God to be preached and witnessed…or perhaps this was a way for him to prepare leadership for when he was gone. Any which way, 35 pairs of disciples carrying the good news could cover much more area than one Messiah and his closest students making their way around to the cities and towns.

In his instructions, Jesus acknowledges a few things:

  1. That he was sending them out like lambs into the midst of wolves.
  2. That this mission was best carried out with few possessions to keep track of and limited small talk along the way.
  3. That they were to carry a message of peace, and if it was received in a particular household, they were to reside there and bless the house with peace.
  4. That they would be dependent on the hospitality of the residents of the homes they would visit.
  5. And that some towns would welcome them and some towns would not, and in the welcoming places they would do ministry and in the unwelcoming places, they would shake the dust from their feet and move along.

Nowhere, does Jesus promise any sort of safety. Nowhere does Jesus guarantee that they will experience welcome and joy and have a great time. In fact, Jesus seems to imply that this could be dangerous or trouble-filled—sending lambs to wolves hardly ever ends without bloodshed, after all. We may look back with romantic blinders on and think that perhaps the first century world was safer, but a study of church history in Jesus’ day and in the first three centuries of the Christian Church will tell another story—the disciples were taking their lives into their hands by following Jesus. Jesus was always in danger and eventually, as we know, that caught up with him. Jesus and his disciples knew that their mission was a dangerous one.

Nowhere in Scripture are we promised that following Jesus or submitting to God or living a life filled with the Holy Spirit will be safe or even comfortable. But we are told 360 some odd times in Scripture that we need not be afraid.

But sisters and brothers, that is not easy is it? We live in a world full of fear and terror and terrorism. Our current presidential election cycle is overflowing with rhetoric from either side of the aisle intended to make you feel scared and register your vote from that fear. Your 24-hour news coverage will inform you about every single frightening thing that has happened, seems to have happened, or could happen one day. People prep for Doomsday, churches host active shooter drills in their SANCTUARIES of all places, our tiniest children learn lockdown procedures, and we have learned that there is nowhere safe enough or sacred enough to keep evil away.

It’s easy to see why people give into the fear. It is natural to want our families to be secure—bodily, financially, emotionally. It was easy for me to begin to succumb to fear once it was presented to me in February regarding our mission trip. I would never want anything to happen to our mission team. I work very hard in everything I plan and do to ensure safety for the kids we love.

But here is what I realized: In the Kingdom of God there is no room for fear.

Once I got my head on straight and had a long talk with the Youthworks organizer, I realized that I could look the prospect of fear in the eye and banish it with regards to our mission trip. And we had a great trip—and never once did Ginny or I sense that our team was in danger. The poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation is the worst I’ve ever seen. The children of the reservation carry such heavy burdens on their small shoulders, and our students did meaningful work loving them and encouraging them and listening to their stories and spending time teaching and playing with them. It would have been a tragic thing for us or for me to bow to the fear that might have stopped us from going. We were called to carry peace and hope, and for the six days we were there, it was received by the residents of Wanblee, SD.

This morning, we will share the words of the Confession of Belhar in the place where we normally recite the Apostle’s Creed. The reason we are using the Belhar confession today is because ten days ago, the GA of our church adopted this confession into our book of Confessions, after a four year process that involved two voting bodies at GA and a vote in each presbytery, all requiring a 2/3 majority. Belhar will be the 12th document in our book, and it will share space with the Apostle’s Creed, the Westminster Catechism, and the Barmen Declaration, which is a more recent document which came out of Germany in the 1930s as a group of Christ’s faithful refused to give into fear and participate in persecution of Jewish neighbors. Like the Barmen Declaration, Belhar comes out of a particular place and time, namely South Africa in 1982, during the days of Apartheid. The Christians who wrote this confession took a stand against what they saw as racial injustice and division in the Body of Christ and instead stood for unity, community, and reconciliation, and that Christ does not exclude Christians from the Table based on dividing factors that humanity has created. According to Belhar, God is the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged, and for this reason the church should stand by people in any form of suffering or oppression. It invites the Church to renounce injustice and separation in the Body of Christ. And the adoption of this confession by the Dutch Reformed Missionary Church in South Africa was not an easy or safe adoption. In the confession, they state this clearly: “We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.” Rather than fear, they trusted in God and they knew that God’s Kingdom is not one of fear.

Back in Luke, for the 70 disciples, it appears to have been a victorious mission. We are told they returned with joy and were amazed at how even the demons had submitted to them. Jesus celebrates with them, we read, but reminds them that it is not in these daily victories or struggles that they are to find their means of rejoicing, but in their status as God’s own children, beloved with their names written into eternal life.

St. Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on the world, yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless his people. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.”

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, we too have a mission—a mission to seek and offer God’s peace to those who are lost; a mission to feed and clothe and care for those who go without; a mission to be the Body of Christ here today. And some days, we’ll find a willing and ready field to joyfully harvest. At all times, however, we have the sweet peace of Christ as our constant companion. May you know this peace today and may you speak this peace and live this peace and share this peace everywhere you are called. Amen.

JESUS MAFA. Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48287 [retrieved April 25, 2016].

JESUS MAFA. Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48287 [retrieved April 25, 2016].

[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. Nevertheless, here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]

If you’re here on Wednesday nights, you know that there are usually several children here. Some of them are the children of our church families who you are also likely to see on Sunday mornings. But we also, on Wednesday nights, have several of our after school program kids who stay for dinner. They can do this because Mary Royalty, one of our children’s ministry assistants, and Dorothy Jourdan, a high student, agree to stay for the hour in between the time that after school club ends and Wednesday night dinners begin. For that night each week we can feed children dinner, and we can also include our after school kids in our children’s choir rehearsal and provide some Christian formation.

On a Wednesday night this past fall, Carolyn Dorsey was here at our church. She was sharing about the Sadie Sunshine chapter of Crochet for Cancer. She had brought with her a large sample of the items she and her team members around the world make and that she mails to hospitals and patients, and these sample hats and prayer shawls, and prayer squares were displayed creatively on a table near the lectern.

If you’re here early enough on Wednesday night, you also know there’s a bit of a procession when the kids can finally leave the gym and come to the fellowship hall. When there is a special guest with a table display set up, things get exciting pretty quickly. The children race to be the first one to look at the items on display. So on the night of Ms. Dorsey’s visit, at five minutes til six, her table was swarmed by elementary and preschool aged children wanting to look at the bright display of knitted and crocheted items.

One little girl, age nine, looked at the display before her. She’s smart and a good reader, so she began reading some of the descriptions out loud. I listened to her analyze the contents of various bags and read the tag on one of them. Suddenly, her jaw dropped and her smile disappeared. “Wait,” she said. “Kids get cancer?” I let the question hang in the air, until she directed it to me. “Ms. Becky, kids get cancer?” She asked me. So I put my hand on her shoulder and looked her in the eye and I told her some quick version of the answer that yes they do and yes that’s sad and yes we should pray for them and their families….and then in the mix of getting ready for dinner, I hurried to break up an argument about how many cookies constitute one dessert.

A couple of moments later, I looked down to see the nine year-old girl standing beside me, holding out a dollar bill. Confused, I asked her what it was for. “Kids get cancer,” she said. “I don’t want that to happen anymore. Give it to the lady so she can help them.” Now, without letting you into personal family matters I will just mention that to a lot nine year-olds, a dollar is only a fraction of what the tooth fairy brings or a small part of the week’s allowance or the amount they can make by taking out the trash at home…but to my young friend, it was a pretty big chunk of money and not something she would usually be carrying—in fact, she told me it was all the money she had with her. And I will tell you that we took that money to Carolyn and she was grateful for the child’s gift offered so honestly and purely to her work. And I have no doubt Carolyn used that dollar to send a fun hat to a child suffering from a dreadful disease and that our little friend was a partner in bringing some joy to the child who received it.

Today’s gospel reading starts in the middle of a tense moment in the life of Christ. Chapter six starts with the words: “After this…” After what? Well, in chapter five Jesus heals a man—restores health after 38 years of illness—38 years! that’s the length of my entire lifetime. And then, of course it was the Sabbath, so instead of celebrating the restoration of a man who had most likely, and understandably, given up by now that he would ever be healthy again, the religious leaders attacked with questions and accusations. It’s after this, John 5 tells us, that the leaders began to rally for Jesus’ death. Chapter 5 ends with Jesus making his case about his relationship with God and the ministry he was called to do…and then chapter 6 begins with an escape attempt—first across the sea and then up into the mountains.

But the crowd is persistent. They have seen Jesus heal—the sick man in chapter 5, others before him. They want to be with Jesus. And oh, compassionate Jesus realizes that no doubt this devoted, persistent crowd is hungry—they’ve walked around a sea, they’ve walked up into the mountains to be with him. With them, they carried children on their backs and in their arms, and I imagine some carried sick relatives they were hoping Jesus would touch.

Now Jesus is a teacher, and so he asks a question of his students: “Where will we buy bread for these people to eat?”

This is an interesting question. And in it, there is something implied that perhaps the disciples were not expecting. Jesus is implying that it is the disciple’s task—and his task, he says “we”—to provide food for the crowd.

