Faith Like A Child: Who is My Neighbor?

Prayer of Illumination: Welcoming God, we are about to crawl back into your lap to be held and to hear your familiar stories. Grant us curiosity, excitement, and joy as we listen and as we go out into the world to share your joy with the rest of your children. Amen.

Luke 10:25-37 CEB

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”[a]

28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

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Throughout the summer when I preach, we will be exploring what it means to have faith like a child. And fair warning, if Dan geeks out about history, the English major in me geeks out children’s books with deep meanings. I geek out about finding new ways to relate to God through reading literature. Children’s books are a great way to experience and learn about God. While these books are often simple, they can pack a theological punch. All the children’s books I’m using for this series will also be available in our church library after the close of the summer and I encourage you to re-read them.

Today’s book is “Who is my Neighbor” by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eistenberg Sasso and illustrated by Denise Turu. As you hear the story, I invite you to think about some questions:  Where are you in this story? What groups do you belong to? Do you ever think your group is better than others? Have you ever been scared of doing something even when it was the right thing to do?

Who is your neighbor? By: Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso: Once there was a town where only the Blues lived. There were navy and indigo, aqua and sapphire, powder blue and midnight blue. They planted irises and forget me nots and feasted on blueberries and blue cheese. They sailed on blue waters. Blue jays perched on branches, and brilliant blue cracker butterflies shimmered. The blues thought they were the coolest colors!

The yellows lived in a different town. There were gold and bronze, lemon, and mustard, canary and pale yellow. They planted daffodils and feasted on bananas and butter scotch pudding. They traveled on yellow brick roads. Goldfinches perched on branches and busy yellow jackets buzzed. The yellows thought they were the hottest color.

The blues and yellows did not like each other. The blues said: Be careful of the Yellows. We are better than they are…they are not our neighbors. There is no such thing as a good yellow.

The yellows said: Be careful of the Blues. We are better than they are. They are not our neighbors. There is no such thing as a good blue.

One day, midnight blue put on his best blue helmet and got on his blue bike. He loved cruising under the bright blue sky and passing by the tranquil blue lakes, singing a bluegrass tune. Then, out of the blue, someone passed by so quickly that he lost his balance. Midnight blue tumbled to the ground. His knees started to turn black and blue. He needed help.

Navy comes around corner but is afraid. She wondered maybe someone made midnight blue fall, maybe that person is still around so she pretended not to notice. Why hadn’t Navy stopped to help? After all, Navy was his neighbor.

Along came Powder Blue. Surely Powder blue will help me, midnight blue thought. But Powder blue wondered, did midnight blue get into a fight? Is the other person still around? He was afraid, so he pretended not to notice midnight blue. Midnight Blue was surprised. Why hadn’t Powder blue stopped either? After all, Powder blue was his neighbor.

Along came Lemon. Oh no! A yellow! Thought midnight blue. A yellow will only make things worse. Maybe this yellow will steal my books! But midnight blue wasn’t the only one scared. Lemon worried about helping a blue. What if that blue wanted to trick her? What if that Blue jumped up and took her bike? Maybe she should just hurry by.

But Lemon didn’t hurry by. She decided to help. She didn’t steal his books; she picked them up. She lifted midnight blue from the dirt and took him to her doctor.

While they waited, lemon gave midnight blue a butterscotch cookie. It was broken but still delicious. Midnight blue said, “you’re a good yellow, not like the others.” “most yellows are good.” Lemon said.

“So are most Blues,” midnight blue smiled and pulled out a small bag of blueberries to share.

Midnight blue turned to lemon and said, “thank you for helping me. I would like to be your friend.” Lemon nodded, “of course! A Good friend!”

When Midnight blue returned to his town, he told all the blues what had happened. It was not at all what they expected to hear. He said, “Lemon did not pass by. Lemon did not look the other way. Lemon helped! And Dr. Gold did too.”

The blues thought, the yellows do not look like us or eat the same foods, but maybe the yellows can be our friends.

When lemon returned to her town, she told all the yellows what had happened. It was not at all what they expected. She said, “midnight blue wasn’t mean at all. He was thankful! He shared his blueberries. From now on we are going to be friends.”

The yellows thought, the blues do not know our songs or grow our plants, but maybe we can help the blues and the blues can help us.

From that time on, the blues and yellows began to say, “maybe we don’t have to look alike or even live nearby. Perhaps we will like hearing new songs and tasting new foods. We might like making new friends! Maybe we can all help one another!”

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What makes Lemon a “good” yellow? What makes the Samaritan good? For Jesus’ original audience a “good” Samaritan is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as a “good” Samaritan for Jews. That is one of the many things about this story that turns it around on its head- the oxymoron of the Good Samaritan, there simply was no such thing.

Today we may fill in Samaritan with a variety of words. How might you fill in? If you cheer for Virginia Tech, you might think there is no such thing as a good University of Virginia fan or vice versa. If you are a Pittsburgh Steeler fan, you might think there is no such thing as a good Baltimore Ravens fan.

If you are a millennial you might think there is no such thing as a good Boomer or vice versa. For the most part these are light- hearted examples however, you can probably think of many other examples of diametrically opposed foes, modern day Samaritans, groups of people or people who when seen as good creates a tense oxymoron.

But who gets to define who is good? What if the Samaritan was good because he simply made the choice to come near the almost dead guy in the ditch? To approach the man who clearly needed help? Friends, we tend to spend a lot of energy in our lives toward decided detachment, disengagement, and disenfranchisement. Sometimes these decisions are very much justified — for our safety, our self-preservation, our self-care. But other times, our distance is decided by our determination not to change. Our resistance to intimacy of being near. Our rejection of those persons that might actually expose who we truly are. Imagine if the Levite and the priest came near? Maybe then they would have to face some hard truths about themselves that I suspect they would rather not admit and that they have spent a lifetime pretending, hoping, even ensuring, don’t exist.

“Who is my neighbor?” means, according to Jesus, a commitment to coming near. Your neighbor is not just the person living next door…Your neighbor is not one who happens to be convenient for you to help. Your neighbor is not the one who meets the qualifications of your company. Your neighbor is someone who, without a doubt, is experiencing pain, struggles, challenges, and sorrow, and yet to whom you draw near. Your neighbor is someone who clearly has needs and you decide — I will help you. Being a good neighbor means coming alongside.

A part of what makes Lemon yellow and the Samaritan good neighbors is they see the needs of someone and do something about it. They not only look at their neighbor in the ditch with fear for what might happen to them if they help, the Samaritan and Lemon see a need and crawl into the ditch with their neighbor, a stranger, in need. The Samaritan and Lemon do something. Can you think of ways to become a better neighbor?

Maybe being a better neighbor means not turning an eye on the suffering of those in need. Maybe being a better neighbor means volunteering at Highland Food Pantry or Jubilee kitchen. Or perhaps the best insight comes from my favorite theologian and everyone’s favorite neighbor, Mister Rogers, who says: “Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered just one kind word to another person. There have been so many stories about the impatience of today’s world, road rage and even restaurant rage. Sometimes all it takes is one kind word to nourish another person. Think of the ripple effect that can be created when we nourish someone. One kind empathetic word has a wonderful way of turning into many.” Maybe the act of just noticing and drawing near to our neighbors is a starting place.

But perhaps the best insight on this question comes from Flora, a young girl I had the privilege of working with while serving as associate pastor in Graham, North Carolina. As we talked about today’s scripture, I asked the group why do we love our neighbors, and without batting an eye, Flora responded, “Because God made everyone and loves everyone. God wants us to, isn’t that a good enough reason?” Friends, we can learn so much from the children and youth among us. It is all that simple and all that hard.

Next time, we will spend some time looking at prayer and Matthew Paul Turner’s beautiful children’s book, “When I Pray for You.” Until then, let us strive to be a good neighbor. Someone who works to break down prejudices rather than build up prejudices. Someone who is moved with compassion when they see someone in need. Someone who shares an empathic word. Let us go, and do likewise. May it be so, amen.

Childlike Faith

Prayer of Illumination: Welcoming God, we are about to crawl back into your lap to be held and to hear your familiar stories. Grant us curiosity, excitement, and joy as we listen and as we go out into the world to share your joy with the rest of your children. Amen.

Scripture: Luke 18:15-17 CEB                      

15 People were bringing babies to Jesus so that he would bless them. When the disciples saw this, they scolded them. 16 Then Jesus called them to him and said, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. 17 I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.”

