Southminster Presbyterian Church

We are a community of people encouraging each other, seeking to be like Jesus; serving God by loving generously, proclaiming boldly, and giving with grace and humility.


Please join us for our Sunday Worship Service at 10:00 am.

The Higher Morality

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 5:17-20; Matthew 22:34-40

            In a book on parenting I came across this letter from the mother of two small children.  She writes,

A few months ago, I was making several phone calls in the family room where my three- year-old daughter Adrianne, and my five-month-old son, Nathan, were playing quietly. … I suddenly realized that the children were no longer in view.  Panic stricken, I quickly hung up the phone and went looking for them.  Down the hall and around the corner, I found the children playing cheerfully in Adrianne’s bedroom.  Relieved and upset, I shouted, “Adrianne, you know you are not allowed to carry Nathan!  He is too little and you could hurt him if he fell!”  Startled, she answered, “I didn’t, Mommy.”  Knowing he couldn’t crawl, I suspiciously demanded, “Well, then, how did he get all the way into your room?”  Confident of my approval, she said with a smile, “I rolled him!” (Parenting Isn’t for Cowards, pp. 101-102).

            This is an example of following the rules, but missing the point.  It is very much the kind of thing Jesus criticized in the scribes and Pharisees of his time.  For example, in Matthew 23, verse 23, Jesus says,

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”

The scribes and Pharisees were so scrupulous about their religion that they gave 10% of all their crops as an offering, even 10% of the spices they grew in their window boxes.  But they did nothing for the poor who had no land to farm and who struggled to survive on whatever minimal wages they got during harvest.

            In our first scripture reading Jesus is approached by a Pharisee and asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  Jesus replies,

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

            For Jesus, there is a point to the commandments in the Bible, and the point is love.  We only understand the commands in the Bible when we understand how they point us to love.

            Which Jesus proceeds to illustrate in the verses that follow.  I did not try to include the whole of Matthew, chapter 5, in our scripture reading this morning, but the rest of the chapter 5 is mostly an illustration of what Jesus is talking about in verses 17 when he says,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

            The paragraphs that follow illustrate this.  For example, in verse 21 Jesus quotes one of the Ten Commandments:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’”

But then Jesus adds his own commentary on this commandment, verse 22:

“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Then Jesus says in the next two verses:

“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

            Growing up, I thought I was doing pretty good not to kill my brother.  But here Jesus says I’m supposed to love him, because that is the point of the commandment.  It is not just about avoiding murder.  It’s about being reconciled to the people from whom you are estranged.

            In the next paragraph Jesus does the same thing with adultery.  First he quotes the commandment:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’”

But then Jesus says,

“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

In other words, for Jesus, the issue is not just to avoid adultery but commit yourself whole heartedly to loving and caring for your spouse.  The point of the commandment is faithfulness.

            There is a wonderful commentary on all ten of the Ten Commandments in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.  Even though most of the Ten Commandments are worded in the negative—don’t do this, don’t do that—Luther gives each of them a positive spin.  For example, when discussing the commandment “You shall not murder,” Luther says,

“We should fear and love God, and so we should not endanger our neighbor’s life, nor cause him any harm, but help and befriend him in every necessity of life.”

            Notice the positive twist.  Suddenly the commandment against murder has become a mission statement.  Hunger relief, shelter for the homeless, medical care, feeding and caring for children—all these things are wrapped up in this commandment.  It is not just about avoiding murder; it is about serving one another in love.

            Luther does the same with the next commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.”  He says,

“We should fear and love God, and so we should lead a chaste and pure life in word and deed, each one loving and honoring his wife or husband.”

Marriage is not just about avoiding an affair.  It is about a mission God gives us to love and care for our spouse.

            My favorite is Luther’s explanation for the commandment “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  He begins with the obvious:

“We should not tell lies about our neighbor, nor betray, slander, or defame him.”

But then he goes a step further:

“But (we) should apologize for him, speak well of him, and interpret charitably all that he does.” 

            Imagine if instead of condemning people or making fun of them, we tried to explain their actions in the kindest way possible.  That does not mean agreeing with them or condoning anything they do.  But it may soften our attitude toward other people as we try to understand the situations or life experiences behind their words and actions.

            Each of the negatively worded Ten Commandments has an opposite:

-          The opposite of murder is reconciliation.

-          The opposite of adultery is faithfulness.

-          The opposite of stealing is sharing.

-          The opposite of lying is speaking the truth in love.

-          The opposite of coveting is gratitude.

           One of my teachers in seminary put it this way: The Ten Commandments are the structure of love.  The higher morality of Jesus is not less than the Ten Commandments but more.  The command to love one another does not void the commandments against murder, adultery, lying, stealing, or slandering.  Love fulfills those commands.  But the commands are still important, because they are the architecture of love, pushing us toward reconciliation, faithfulness, compassion, honesty, and gratitude.

 

Making a Difference

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 5:13-16; Isaiah 42:1-7

            When I was young, I put a lot of effort into getting candy on Halloween.  In those days no one worried about tamper-resistant packaging.  I was given popcorn balls, Rice Krispy cookies, candy, and pieces of fruit, none of which were individually wrapped.  I just stuffed it all in my grocery sack and went on to the next house as fast as I could.

            Of course, I could never eat all that candy, so after stuffing myself, I hid the rest of it in my closet, deep in the back where my brother wouldn’t find it.  It was so well hidden that one time I forgot about it, completely forgot it was there, until months later when I was rummaging through my closet looking for a baseball mitt, and I detected a strange odor.  It came, I discovered, from an old grocery sack.  And when I opened it, I found a green covered orange, a shriveled apple, and a sticky mass of gum drops stuck to a crusty old popcorn ball.

            I learned something from that experience.  I learned that if you try to keep something for yourself by hiding it, it will end up wasted.

            Which is exactly what Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount.  He says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”  If you put an oil lamp or a candle under a bucket, it will give no light, and soon it will go out.

            Jesus makes a similar point about salt.  I am not sure how salt loses its taste.  But I have seen salt that was left too long in the salt shaker.  After enough time it absorbs moisture and clumps together and it no longer comes out the little holes.  In fact sometimes you have to chisel it out, and at that point it is not much good anything except to be thrown away.

            Salt in a salt shaker is meant to be poured out.  A candle is lit to give light.  Halloween candy is meant to be shared.  When this doesn’t happen, a good gift can be spoiled.

            Which according to Jesus is the challenge we face as disciples.  Notice the relationship in this scripture passage between who we are and what we are supposed to be.  Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth”—already!  You don’t need to make yourself into the salt of the earth.  You can’t.  You are the salt of the earth because God has made you salt for the earth.  So go out and season stuff, Jesus says.  That’s your job.

            “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says—already!  You can’t light your own light.  God has to do that.  But God has already lit your light.  It happened when you decided to follow Jesus.  So let your light shine so that other people can experience God’s goodness like you have.

            Now please understand.  This does not mean we should go around calling attention to ourselves.  Jesus will talk about that later in the Sermon on the Mount.  At the beginning of chapter 6 Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  Our faith is not something we are meant to flaunt.

            One of the interesting characteristics of salt is that salt is not meant to call attention to itself.  If you bite into your eggs and all you taste is salt, something is wrong.  The salt is not supposed to call attention to itself; it is supposed to enhance the flavor of the food on which it is put.

          The same is true of light.  When you came into the sanctuary this morning, I doubt you paid much attention to the light fixtures.  But if we turned them off right now you would notice.  The lights in our sanctuary are not meant to call attention to themselves.  They are intended to help us see other things more clearly.

            To be a follower of Jesus means helping other people see God more clearly.  “Let you light shine,” Jesus says, not so that people will give glory to you, but so they will give glory to your Father in heaven.

            I have now been here long enough at Southminster to see how this works in our church.  Last year our Deacons did an informal survey of their flocks to discover some of the ways our church members are serving our community.  It turned out to be an amazing list.  One of our church members trains cats—yes, that’s right, she trains cats—and then she takes them to the nursing homes where they cuddle with patients and purr on command.  I’m wondering if she might work with children.

            Two other people in our church drive a community van helping elderly people get to their doctor appointments or to get groceries.  As these drivers listen to the struggles of their riders, they do more than give them transportation.  They bring a little light into their lives.

            I see so many ways that people in our church do this.  A surprising number of our church members currently serve or have served on the board of directors for numerous community ministries: two different food banks, homeless shelters in Burien and Kent, books on tape for the sight impaired, and a counseling service with a sliding fee scale.  People in this church have gone on mission trips to other parts of our country and around the world.  They have served dinners at community meals sites, handed out food at food banks, given protein packs to people on the street.  A growing number of you are involved in the ministry to provide books for the SCORE jail.  Some of you knit, quilt, and sew for various charities and participate in fund raising walks.  Then there is the Slackers, our group of retired people who not only do projects for us around our church but do numerous building and repair projects for people in the community needing help.

            Even more significant are those of you living as salt and light at your schools or in your jobs, businesses, or homes: youth who make a point of listening when a friend is upset or befriending someone who is being bullied, business people who won’t go along with some illegal or improper thing they are asked to do, people who day after day and year after year must deal with family members who try their patience and who respond day after day, year after year with love, kindness, and grace.  These folks are not hiding their candy in the closet.  They are salt shakers, gently tapping out their seasoning; they are candles providing a small circle of light to people who live with way too much darkness.