Now notice—Jesus doesn’t ask HOW will we buy bread. He asks WHERE will we buy bread.

Philip however, responds as though Jesus asked HOW. “Jesus have you seen the crowd? We could catch and sell fish for six months and still not have enough money to feed this crowd well.”

Now obviously some conversations are missing here. I imagine that Jesus instructed his disciples to find something for the crowd to eat, as he does in other Gospel accounts of the feeding of the multitudes, sending the disciples on a mission to survey the crowd, perhaps.

Philip comes back with something—“I got a kid with a lunch box! Five barley loaves, two fish.”

And then he adds a sentence that tells us that rather than being just plain hopeful, he was feeling a bit skeptical—“but what are they among so many people?”

And then you know how the miracle goes—the people sit down (in other gospels we’re told that they were organized a bit), Jesus gives thanks, breaks the bread and the fish, and people ate as much as they wanted to eat with twelve baskets of leftovers to spare.

All because Jesus is the worker of miracles…and because a boy shared his lunch.

Now, I want to talk about this little boy. The other gospels do not mention him and I am not really sure why because it seems like an interesting part of the story, at least to me, but I might be biased since I tend to find most children to be mostly interesting most of the time.

This boy, mentioned here in John 6, helps us remember 3 really important things about offering our gifts in ministry as we are called to partner with Jesus.

First, the child present here was generous with what he had to offer. It had been a long day, he had taken a long walk, and he was no doubt as hungry as the rest of the crowd. Sure, you might believe that he was coerced into offering his food to the task at hand, but I know children and I know that they are often eager and trusting with their gifts, so I believe he offered his lunch with open hands and a willing heart, much like my little friend offered her dollar to Carolyn’s ministry.

In our human condition, especially as we get older and more cynical, we are much more likely to clench our fists and hold onto whatever good gifts we have—for fear of what? That there really isn’t enough to go around? That if we let it go, it might benefit the wrong person? That it might not be appreciated or valued in the hands of another?

But in the face of our fears and unwilling hearts, Scripture tells us a different story. In James, we read that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Psalm 24 reminds us that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it! In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul reminds us that we’ve been given a trust and the opportunity to be faithful with what we’ve been given. Nothing we have actually belongs to us—it all is God’s anyway. You can’t take it with you, you can’t even secure most of it completely—ask anyone whose home has burned down or who has lost money on a sure thing investment. Every good thing we have comes from God and we are entrusted with it. To take God’s generosity and hoard it for ourselves is not what we are called to do. Be shrewd and careful, yes; be good stewards, yes; but hold onto it for selfish gain? Never our calling as disciples.

Second, the child saw value in what he had to offer. Not only did he offer his lunch with generosity, but he offered it with childlike faith that it was a useful gift. There were, no doubt, some adults in the crowd who had pieces of food in their bags…but it’s a child who offers up his lunch. As adults, whether we are among the crowd or among the disciples, we tend to downplay our own gifts and potential offerings. Too little, too small, too tarnished, too mediocre, etc. We look at the size of the problem and we make the determination that what we have is not enough…or not good enough. Not this child! This child saw his lunch as a viable solution—otherwise, he wouldn’t have offered it. Where others saw scarcity, the boy saw the potential for abundance. The beautiful thing about children is that they believe that their dollar…or their lunch…or whatever gift they are holding out matters and is worthy.

In the Church and in our lives, we often doubt the goodness of the gifts we have to offer. We’re more like Andrew who wonders how the boy’s lunch could possibly be valuable to Jesus in the face of such a perceived shortage. The need is too great…I don’t have enough…what I have isn’t very good…these are all the things that we’ve learned to tell ourselves.

But what if we were to have faith like a child? What if we trusted that in Jesus’ hands, our gifts would be enough? Or that us + Jesus is always bigger than any problem faced?

Here’s a third thing to notice here: Jesus found a partner in the little boy. Because the little boy was generous to share, and because the boy believed he had something to offer Jesus and the crowd, Jesus called him into ministry. It strikes me that if we look in Scripture, we would be hard-pressed to find any instances of God not partnering with people. From Noah to Abraham to Moses to the judges and the prophets and even some of the kings…to Mary, John the Baptist…

And this little boy! If Jesus had wanted to, he could have called down bread from heaven—I believe that he could have. But not only did he invite the disciples into partnership in addressing the crowd’s hunger, but he used the gift of bread and fish, offered by small hands, to feed the multitude.