            Throughout the summer, we will be invited to examine our faith through the eyes of children. For some, childhood is happening right now- an exciting time filled with discovery, learning, growing, and fun. For others, childhood was a long time ago. This summer sermon series is for both. But even those who have long left the sights and sounds of childhood in rearview mirrors still can learn so much from children. I learn from children every time I talk to them and I’m so so grateful for the young people in our church, who continue to teach me more and more about God. Throughout the summer, we will explore scripture using children’s books. But before we jump into series- today we will look at how Jesus views children.

            In a society that treated children more as property than as people, Jesus welcomed and blessed children. Jesus did not view children as insignificant but important members of God’s family. The gospel of Matthew talks about children being brought to Jesus “in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray.” (Matthew 19:13)   Mark’s gospel says Jesus, “took them up in his arms, and laid his hands on them, and blessed them,” which is no doubt why many of us call to mind when we hear this story a picture of Jesus sitting with a whole bunch of kids up on his lap, and others crowded around.  Jesus not only welcomes children, but Jesus holds children up as an example of the way to welcome the Kingdom of God.

            There is wonderful artwork of Jesus blessing and welcoming children. One of my favorites is a portrait of children dancing with Jesus. We see a huge, welcoming, loving smile filling Jesus’ face. Children are depicted with smiling eyes and throwing heads back with laughter. While some adults in the background don’t appear to understand Jesus’ love of children, others are clapping and smiling—thankful that Jesus sees and interacts with children. You can almost hear Jesus’ deep belly laugh as he spends time with children. While the disciples saw children as nuisances, Jesus saw them as people who were curious and worthy of love. For children Jesus blessed and welcomed, Jesus was the exact kind of king they needed. A savior who laughs at their jokes and tousles their hair, danced joyfully with them, and hears their endless questions with love and compassion.  What a beautiful image of Jesus. That’s how Jesus interacts with the Galilean children in our scripture and that’s what Jesus interacts with children of all ages today.  

            While serving at First Presbyterian Church in Orangeburg, South Carolina, I met Harry, a six year old full of energy, questions, and amazing bluntness that only a child can have. Like all of the children I’ve worked with over the years, Harry taught me a lot about childlike faith. Once during a children’s sermon, when I asked how to do prepare for vacation, Harry bluntly answered: “You make sure you pack enough underwear!” Like other children, Harry taught me that childlike faith is magically, filled with awe and wonder. Harry’s eyes always filled with wonderment every time he heard a new Bible story.

             Do you remember the first time you heard the story of Jesus and the grand narrative of the Bible? There is a certain contagious energy from watching a child hear Jesus’ story for the first time. There’s an innocence children have that spreads joy as well. Children’s joy and curiosity when it comes to developing faith is often infectious in the best possible way. During one of our Wednesday afterschool ministries, Harry wandered out of our main room where we were meeting and into the hallway. When I walked over to get Harry to join the rest of the group I asked, “Harry, where are you supposed to be?” Harry does not miss a beat and looks up at me with his black curly hobbit like hair, complete with dimples on either side of his innocent smile with big, bright, blue eyes and says, “With you.” A completely honest and innocent answer to my question.

            A friend who is in a tradition that wears clerical collars tells a story about how when giving a children’s sermon one day, he asked the children: why do you think I wear this collar? To which a child immediately jumped up and declared without hesitation- because it kills ticks and fleas for thirty days! Children are honest (sometimes painfully honest) and excited with their answers.

            Having faith like a child also keeps us curious and encourages us to ask questions while we continue to learn, stretch, and grow. If you have ever been around a child you know children are very curious, always wanting to examine new things, and most of the time children love to ask questions. Why is the sky blue? Why are you sad? Why is our cat orange? Over the years, children have asked me many good, hard theological questions as well such as: why did Jesus have to die? What is heaven like- will my grandparents and pets be there? When I’m sad, is God sad? So many endless and important questions. While growing in our faith, we don’t want to lose sight of being curious, of asking questions, of continuing to learn. That’s what it means to be a child of God.

            If you childhood is far in your life rear view mirror, do you remember what it was like to be a child? To have faith like a child? Perhaps Bible stories sparked your imagination, perhaps you still remember songs from Vacation Bible School. Ruth Ann, who was my childhood pastor’s wife tells a story of visiting a newborn with a serious heart condition at MUSC in Charleston, South Carolina with her husband, Olin. As she rounded the corner she heard some children singing a song about how God takes care of them while sitting with their grandparents waiting to see their newborn baby brother. My first lessons about prayer were taught to me through songs. God takes care of me, God’s with me all the time—were some of the words of a Vacation Bible School song that my sister and I were singing as the pastor and his wife came to visit our brother and pray with our family. To this day, I still hum that tune to myself occasionally. It is so simple, so comforting, and so true.

             1 John 3:1-2 also reminds us we are children of God, no matter what our age, and encourages us to have childlike faith. Says: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are! Because the world didn’t recognize him, it doesn’t recognize us.Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is.” We need to remember these words as we get older too, and sometimes that’s a whole lot harder.  Because there are so many competing voices, telling us conflicting things.  Telling us we’re not worthy of love. But these are false messages.  Listen again to the simple truth of the matter: we are God’s children simply because God loves us.  Period.  It’s that simple. No strings attached.  No application process or standardized testing required.  No dress code or income prerequisites. We are beloved children of God.

            I invite you to hear part of author and theologian Rachel Held Evan’s piece reflecting on childlike faith. Hear these words:

But faith, like a child, you are resilient,
Like your Sister, you bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.
You are braver than you ought to be, more trusting than is safe.
Like a child, you make the most fanciful connections between things—
Metaphors that only make sense between the two of us,
Art that in its simplicity gets right to the essence of a bug, a sunrise, a family, a death. 
You are whimsy. 
You are curiosity. 
You are petulance. 
You are grace. 
You are a little hurricane of life and destruction and healing that upsets everything in your path. 
Faith, like a child, you ask too many questions. 

Faith, like a child, I love you. 
Unconditionally. 

            So friends, the questions for us all today are: what can we learn from children? How can children enhance our faith? How might we continue to have faith like a child? May we think through these questions and live out these questions each day, no matter our age, amen.

Dry Bones, Breath, and Fire

Prayer of Illumination: Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us this day. Breathe life into our dry bones. Send us out to bear witness to your work in the world. Guide our feet and our steps each day. Amen.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 (CEB)

The Lord’s power overcame me, and while I was in the Lord’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.

He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?”

I said, “Lord God, only you know.”

He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word! The Lord God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.”

I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone. When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them.

He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”

10 I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.

11 He said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ 12 So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. 13 You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. 14 I will put my breath[a] in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.”

Acts 2:1-21 (CEB)

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved

Dry bones. Dry bones that represent weary exiles. Yes, Pentecost is meant to be a fiery day of celebration. But perhaps, dry bones can help us understand the good news of the Pentecost story even more. So hear again these words from the prophet Ezekiel: ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ (Ezekiel 37:11). It can’t be just me, there are a lot of us feeling like dried up old bones these days. Our hope might feel lost. And some of us may feel cut off completely. The struggle is real.

 The prophets get us. And today, it really feels like Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is just as real to us today as it was to those living in the midst of the Babylonian captivity in the late 500s BCE.

            There is so much that has the potential or actual ability to suck the life from us- to dry up our bones. And friends this not only happens in the midst of a pandemic, or exile, but anytime. Maybe it’s hearing of the continued violence in Gaza, or maybe it’s a broken relationship. Maybe it’s imaginable grief or physical or mental illness. Maybe a turn on life’s journey leaves us exhausted or disenchanted …we can very easily continue to fill in the blanks. Friends, perhaps this image of dry bones resonates because I feel it in my dry bones. And I don’t necessarily think I’m not the only one.

 Bones that are the left overs when so much else has been taken from us.

The places of death and decay. The tombs. The graveyards. The ghost towns and empty chairs or spaces where there used to be life, and vibrancy. The things that steal our joy. The places – real, or imagined, that we don’t want to go to… and have been told to avoid at all costs. And because we want to… and sometimes need to avoid these places, we think God does too.

We assume, or have been told, that these valleys of dry bones are places where no one- not even God – would go to willingly. And if you are there, there must be a reason for it. You must have done something to deserve to be there. And if you are to get out, it will be by your own doing.

 And, friends, that simply is not true.

Hear the words from the prophet Ezekiel again: [the Lord] said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” This is God’s promise to the Israelites and this is God’s promise to us: [I will] put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.

Friends, God gives life. God has sent the Spirit, who is life and who is the aid to life. Even, and especially, in places of death and decay; even, and especially, in the midst of valleys of dry bones. Even, and especially, inside of tombs, and graveyards; in the midst of war, and conflict, and strife, and even in the midst of global pandemics. The Holy Spirit, the breath which makes even our driest bones wake up, gives us life. Gives us purpose.  From the beginning, God breathes life into creation out of chaos, out of nothing – so why would it be any different for us now? That is what God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit is. God in us. With us. For us. A Comforter. An Advocate. This breath, this life, this God in us… with us… for us… is there in all times and all places.