            But there is also an element of hope in this scripture.  When Jesus says, “A city set on a hill cannot be hid,” he is making a promise.  He is saying that our efforts to serve him will not go unnoticed.  And when Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a basket,” he is not just talking about us; he is talking about God.  He is giving us a promise.  The God who lit the light of faith in our lives will not let that light go out; the God who chose you and called you to follow Jesus will not let that faith be wasted.  The same applies to the mission of our church as a whole.  Having brought this church into existence and maintained it all these years, God will not let its ministry be wasted.

            Marj Carpenter, a former moderator of the national Presbyterian Church, gives a great example of this from her visit to a church in China.  Presbyterians, along with many other Christian denominations, began extensive mission work in China back in the 1800s.  By 1913 there were 92 Christian missionaries in China, many of them Presbyterians.  But in 1949 when communist insurgents took over the country, most if not all of the churches and mission schools were closed.  Many were converted into factories, and for forty years the Christian church in China virtually disappeared.  During this time, Marg Carpenter said, Presbyterian mission leaders groaned and wept and wrung their hands over how much mission money had been wasted in China.  All that effort, and nothing to show for it.

            But 40 years later when Christian churches in China were allowed to open again, on the very first Sunday there were 16,000 baptisms.  It was like Mt. St. Helens.  For decades the Christian faith in China appeared dormant, but under the surface it was like magma flowing through cracks and crevices, rising toward the surface until it finally broke through the crust and exploded.  At one point Christianity in China was growing at the rate of 50 new churches a month.

            Marj Carpenter said she visited one of those churches in Shanghai.  The stained glass windows had been knocked out, and the building had been converted to a factory.  But she said that there was something haunting about a hole in the wall in the shape of a cross, like a silent witness that had been there all those years.  On the Sunday she worshiped with them, the congregation was singing old hymns. They were signing in Chinese, but Marj recognized the tunes.  At one point she realized they were singing “In the Sweet By and By.”  Marj said she could not remembers the words, but since everyone else was signing enthusiastically in Chinese, Marj sang, “In the sweet by and by, here we are in old Shanghai.”  And that is when Marj said she realized something: when the Christian faith is planted in a place, it never goes away.  And when you let your light shine, when you let your salt be poured out, when you let your Halloween candy be shared, it is never wasted.

Faith and Doubt

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 28:16-20; Job 19:23-27

            You might not expect a book called Blue Like Jazz to be about religion, but it is.  Fifty pages in, the author, Donald Miller, has a chapter called “Faith,” beginning with these words:

The goofy thing about Christian faith is that you believe it and don’t believe it at the same time. … I believe in Jesus; I believe He is the Son of God, but every time I sit down to explain this to somebody I feel like a palm reader, like somebody who works at a circus or a kid who is always making things up or somebody at a Star Trek convention who hasn’t figured out that the show isn’t real (p. 51).

The Christian faith is something you can believe and not believe at the same time.

            The Bible understands this.  After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples go to a mountain in Galilee to which Jesus directed them.  Verse 17 says, “When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”  In Greek the verse is even more surprising.  It says literally, “Seeing him they worshiped, but they doubted.”  These were not two different groups of people, some who worshiped and some who doubted.  The people who worshiped and the people who doubted were the same people.  They had doubts about Jesus even while worshiping him, even after seeing him.  The Christian faith is something you can believe and not believe at the same time.

            It is sort of like Job in the Old Testament.  Job spends 20 chapters in the book of Job complaining about God’s injustice, bemoaning all the undeserved grief he has experienced.  And then, right in the middle of the book, he says, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side…” (Job 19:25-26).  Job doubts God and believes in God at the same time.

            Donald Miller tells about a conversation he had with a friend from Reed College named Laura.  Laura came to him one day obviously distraught.  She said,

“I feel like He is after me, Don.”

“Who is after you?” I asked.

“God.”

“I think that is very beautiful, Laura.  And I believe you.  I believe God wants you.”

“I feel like He is after me,” she repeated.

“What do you think He wants?”

“I don’t know.  I can’t do this, Don.  You don’t understand.  I can’t do this.”

“Can’t do what, Laura?”

“Be a Christian.”

“Why can’t you be a Christian?”

Laura didn’t say anything.  She just looked at me and rolled her tired eyes. She dropped her hands into her lap with a sigh.  “I wish I could read you my journal,” she said, looking blankly at the wall.  “There is this part of me that wants to believe.  I wrote about it in my journal.  My family believes, Don.  I feel as though I need to believe.  Like I am going to die if I don’t believe.  But it is all so stupid.  So completely stupid.”

“Laura, why is it that you hang out with Christians on campus?”

“I don’t know.  I guess I am just curious” (pp. 52-53).

            Laura reminds me of the eleven disciples.  They went to Galilee with no proof except the word of the women.  They had not seen Jesus alive at the empty tomb.  They had not heard the message of the angels.  All they had to go on was the message of the women.  But on the basis of that message they went to Galilee.  Why?  Maybe they were just curious.  But because they went, they discovered that Jesus was alive and had a purpose for their lives, a purpose greater than they ever imagined.

            In contrast the elders and priests in Jerusalem did not go.  I talked about that during the sunrise service at the Cove.  The religious and political leaders heard the news of the resurrection from the guards, just like the disciples heard it from the women.  But unlike the disciples, they did not go to Galilee to see if it was true.  In fact they tried to suppress it.  Why?  Because for them, Jesus’ resurrection was not welcome news.  It called into question the whole direction of their lives.  It meant the end of their self-righteousness, the end of their illusion of being in control of everything.  The guards and their superiors did not want to find him.  They did not want the resurrection to be true.  It was too disturbing.

            But the eleven disciples were at least curious.  So they went to Galilee, and that is when Jesus and his mission for them became real.

            Several days after their conversation, Donald Miller got this email from Laura.  She said,

I read through the book of Matthew this evening.  I was up all night.  I couldn’t stop reading so I read through Mark.  This Jesus of yours is either a madman or the Son of God.  Somewhere in the middle of Mark I realized He was the Son of God.   I suppose this makes me a Christian.  I feel much better now.  Come to campus tonight and let’s get coffee (p. 58).

            That’s why we are reading through the gospel of Matthew in our church services this year.  If you at least hear the story, if you at least go to Galilee to look, you can find out the truth about Easter, and what it might mean to you.

            I confess that sometimes I too have doubts.  This is an embarrassing thing for a pastor to admit, but even after preaching about Jesus for 38 years, I still sometimes wonder.  How do I know there is a God out there, and if there is, how do I know God cares anything at all about tiny creatures in one lonely edge of the universe?  Do I believe in a loving God so I will feel less alone or less afraid of death?  Do I believe because my job depends on it, or my self-worth?  And how do I justify belief in a loving God when faced with the enormity of suffering in the world?

            I struggle with these questions.  But I keep coming back to the question of alternatives.  What is the alternative to Easter?  Is it to believe that Pilate finally wins?  Do I prefer to believe that political and military power can crush someone, and that’s it?  Do I prefer to think that a gunman can walk into a school and kill children, and that’s it?  Would I rather believe that evil wins and there is nothing we can do about it?  Without Easter, “life is but a walking shadow”—to quote Shakespeare—“a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing”?  Is that what I prefer to believe?

            To be sure I have known many non-religious people who experience joy in life, who find a quiet satisfaction in relationships and who sometimes feel awe at the amazingness of life.  I think of Stephen Hawking, the physicist who recently died.  He spent his life exploring the universe, marveling at its intricacies.  Sometimes he believed in a Creator and sometimes he didn’t, but it did not stop him for treasuring life.  I know there are people like that, people who treasure life and value relationships without necessarily believing in God, let alone in Jesus.

            But for me, when I experience these things, I find welling up in me an emotion that can only be described as gratitude, and this gratitude comes not from feeling I have earned this life or won it in some cosmic lottery, but that I have received it as a gift of grace, and the experience of grace leads me to gratitude.  Do you see how those two things are connected?  The experience of grace leads me to gratitude, and gratitude seeks Someone to thank.  It seeks a Giver.  It leads me to God, and then to Easter, to the belief that God will not let this precious world and its people finally be destroyed by evil or idiocy.

            So even when I have doubts, I continue to believe.  I believe because I would rather serve Jesus than anyone else.  I believe because I would rather devote my life to sharing love than acquiring power.  I believe because I would rather seek Jesus and his righteousness than anything else this world has to offer.

            I believe even though I doubt, which is what it means to be a disciple.  Welcome to the life of blessed ambiguity.

Seating Assignment

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 20:20-28; Matthew 18:1-5

            I want to start by showing a short scene from a Star Wars movie—The Empire Strikes Back.  In this scene Luke Skywalker has traveled to the planet Dagobah to find a Jedi master named Yoda, whom he hopes will train him to be a Jedi.  He meets this little wrinkled figure but does not realize he is Yoda until this moment in the movie.  Here is a short scene from The Empire Strikes Back: Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIgud62CjFI.

            When Luke asks to become a Jedi, he has no idea what he is asking, no inkling of what that will mean for his life.  And the same is true, I think, for the mother James and John in our scripture reading.  She comes to Jesus and asks, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

            She does not know what she is asking.  Do you remember who later in the gospel ends up next to Jesus, one at his right hand and one at his left?  The thieves on the cross!  I doubt that is what Mrs. Zebedee had in mind.

            This irony is not lost on Jesus.  He turns to James and John and says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”  He is referring, of course, to his coming death on the cross.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”  When Jesus asks James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink,” he means, “Are you ready to go with me to the cross?”