And Church—we are called into partnership with Jesus as well. Jesus is still asking “where are we going to get bread to feed these people?”or “from where will the resources come so clean water can become the norm in the developing world?”or “who will carry and share the gospel to the ends of the earth?” or even “who will love this one neighbor no one is loving?”

Well…I’m convinced that these resources are found among the Body of Christ. We each have God-given gifts. We are blessed to overflowing—so many resources and abilities and creative solutions and talents are present in this room…and in the Church worldwide.

May we open our hands in generosity, refusing to hoard the gifts of God…may we boldly offer what we have been given, refusing to believe that it’s not enough…and may we recognize the opportunities we have around us to share in ministry with Jesus, the one who can always make a way in hard or impossible situations thanks be to God!

Sermon: Mark 10:17-31

October 10, 2015
chinese depiction of Jesus and Rich Young Ruler

Chinese depiction of Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler; Beijing, 1879 via Wikipedia

[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. Nevertheless, here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]

Have you ever had a reason to sell all of your possessions? About five years ago, shortly after my friend and church member Whitney Guthrie made all of the arrangements to move to Chile for a term of 3 years with Operation Mobilization, I helped her price items for her moving away yard sale. She was selling nearly everything she owned—every piece of furniture, all of her books, DVDs, CDs, knick-knacks, her dishes, small appliances, and at least half of her clothing. All of the money made would go toward her travel and living expenses in Chile while she made the transition to raising her own salary. The day of the sale, I sat with her in front yard and on her behalf haggled with neighbors who thought that $1 was too much to pay for a t-shirt. “She’s going to be a missionary,” I told one of them slowly. “Your $1 gets you a tshirt and you get to support a missionary.” “Would you take 50cents?” she asked in reply. I remember the anxiety I felt over Whitney selling nearly all of her earthly goods, so much that I even bought or offered to keep some of the items that I knew she particularly liked—a couple of t-shirts and DVDs and books—just so that I could give them back to her when she came back.

I remember watching Whitney let go of all of the things that had filled her life, as well as childhood bedrooms, dorm rooms, and apartments through the years. She was the embodiment of grace during that process, choosing to not focus on what she was losing, or how little money she was taking in for items that were much more expensive at their original purchase, but instead setting her eyes on the greater goal and her calling from Jesus.

Today we meet a man who was not ready to hear that calling from Jesus. Listen now for God’s word.

Mark 10:17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

So here is one of those passages in Mark where it seems that Jesus is actively trying to keep Christianity weird. But this man does not just appear in Mark. Here, we see that he is very wealthy. In Luke, he is called a ruler. In Matthew, the fact that he is young is emphasized. Typically, this character is called “The Rich Young Ruler.” He does appear to be sincere, as he approaches Jesus, kneeling, calling him “good teacher.” Jesus, as he does sometimes in the gospels, seems to want to banter with the man a bit. We see him do it with the woman at the well in John 4, with the sycophoenecian woman who talks to him about dogs at the master’s table, with some of the people he heals throughout the gospels. I sometimes wonder which was more normal for Jesus—to simply do what was asked of him or to engage in some challenging conversation first.

The man’s concern is with his own soul and his own righteousness. Jesus establishes that the man does know about the commandments and has even kept them. Then Jesus says something confusing for man who had kept all of the commandments and probably considered his wealth a reward for good living: sell all you own, give money to the poor, be assured of your treasure in heaven, and follow me!

The man’s reaction is to go away grieving.

I think Jesus’ reaction is equally important. We are told that Jesus loved the man. And so when he goes away grieving, I can sense that Jesus grieved, too. I’ve been there. When I sit with a sixteen year old girl who once said “yes” to Jesus and determined to live into her baptismal covenant and follow God’s commandments, and I challenge her to stand in faith and not do the things her peers are pressuring her to do and she shrugs her shoulders and says, “I mean…everyone does it.” or “I just want to be popular.” and then she stops coming to youth group or church because she’s counted the cost and she doesn’t want to pay it, Jesus stands with me in this moment and I know a small bit of the sadness he must have felt.

We read that his immediate words are to his disciples, almost as though he’s sharing grief with them too—“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” It is here he compares that task with a camel going through the eye of a needle. I read with some interest this week that there have been various attempts throughout the years to soften this comparison by suggesting a mistranslation or mistake in copying the Greek in one manuscript or another along the way—maybe Jesus actually meant something  that is smaller than a camel, something a little more possible to fit through the eye of a needle. But friends, have you seen the eye of a needle? You can often barely get the thread that’s designed to pass through it to fit, much less anything else that is bigger. Jesus intends to be absurd here.

The disciples are as surprised as the man, we can assume. Who has any hope at completing that impossible task, they want to know.