And to drive the point home, we hear this message throughout scripture again and again: In Acts, we hear the story of the Spirit being poured out onto and into the community. Filling everyone in such a way that they heard and understand in ways they didn’t anticipate (or even fully understand).

 This is who God is. This is what our Triune God does in and through the Holy Spirit. Not just at Pentecost. But always.

God’s Spirit is with us. For us. No matter what. No matter where. In the valleys of dry bones or on the highest mountain peaks – in the midst of chaos and calm. So maybe it’s ok on this Pentecost that the fire is not burning inside of us. Maybe we still feel like dry bones. As Dr. Anna Florence Carter said in one of her sermons, “Maybe, vitality is us being depleted so God can do a new thing through us.”  “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will… put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:5-6). Through the Holy Spirit a new thing will come even from dry bones.

The day of Pentecost is celebrated fifty days after the resurrection. 50 long days of learning and uncovering what new life looks and feels like; 50 days of encountering God through the resurrected Christ in familiar but new ways. Fifty days of engaging with the real grief – followed by doubt and disbelief the disciples and we experience when death isn’t the end. Fifty days later, as the season of Easter draws to a close we receive the Holy Spirit – a reminder and promise that God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer… that Jesus… is still with us and is doing a new thing in and through us. Even in the midst of death and dried up bones. Even when we aren’t sure what to believe or what the future holds. Even when we can’t even any more. Times when the lyrics of Amy Grant’s song call out for the Spirit’s help and guidance.

Breath of heaven
Hold me together
be forever near me
Breath of heaven.
Breath of heaven
Lighten my darkness
Pour over me your holiness
for you are holy
Breath of heaven.

The Spirit shows up. The Holy Spirit intercedes, leads us into new life, and invites us into God’s amazing story.

So what do we celebrate at Pentecost? As pastor, Danielle Shroyer observes, “Without Pentecost, we’d just be people who tell Jesus’ story. With Pentecost, we’re people who live into Jesus’ story.” From Day One of the church, the call was to press in, linger, pray, listen, and listen some more. Our call is to be intoxicated with the Spirt, and to be lead to do crazy and foolish things like follow a crucified and risen Lord.

We don’t talk about the Holy Spirit enough within the Presbyterian Church. Perhaps it is because the Holy Spirit by her essence is mysterious and Presbyterians like everything to be neat and orderly. The Holy Spirit rarely is neat and orderly. However, there is great value in making space to talk more about the Holy Spirit. Each of us need to be reminded that the Holy Spirit is at work in us- guiding and challenging us, helping us as we try to make sense of our faith. Breathing life into our dry and weary bones.

The Holy Spirit is often described as an ever-present fiery flame. The Spirit is as necessary and as dangerous as fire, so pay attention. There is no city, no village, no wilderness, no ocean, river or stream, where you cannot find the Holy Spirit at work, we only need to pay attention.

The Holy Spirit meets us in the sacraments and in the streets of our neighborhoods. The Holy Spirit is at work in and speaks through the youngest among us and the Holy Spirit is alive and at work in and speaks through the oldest among us. Though, perhaps the Holy Spirit is better thought of as a verb rather than a noun. Or better yet, perhaps we can continuously remind ourselves, the Holy Spirit is like breath, as close as our lips, chest, and lungs, and as near as our nose.  A captivating Spirit, as everywhere as the air, a Spirit which we inhale and exhale, a Spirit which animates, revives, sustains, speaks, and nourishes. The gift of sending the spirit happens over and over again, day after day.

So friends as we pray, come, Holy Spirit, come, let’s get ready to jump up and jump in. To pay attention. For sometimes the spirit is loud and constant like a buzzing of 17 year cicadas, and sometimes she whispers in barely a whisper. So let us be ready to see the Holy Spirit actively running through all the parts of our lives, beckoning us to come and see. To come and be renewed. To see the Spirit take even the driest of bones and the driest of our souls, and breathe life- giving breath into them.

May the Holy Spirit enflame our hearts and bring life to our dry bones. AMEN.

Important Questions

Prayer of Illumination: Loving God, open our ears to hear what you would have us hear, open our eyes to see your constant presence among us, and guide our feet and our steps with your Holy Spirit as we are sent. Amen.  

Psalm 22:25-31

25 I offer praise in the great congregation
    because of you;
    I will fulfill my promises
    in the presence of those who honor God.
26 Let all those who are suffering eat and be full!
    Let all who seek the Lord praise him!
        I pray your hearts live forever!
27 Every part of the earth
    will remember and come back to the Lord;
    every family among all the nations will worship you.
28 Because the right to rule belongs to the Lord,
    he rules all nations.
29 Indeed, all the earth’s powerful
    will worship him;[a]
    all who are descending to the dust
    will kneel before him;
    my being also lives for him.[b]
30 Future descendants will serve him;
    generations to come will be told about my Lord.
31 They will proclaim God’s righteousness
        to those not yet born,
        telling them what God has done

            In today’s second scripture reading we have the stories of two men. Men as different as summer and winter; different as night and day. Men whose stories meet at an important intersection because our God who raised Jesus is still at work constantly through the Holy Spirit….orchestrating unlikely relationships that status quo does not tend to permit. Binding all our stories together to be a part of God’s greater story. The Spirit never leaves us the same as our text points out. Two men. Two stories. Two important questions. A transformation of two individuals—the marginalized and the messenger. Invite you to listen for spirit’s moving.

Acts 8:26-40

26 An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “At noon, take[a] the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 So he did. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.) 28 He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.”

30 Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?”

31 The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. 32 This was the passage of scripture he was reading:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
    and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
    so he didn’t open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
    Who can tell the story of his descendants
        because his life was taken from the earth?[b]

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?” 35 Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. 36 As they went down the road, they came to some water.

The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?”[c] 38 He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip found himself in Azotus. He traveled through that area, preaching the good news in all the cities until he reached Caesarea.

            Would you respond as quickly as Phillip did if the Spirit sent you? Phillip, driven by the Spirit, finds himself at the precisely right place at the precisely right time. A Divinely orchestrated meeting. All because Phillip was open to the Spirit’s moving and the spirit’s call. He takes the great commission of Christ to go to the ends of the earth and proclaim the good news seriously. We are told when he is told to go to the desert road, he goes, no hesitation. He is open to the spirit’s leading and is changed as a result.

            Imagine how different Phillip’s story would have been had he ignored the Spirit’s call to get up and go. Who would have guided and baptized the Ethiopian?  Would Phillip’s understanding of God have been less expansive? Phillip had a conversion in today’s scripture just as much as the man he sought to teach. He learned more about God too.

            Friends, think about it: If we were to surrender control of our plans for even an hour, where might the Spirit send us? How many of our accidental encounters with other people are actually divine appointments? Perhaps you have been lead to meet certain people at certain times in your life too. I believe certain people come into our lives to help us with our faith and to teach us more about God often if we are open to learning. While in seminary, I believe I was lead to meet my friend Minh. “Auntie” Minh as I affectionately call her is a first generation Vietnam War refugee. Though she arguable had the strongest faith of my class, she struggled academically and I was happy to help her with English translations as much as I could. In seminary, she taught me more about faith and God than any of my theology classes. Having our stories and paths intersect enriched both of our faith journeys.

             The second man in today’s story is the Ethiopian eunuch. We know a few things about him. We know he was from around or near the area of Ethiopia, he was an extremely powerful, wealthy, and well-educated court official for a queen in that region. The Ethiopian official was wealthy enough to have a scroll of Isaiah in his possession. A good choice of scroll as Isaiah has been seen as a book of hope and promise for captives, the poor, sick, outcasts, and eunuchs, like himself. He is a serious follower of Judaism, and he was an outsider in the ancient world because of his status as a eunuch. We know as the chariot went on its way, he invited Phillip to join him even though he’d never seen Phillip before. A modern parallel as one commentator observes, might be a diplomat in DC inviting a street preacher to join him in his late model Lexus—the inclusion in this story goes both ways.

            The Ethiopian eunuch must have felt a resonance with the passage from the Isaiah text he was reading out loud, and I imagine hearing that Jesus went through humiliation and suffering must have felt like a huge relief. Perhaps while in Jerusalem, the court official had heard in passing about the Risen Christ and how He interacted with all sorts of folks….even those who were not permitted into the temple and those society deemed as “unclean” or “outsiders”. But perhaps as Phillip jumped into his chariot and explained in detail the story of Jesus, the words became real and took on flesh. Perhaps this person finally felt seen and loved and affirmed, perhaps for the first time in their entire life. It must have felt too good to be true.