            James and John are like Luke Skywalker.  They say to Jesus, “We are able. We can do it!  We’re not afraid!”  At which point I picture Jesus saying, “You will be.  You will be.”

            And of course they were.  When Jesus was arrested, all the disciples fled, including James and John.

            There is a pattern in Matthew’s gospel.  Every time Jesus talks about his death, the disciples are thinking about triumph and glory.  We see this in the scripture I read three weeks ago from Matthew 16.

-          Verse 21 says, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering … and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

-          But Peter is thinking of triumph and glory—verse 22: “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you.’”

-          So Jesus has to straighten him out—him and all the disciples—verse 24: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

For Jesus the path to the resurrection, the path to Easter, necessarily goes through the valley of service and sacrifice.

            Jesus makes this point again in our first scripture reading from Matthew 18.

-          Back in Matthew 17:22-23 Jesus says, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.”

-          So what happens next?  Matthew 18:1—“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “’Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’”  In essence they are asking, “Who gets to sit at your right and left hand in your kingdom?”  Who gets the top cabinet posts?  Once again the disciples are thinking of triumph and glory.

-          So Jesus again has to set them straight. He calls a child and says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

 For Jesus the path to Easter necessarily goes through the valley of service and sacrifice.

            But the disciples still haven’t learned.  So in Matthew 20 Jesus says to them,

-          Verses 18-19: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”  Notice that each time Jesus speaks of his death, he gets more detailed and more explicit.

-          But the disciples still don’t get it. The mother of James and John says to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

-          And once again Jesus must set them straight. Verses 26-27: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.”

The path to Easter necessarily goes through the valley of service and sacrifice. [Slide 5: Blank]

            I wish I could say it is different than that.  I wish I could promise that following Jesus would make all your problems go away, that following Jesus would fulfill all your hopes for your life, instead of throwing them into disarray.  But that is not the story of the Bible.  The Bible does promise resurrection.  All three times when Jesus predicts his suffering he also promises his resurrection.  We are promised that the life God wants for us will ultimately prevail.  But this does not bypass the struggles we are likely to encounter along the way.

            I mentioned once before in a sermon the book Come Be My Light, a collection of private letters written by Mother Teresa.  Early in the book she writes a letter to her archbishop explaining why she wants to leave her convent, to work among the poor in the streets of Calcutta.  She writes,

By nature I am sensitive, love beautiful and nice things, comfort and all the comfort can give—to be loved and love—I know that the life of a Missionary of Charity—will be minus all these.  The complete poverty, the Indian life, the life of the poorest will mean a hard toil against my great self love.  Yet, Your Grace, I am longing with a true, sincere heart to begin to lead this kind of life…. (p. 66).

            She reminds me of Luke Skywalker telling Yoda he is not afraid, or of James and John telling Jesus, “Yes, we are able to drink your cup.”

            And there is no doubt that Mother Teresa was made of tough stuff spiritually.  She went to Calcutta and for decades did a remarkable work among the poor and ill on the streets, a work that spread to other cities across the globe.

            But it was not without anguish.  The anguish Mother Theresa experienced during her ministry among the poor of Calcutta was not what she had expected.  It did not come from living in poverty or dealing every day with terminally ill patients.  Instead she suffered a spiritual crisis, a deep and unexpected loss of Jesus’ presence in her life.  Her anguish was palpable.   Years later she confides to her archbishop,

There is so much contradiction in my soul.—Such deep longing for God—so deep that it is painful—a suffering continual—and yet not wanted by God—repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal. … Heaven means nothing—to me it looks like an empty place—the thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God.—Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything (pp. 169-170).

            I am confident that at the resurrection Mother Teresa will experience what she longed for: that God will be with her and wipe every tear from her eyes.  I am confident that God’s work in our lives will triumph in the end.  But, friends, if even Mother Teresa experienced anguish on her journey of following Jesus, I hardly think we should expect ourselves to be exempt.

            Toward the end of the book is this letter written by Mother Teresa in 1961:

Yet deep down somewhere in my heart that longing for God keeps breaking through the darkness.  When outside in the work [meaning her work of helping the poor] or meeting people [sharing faith in community with others] there is a presence of somebody living very close to me.  I don’t know what this is, but very often, even every day, that love in me for God grows more real. (p. 211).

            What helped Mother Teresa make it through her dark night of the soul?  The fact that she kept going, that she kept serving Jesus in a community of Christians who prayed with her and for her, and that she kept praying herself, despite the times when she wondered if anyone was listening.

            Following Jesus is not a promise that life will be easy; it is a promise that you will have help along the way, and that your life, like the life of Mother Teresa, like the lives of James and John, will in the end become a blessing in ways you may not have imagined.

Confronting and Forgiving

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 18:15-22; Matthew 18:6-14

            William Willimon, a former professor of ministry at Duke University, tells this story about one of his classes on worship leadership.  He writes,

I remember I was lecturing on “effective liturgical leadership.” … A hand went up.  “Doc,” said a large pastor from the hills of West Virginia, “I had something happen the Sunday before I came down here.  Don’t know if I handled it right or not.  I was at the prayer time and so I asked the church, ‘Do you have any special prayer needs?’  A woman raised her hand and said, ‘Yeah, I got one.  I want you to pray that Mary Jones will stop leading my husband into adultery.’  With that, Mary Jones jumped up screaming, ‘You, b***!’ and the two of them locked in a fight, pulling and jerking each other all over the church.  Their husbands got into it too, one ramming the head of the other into the backside of the pew.”

I froze at the lectern, mouth gaping.  What got me more than the story was the class’s reaction.  All of the other students sat passively, some nodding in silent agreement as if to say, “Yep, that same thing happened at my church just last week.”

“So,” he continued, “I came down out of the pulpit, pulled the two women apart, and said, ‘Stop it!  Sit yourselves back down.  Now I’m gonna ask one more time.  Are there any prayer requests?  And I’m gonna see if you can do it right this time.  And if you people don’t settle down and act like Christians, I’m gonna bust some heads.’  … They knew I could bust heads if I needed to.  I was in the marines before the Lord called me to seminary, also did a little pro wrestlin’.  They quieted down and we went on with the service.  Now, Doc, my question is, was this what you would call ‘good liturgical leadership’?” (Christian Century, Feb. 13-20, 2002: 18).

            I wonder how Beaver would handle that.  I have never had a situation like that in any of my churches, but I’ve seen some tense situations between church members—some real problems in church relationships—and that is what Jesus is talking about here in this scripture.

            What I find particularly interesting in this teaching of Jesus is the relationship between confronting and forgiving, between judging and reconciling.  Notice all the verses that emphasize confronting: [Slide 1]

-          [Click 1] Matthew 18:6—“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

I would say that’s fairly judgmental.

-          [Click 2] Matthew 18:8—“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.”

That, too seems a little harsh, though in this context Jesus is probably talking about the church body, not your own body.  He is saying that for the sake and health of the church, it may be necessary under certain circumstances to lose one of your members.  Which is exactly what he says in verse 17:

-          [Click 3] Matthew 18:17—“And if the offender refuses to listen to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

            These are all confrontational verses.  They are telling the pastor to come down out of the pulpit, get into the middle of the fight, and tell people to stop it.  Maybe even bust some heads.

            But then, in the same scripture, Jesus talks about forgiving: [Slide 2]

-          [Click 1] Matthew 18:14—“So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

-          [Click 2] Matthew 18:21-22—“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

            The key to this whole chapter is that statement in verse 14: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”  The phrase “little ones” certainly refers to children, but it also includes anyone vulnerable to being hurt, which probably includes all of us.  God wants for all of us a new relationship to God and a new relationship to each other in God’s family.  That is why Jesus came.  But if we don’t start learning to do that here and now, if we don’t begin learning here and now how to have a good relationship to God and good relationships with each other, then eternity is going to seem … well … like an eternity! [Slide 3: Blank]

            So here is the deal: in order that none of these “little ones” in God’s family be lost, there are times we must confront people.

            I have never been involved in kicking a church member out of a church; nor have I have I ever had to come down out of the pulpit and separate people who were fighting in the pews; which is good since I am not a former pro wrestler.  But twice I have been on a Presbytery commission which kicked a minister out of the ministry.  Both cases involved sexual misconduct.  In both cases we heard from witnesses who testified about what happened, and when we confronted the minister about it, we didn’t just send him to another church, we told him he had to leave the ministry, at least for an extended period of time, and get serious counseling.

            I am proud the Presbyterian Church did that at a time when some churches, some professions, and even some politicians were sweeping that kind of conduct under the rug.  Jesus knew how destructive some sins could be to the life and witness of the church, what a stumbling block to faith they could create for “little ones” in the church, or for anyone.  So he insisted that we confront such people.

            But he also talked about forgiveness, which is where it sometimes gets confusing.  He talks about a shepherd who goes looking for a lost sheep and rejoices when it is brought back.  And immediately after that, he tells about a church member who confronts another church member about wrongdoing and rejoices when the other church member is “regained.”

            In one of the previous churches I served, we had a young man who had just joined our church along with his wife and who volunteered to work with our church youth group.  So we did a background check on him, as we do with everyone working with children or youth in our church here.  And we discovered that he had a record of multiple arrests for driving under the influence.  So we went and talked to him about that and to his wife.  We talked about the kind of treatment he was getting and the AA meetings he was attending.  And we connected him with some people in our church who would meet with him and pray with him.  But we still had to decide what to do about his volunteering with the youth group.  We finally decided that since he had no record or any known incidents of abuse or misconduct with children, youth, or adults, except the drunken driving convictions, he could be a helper with the youth group as long as other adults were there (which we always require anyway) but he could not under any circumstances be a driver.  And that worked.  He became an appreciated part of our church community, and the little ones were protected.