Jesus tells us something we’ve heard before—in fact, you’ll find it on the front of your bulletin in our church vision statement: nothing is impossible for God.

I would like to suggest this morning that when faced by such a challenge by Jesus, when the cost of discipleship seems too great, we can make one of four choices.

The first response we might have is the one that the man in Mark 10 chose—to go away grieving. Jesus said something hard and the man decided it was not worth the great cost to do what Jesus said, so he simply went away. His life spent following the commandments, but this was too much to ask.

The second option we have is to brush off Jesus’ words. We may choose to simply ignore them or read them without taking them into consideration, or we can just write them off as a weird thing Jesus said or did not really mean or we can choose to hang our hope on the “with God all things are possible” part and move along. I thought this week that it would seem that there are lots of people who insist that we must interpret the Bible absolutely literally who have never even considered taking this section literally. If you’re the preacher this morning, perhaps you’d preach the Hebrews passage also into today’s lectionary instead and leave this camel and needle business alone. There are plenty who do that with this passage and I was certainly tempted to do so. Although I think that it should be said that if we read Scripture or hear the words of the Jesus and decide not to consider them because it disrupts the lives we are living, that is idolatry.

The third response would be to take this passage and all other passages completely literally and live this out—sell your stuff and follow Jesus without hesitation. And some have done that, which certainly takes much faith and resolve.

The fourth response is where I want to spend some time this morning, however. I think the fourth response is to stick around, not brush the words aside, and let the Holy Spirit work in our hearts. You see, if the man in our passage is to be blamed, it’s not because he was rich and it’s not because Jesus’ words caused him to struggle. It’s because he walked away. I wish he would have stuck around for a few minutes and asked Jesus some questions about this and allowed himself some space to consider the possibility present in what Jesus was asking him.

I come to you, Jesus’ Church, and I ask you, what are we to do with this passage this morning? Let’s take a moment to think about what that would mean if we understand that Jesus is asking us to do these hard things. What would it mean for you or I to sell everything we have and follow Jesus? What does that look like in your household? We know that a good many of the first followers of Jesus and members of the early church did just that—sell all their possessions and have everything in common. How does it feel to consider this? Honestly in your heart, ponder how you would have responded to hearing Jesus say this to you—“sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, be assured of your treasure in heaven, and follow me.”

Rather than mounting a moral high horse, I empathize with the rich young man. I could have just as easily made the same decision. These words of Jesus are difficult for me. Mark never gets back to this man, but I do wonder if maybe later on, after he had some time to think about it, if he made a different decision and decided to follow Jesus.

Having wrestled with this passage all week, I do have a few concluding thoughts.

It is very easy, when one has gathered money or things, to put trust in money or things. A truth about wealth is that often once we are on the course to acquire it, it’s possible to never get off of that course. We can always want more money or better things, and it is possible to never be content with what we have.

Jesus is speaking against this mindset, and against the natural human inclination to put our trust in things that are not God and have no place in God’s Kingdom. If wealth is our reason for being and our priority, we are not seeking the values of Jesus’ Upside Down Kingdom. Again, Jesus reminds us: the first will be last and the last will be first. The things the world values are not the values of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus’ words are hard this morning. If you are looking for the exits, it’s hard to blame you. But my hope today is that rather than going away grieving, we stay with Jesus and let the words here challenge our hearts. What is God calling us to do concerning our things? Where are our priorities and what motivates us? What are we doing to serve the Kingdom of God? How are we following Jesus rather than our own human desires?

The good news is this: what you may not be able to imagine happening by your own human power and ability suddenly becomes possible when submitted and entrusted to God, to whom all things are possible. Alleluia, Amen.

Sermon: Mark 9:30-37

September 19, 2015
jesus mafa welcomes the children

artwork from jesusmafa.com

The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. Nevertheless, here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon!

I’ve blogged about the incident I use as an illustration at the beginning. Here it is.

 

About six months ago, we celebrated Maundy Thursday here in this sanctuary, remembering the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples, and ending our Lenten celebration together. That night, Rich was leading worship and he and I were serving communion together. I sat right *there* (the front pew) so that I would be near the front to assist when it was time to serve the holy meal. A small child from our after school ministry sat with me. From the moment she entered the sanctuary and took her seat, she aware of the communion table. “Bread!” she exclaimed when she sat down. She kept her eye on it nearly the whole time. As the first hymn was sung, she leaned forward and studied it. As the Scripture for the night was read, she pointed to the table as it was mentioned. Occasionally she would look at me, then look at the table with an inquisitive look on her face, and I would take my finger and indicate to her where we were and then slide my finger down to the word “Communion” so she could see how much longer it would be. When Rich preached and spoke about the Bread and the Cup, she waved her arms grandly toward the table. In response to my own questioning look, she whispered, “I just want to make sure everyone knows what he is talking about.” My favorite part, though, came when Rich moved to the table and stood behind it. My little friend knew that it was showtime. She stood to her feet, even though the entire congregation remained seated, and all but took a starter’s position. When Rich finally said those long awaited words, “Come to the table, all is ready,” she was standing toe to toe with him before he could even finish the sentence, looking up at him through glasses perched on her nose and anxiously holding out her hands.