            Then as quickly as Phillip appears, we are told “the spirit of the Lord carried Phillip away”….a puzzling exit but Philip’s divine transportation – being snatched away in the spirit – while unexplainable and miraculous wasn’t even the most miraculous thing that happened in this text. When they came upon a body of water, which was miraculous that the pair came upon water as it was highly unusual to find water outside city, the court official asked if anything prevented them from being baptized. The miraculous thing was that Philip said nothing…. Because NOTHNG prevents us from being loved and claimed by God in the waters of baptism. All are welcome, all have access, and all deserve this grace upon grace. There is no barrier, human or otherwise that can prevent us from being God’s beloved child.

            Stories can take all types of forms so as I imagined the encounter between these two men I wrote a poem to expand upon the Ethiopian’s important question and invite us to consider it deeper:

What is there to say once the Spirit has spoken?

Once the spirit has moved, nudged, and pointed out the way,

What prevents me?

Who prevents me?

From claiming the grace gift,

For not just being a hearer of the Good News—

But an integral, irreplaceable part.

From a place of belonging,

From being a child of God.

From being a bearer of good news,

And a receiver of Divine promises?

Once the Spirit moves to help write my story,

What prevents me?

Who prevents me?

From getting off the human designated sidelines-

The shadowed spaces and places where “folks who just don’t belong” are kept behind closed doors.

From being brought out from behind others who don’t appear to be as messed or as mangled.

People who seem to have faith that is all put together—even when it is not.

From not entering the temple and understanding scripture.

Once the Spirit moves-

What prevents me?

Who prevents me?

From fully being part of the game,

From running to the waters of baptism,

And jumping in like a playful child?

From splashing, smiling, and singing,

“I once was lost; but now am found.”

From hearing God’s voice say, “You are loved.”

Once the spirit moves,

What prevents me?

Who prevents me?

From the waters of baptism?

Nothing—

Absolutely nothing.

Here’s water!

Come on down.

Step on in.

All are welcome here.

            The silence of Phillip speaks volumes in our text today. I love how one commentator describes it. She writes, “I love the resounding silence that follows the eunuch’s question.  Because the silence speaks what words cannot. The silence is thundering, and gorgeous, and right.  Because the answer to the Ethiopian eunuch’s question is silence.  The answer — the only answer — is “nothing.”  In the post-resurrection world, in the world where the Spirit of God moves where and how she will, drawing all of creation to herself, in the world where the Word lives to defeat death, alienation, isolation, and fear, there is nothing to prevent a beloved image-bearer of God from entering into the fullness of Christ’s salvation.  Nothing whatsoever.” (Debie Thomas)

            Ya’ll the expansive good news of our passage today is that faith found the water….faith will always find the water…even along the dusty, dry roads in the wilderness. Faith found water.

            Friends, Jesus didn’t suffer death, defeat it, and burst from a tomb three days later only to allow us to deny abundance and joy-filled life to anyone. Jesus taught, lived, died, and was raised in order to show humanity that God’s love centers on the very people we push to the margins. God’s love is expansive, and limitless, and cannot be contained to only a few people.

            Therefore, let’s not limit celebrating the resurrection to Easter Sunday, or even just an Easter Season. The more inclusivity, the more love, the more celebration, the more Easter, the better! And thankfully, we worship an amazing God, who NEVER runs out of Easters! Thanks be to God, amen.

We’ve All Got a Story

Prayer of Illumination: Risen Lord, who never runs out of Easters, you constantly walk through locked doors and meet us where we are at. You reassure us when we need to see for ourselves your work in the world. You enter all rooms and breathe your peace into our hearts. By your Holy Spirit you put stories on all our hearts and send us out to share them. Open our ears and guide our feet this day and always, amen.

Friends, we’ve all got stories. Today we will begin Eastertide season by taking a closer look at just part of Thomas’ story as well as just part of the early church of Acts’ story.

Acts 4:32-35

32 The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common. 33 The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, 35 and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.

John 20:19-31

19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

Jesus appears to Thomas and the disciples

24 Thomas, the one called Didymus,[a] one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”

But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”

26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”

28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name

Raise your hand if you have ever been given a nickname. Some nicknames may not bother you as much as others.  For example, when I was working as a sonic car-hop, my boss gave me the nickname “stretch” because my height…this didn’t bother me that much because I cannot deny my height. Sometimes nicknames are more bothersome.  It seems when someone gives you a nickname, the name sticks to you like glue and follows you through your life– even when you outgrow it.

Biblical characters also tend to be ascribed nicknames. Today in our first scripture lesson, we take a closer look at the gospel of John’s account of Jesus appearing to the disciples and then appearing to Thomas the Twin, who is often referred to as “Doubting Thomas”, a nickname he would probably dislike.

Joshua Harris, a comic strip artist, released a simple comic strip in 2010 that accurately captures part of Thomas’ plight. In the comic strip, Thomas, labelled “Doubting Thomas” is drawn distraughtly speaking to the other disciples explaining, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter; ‘denying Peter’ or Mark; ran away from the garden naked Mark. Why should I always get saddled with this title?” (Joshua Harris, 2010.) Harris’ comic strip offers insight because after all, is curiosity and questioning such a bad thing in regards to our faith?

Poor Thomas. Usually when he is mentioned in church, he is referred to as doubting Thomas and it’s all because of this passage. Why does he get this label? There’s so many people in the Bible who doubt. I actually think it is harder to find someone who didn’t.

We have many examples: Sarah and Abraham, two of the pillars in our tradition, doubted that God would bring them a son. They both laughed at God. Moses doubted that God could use him to free the Israelites from slavery. Gideon doubted in God’s ability to help him win the war against the Midianites so he prayed for God to give him proof. Many of the disciples doubted throughout their journey with Jesus, just think about Peter.

Despite his nickname, earlier in the gospel of John, Thomas the twin, makes a bold, courageous statement which he is not often remembered for. Jesus and the disciples learned that Lazarus had fallen ill to the point of being on his death bed. Jesus began to prepare to make the trip to Judea to be with Lazarus and his sisters. As plans were being made, the disciples remember Jesus’ last trip to Judea…the people in Judea thought Jesus was completely crazy and wanted to stone Him. Clearly Jesus’ disciples thought it would be wise for their group to stay away. However, Jesus is not one who is afraid of conflict. Yet, when it becomes clear that Jesus is set on going to Judea, Thomas, the twin states, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” (John 11:16) But Thomas is not remembered for his brave claim of loyalty.

So why is it that Thomas is labeled as the Doubter of the Bible? Before I continue…I do want to say that there is nothing wrong with doubting. I believe that doubt is a critical part of our faith journey. Usually it is when we are unsure that we seek deeper questions…. and often when we give voice to the lack of faith that we experience that we’re able to find Jesus in new ways. Never be ashamed of your doubt; we always welcome ones questions and struggles. Doubt can play a part in our faith stories. And Jesus meets us wherever we are at along the way.

I appreciate our text from John, perhaps because it is relatable. Perhaps today, even with scripture and the Holy Spirit, sometimes we too, long to “see” Jesus with our own eyes and touch Jesus with our hands. Thankfully, Jesus continues to meet us where we are and be present with us, even though we can’t see Him…..He is present in our times of unbelief. Thomas reassures us that our glorious Easter hymns are not always withstanding.  Thomas reminds us the week after the resurrection has always been murky, messy, and complicated. We’re not the first human beings to struggle with it, and we won’t be the last. Struggle is intrinsic to post-Easter life—but the story doesn’t end there.

Pastor Jill Duffield states, “Jesus does not condemn our struggles to believe in God’s power and God’s goodness when all we’d imagined or planned gets upended…Friends, God in Christ makes his way to us, wherever we are, to reassure us of the trustworthiness of God’s creative, living word. He allows us to see him, touch him, stare at him in awe filled wonder, and study him, recognizing our fragility and shock….as we huddle anxiously in secluded places, how have we seen and heard, touched and felt, experienced without question our Lord and God, Jesus Christ?”

Jesus enters and says, “Peace be with you.”  The Spirit shows up and is given to each Jesus’ early followers and to us in order to help guide us and to help us live into God’s love and grace.