            Confronting and forgiving—it is always a tricky balance, whether for individuals dealing with domestic violence or churches dealing with clergy misconduct.  It is always a tricky balance.  But here is the good news: if we meet together to discuss how to handle confronting and forgiving, and if we pray together for God’s guidance in how to handle it, we will get it.  God will help us.  That’s Jesus’ promise in verse 19: [Slide 4] “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”  Whatever else that verse means, in this context it means that when we meet together and pray about when to confront and when to forgive, when we meet together and pray about how to confront and how to forgive, God will be there and help us figure it out.

Jesus and Taxes

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 17:24-27; Exodus 30:11-16

            As I said the in eNews this week, I have never before preached on this scripture passage.  It is a weird story, which probably explains why no other gospel reports it, only Matthew.  But apparently Matthew thought it was important, so we need to figure out why.  And that’s what I want to do in this sermon.  This morning’s sermon will be mostly a Bible study, a complicated Bible study.  We will get to the point at the end, but to get there we need to do some work.

            Okay, first notice that this story is not about a Roman tax but a temple tax.  [Slide 1] Matthew 17:24: “… the collectors of the temple tax [Greek: didrachma] came to Peter and said, “Does not your teacher pay the temple tax [didrachma]?”  The temple tax was a Jewish tax assessed for the upkeep of the temple.  Its origins go back to our first scripture reading in Exodus 30. [Slide 2] After the people of Israel escape from slavery in Egypt, the Lord says to Moses, [Click 1]

            When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom of their lives to the Lord (v. 12).

            Basically God is telling Moses, “When you count of the Israelites to see how many escaped from the plagues in Egypt—when you count all those people, each of them shall make an offering to the Lord which symbolizes the ransom they owe God for saving them.”

[Click 2] This is what each one who is registered shall give: half a shekel [didrachma] according to the shekel of the sanctuary, … half a shekel [didrachma] as an offering to the Lord (v. 13).

            As you can see the same Greek word is used in both scriptures.  That’s how we know Matthew 17 is talking about the same offering described in Exodus 30.  It is not something owed to the IRS; it is something owed to God.  The Lord continues,

[Slide 3] The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you bring this offering to the Lord to make atonement for your lives. You shall take the atonement money from the Israelites and shall designate it for the service of the tent of meeting; before the Lord it will be a reminder to the Israelites of the ransom given for your lives (vs. 15-16).

            This is the “temple tax” which Jesus and his disciples are asked to pay at the beginning of our second scripture reading.  It represents the ransom we owe to God for saving us and setting us free.

            Now let’s look at Jesus’ response in Matthew 17.  [Slide 4]  Jesus says to Peter,

[Click 1] “What do you think, Simon?  From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute?  From their children or from others?”  When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free” (v. 25).

            Here it sounds like Jesus is talking about a Roman tax, a tax that one might owe to the civil authority.  But remember, the issue is the temple tax—the money the Israelites were supposed to pay God as a ransom for their freedom.  So what does Jesus mean when he says, “Then the children are free”?

            He is talking about the children of God for whom he will pay the ransom on the cross.  Later in Matthew 20 Jesus says to the disciples,

[Click 2] “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

            On the cross Jesus will pay the ransom for our freedom.  That’s why Peter and the disciples, as children of God, should be free of the temple tax.  Because of Jesus, we are no longer saved by our offerings.  You don’t have to pay God for your freedom from sin and death; Jesus has paid the ransom for you, which is to say that Jesus has replaced the temple tax with himself.

            But then Jesus says, [Slide 5]

“However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me” (v. 27).

            So what is going on here?  Jesus has just told Peter, “You don’t have to give an offering to pay for your freedom.  I have already paid for it.  You are children of my kingdom, and the children should not be assessed taxes; the children are free.”

            But now Jesus says to Peter, “Let’s pay the tax anyway; give the offering anyway.”  Why?  So as not to create an offense or stumbling block to others.  In other words, Jesus says, “Let’s give the offering anyway.  Let’s do it to show our support for the community.  Let’s give it to help God be worshiped and the poor to be cared for.  Let’s give it so that people will know my followers care about this world and its people.”

            And here we are getting to the point. [Slide 6: Blank]  The temple tax is like our offering.  It is not what we give to the IRS; it is what we give to God.

            The truth is you don’t have to give anything to be God’s children.  You already are.  Jesus has ransomed you.  Jesus has paid the price.  You could not afford it anyway.  You don’t have enough money to put in the offering plate to buy your forgiveness or to ransom your soul.  Only Jesus can do that.

            So why give?  To do good in the lives of others.  To help God be worshiped and the poor cared for.  To show the world that Jesus’ followers care about this world and the people in it.

            Ah, but what about the business of the coin in the mouth of the fish?  This is too weird to be anything but symbolic.  So what does it symbolize?  Peter, remember, is a fisherman.  So why does Jesus send him fishing in order to get money to pay their temple tax?  Because that is how Peter earns his living.  So the coin in the mouth of the fish is a way for Jesus to say to Peter, “Do your job, and I will help you have enough to give for an offering to God.”  That’s what the odd little ending symbolizes: Do your job, use your skills and abilities, and God will give you enough for an offering to God.

            In this case it was barely enough.  That coin Peter found in the mouth of the fish is called a “stater.”  It is worth exactly a shekel, meaning it is exactly the amount needed for two half-shekel offerings—one for Peter and one for Jesus.

            This is not some prosperity teaching.  This is not a promise that God will make you rich.  This is a promise that if we diligently try to serve God in whatever ways we can, God will give us enough so that we can be a blessing to others.

            We have seen this over and over at Southminster.  Every year when we adopt our budget, we commit to give 15% to mission outside ourselves through our Witness in Action commission.  Sometimes we do that not knowing where that money will come from.  Every year I have been here we have adopted a deficit budget, which meant we did not know where all the money would come from, and yet we promised to give 15% of our income to needs and people and ministries outside our church.  And somehow God supplied us.  Every year.  It’s like we find a gold coin in the hatch of an airplane, or something.  Somehow God supplies us.

            That’s the good news in this scripture.  We don’t give to earn our place in God’s kingdom.  We don’t have to pay a tax to be part of God’s family.  Jesus has already paid it for us.  We give to share God’s kingdom and God’s family with others.

 

Confessing More than We Understand

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 16:13-23, Luke 18:31-34

            Some of you may recall a short film I showed three years ago during our first SPC Together.  It was called “What Do You Think?”  It featured interviews with children answering questions about certain religious concepts.  A 5 year-old boy named Mark is asked, “What is prayer?”  Immediately he clasps his hands together and says, “God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food.  Amen.”  Mark could not explain prayer, but he could say one.  Later in the film a 4 year-old girl named Rebecca is asked, “What is a Christian?”  She replies, “I know a boy named Christian.”  Again, she has heard the word, but she does not fully understand what it means.  My favorite scene in the movie is when little Rebecca is asked to describe God.  She says, “Jesus is God.”  Which is a profound answer.  But the interviewer presses her asking, “So how is Jesus different than God?”  Rebecca hesitates then says, “Jesus has birthdays, and God doesn’t.”

            Little Rebecca has no idea how profound that answer is.  What she knows is that every year she and her family celebrate Jesus’ birthday at Christmas, but they never celebrate God’s birthday.  So she knows that Jesus has birthdays, and God doesn’t.

            That is how children experience faith.  Before they learn who Jesus is, they celebrate his birthday.  Before they know what prayer is, they learn to say one.  Before they know what a Christian is, they experience what it means to be around people who are Christian. 

            But here’s the thing: the same principle applies to adults.  Adults, too, must sometimes learn the vocabulary of faith before they understand, let alone experience, what it fully means.

            In today’s story from Matthew, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  That is not a bad answer.  It would probably get him approved for ordination by the Presbytery.

            Jesus certainly approves.  He says to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”  Then Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter [which in Greek means ‘rock’], and on this rock I will build my church.”

            I don’t think Jesus means that the church is built on Peter.  We will see in a moment that Peter is not infallible.  The church is not built on Peter but on Peter’s confession of faith.  The church is built on the bedrock confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

            The thing is, Peter has no idea what that means.  He demonstrates this when Jesus goes on to talk about his coming death.  Peter takes him aside and says to Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord.  This must never happen to you.”  The Messiah, as Peter understands it, is not someone who dies at the hands of the Romans but someone who defeats the Romans, someone who uses his power to liberate people and bring justice to the world.

            As we heard in our first scripture reading, none of the disciples understood what Jesus was talking about.  The all believed him to be the Messiah; that’s why they followed him.  But the idea that the Messiah might save people by dying for them; that was totally beyond them.

            Here, I think, is the lesson for us.  Being a Christian means confessing more than we understand.  It means learning the vocabulary of faith—like that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, or that Jesus is God with birthdays—before we fully understand or experience what it means.

            In her book Amazing Grace Kathleen Norris tells of a conversation between a seminary student at Yale Divinity School and one of his professors, an Orthodox priest.  She writes,

The student’s original question was centered on belief: “What can one do,” he asked, “when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the Creed?”  The priest responded, “Well, you just say it.  It’s not that hard to master.  With a little effort, most can learn it by heart.” …

The student, apparently feeling that he had been misunderstood, asked with some exasperation, “What am I to do… when I have difficulty affirming parts of the Creed—like the Virgin Birth?”  And he got the same response.  “You just say it.  Particularly when you have difficulty believing it.  You just keep saying it.  It will come to you eventually.  … For some it takes longer than others” (p. 65).