This child, small for her age, the youngest of a large number of children in her family, a member of the backpack club (at her school, this means that she gets to take a special backpack full of meal and snack food home on weekends), is “least” in a lot of ways, at least by how we would qualify it. And I imagine it was exactly a child like her that Jesus holds onto in our Scripture passage for today:

Mark 9:30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

Mark does not usually provide us with a very kind snapshot of Jesus’ disciples. Here, he features their failure to understand his teaching once again, and a petty argument that happens between them as they traveled together through the Galilean countryside. Truly, the disciples are just like us. They are our heroes because they left all that they knew and followed Jesus, and after Jesus’ resurrection, they helped people become disciples, they baptized thousands, and most of them were martyred for their faith. But here in the middle, they seem kind of…well, they don’t seem to be all that great at being disciples.

Jesus asks the disciples about their argument, and they are ashamed for they know that what they had been talking about has no place in the Kingdom of God. They’ve been with Jesus long enough to know how his whole disciple thing works, but probably they couldn’t help themselves. The weeks and months of walking with Jesus, watching him heal the blind, the infirm, the demon-possessed…sitting in the boat while he walked to them on water…the lunchbox of loaves and fish that became a feast for 5000—they are following the real deal. Here is the Messiah, and they are ones who comprise his closest circle. I think they just couldn’t stop themselves from speculating about what Jesus will appoint each of them to do when he comes to power.

Really, what they’ve misunderstood, though, is what kind of Kingdom Jesus is going to rule. Why do they not understand Jesus when he talks about suffering and death and resurrection? Because it does not fit into their understanding of Kingdom. Why would a promised King—a Messiah, the anointed one of God—suffer and die? Why wouldn’t the advent of his Kingdom usher in a time of victory for a people who were waiting in dark oppression under the Roman government…or at least for the nobodies that had left their lives and livelihoods to follow him?

Yet, Jesus took a child in his arms, the Scriptures say. This is not a cute, warm fuzzy story about Jesus and children. In this passage, Jesus is making a statement about power. In Jesus’ day, a child was important for the sake of the future—parents needed to have children so that they would be cared for in old age, for the sake of their family name, and because they needed someone to inherit any wealth or property. But while a child was a still a child, he or she was a liability, prone to illness, helpless, weak, and not a big contributor to the family economy. A small child is about as powerless as a human being can be. With small children, it is easy to actually overlook them.

Jesus is making a stark statement about the values of his Kingdom—his upside down, turn anything conventional on its head, Kingdom. “When you welcome this child, you welcome me,” Jesus suggests. I can almost see the disciples squirming—no, Lord, you are powerful. You’re the Messiah. You do great things. You’re so much more than a child! Oh, but in this Kingdom, greatness is not measured in power or import. Greatness is measured in humility, hospitality, and servanthood. If the greatness we seek is measured in power, money, success, or the goods we own, we are not walking the same path as the Lord we claim with our lips.

Think about any of the many overwhelming or terrible or heartbreaking situations in our nation or in world right now—there are so many to choose from.

I’m not here to debate or affirm or even to inform your politics this morning—I don’t have a degree in politics. But I can tell you about Jesus and I can tell you this: Jesus holds close, stands with, and elevates the ones who are least. The single mom working two or three jobs and still not making enough money to make all the ends meet to put food on the table, pay the rent, keep the lights on, and provide extracurricular opportunities for her children? She matters to Jesus and she should matter to Jesus’ Church. The tiny child tossed around in the sea until the waves overwhelm him and his lifeless body is washed up on the shore of the country his family was desperately trying to reach? Jesus welcomes and embraces him, his family, and his fellow travelers, and the Church should be on the front line of welcoming and resourcing that situation. The fourteen year old girl kidnapped and sold into the sex trade, abused, used, forgotten? Jesus has not forgotten her and neither should Jesus’ Church. Christian pastors, missionaries, and believers imprisoned, executed publicly—martyred for their faith? Jesus has been there too and the Church cannot turn her back to the horror of that situation. Insert whatever overwhelming or terrible situation you have thought about in the past moment and think about who in that situation is weak, terrorized, powerless, disregarded, rejected, scared, small, or abandoned. That’s where you’ll find Jesus’ heart and that’s where ours should be too.