Which brings us to our scripture from Acts. The book of Acts chronicles the beginning of the church. The book is heavily Holy Spirit driven. We are told at the beginning of Acts 4 that the community of believers has grown to about five thousand members. Then, after a confrontation between Jesus’ disciples and religious leaders we are told, “When the followers of Jesus had prayed….they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31.) With boldness they spoke and told their stories of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the source of authority which apostles have bestowed upon their preaching and witness. The Spirit’s power births the church, a new movement, seeks to bring order to chaos and defines the church’s mission. Not only to proclaim the resurrection gospel but also to embody its redemptive truth by caring for others and sharing stories of how God meets us in our lives. However, as you might imagine the early followers had moments of fear.

A fear well described by Walter Brueggemann: all people fall into two categories, those who fear the world they treasured is crumbling all around them, and those who fear the world they dream of will never come to be. I have found in declaring this that people, even if only for a moment, find some common ground. There is no fear near Jesus – but this doesn’t mean you can relax.

Elie Wiesel famously said, “If an angel ever says, ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.” Jesus comforts with one hand and then sends his early followers out into hard labor and challenges them to share His resurrection message with others. These disciples, and us today, have work to do. Work which requires courage and some peace. How lovely and fitting that Jesus doesn’t criticize or judge them for their fears and doubts. He loves. He reassures, turning their confusion into friendship, their fear into trust. Calling all of His early followers and us today, to rise up with the Holy Spirit.

May you allow it, to help mend, to help weave together the torn pieces with in you. May we allow this Good News to help weave together our community. Now friends let us not allow such news, peace, and presence of spirit to stay here. We cannot keep all this Good News to ourselves. Instead may it strengthen us, and encourage us, to be the people who meet others where they are, meet them in their shock, in their grief, in their struggle, pulling them in, and reminding them of the love and peace that God offers to all of creation.

May we all be encouraged—like the early followers of Christ—to tell our faith stories and how God meets us where we are. Stories that show we are all connected, and that “the church is a group of people caught up in the same story, with Jesus at the center”- as Rachel Held Evans states.

 In this post-Easter season, perhaps our efforts are best spent directing people to help people see concrete glimpses into the power of God’s transforming presence in the world- within each of our own stories. Perhaps we can allow the Spirit to help us- see it. Share it. Live into it. May it be so. Amen.

What Wonderous Love is this?

Prayer of Illumination: Loving God, by your Word and Spirit, you have given us a new commandment: to love and serve one another in Jesus’ name. Let the good news of your liberating love be sealed in our hearts and shown in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.

          In many ways, the powerful words of tonight’s scripture readings, speak for themselves. As I read this evening’s texts, which may be all too familiar to us, I invite us all to imagine we are gathered at the table, as one of Jesus’ disciples, hearing these words and witnessing these humbling events for the first time. I invite you also to listen for a word or phrase that jumps out the most to you as I read text. (Scripture)

John 13:1-17, 31-35           

            Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.

Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing. When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”

“No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”

Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”

Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”

10 Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”

12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. 17 Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.31 When Judas was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Human One[a] has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify the Human One[b] in himself and will glorify him immediately. 33 Little children, I’m with you for a little while longer. You will look for me—but, just as I told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now—‘Where I’m going, you can’t come.’

34 “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

            A basin filled with water. Blessed bread. A cup poured out. An intimate dinner with friends reclining around a table. A towel. Ordinary objects filling a holy night. This year, I was most struck with the phrase, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully to the end.” This includes his most intimate friends who would deny, desert, and betray him. Those who even though they had been by his side for three years still did not understand his words. They aren’t quite sure how to understand him and they weren’t by his side when he needed them the most. Yet, he loves them fully to the end. A deep abiding love.

            Imagine the amazement and emotions of the disciples as they heard Jesus’ words for the first time how amazed they would be to witness their friend and teacher, humbling himself and willingly washing each of their dirt encrusted feet. Once again Jesus does something which is profoundly unexpected. Not even a Hebrew slave was expected to wash other’s feet. Foot washing was a form of hospitality but water typically was brought out so that guest may wash their own feet. As their host and their teacher, the last thing Jesus is expected to do is this immense act of servant love. Though some would deny and betray him, Jesus washes and dries every one of his disciples’ feet, even Judas’. What wondrous love is this?

            Sometime last year, New York Life Insurance released a powerful commercial which show cased the ancient Greeks variety of words for “love.” First there was “philia” love and affection felt between friends. Next “eros” or romantic love. Then, “storge”, love felt for grandparent or sibling.

            The fourth kind of love kind of love, agape love is described as the most admirable. It is important to note that the Greek base word agape, is used everywhere in tonight’s passage when we see the word love. Agape is described as the most admirable form because agape love is love as an action. Love that requires courage, sacrifice, and strength. The commercial goes on to tug at the heart strings and show specific scenes of agape love as an action. We see a group of boys shaving their heads completely bald as an act of agape love and solidarity as they facetime with their friend who is in the hospital and lost all his hair from cancer treatments. We see an adult child lovingly washing an aging parent with soap and water, perhaps reminiscing of past adventures together.

            We can add our own scenes. A spouse bringing hot tea to us when we have migraines. A parent’s love of tending to scraped knees and broken hearts. Love in action as communities gather to house and feed the most vulnerable of our neighbors.

            A Savior who invites followers to a new mandate, a new commandment, a new way to love. Where before we were called to love our neighbors as ourselves, and even if we wanted to follow such a call by loving our neighbors as ourselves, we are far from knowing how to properly love ourselves at times- never mind knowing how to properly love our neighbors. Now, a new call to love because of and the way our savior loves us. With agape love- love as an action. A Savior who calls us to love as he loves.  A savior who not only calls us but shows us how to love as he loves.  

            Jan Richardson writes beautiful blessings for this holiest of weeks. Tonight I want to close by sharing her words. She talks about the blessing of Christ washing feet and showing us how to love, a blessing Peter tried to deny himself, but Christ gave him anyway. A blessing is not finished until we let it do its work within us and then pass it along, an offering grounded in the love that Jesus goes on to speak of this night. Yet we cannot do this—as the disciples could not do this—until we first allow ourselves to simply receive the blessing as it is offered: as gift, as promise, as sign of a world made whole.

            I invite you to her words and receive this blessing:  Blessing You Cannot Turn Back

As if you could

stop this blessing
from washing
over you.

As if you could
turn it back,
could return it
from your body
to the bowl,
from the bowl
to the pitcher,
from the pitcher
to the hand
that set this blessing
on its way.

As if you could
change the course
by which this blessing
flows.

As if you could
control how it
pours over you—
unbidden,
unsought,
unasked,

yet startling
in the way
it matches the need
you did not know
you had.

As if you could
become undrenched.

As if you could
resist gathering it up
in your two hands
and letting your body
follow the arc
this blessing makes. May it be so. Amen.

Hey JC, JC, You’re Alright by me!

Mark 11:1-11 Common English Bible

11 When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”

They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord![a] 10 Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.

            A childhood friend would always say,” don’t ever have any expectations- if you have expectations in life you are setting yourself up to be disappointed.” Whether you agree with this or not is up to you. We may have expectations as to how we will collectively leave 2020 in the rearview mirror. Our expectations may differ from one another.  In my personal experience, I haven’t quite figured out how to not have high expectations- especially around important events- holidays, vacations, first dates, new job, you name it. I also have expectations of people. If I send off my taxes to be done, I expect the person to know more about numbers than I do. I expect certain characteristics and traits from family members. Our expectations are normally high and often hard to live up to.

            Take Palm Sunday for example. What might you expect on Palm Sunday? Palm branches? Songs with Hosanna in the title? A party-like atmosphere? You probably expect to hear some version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as scripture reading and not the Christmas narrative. Growing up Palm Sunday always felt like a party. As kids we would get to walk in waving palm branches as enthusiastically as possible, occasionally too enthusiastically as we snuck a few palm hits in a sibling’s direction. We know the story and expect certain buzz words to be mentioned.

            Now imagine you are present in the dense non-socially distanced crowd ready to take a look at this promised Messiah, perhaps for the first time. The crowd might be ready to cheer on Jesus as he rides into Jerusalem. Some in the crowd might be skeptical.  Most in the crowd as desperate for good news and to be saved as they chant “Hosanna! Save us!” You’ve come to take a look at this ragtag prophet and teacher who can make a change for your people. The one who can take down emperors and unfair rulers and who can give you and your people a fresh start. The one everyone keeps talking about, the one who heals the lame and blind and who cleanses lepers. You see him riding in and are so excited. You join the crowd in gathering leafy branches to help make his trip smoother. The air is heavy with expectation and expectations are high.

            What is the crowd expecting of Jesus? What are we expecting from Jesus? What are we expecting from Holy Week?