            Even as adults we must practice the vocabulary of faith before we fully understand what it means or begin to experience it.  It’s kind of like marriage.  When a couple stands in front of a minister or justice of the peace and says, “I take you to be my wife or husband, to have and to hold from this time forth, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in health and in sickness, to love and to cherish until death us do part”—when a couple makes that commitment to each other, do they have any idea what they are saying?  Of course not.  None of us do.  We only understand that commitment when we make it and live it out.  Only then do we experience the meaning of the words we say.

            Eugene Peterson, a retired Presbyterian minister who did the well-known Bible translation called The Message, tells of an encounter he had with a recovering addict named Jackson.  Jackson had been a star athlete in high school but had developed a cocaine addiction while serving in Vietnam.  He had recently come back to town after spending five years at the federal prison in Leavenworth for trafficking drugs.  He was still serving another six months of probation in the local jail during which he could leave to work during the week but had to spend the weekends in his jail cell.  A friend of Jackson’s named Donna brought him to Eugene Peterson to talk.  This is from Peterson’s book The Pastor: A Memoir:

            At their first meeting Jackson told Peterson of an experience he had had three days earlier on a Sunday evening in his jail cell.  He said,

In the middle of the night I woke up, and my cell was full of light—a kind of pulsating light.  It lasted maybe five minutes, it seemed like a long time.  And then it was dark again.  I was still in my bunk wondering what had happened, and then it came to me: ‘I think I’m a Christian.’  But I have no idea what that means.  I don’t know any Christians.  Donna thought you might be someone I could talk to.

He reassured Peterson that this was not a drug induced hallucination.  He said, “I haven’t used cocaine for over five years” (p. 260).

            So Peterson and Jackson began meeting every week for lunch to talk about faith, Jesus, prayer, and what it meant to be a Christian.  After about six weeks of these meetings, Jackson said, “Don’t Christians pray before they eat?”  Peterson said well, yes, but he did not want to make Jackson feel uncomfortable in a restaurant.  Jackson, “If this is what Christians do, we better do it.”  So they started praying before meals.  One week Peterson asked Jackson to say the prayer.  At first he looked startled, but then he bowed his head and prayed.  It was a long prayer, an uncomfortably long prayer in a restaurant.  Then a few weeks later Jackson came with a set of pamphlets about Christianity he had gotten at the jail.  He said, “What’s a tith-ee?”  “A tith-ee?” Peterson asked.  “Yeah, a tith-ee.”  Oh, Peterson said, you mean tithe, and he explained that a tithe was the practice of giving 10% of your income to the church.  Jackson said, “And Christians do this?”  Peterson explained that not every did it, but some Christians used it as a guideline.  Jackson said, “Now that I’m a Christian, I think I better do it.  Since I’m in jail on Sundays, how about it I give my offering to you every week?” (p. 261).

            And so it went.  Week after week Peterson and Jackson met to talk about the life of believing and following Jesus.  When his six months of probation was up, Jackson started coming to church, then he started inviting others that he met at AA to come with him to church.  And eventually Jackson and Donna decided to marry.  They of course asked Eugene Peterson to perform the ceremony, and at the wedding that had a song played that had been recorded by Emmylou Harris.  It was called “Farther Along,” and the chorus went like this:

            Farther along, we’ll know all about it,

            Farther along, we’ll understand why;

            Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine,

            We’ll understand it all by and by (p. 264).

            That, friends, is pretty much the story of being a Christian: confessing more than we understand and living in to it until finally we understand it all by and by.

Walking on Water

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 14:22-33; Matthew 8:23-27

            The question I have about this story is not whether Jesus could walk on water.  If Jesus can heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead, he can certainly walk on water.  The question I have is why.  Why would Jesus do something like this?  If Jesus needed to get across the lake, why didn’t he ask the disciples to wait for him and go with them in the boat, like he did all the other times they crossed the lake?  Or if Jesus really wanted time by himself, he could have sent the disciples ahead and later walked around the shore.  That is how the crowd got to where Jesus was in the prior story.  Matthew 14 says that Jesus and his disciples came to this deserted place on the lake by boat, but the crowd followed him around the shore and beat him there.

            All the other miracles that Jesus performs have a humanitarian purpose: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, bringing sight to the blind and comfort to the bereaved.  But this—walking on water—doesn’t that seem like showboating?  (Excuse the pun.)  It reminds of the temptation story when Satan tempted Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, just to show off.  If Jesus refused to do something like that earlier, why would he do it now?

            Clearly, this miracle has a different purpose than the other miracle stories.  In this case Jesus performs a miracle not to accomplish something but to teach something.  This story is an acted-out parable.

            Let’s review the situation.  Verse 22 says, “Immediately he (Jesus) made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.”  Once out on the lake, the disciples are hit with a storm that threatens to swamp their boat.  It is not the first time this has happened to the disciples.  In our first scripture reading we heard about an earlier episode when the disciples were out on the Sea of Galilee and a storm came up threatening to swamp their boat.  But in that case Jesus was with them in the boat.  They could wake him up and say, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!”  And Jesus could stand up in the boat and rebuke the wind, and it would stop.

            But this time, Jesus is not around.  This time the disciples are on their own, and they are in trouble.  What are they going to do?

            This is a relevant question to us here today.  We are, so to speak, in the same boat as the disciples.  Jesus has sent us off to be his witnesses in the world, while he has gone off to heaven.  We are on our own here, or so it feels.  Like the disciples, we must face the storm on our own.

            But then comes the miracle.  Jesus comes walking to them on the water.  Now again, let’s ask why Jesus does that?  After all, Jesus could have calmed the storm from the shore, couldn’t he?  Couldn’t Jesus have stood on the shore and rebuked the wind, just like he did before, and it would have stopped?  But this time Jesus comes walking to them on the water.  Why?

            Because this time, Jesus wants to show us something crucial.  By walking to the disciples on the water, Jesus shows that he can come to us wherever we are.  Nothing, not even storms, can separate us from his love.  Jesus can come to us wherever we are, and—here’s the crucial point—Jesus comes to us on the very waves that threaten to swamp us.  The very storm that seems so ominous can be the highway by which Jesus reaches us.

            William Barclay, a famous British Bible scholar, once preached a sermon on this passage on the BBC radio.  After the broadcast, a listener wrote in and asked, “Dr. Barclay, what do you believe really happened historically in that episode?”  Barclay responded, “I have tried to understand what happened historically.  I have tried to look at the text and its history, and I have many unanswered questions.  But this I know: when my young daughter died a tragic death, this Jesus came across the sea and stilled the troubled waters of my soul.”

            That’s what this story is about.  No distance, no barrier, no storm can stop Jesus from reaching you.  And in fact Jesus can reach you on the very storm, on the very waves that threaten to swamp you.  The very things that threaten to take you down can be the road on which Jesus comes into your life.

            Unfortunately, Peter did not seem to understand that.  To me, Peter seems kind of cheeky in this story: “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.”  Peter assumes that if Jesus can walk on water, so can he.  If Jesus never sinks from discouragement or fear, neither should we.  If Jesus is always on top of things, always self-confident and in control, then shouldn’t we be the same way?

            I have known Christians who thought that, who even preached that.  Positive thinking!  Victorious living!  If you have enough faith, you will claim all of God’s promises and never have a bad day in your life.  That’s what Peter thinking.  But he sinks.

            Friends, we are not Christians because we can walk on water.  We are Christians because Jesus can walk on water.  We are not Christians because we can brave any storm.  We are Christians because Jesus can come to us on the storm, reach out, grab us, and get us back in the boat.  And if you see the boat as the community of disciples, then getting us back in the boat is one of the ways Jesus rescues us and brings us to the promised shore.

            Some years ago there was a best-selling book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  It was written by Harold Kushner, a Jewish rabbi, whose young son Aaron died of a disease called progeria, or “rapid aging.”  Basically Aaron got old quickly, losing his hair, becoming shriveled and weak, and finally dying two days before his 14th birthday.

            Out of that experience, Rabbi Kushner learned that many of the things we say to people going through something like this are actually damaging: like “God meant it for good,” or “God will make you strong because of this,” or “God needed an angel, so he took Aaron home.”  Maybe that helps some people, but it did not help Rabbi Kushner.  In fact the whole experience made him question his belief in God, until he began to look at it in a different way.  He writes,

Where do you get the strength to go on, when you have used up all your own strength?  Where do you turn for patience when you have run out of patience, when you have been more patient for more years than anyone should be asked to be, and the end is nowhere in sight?  I believe that God gives us strength and patience and hope, renewing our spiritual resources when they run dry.  How else do sick people manage to find more strength and more good humor over the course of prolonged illness than any one person could possibly have, unless God was constantly replenishing their souls?  How else do widows find the courage to pick up the pieces of their lives and go out to face the world alone, when on the day of their husband’s funeral, they did not have that courage?  How else do parents of a retarded or brain-damaged youngster wake up every morning and turn again to their responsibilities, unless they are able to lean on God when they grow weak? … One of the things that constantly reassures me that God is real, and not just an idea that religious leaders made up, is the fact that people who pray for strength, hope, and courage so often find resources of strength, hope, and courage that they did not have before they prayed (pp. 127-128).