In many ways, this teaching provides the easy yoke of Jesus. His words are hard, but being last is not hard. Everyone else is clamoring to be first, elbowing and pushing to be at the head of the line or seated in a prominent place at the table. There’s a lot less competition to be at the end of the line. Welcoming others is a lot easier than passing judgment to determine worth and assessing whether or not someone matters. There’s a freedom that comes when one stops working so hard to convince others that one is good enough or talented enough or pretty enough and simply accepts the favor of God and allows the Holy Spirit to be at work.

Jesus’ words in Mark 9 caused a bit of a stir among the disciples, no doubt, as they continued on a journey of misunderstanding. They certainly stir up my heart as I think about the values of the Kingdom of God and consider what it means for my own human pursuits. Jesus’ words are a challenge to consider the things and the people we value. We can simply dismiss them today because they are hard to understand and live into, or we can accept the challenge of the Holy Spirit to consider the ways we welcome those who have no power or no status—whether they come to us in the form of tired refugees seeking safety across our borders or a small, hungry girl eager for the communion part of the service to start.

Lord, may the things that break your heart break ours too, and may we never fail to welcome and serve the least and the last.

El Greco "Healing of the Man Born Blind"

El Greco “Healing of the Man Born Blind”

This is the text of the sermon I preached this morning at Presbyterian Church in Henderson, KY.

Where have you witnessed God at work? Every summer, as you may know, we join with three other churches in town for Vacation Bible School. Our theme, Scriptures and activities are always different from the years before, but one thread that runs through every VBS for the last several years are the “God Sightings.” We ask kids every day to go home and watch for God at work. We give them a visual reminder of some sort to help them in this task (sometimes a bracelet that says “Watch For God!”).

Here’s one thing we’re teaching (and learning ourselves) by doing this: if you are watching for God, you will most certainly see God. If you will seek God, you will find God. I remember growing up that my mom had a coffee mug—for some reason I seem to think it came in a floral arrangement—but either way, it said “Expect A Miracle.”

When we live in expectation of miracles, we see the miraculous around us.

The man in our story today, however, was not watching for a miracle. In fact, he wasn’t physically watching for anything and he had probably been taught over time not to expect anything miraculous, either.

JOHN 9:1-3

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 

Here we are in John 9. If we understand John to be happening chronologically, the following things have already happened: The calling of the disciples, the wedding at Cana, Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night, Jesus meeting the woman at the well in Samaria, Jesus feeding the 5,000, Jesus walking on water, Jesus dealing with the situation involving the woman who was accused of committing adultery and was about to be stoned, and Jesus causing chapter after chapter of division and trouble among his disciples and among religious leaders. His teachings were hard and often hard to understand without further investigation and he certainly was not afraid of being called a heretic. He wasn’t trying to make friends or start a revolution. Jesus was doing the work of God and inviting people to take a risk and work with him.

So when we get to chapter 9, and the disciples turn an unsuspecting man into an object lesson, we should not be surprised at how it goes.

Hey, Jesus, here’s a guy who was born blind. Who sinned? Him or his parents?

The cultural belief was this: something bad happened to you? Must be because someone sinned. Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. Now, one who owns the entire canon of Scripture might point out that actually the Old and New Testaments are full of words that counter this belief, but either way, this was still embraced by the people of Jesus’ day.

The fact that the man was born blind seems to be universally understood in this passage, so I do wonder how the disciples thought it could be because of the man’s own sin. The sin that God knew the man would commit before he was born? That just makes my head hurt.

“Neither,” says Jesus. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Wait, what? This man has lived his whole life without his sight, which in ancient Palestine was a trial in itself—he couldn’t work, he couldn’t have a family, he couldn’t participate in religious life—just so God could be glorified in him? How is that just or good? He’s spent his whole life on the outskirts just so Jesus could heal him today?

Yes.

I don’t like the answer Jesus gives, but I trust in God’s sovereignty. And I know that I’ve certainly seen God glorified in painful or difficult or unfair circumstances in my own life and in the lives of people I love.

Right now, this man is an unwitting object lesson, but he’s about to experience a miracle.

JOHN 9:4-7a

We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). 

This lesson is fun to teach to kids. Jesus heals a guy with spit and dirt. Did you ever wonder why? We have lots of instances of Jesus simply touching people or declaring them healed without even touching him. Why did Jesus make mud?