            The gospel of Mark describes the infatuation that many people had with Jesus- as if he were a rock star. Many people spread their cloaks on the road and others spread leafy branches they had cut from the fields. It is not hard to imagine the Woodstock scene from 1960s or a concert scene when thinking about Palm Sunday. The screams of joy and expectation ringing in Jesus’ ears.  His disciples having sense of anticipation that this surely is the moment they are finally able to reveal Christ as the Messiah, and still not understanding Jesus’ mission. 

            While film adaptations of Christ’s life are not as good as the book, as I prepare for Holy Week, I must confess the soundtrack to the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar typically plays in the background. Some versions include paparazzi like scenes with cell phones or cameras in Jesus’ face as listeners expect certain answers from him. The infamous song, “Hosanna” from the musical tends to play into the high expectations of the crowd as Jesus enters the city. The lyrics range from saying- “Hey, JC, JC won’t you smile at me?” to the political rebel rousing, “Hey JC, JC, won’t you fight for me?” to the non-solicited stamp of approval from the crowd, “Hey JC, JC, you’re alright by me!”, as if the son of God needed an extra stamp of approval.  Jesus, you’re okay as long as you preform, as long as you deliver miracles, as long as you give people want they want and not always what they need.

            One commentator observes, “The problem was not in a lack of love for Jesus…the problem was that it was the superficial kind.” Perhaps the crowd’s love and even our love of Christ spurs as not a love which understands who people actually are but a love blinded by expectations. A love that is only truly complete when our expectations are met. Yet the crowd and our expectations are met with Jesus. In Jesus, the world challenged to recognize how different it’s kind of love is from God. The many people gathered and excited to see Jesus may still have something to learn about the sort of king who comes in the name of the Lord and into their midst. Perhaps we do as well.    

            In their book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem, New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue that two processions entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday; Jesus’ was not the only Triumphal Entry.  You see, every year, the Roman governor of Judea would ride up to Jerusalem from his coastal residence in the west. Why? To be present in the city for Passover — the Jewish festival that swelled Jerusalem’s population from its usual 50,000 to at least 200,000. The governor would come in all of his flashy, imperial majesty to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge. They could commemorate an ancient victory against Egypt if they wanted to.  But real, present-day resistance (if anyone was daring to consider it) was futile.

            As Pilate pompously parades his imperial way into Jerusalem from the west more than likely on a war stallion, Jesus approached from the east, looking by contrast ragtag and absurd.  Unlike the Roman emperor and his legions, who ruled by force and terror, Jesus came defenseless and weaponless into his kingship.  Riding on a donkey, he all but cried aloud the bottom-line truth that unlike Pilate, Jesus’ rule would have nothing to recommend it but love, humility, long-suffering, and sacrifice. Yet some might say that Jesus’ triumphal entry was holy resistance, even though it did not look exactly how people pictured it.

            So what happened in Mark after Jesus enters the city? Mark’s ending to episode is by far the most underwhelming. Jesus enters the temple, but simply looks around at everything and returns to Bethany, which is about two miles outside Jerusalem and served as home base during week. He just looks around with his disciples because is it already late in the day.  I have to wonder Christ looked around—at what? Was he planning their next move? Looking around or calling it a night are far less likely to be considered world-changing behaviors than condemning rampant corruption or calling out hypocrisy on no sleep? If folks expected a political uprising, he had already disappointed them.

            Today, we begin a journey that holds within it the fullness of the human story — the highs, the lows, the hopes, the fears.  Pastor Debie Thomas observes, “In the span of seven days, we do it all: we praise, process, break bread, wash feet, make promises, break promises, deny, betray, condemn, abandon, grieve, despair, disbelieve, and celebrate.  This week, we see the light at the end of the tunnel, lose our vision of it entirely in the grimness of death, and then find it again, drenched in glory and put back together again through the cross.”

            Palm Sunday is a complicated Sunday in which perhaps more than any other, this festive, ominous, and complicated day of palm and hosanna banners warns us that paradoxes we might not like or want are woven right into the fabric of Christianity.  God on a donkey.  Dying to live. A suffering king. Good Friday.*

            These paradoxes are what give Jesus’s story its shape, weight, and texture, calling us at every moment to hold together truths that seem bizarre and counterintuitive.

            Friends, I challenge us not to go into Holy week with expectations of who we think Jesus needs to be, but with our eyes open to who Jesus actually is. Let’s live a bit in the paradox and not rush to Easter morning. I challenge us all to read the story of Holy Week in each gospel- to let the story fester in our souls, to look Jesus in the eye and see how he comes to each and every one of us.

            He comes not with pomp and circumstance, but as one who identifies with the poor.

            He comes not as a mighty warrior, but as one who is vulnerable, one whose eyes are fixed on Jerusalem and the cross. He comes as one who invites people to see and live in the world in a new way.

            He comes on an animal ridden when riders wish to signify peaceful intentions. Jesus then, comes in peace- not to conquer but to teach ways of peace, hope, and agape love.

            The day Christ rode into Jerusalem, he may not have been the kind of Messiah the crowd, or us for that matter, expected to encounter.  But he is the kind of Messiah who is much more than our expectations. He is so much more than human projections placed on him. He is the exact Messiah we actually need. Amen.

Holy Havoc

Prayer of Illumination: God of holy disruptions, as we continue through the wilderness of our Lenten journeys, we pray for your Holy Spirit to move among us and to guide us along the way. Use whatever means necessary to keep and hold our limited attention, even if it means overturning tables. In Christ name, we pray, amen.

Exodus 20:1-17

20 Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You must have no other gods before[a] me.

Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.

Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. 11 Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 Do not kill.[c]

14 Do not commit adultery.

15 Do not steal.

16 Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.

17 Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

John 2:13-22

13 It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as those involved in exchanging currency sitting there. 15 He made a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who exchanged currency. 16 He said to the dove sellers, “Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written, Passion for your house consumes me.[a]

18 Then the Jewish leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?”

19 Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”

20 The Jewish leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” 21 But the temple Jesus was talking about was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered what he had said, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

            So in between preparing this sermon throughout the week, I’ve been in several ZOOM conference webinars. The expression in most introductions, here are some housekeeping rules, almost always comes up before we begin. You know the usual: make sure you are on mute, raise your hand to speak to avoid interruptions, make sure your cat filter is turned off. This got me thinking about housekeeping rules, that is, how to act when you enter a person’s space. Coming from Eastern European descent, it has always been ingrained upon me the importance of taking shoes off before coming into someone’s home. My Mom always said, take your shoes off when you enter house, its sign of respect. There are just some things you don’t do in other people’s spaces, like leave muddy shoes on while walking through living rooms.

             Old Testament listing of Ten Commandments might be looked at as a form of housekeeping rules. Promises and ways how we can best relate to God and how we can best relate to our neighbors. Trying to follow the commandments found in Old Testament text are a tangible way humankind can try to uphold our end of the covenant with God.

            The first several commandments are laid out to help us keep right relationship with God and the rest promote ways to be in right relationship with others. These housekeeping rules also say, you must have no other gods before me and remind worshippers that God is a passionate, zealous God. They also remind us God is awesome but an encounter with God is also awe-filled…worshipful. And sometimes as in our New Testament text…fearful.

            Next we turn to John. The story of Jesus unleashing holy havoc in the temple before the Passover is one of the few stories told in all four Gospels.  Placement of the story differs between gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all situate today’s gospel lesson during Holy Week as Christ’s final strike and the action which pushes religious authorities to their wits end. John, however, places Jesus overturning tables towards the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

             In John, tables are turned almost immediately following the miracle and sign at the wedding in Cana of turning simple water into exquisite wine. Some may say, John placed this so close to the beginning of his account to help readers understand how profoundly crucial this event was to Jesus’ understanding of who he was and what he was supposed to do.  But friends, I’ll confess right off the bat, it is a hard text, and a Jesus this angry can be hard to look in the face.

            So what do we know about our gospel text? Today’s scripture reading from John marks the very first Passover Christ spent in his first year of public ministry. Like any Jew, Jesus would have gone to the temple to celebrate Passover before, but this time was different. Maybe this time, Christ had a clearer sense of purpose, of what he embodied, as Christ a new dwelling place of the Lord.

            After all, later in our text, Jesus alludes to his death…saying destroy this temple and in three days it will be raised up. Which clearly confused not only religious authorities but Jesus’ own disciples until after the resurrection.

            Perhaps Jesus had even seen such money changers at temple before. We don’t know…but this time something struck a nerve with Jesus. Something made him pause, take time to make a whip out of cords, flip tables, and drive out animals. Something made him raise holy havoc.

            Why is Jesus SO angry? Is it because exploitation was taking place? Is it because people were profiting materially from faith and people’s desire to be in relationship with God? Is it because unnecessary barriers were being put in place to keep people from worshipping God? Because the temple had become a marketplace? All of the above? After all, all of these things were bad housekeeping….signs of disrespect in his Father’s house.