            The miracle is not that Christians can walk on water but that Jesus can walk on water, and that Jesus can reach us on the very storm that threaten to overwhelm us.

With the Mountain Behind Us

Peter’s Journal: With the Mountain Behind Us

Matthew 17:1-8

I’ve seen some things since we left our nets. How could we have known what it would mean to become fishers of people? I’ll tell you one thing—in these three years with Jesus I’ve picked up a lot more questions than answers.

It’s been a few days now since it happened. There’s a lot of time on dusty roads between places—lots of time to think, time to talk. John, James and I have found a few moments to consider what we saw, what we felt, and what we heard on that mountain. One thing we agree on—we’ve never experienced anything like it before. It was something right out of the Torah, the Scriptures.

It could have been any mountain, but Jesus picked that one and he took the three of us to the top. It was a thin space, a place where God came so near to us and we came so near to God. Of course, lots of places seem thin when Jesus is there with you. Something about him brings the divine presence close.

And that’s what happened. When we got to the top of the peak I was ready to sit down and take in the view, expecting a teaching or lesson. The world was stretched out beneath us, valleys and streams, cedars and scraggly olive trees scattered across the hills.

Suddenly Jesus changed. It took me a minute to notice, but once I did I was transfixed. He had changed! He was glowing. I don’t even know the right words to write. He became as the light! Divine light, God’s light was pouring from him. Like Moses when he descended the mountain. But for Jesus it was more than just his face. Through our squinting eyes we could see that even his clothes were flooded with light.

Then we made out two figures beside him. Jesus didn’t even have to say anything—somehow we all just knew they were Moses and Elijah. The three of them stood there, talking, their heavenly trio balanced by our earthly three. They were full of heaven’s light, and it radiated on us, bright in our eyes, illuminating our hearts. None of us even remember what they said to each other. We must’ve been in some state of shock.

I don’t know if Moses was there to represent the law and Elijah to represent the prophets or if they were both there because together they are among the greatest figures of our faith. We’ve seen some crazy things with Jesus, but standing there with Moses and Elijah was unbelievable. I mean it! I could barely believe my own eyes.  

John and James were fixed in place, full of reverence, not ready for action. But me? I was. I jumped into action, ready to build some shelters for the three of them, like we Jews always do during the Festival of Booths. It seemed right to me—I am the rock, after all!

But, before I could even start, a bright cloud swallowed us up, freezing us in place. Nothing we’d known in our lives had prepared us for this. Suddenly, human wisdom and insight fell short. The voice from the cloud could only have been the voice of God, but not the still, small voice that Elijah experienced. The voice… it was overpowering. It declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved!” and then it commanded us, saying, “Listen to him!” We were so afraid.

Just days earlier, Jesus had asked us, who did we believe he was? As usual, I was the first to speak up. I told him he was the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God… but here he was, not just some sort of metaphoric Son, but a human with the divine coursing through him! Son of God and God were very different, and yet here he was, glowing, conversing with Moses and Elijah, being praised by the Father.

In our terror all we could do was fall to our faces right there on the ground. Gone were my notions of shelter and safety. Gone was the safe distance I had always maintained from God. We laid there, motionless, gripped by fear like mice caught in the light of a lantern.

Then—I’ll never forget this in my whole life—he came to us. Jesus reached out his hand, he touched us, and told us to rise. Jesus who touched the lepers and the blind, who eats with tax collectors, who called common fishers to be his disciples, this same Jesus reached down where we lay, placed his hands upon us and bid us to rise. “Be raised,” he said, “and be not afraid.”

The human hands of our divine Lord were extended to us. He’s not just another great rabbi, or prophet, not just a fine example of how to live our lives, but this is Emmanuel, God with us. All the light of creation, the very presence of God, folded into the compassionate hands of Jesus.

But now, with the mountain behind us, we’ve passed from glory back into the mundane, and I find a different kind of fear worming its way into my heart. Jesus keeps talking about dying, and being raised. We’re headed back to Jerusalem, and I know they’re plotting to kill him. It almost sounds like Jesus is convinced it has to happen. I don’t get it. Is he the exalted Son of God, or a suffering Son of Man? The same voice that claimed him also told us to listen to him, and so we will.

James, John and I experienced a divine mystery on that mountain, something beyond words, and I guess in Jesus we have a different kind of divine mystery, equally beyond words—the Son of God, the light of the world, walking our dusty roads with danger ahead. I find my own courage in Jesus, and I will always remember him reaching out, touching me, and saying, “Rise and fear not.

--

Friends, this Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, and over these forty days, we will journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem.

Later in life, Peter did have more to say about that day on the mountain. In 2 Peter 1:16-19, he says:

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
19 So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

Job Opening

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 10:5-23

Cast:  Interviewer, Applicant

[The Applicant knocks]

Interviewer:  Come in.

Applicant:  Hello.  I'm here in response to your ad on Craig’s list.  It says, "Job Opening: Field representative for a multinational concern.  No previous experience necessary."  Are you still looking for someone?

Interviewer:  Oh yes.  We are always looking for people.

Applicant (sitting down by the desk):  Good.  I would like to give it a try.  What's your product line?

Interviewer:  Let's just say we deal in securities and long-term investments.

Applicant:  Stock and bonds, huh?  Well, I don't have a lot of experience in that area, but I'm quick to learn.  What are the educational requirements?

Interviewer:  We provide on-the-job training.

Applicant:  Oh.  Well, what other qualifications are you looking for?  Must I take some kind of test?

Interviewer:  Oh you will be tested, all right, but not by us.  We ask only that you be gifted.

Applicant:  Gifted?  You mean like a talented athlete or musician?  Sorry, I am neither.

Interviewer:  Has your heart ever gone out to someone having a rough time?  Have you ever wanted to do something for someone without expecting anything in return?  Have you ever been so excited about something you couldn't wait to tell people?

Applicant:  Yes, I guess so.

Interviewer:  Then you are gifted.

Applicant:  Well, what exactly am I supposed to do?

Interviewer [standing]:  Not much really.  Heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead--a few things like that.

Applicant:  You're kidding, right?  Raise the dead?  Cast out demons?!  I can't even get rid of my warts.

Interviewer:  Actually, the Owner does the healing and raising from the dead.  You are just the Owner's representative.

Applicant:  What exactly do I represent?

Interviewer:  You represent hope, fulfillment, new and everlasting life.  You are a demonstration model for the power that can transform humanity into a new creation.

Applicant:  Me?  I'm not a new creation.  I'm the same old person I have always been.

Interviewer (chuckling):  You won't be if you take this job.

Applicant:  Why?  What's going to happen to me?

Interviewer:  You are about to become part of the biggest enterprise the world has ever seen--bigger than the pyramids, bigger than the invasion of Normandy, bigger than landing a human being on the moon.  We're after nothing less than the transformation of the world, and we want you to be part of it. [Sits]

Applicant:  You sound like an army recruiter.  Is that what this is?  Defend your country and see the world?

Interviewer:  Not exactly.  For one thing you won't be carrying any weapons, and for another you will be sent first to your own home and community.

Applicant [Stands]:  Well that's no fun.  I was hoping for a little travel.  Why don't you open a branch office in some place like Belize or Tahiti?  Surely they need field reps, too.

Interviewer:  Of course they do.  But that's not where you will be sent.  If you are going to represent new life, the Owner wants you to start by representing it to the people you already know.

Applicant:  What do I tell them?

Interviewer:  Don't worry about what to say.  The Owner will give you instructions when the time comes.

Applicant:  But can't you give me some idea of what I am supposed to say.

Interviewer:  Basically your message is that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Applicant:  The Kingdom of heaven?!  You’ve got to be kidding.  You want me to be a salesman for heaven?  You don't just sell heaven like a used car.  Besides, people aren't interested in heaven any more.  People want to know what will make their lives better here and now, not in some "pie-in-the-sky" future.

Interviewer [Standing]:  That's just the point.  The Kingdom of heaven is at hand!  It is beginning right now, like a seed growing in the ground or some yeast causing bread dough to rise.  Right now the Kingdom is visible only in glimpses here and there--in the healing of a body, the reconciliation of a relationship, in the unexpected courage to go on through difficult circumstances.  All these are signs of heaven's power already at work in our lives, preparing for the day when the Owner's Kingdom will come and the Owner's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Your job is to help people see what is going on.

Applicant:  And what if they don't want to see it?  What if they want no part of it?

Interviewer (thoughtfully):  Unfortunately that is a distinct possibility.  The Owner never forces things on people, even if it is for their own good.  Some people just don't want to pay the price.

Applicant:  What is the price?

Interviewer:  Actually nothing.  The new life we offer was paid for long ago by the Owner.   We give it as a free gift.  Unfortunately, for many people it is still too expensive.

Applicant:  How can something be too expensive if it is free?

Interviewer:  Because of the price one must pay for accepting it.  It's like the gift of a pet.  The pet is free, but accepting it involves responsibility: feeding it, caring for it, cleaning up after it.  The same is true of the new life offered by the Owner.  It's free; but accepting it has certain consequences.  It means giving up your old self.  It means giving up your pride, your independence, your self-centeredness, your control over other people.  Not everyone is willing to pay such a price, even for something as good as eternal life.

Applicant:  So what do I do if they aren't interested?  What if I give them my pitch and they slam the door?

Interviewer (shrugging):  Then brush off your shoes and go to the next door.  If one person rejects you, try another and another.

Applicant [Sitting]:  I don't know.  I don't take rejection very well.