It’s the Sabbath. The teaching is clear: kneading on the Sabbath—even kneading spit into dirt—is not allowed. Jesus is being clear: I’m healing on the Sabbath. Right before he mixed up the dirt, he told them why:

“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” What Jesus is doing is time-sensitive.

What about the man who is at the center of the object lesson? Here he is, minding his own business, going about his usual day and all of a sudden, he’s surrounded by a group of people who talk about him like he’s not there and all of a sudden someone puts spitty mud on his eyes.

It’s a moment that changes his whole life and he wasn’t even watching for it. Literally. Or figuratively.

JOHN 9:7b-12

Then the man went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

The man is healed. He returns to the place where he used to sit and beg and can see it for the first time. Can you imagine what that must be like? I can’t. It must have been incredibly overwhelming. He doesn’t really get to enjoy the experience completely because his neighbors want answers first from each other: are you sure this is the same guy? and then from him:  “But how were your eyes opened?”

JOHN 9:13-34

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

This should have been the happiest moment of the man’s life. He doesn’t know how it happened, he hasn’t seen the man who performed the work, but he knows this: I was blind, now I see. It must be because God had a hand in it.

The Pharisees are one thing—we know they have a reputation for being skeptical, for trying to trip up Jesus at every pass, for driving out people who challenge their stance. But his parents? His own parents who have known him as long as he’s been alive, who raised him in his blindness, who had surely agonized over what his life would be like without sight…

His own parents reject him too, all because they fear that their church will throw them out if they accept him.

And then this man is tossed aside by his neighbors, his family and his church. In their failure to watch for a God who is much bigger than they have expected, they dismiss the possibility of a miracle rather than having to move their lines and consider that one has happened.

JOHN 9:35-38

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.

John 9 is a long chapter, but if you hang on this far you read the most beautiful part of it.

The man has no idea what Jesus looks like. Jesus has healed him, has given him a reason for hope, has given him a bright future and the man can’t recognize him when he bumps into him.

It was no accident he ran into Jesus, for Jesus heard what was happening and went to find him. What a mix of emotions the man, whose name we never know, must be. Joy for having sight restored. Anger and sadness for being rejected by all of the people who have ever mattered in his life.

Jesus, who has crowds following him everywhere he goes, went looking for just one guy–a guy he had already helped! When no one else wanted to stand with this man, when no one else wanted to acknowledge him or what this dramatic change in his life really meant, Jesus was there. This one person mattered to Jesus.

No gimmicks, no steps to salvation, no scare tactics. A simple question: Do you believe? A simple answer: Lord, I believe. Jesus’ miracle has changed this man forever…and gotten him exiled from his religious community. But he can see! And he is befriended by Jesus! And he devotes himself to his new Lord through worship.

But Jesus has one last word about sight and watching for God at work:

JOHN 9:39-41

Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

Jesus uses a miracle involving physical sight to teach about spiritual sight. He turns the wisdom of the time on its ear, as Jesus often does.

To those who refused to consider the greatness of God or the possibility that God could be working here and now, Jesus says:

When you were blind, you were without sin. But now that you can see, and still choose to reject me, your sin remains.

The Pharisees, the neighbors, the man’s parents: they were so concerned about their understanding, their own place, their own teachings that they missed seeing God. They missed a miracle!

What about us? Do we ever do that?

Yes, I do. I have a feeling we all do.

When we close our eyes and hold onto our viewpoints and affiliations, we miss seeing God at work.

When we put other people into columns and categories, we do the same to God.

When we would rather be right than ask questions or seek answers we don’t know, we miss the chance for God to mold us.

When we refuse to seek God outside of the boundaries we’ve set up ourselves, we will likely not find God in unexpected places. Which is where miracles usually happen.

Our Scriptures teach that you and I are created in God’s own image…yet sometimes it seem like we’re trying to make God in our image. We’d rather have a God who is like us. Who believes what we believe. Who hates the people we hate. Who respects the boundaries we’ve set. Like this man’s teachers, neighbors and family, we miss the point. We miss the miracle.

When we ask kids at Vacation Bible School to watch for God, we give them a way to record their God Sightings. Each day, they bring them to VBS and share them with their small groups. As we hear each other’s testimonies, one thing becomes clear: God works in big things and small things. Things I never thought of as miraculous or done by God’s hand are illuminated for me as a five year-old sees God at work in his grandmother fixing his favorite meal for supper or an eleven year-old recognizes God working in a conflict she’s had with her best friend. A seven year-old sees that God is present with her uncle who is battling cancer and a teenage crew leader gives thanks for the beautiful clouds God created.

When we open our eyes, we can see. We should see.

Watch for God! Amen.