            Just think about all this happening in the most holy of places.  The noise, smell and dust in the temple’s outer courtyard would be overwhelming.  The temple full of weary travelers needing to exchange shekels for temple coinage – at a cost; trading their own animals often made unclean through the long journey, for certified unblemished animals and birds – at a cost. Buying animals if they’d made the pilgrimage without an animal – at a cost. The money-changers would be paying a percentage to the temple authorities, who would charge for space, taking a cut on the turnover. 

            It is very possible that the prices were inflated – that the system was unjust – that those who could not pay for sacrifices or who had no money for the tax could not worship in the temple. That barriers were put up by those wanting to make a profit off people during Passover to keep the poorest out. But this was, “business as usual.”

            Rev. Debie Thomas observes: “Jesus interrupts “business as usual” for the sake of justice and holiness.  He interrupts worship as usual for the sake of justice and holiness.  His love for God, the temple, and its people compels him to righteous anger.  What would it be like to work, as Jesus does, to preserve and protect all bodies, all holy places, all temples, from every form of irreverence and desecration?  What would it be like to decide that our highest calling as Christians is not to niceness?”

            Friends, when faced with the popular question of ‘what would Jesus do?’ let’s remember that we worship a God who overturned tables if necessary. I’m reminded of the Martin Luther King Jr quote, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” Or the “good trouble,” John Lewis spoke about.

            Jesus overthrew tables…sometimes raising a little holy havoc is not always a bad thing and can be productive. Sometimes it is the only way to get people’s attention, or to teach a lesson. In flipping tables Jesus knew the ramifications behind his actions. He knew his actions might tip scales and leave a few if not all religious higher ups reeling.  Christ knew this temple encounter might leave folks with a bad taste in their mouths.

            Friends, to be clear, I think there is a difference between holy havoc angry and just being upset because your spouse doesn’t empty the dishes from the sink or someone cuts you off in traffic. This type of angry displayed by Christ is much deeper.

            There are things that make my blood boil. Communities not having affordable housing for people and families who work hard. The knowledge that so many go to bed hungry in our own community. The sheer number of violent acts and overdoses that threaten to take lives far too soon. The lack of mental health care and the stigma behind such care. Bullies who relentlessly tease and tear down others. The grief from lives and memories lost over the past year.

            There are things that make me furious as I am sure there are things that make you furious. But as we are in the season of Lent, a season to evaluate and do a bit of spiritual spring cleaning, we have to check our own hearts and openly acknowledge a deep need for renewal and clean hearts. We have to not only ask ourselves, what makes our blood boil? What are we zealous for? But also ask ourselves, what we might do that creates barriers between God and our neighbors. As we go through the season of Lent, we have to create room in our journeys for self- reflection and humility. We have to turn our pointer fingers back towards ourselves and do some soul searching and self-examination.

            With this in mind, I also want to pose a question which as a pastor produces a bit more anxiety than sometimes I care to admit…I asked myself this question all week as I sat with our text and ask to you all now….what tables do I sit at that Jesus would overthrow? What tables might Jesus overthrow within our community?

            I can imagine some. I imagine every time we place a barrier in someone’s way of coming to Christ, a table is overturned. Or every time we give a second overly suspicious look when someone who look doesn’t just like us enters our building, another table, overturned. One commentator observes “Misplaced allegiances, religious presumption, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, political idolatry, and economic greed in the name of God are only some of the tables that Jesus would overturn not only in his own day, but in our society too.” If we think hard there are others. No matter how many times it is prayed, the prayer “Lord, forgive me for the times I desired a seat at a table, you would’ve flipped,” can be a daunting, eye-opening, and humbling pray.

            God may speak in still quiet moments and sometimes in our lives, perhaps more times than we care to admit, Jesus needs to flip some tables to get our attention. Jesus needs to remind us to be barrier breakers not barrier builders. The question for us is are we listening? Are you listening? Amen.

What’s This?

Old Testament Reading: Deuteronomy 18:17-20

17 The Lord said to me: What they’ve said is right. 18 I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites—one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will hold accountable anyone who doesn’t listen to my words, which that prophet will speak in my name. 20 However, any prophet who arrogantly speaks a word in my name that I haven’t commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet must die.

            As we continue to move through the gospel of Mark, you may notice that the gospel of Mark doesn’t waste any time. Scholars believe that the gospel of Mark was the first one written, it is also the shortest gospel. Perhaps you have noticed that the gospel of Mark doesn’t offer any sort of birth narrative. There are no angels to foretell the birth to Mary and Joseph, no manger full of hay in a stable, no heavenly hosts singing “glory the God in the highest!” No, that’s not the gospel writer’s style. Instead the writer just begins by telling us that this is the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God. We meet John the Baptist briefly, Jesus is baptized, he calls some disciples and then he gets to work. Our scripture this morning comes from the first chapter in Mark and is an account of Jesus’s first official action in his ministry. And it’s quite a story. There’s a lot to wrestle with in this morning’s scripture, so let’s begin by hearing from Mark 1:21-28.

21 Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching. 22 The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts. 23 Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, 24 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.”

25 “Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” 26 The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out.

27 Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” 28 Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.

                Friends, I want to be up front with you from the beginning. This scripture has been a struggle for me this week. First of all, there’s a lot going on here. It’s the first time Jesus really teaches in Mark’s gospel and he’s teaching in the synagogue. There is so much to unpack in that one little statement in verse 22 that says he taught with authority unlike the scribes. There is the amazement and confusion of those who were listening to him as his fame begins to spread. And then, of course, we have this business with an unclean spirit. Then we can think back to our Old Testament texts speaking of a prophet who speaks with great authority.

             I heard my preacher professor’s voice screaming, “you don’t have to preach everything at once!” But I’ll admit that I wrestled mightily this week with this situation with the unclean spirit along with the question of what we give audience and authority to? Friends, scripture is rarely about making us feeling comfortable. The gospel isn’t about comfort but about wrestling with the Word of God, wrestling with what it means to be in a follower of Christ, wrestling with discomfort and disease. And so, I went to the mat with this man with the unclean spirit.

            Our first inclination in this day and age is to explain what might have “really” been going on with this man. Having all the medical knowledge that we have now we want to add our modern sensibilities into the story. You might hear people say that this man was probably dealing with severe mental illness. Or that he had epilepsy and was having a seizure. The trouble is that when we do that, we do a disservice to the people who deal with mental health issues or disorders like seizures every day. We run the risk of making it seem like their struggle is a moral or spiritual failing, which it is not. Yet we do this because it might make us feel better. It might mean we don’t have to address and figure out what is really meant by a demon or an unclean spirit. But if we don’t address it, we might miss something.

            In his book, Binding the Strong Man, Theologian and New Testament Scholar Ched Myers writes, “Do we demythologize it according to the discourse of modern medical anthropology, so that the exorcism becomes a cure for epilepsy…?” This is the typical modernist approach, preoccupied with concocting rational explanations for actions that appear to transgress natural laws. But it is also historicism at its crudest, and does nothing to address the socio-literary function of miracle stories…. Miracle stories of Mark go to great lengths to discourage the reader from drawing the conclusion from these stories that Jesus is a mere popular magician… Instead, the meaning of the powerful act must be found by viewing it in terms symbolic reproduction of social conflict.”

            So, we have to face these demons head on. To say that we can’t explain this unclean spirit away with modern considerations of medical conditions is not to say that the what of it doesn’t matter. On the contrary, it matters a great deal. Because the truth is that we also face unclean spirits, demons, evil – whatever name they might take on – in the modern world today, they just manifest differently. Lutheran pastor and author, Nadia Bolz Weber says, “Our demons want nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus because it threatens to obliterate them, and so they try to isolate us and tell us that we are not worthy to be called children of God. And those are the lies that Jesus cannot abide.” (from her book Accidental Saints)

            We want to think about evil as something out there, something we try to avoid coming into contact with. We don’t want to admit that perhaps we may be facing some unclean spirits, some demons, some sort of evil that is much closer to home. In order to combat them, we must name them.

            I don’t know if any of you are into horror movies, but if you are you might notice that when the monster isn’t shown, it makes the movie so much scarier. Once the monster in the movie is revealed, it loses a little bit of its cinematic power. And so we, too, must name our monsters. These things include anger, jealousy, greed, arrogance, labeling people as “less than,” and apathy.  This list can go on—you might be able to add other evils as well.  Friends, it’s important to admit that sometimes these things are difficult to even name. We don’t want to talk about it, we would rather ignore it. But not naming unclean spirits, not naming and addressing demons or forces of evil just gives them more power. But the truth is that we live in a broken world, so these things plague us for sure. We have to name them, face them but we cannot let them take over.