Interviewer (laughing):  Don't worry.  That will be the least of your problems.  Not only will people reject you, they will attack you.  Some people not only refuse the Owner's gifts, they beat, jail, and execute those who offer them.

Applicant:  Great.  I hope you provide workman's compensation.

Interviewer:  He who would save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for the Owner will find it.  [Sits]

Applicant:  Yes, well maybe this is a good time to talk about salary.  I assume you offer compensation for the risks in this job.

Interviewer:  More than you ever dreamed.

Applicant:  Good.  Then let's get down to specifics.  I'd like a base salary in seven figures.  Surely this job is at least as important as a football player.

Interviewer:  Sorry, we can't do that.

Applicant:  So your resources are a little thin, eh?  Okay, I'll settle for six figures with bonuses and good benefits.

Interviewer:  Sorry.

Applicant:  You can't be offering a salary in five figures.  What do you think this is?  McDonald's?

Interviewer:  There is no salary.

Applicant:  No salary!  Oh, I get it.  I'm on commission.  Okay, what's my percentage?

Interviewer:  Your percentage can be as high as you want, but as you know we don't charge anything for our product.

Applicant:  Oh yeah.  Well, what am I supposed to live on?  My expense account?

Interviewer:  The Owner has many ways of supporting people.  A few of our representatives work full-time.  They are supported by the people they serve.  But most of our representatives have other jobs.  They work in homes, offices, businesses, schools, hospitals, factories, stores--you name it.  But wherever they work they are really our agents, infiltrating their environment with the Good News of new life.

Applicant:  You sound less like a business and more like the CIA.

Interviewer [Standing]:  You might say that.  We are certainly concerned about intelligence, but we are not very good at keeping secrets.  Our job is to let out the secret, to let people know that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.  But to do that you must have intelligence.  The message has to be tailored to each person's situation.  Some people need to be confronted; others need to be left alone.  Some are looking for intellectual explanations; some for emotional support.  Some need to have their pride and self-confidence shaken; others need a renewed sense of confidence and hope.  There is no one way to represent the Owner to all people.  Each person's needs must be figured out before the Owner's gifts can be shared.  That's what makes it fun.

Applicant:  I'm sure it's a riot.  [Pausing and standing]  Okay, let’s see if I’ve got this straight.  You want me to offer a free product to people who don't want it or are violently opposed to it.  You want me to offer this product first to the people who already know me and are most likely to think I'm nuts.  In return I will receive no salary, no commission, no benefits, not even a health club membership--nothing at all except rejection, frustration, and the remote possibility that one day I can say, "I told you so."  Is that what you are offering?

Interviewer [Sitting]:  I guess that is one way of putting it.

Applicant:  Why am I even listening to this?

Interviewer:  I don't know.  Why are you?

Applicant:  Maybe because it is just crazy enough to make sense.  A lot of things in the world are crazy.  The whole world is crazy.  Maybe this job is crazy enough to be sane.

Interviewer:  Then you will take it.

Applicant (pause):  Oh, why not?  It can’t be any worse than the cost-benefit ratio of having children.

Interviewer [Standing]:  You won't regret it.  This job will take everything you have to offer, and give you more than you put in.  Nothing you do for it will ever be forgotten or wasted.

Applicant:  You think so, huh?  Well, there is one way to find out. [Shakes hands with the interviewer]

Touching and Healing

 

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 8:1-13, James 5:13-16

            Even though both stories I just read are healing stories, there are two striking differences between them, and the differences tell us a lot about how Jesus works.

            Difference #1:  In the first case the person with leprosy asks healing for himself, and in the second case the centurion asks healing for someone else.  This is significant because in the first case the leper was healed because of his own faith, but in the second case the servant was healed because of the centurion’s faith.

            There is a story in the next chapter, Matthew chapter 9, of a paralyzed man brought to Jesus on a stretcher.  Matthew 9:2 says, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.’”  The paralyzed man never says a word.  But when Jesus saw their faith—meaning the faith of his friends, Jesus gave the man both forgiveness and healing.  In the same way Jesus gives the centurion healing for his servant, not because of the servant’s faith—we know nothing about the servant—but because the centurion’s faith.

            I hope this gives you encouragement, because a lot of people in this room have prayed for loved ones who may not have been interested in praying for themselves.  I think of all of you who have asked us to pray for family members battling addiction or making bad decisions.  The family member may not have been praying about these things.  The family member may not even acknowledge their need help.  But we prayed for them, because Jesus does not always need the faith of the people we are praying for to do something.  Sometimes Jesus can do amazing things because of our faith.

            That’s why in our first scripture reading James says, “Are any among you sick?  They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”  Sometimes the community of faith can hold us up in prayer, when we have neither the will nor the wherewithal to pray for ourselves.

            And that brings me to Difference #2: In the case of the person with leprosy Jesus physically touches him, but in the case of the centurion’s servant he does not need to.

            Jesus demonstrates both kinds of healing on numerous occasions.  In Matthew chapter 9 he goes to the home of a synagogue official to heal his sick daughter.  He does not heal her long distance; he goes to her home, takes her by the hand, and the girl, whom everyone thought was dead, gets up.

            But then in Matthew chapter 15 a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus asking healing for her daughter, and Jesus says to her, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish,” and the daughter is healed, like the centurion’s servant, without Jesus taking a single step toward her house.

            One time I was scrolling through the channels on television, and I landed on a Christian channel showing an evangelist with slicked-back hair conducting a healing service in a large auditorium.  People from all over the auditorium were streaming down the aisles.  When they got to the stage the minister would sweep his arms at them and say something I could not understand, and suddenly they would all fall down like bowling pins, each row collapsing on the ones behind them.  How this healed people, I could not figure out, but all over the auditorium people were raising their hands and singing and crying for joy as the ushers began collecting their money.

            I could tell they weren’t Presbyterians.  Presbyterians have always been a little suspicious of that kind of thing.  The emotionalism, the extravagance, and the almost magical reliance on certain words and rituals, not to mention in some cases outright fraud—all these things have made Presbyterians cautious and reluctant to use any kind of rituals for healing, even anointing with oil, fearing that it might take our eyes off of Jesus, causing us to put our trust in magic rituals instead of Jesus’ promise.

             It is clear from the example of the centurion and the Canaanite woman, that Jesus does not need anointing with oil, let alone a slick televangelist, to heal people.  We are healed by faith in Jesus’ promise.  Even when James talks about anointing with oil, he says, “The prayer of faith will save the sick.”  It is not our ritual but our faith in Jesus’ word that saves us.

            And yet in some cases Jesus actually touches people to heal them.  Why?  It is not necessary for Jesus to touch people in order to heal them, so why does he do it?

            There is an interesting pattern in this.  The people Jesus actually touches in the gospel of Matthew are often people who would have been considered unclean, ritually defiled, not allowed to be touched by other people.  Who is the first person Jesus touches in the gospel of Matthew?  A person with leprosy!  That’s about as unclean as you can get.  People avoided lepers like the plague, because they thought it was a plague.  But not Jesus.

            Likewise Jesus touched the girl whom everyone thought had died, because dead people were unclean.  You were defiled when you touched a dead body.  But not Jesus.  In both case Jesus touches the leper and the supposedly dead girl as a sign that Jesus makes people clean.  In other words, Jesus came not only to heal our bodies but to make us holy.

            That’s why James talks about anointing people with oil.  The practice of anointing with oil actually goes back to the Old Testament.  In Exodus chapter 30 God tells Moses to make a sacred anointing oil and anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant and all the furnishings of the tabernacle.  Then God says, “You shall consecrate them so they may be most holy.”

           The practice of anointing with oil is not some mysterious ritual or potion by which God heals people.  It is a statement about our holiness to God.  It is just like Jesus touching the man with leprosy or the girl presumed dead.  When Jesus touches people, they are not only healed, they are made holy.  And when we anoint people with oil, we are not doing this just to heal their bodies; we are doing it as a sign that God has consecrated this person, made this person a holy vessel for God’s love, just as Jesus did when he touched people who were considered untouchable.

           So that is why we are having a service of healing and anointing with oil.  There is no magic in the oil, even less in the people applying it to your forehead.  We are doing symbolically what Moses did: consecrating imperfect human vessels, making them holy.  Anointing with oil is nothing more and nothing less than a gesture of faith, but God uses it as a sign of God’s power to make us holy, not just to heal us or the people we pray for, but to make us instruments of God’s love in ways we may not have yet imagined.

 

A New Definition of Blessed

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 5:1-12; Isaiah 61:1-4

            To show the strangeness of Jesus’ beatitudes, I want to take the first four and compare them to their opposite [Slide 1].  Sometimes the best way to understand what Jesus calls blessed is to imagine the reverse.  Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” [Click 1] The Greek word Jesus uses means not just economically disadvantaged but utterly destitute.  It’s the Greek word for beggars, people who have no possible means of support except panhandling.  When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he means, “Blessed are spiritual beggars; blessed are people totally dependent on God’s help.”  So what is the opposite?  The opposite of “poor in spirit” is self-reliant, [Click 2] to be dependent on no one but yourself.

            Next Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” [Click 3] Jesus is not just talking about those who grieve the death of a loved one.  He is talking about those who grieve the pain and sadness of a broken world, people who watch the news and weep, or at least wince.  So what is the opposite?  The opposite are those who are upbeat and positive, [Click 4] people undaunted and unaffected by the pain and tragedy around them.