            One of the things that is most interesting to me in this scripture is that the man with the unclean spirit sit and listens to Jesus teach. He doesn’t reveal himself right away. The unclean spirit didn’t stand up and make himself known until after Jesus taught. Sometimes these demons in our world can be tricky, they can masquerade as well-meaning and pious so we must be vigilant and not feed into them. And friends, the good news is, we are not facing and wrestling them alone- one who has authority is with us always.

            Consider how Jesus handles this unclean spirit. He doesn’t engage. He doesn’t try to reason with the unclean spirit, he doesn’t try to negotiate, he doesn’t try to hear it out. He simply shuts it down, “be silent and go!” He doesn’t try to justify or explain it. He doesn’t give it power.

            It reminds me of the old Native American story of the elderly man who tells his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is the perfect storm of anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The grandson thought about it for a minute and asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?  His grandfather simply replied, “The one that you feed.”

            This story of Jesus in the synagogue is forces us to ask the question, what are feeding? Are we feeding inside ourselves and in the world around us? Are we feeding the unclean spirits of fear and selfishness, jealousy and apathy? Or are we feeding a spirit of kindness, a spirit of love, the spirit of hope, the spirit of compassion? Are we giving authority to Christ or to evil?

            After the unclean spirit is casted out we aren’t told much else about the man the unclean spirit was in.  We do read the crowd is so astounded by what Jesus’ power and actions; they turn to one another and ask, “What is this? Who has this kind of authority?” Friends, who should we give authority to? This scripture requires us to ask hard questions, it can make us uncomfortable.  It compels us to take a look at difficult things. When the unclean spirit tries to engage Christ with heckling and demanding, “What do you have to do with us? Are you here to destroy us?” Jesus doesn’t bother to answer. Jesus, son of God, dismisses this unclean spirit, does not feed it, and does not give it power.

            It’s true that the gospel of Mark doesn’t waste any time. The gospel of Mark gets right into the heart of our lives as followers of Jesus. Friends, living our lives as followers of Christ won’t be easy. It does require us to do some wrestling. It won’t always make us feel comfortable. It will make us confront the things we are not proud of. But what we can be sure of is that it will be holy work, and that it will deepen our faith.

            My hope and prayer is that we will each find blessing and grace as we wrestle with these hard and holy things. Who are we giving authority to? Amen.

Living Baptismal Vows

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God createdthe heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[b] swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:1-11

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
        “Prepare the way for the Lord;
        make his paths straight.”[a]

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. 11 And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

            I still remember one of my favorite teachers in high school, my creative writing teacher, telling us beginnings are meant to be memorable. Perhaps you may recognize some of these beginnings? “Four score and seven years ago…” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was an age of wisdom…it was an age of foolishness.” “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” “Call me Ishmael.” “Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?” “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me.” “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house.”  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Hopefully you were able to recognize at least one of those memorable beginnings.

            Friends, beginnings matter. Beginnings are telling. Today’s scripture readings are two stories marking beginnings. Our Old Testament text begins the very canon of Biblical literature as we know it and our text from Mark captures the beginning of earliest gospel within the Biblical canon. During this season of Epiphany, we are encourage have epiphanies, to pay particular attention to the ways God reveals more and more of who God is. We are invited to look for and see glimpses of God sightings each day as Dan mentioned last week.

            So what might we learn this week? In Genesis, we have God making order out of chaos and giving boundaries to sweeping waters. We see a God who makes good and wondrous things. In Mark, we see the good news begin in the wilderness of all places. We see God revealed in Christ who is not distant or apart from us but who in radical solidarity steps into the same waters of baptism, who desires an intimately messy relationship with humankind.

            Our beginnings are important as well. Baptism also often marks the beginning of our own faith journeys.  Journeys that are filled with the highs and lows of life, journeys where sometimes we get things right and other times we get things horribly wrong. We are called to remember our baptisms every time we wash our hands or interact with water. We are called to remember God’s claim on our lives, to repent daily and continue to learn.  But what might this look like?

            Baptism and faith are by nature risky. Pastor Debie Thomas observes, To embrace Christ’s baptism story is to embrace the wild truth that we are united, interdependent, connected, one.  Whether we like it or not, the bond God seals by water and by the Spirit is truer and deeper than all others.  It makes a stronger claim on our lives and loyalties than all prior claims of race, gender, tribe, nationality, politics, preference, or affinity.  It asks that we bear all the risks of belonging.  The risk that others might hurt us.  The risk that others will change.  The risk that they will change us.”

            Baptism creates a bond, a common thread, and also declares no group is better than or superior to the other. ALL are equal and beloved by God. Our Book of Common Worship does a good job at listing what baptism is. “Baptism is the bond of unity in Jesus Christ. When we are baptized, we are made one with Christ, with one another, and with the Church of every time and place. In Christ barriers of race, status, and gender are overcome; we are called to seek reconciliation in the church and the world in Jesus’ name.”

            Baptism connects us to each other and holds us together in God’s transformative love. Reminds us we are all called to sit at the same table, invite others, and make room for more. Baptism is a bond that binds us as well as individual challenge to repent and turn from evil; it represents God’s call to justice and righteousness and reminds us of God’s immense love.

            So friends, a question we can ask ourselves today is how do we imagine, claim, and express our role as baptized believers? What difference does it make in our lives? What are some ways we can live into our baptisms? Friends, I am not going to pretend I have all the answers about this—or that I have any answers on what happened last week. But these are a few examples of what I’ve come up with.

            We live into our baptisms when we show radical hospitality and love of neighbor. When we buy work shoes for a neighbor in need. When we serve our neighbors at Jubilee Kitchen and partner with other churches in our area to make sure WATTS runs smoothly.

            We live into our baptisms as we do the hard work of being a Matthew 25 congregation: to work towards building congregational vitality, towards dismantling racism, towards eradicating poverty step by step and day by day.

            We live into our baptisms as we strive each day to pray for our enemies, as we hold space and conversation for those who are different from us, but still our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we seek and pursue peace.

            We live into our baptisms when we lead by example, when we show our children the world can do better and be better.

            We live into our baptisms when we point to the broken places of our lives and world and look for God’s love among the brokenness. When we point to God’s helpers- to those who offer a hand up, clean up after others, or provide comfort and hope.

            We live into our baptisms when we offer love and support to those who are grieving, those who are lonely, and those who are depressed…when we call, take meals, or send cards.

            We live into our baptisms when we renounce the evil in this world and try our hardest to point to all that is wonderful and good. When we build bridges instead of walls. When renounce our biases and all the “ism” of life. When we renounce times violence wins over peace, when hatred wins over love, and when division wins over unity. When we pick up pieces and work towards a better way of reconciliation.

            We live into our baptisms when we renounce evil in ourselves and others- when we do the hard work of allowing our baptismal vows to open us to transformation and when we work for change.           

            Friends, we were made for more, made to live as God’s beloved children, made for goodness. Our Wednesday morning women’s faith study group recently read “Made for Goodness” by Desmond and Mpho Tutu. If you haven’t read, I highly recommend. I invite you to hear this poem from “Made for Goodness” by Desmond and Mpho Tutu:

“You are my child,

My beloved.

With you I am well pleased.

Stand beside me and see yourself.

Borrow my eyes so you can see perfectly.

When you look with my eyes then you will see

That the wrong you have done and the good left undone,

The words you have said that should not have been spoken,

The words you should have spoken but left unsaid,

The hurts you have caused,

The help you’ve not given

Are not the whole of the story of you.

You are not defined by what you did not achieve.

Your worth is not determined by success.

You were priceless before you drew your first breath,

Beautiful before dress or artifice,

Good at the core.

And now is time for unveiling

The goodness that is hidden behind the fear of failing.

You shut down your impulse to kindness in case it is shunned,

You suck in your smile,

You smother your laughter,

You hold back the hand that would help.

You crush your indignation

When you see people wronged or in pain,

In case all you can do is not enough,

In case you cannot fix the fault,

In case you cannot soothe the searing,

In case you cannot make it right.

What does it matter if you do not make it all right?

What does it matter if your efforts move no mountains?

It matters not at all.

It only matters that you live the truth of you.

It only matters that you push back the veil to let your goodness shine through.

It only matters that you live as I have made you.

It only matters that you are made for me,

Made like me,

Made for goodness.”

            May we remember that in our baptisms we are beloved children of God, may we remember the beginnings of our lives with Christ, and that whether we like it or not, the bond God seals by water and by the Spirit is truer and deeper than all others. Friends, may it be so. Amen.