            Then Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek.” [Click 5] The meek are the lowly, the unassuming.  So the opposite of the meek are those who are powerful and know it—the self-confident, [Click 6] those who are self-assured.

            Finally, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” [Click 7]  This is the positive side of the second beatitude.  Those who mourn for the world as it is will hunger and thirst for a better one.  They yearn for God’s kingdom.  So what is the opposite?  Those who feel fulfilled [Click 8] with the world as it is, those who feel satisfied and content.

            Now look at this list.  If you were hiring someone, or even just looking for someone to hang out with, whom would you pick?  Would you be drawn to someone poor, sad, meek, and dissatisfied?  Or someone who is self-reliant, upbeat, self-confident, and fulfilled?

            Jesus’ definition of blessed makes no sense, until you realize one thing: this world as it is will not last.  So the things we usually consider blessed in this world are not the most important things.

            Jesus makes that point repeatedly.  His very first sermon in the gospel of Matthew consists of one line: [Slide 2, click 1] “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  Later in chapter 4, right before the beatitudes, Matthew says, [Click 2] “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23).  In Matthew’s gospel Jesus refers to the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God 50 times—50 times in 28 chapters!  Jesus came to inaugurate a new reign of God, not just in Israel but throughout the world.  Admittedly at present this new kingdom is a hidden kingdom.  It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground, Jesus says.  Or like yeast mixed into bread dough.  You may not see it yet, but the seed of a new world has been planted by Jesus.  This world as it is will not last; it is destined for a complete transformation—the very thing we pray for when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

            So why are the poor in spirit blessed? [Slide 3, Click 1] Precisely because they are not self-reliant.  They are not counting on themselves to set everything right in the world; they are counting on God.  And they will not be disappointed, Jesus says.  Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

            And why are they blessed who mourn and grieve over the world as it is? [Click 2]  Because a new world is coming—the very world for which they yearn.  And why are the meek blessed? [Click 3]  Because this world that leaves them feeling so discouraged and depressed is passing away.  The bullies and oppressors of this world are headed for the trash heap of history.  Which is why they are blessed who hunger and thirst for righteousness? [Click 4] Their hunger will be satisfied.  Those who mourn the injustice and suffering of the world, those who feel depressed by it, those who yearn for a world of peace and blessing for all people—you are blessed Jesus says, because you will not be disappointed.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

            So if that is the kind of world that is coming, if that is what we pray for when we say the Lord’s Prayer, then how do we get ready for it?  The first four beatitudes describe the attitudes of people yearning for a new kingdom, and the last four describe the practices of people getting ready for it.  So Jesus says, [Slide 4, Click 1] “Blessed are the merciful.”  Being merciful to others helps us get ready for a kingdom built on mercy; not on conquest, not on vengeance, not punishment, but on mercy.  [Click 2] “Blessed are the pure in heart.”  Being pure heart helps us get ready for a kingdom based on love rather than lust, on giving rather than greed, on serving rather than dominating. [Click 3] “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Being peacemakers helps us get ready for a kingdom built on peace rather than power, on love rather than domination.

            And sometimes that may mean suffering for righteousness’ sake, being persecuted for doing what’s right. [Click 4] “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” Jesus says.  I know that sounds counterintuitive.  Can you really make the world better by doing what’s right and suffering for it?  Well, look at Jesus.  That’s what Jesus showed on the cross.  The kingdom comes not to the powerful, not to the vengeful, not to the controlling or manipulative, but to the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, those who would rather love their enemies than destroy them. [Slide 5: Blank]

            A while back Presbyterians Today magazine had a story about Jacky Dorleans, the principal of a mission school in Haiti, serving 600 children in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince.  Her husband, Pastor Leon Dorleans, founded the school in 1998 with support from U. S. Presbyterians.  Some of our church offerings go through Witness in Action to support Presbyterian World Mission, including mission schools in places like Haiti.

            One morning on her way to the school Jacky was stopped by two gunmen, forced into their car, blindfolded, and driven to an unknown site.  There they told her she would be held captive until a half-million dollar ransom was paid.  The kidnappers knew that Jacky and her husband did not have that kind of money, but they were hoping to extort it from the churches in America who were funding the school.  Now I am quoting from the story:

            Clutching her only possession, the worn backpack she used as a combination purse and briefcase, she rode in darkness and silence.  But when the kidnappers attempted to throw her backpack away, she broke the silence.  She quietly told them they would be discarding children’s report cards.  “Do you have children that you love?” she asked them.  “Children must have their report cards.  Please don’t take them.”

            Actually, I have known children who would have been glad to lose their report cards, but apparently this touched a soft spot in her captors.  They let her keep the backpack.  Continuing with the story:

            As the day wore on, Jacky’s guard brought her the lunch and bottled water that had been tucked in her backpack. At the end of the day, he acknowledged another need.  “I’m going to get you a towel, some soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste,” he said.

            But Jacky remembered that her school had just received health care kits from a Presbyterian church in North Carolina, like the hygiene packs we assembled for the Dominican Republic: Ziploc bags containing towels, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste.  Jacky had one of them in her backpack.  So smiling, she told her guard that he would not need to get those things for her; God had already provided them.  “God knew that I was to come to you on this day,” she said.  “Look in my backpack.”  When the guard dug through the report cards, there in in the bottom of the backpack was a plastic bag with a towel, soap, toothbrush, and toothpaste.  “God knew and prepared me for this time with you,” Jacky told the guard.

            The guard was totally unnerved.  He began talking to Jacky and told her that he hated this business of kidnapping people and demanding ransom, but he said it was the only way he knew to feed his family.  Jacky listened and then said to him, “May I pray with you?” He nodded, and she prayed with him for a way out of the life he was leading.  When she finished, the guard said to her, “Please give me your address.  I do not know how, but I am going to get myself out of this work.  I want to be able to write to you and tell you when I have done that.”

            Later the guard allowed Jacky to phone her husband.  On the phone she told her husband, “Do not worry about me.  God is with me, and the man who is guarding me is like my own brother.”  The guard, who was listening to this conversation, wept.

            Later the man who had ordered the kidnapping came to Jacky and said, “I have made an investigation and now understand that your husband is not one that we should target.  I must apologize to you, as I did to him.”

            Jacky was released that evening, and when her husband picked her up at the drop point, his cell phone rang with a message from her captor.  The kidnapper said, “Make sure you take your wife to church tomorrow morning. … I would like her to pray for us in church” (Presbyterians Today, May 2005, pp. 25-26).

            Is it possible to be poor, grieving, fearful, hungering for freedom, and persecuted for the sake of righteousness and still be blessed?  Yes, because God is going to win, and when we seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, all the other things in our lives will become more manageable, including our anger, hurt, helplessness, grief, and despair.

Why Baptism for Jesus?

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 3:1-17

            I once taught a class called “The Theology of Calvin… and Hobbes,” basically using the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip to teach theology.  It worked surprisingly well.  In one comic strip that appeared just after New Year’s, the young boy Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “Everybody makes the wrong kind of New Year’s Resolution.  All they do is promise to stop bad habits and start good habits.”  Hobbes says, “What’s wrong with that?”  Calvin says, “It’s not enough to change a few little habits!  Everybody I know needs a complete personality overhaul.”  Then he says, “That’s why I’ll be spending the remaining days of this year telling people what I hate about them and how they should change.”  Hobbes says, “Some of us would be happy to reciprocate.”

            In this comic strip Calvin reminds me of John the Baptist.  “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”  To repent means literally to turn your life around, to change the whole direction you are headed.  According to John the Baptist, it’s not enough to change a few little habits.  We need a complete personality overhaul, even religious people like Pharisees and Sadducees.  According to John we all need to repent, even people who go to church, maybe especially people who go to church.

            John the Baptist is like step 1 in the twelve step recovery process of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Step 1 says, “We admitted we were powerless over our sin—that our lives had become unmanageable.”  Most of think we just need a few little adjustments: lose a little weight, exercise a little more, get a little more sleep, don’t spend money impulsively, have a little more patience with other people.  That’s the stuff of New Year’s resolutions—a few little tweaks to our personality.

            Jesus did not need to die on the cross for stuff like that.  If all we needed was a little more sleep, a little more patience, a little lower cholesterol, a little more financial discipline—if that was all we needed, God would not have bothered sending Jesus.  He would have sent Oprah.  God sent Jesus because we have a serious problem.  We are in open or not-so-open rebellion against God.  Even those of us who go to church.  Like the Pharisees and Sadducees we often see religion as something to meet our needs, to satisfy our desires, to provide us with peace, security, and comfort.  That’s backwards.  God does not exists to meet our needs; we exist to serve God’s purposes.  That’s why John the Baptist says, “Repent, turn your life around.  You are headed in the wrong direction.”

            Like the boy Calvin in the comic strip, John the Baptist is quite ready to tell people what is wrong with them.  But as he himself admits, he does not have the solution to the problem.  He says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

John acknowledges that he can show us the problem, but he can’t fix it.  He is like a doctor who says you have a terminal illness, but there is nothing he can do about it.  So he refers you to someone else, and in this case that someone else is Jesus.

            Jesus is step 2 of the twelve step process.  Step 1 says, “We admitted that we were powerless over our sin—that our lives had become unmanageable.”  That is the message of John the Baptist.  Step 2 says, “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”  For Christians that Power is Jesus.  Jesus is the one who can restore us to sanity.  Jesus is the one who can turn us around and bring us back into the relationship with God we were supposed to have all along.

            But how does Jesus do that?  Remember, we are not talking here about a self-help program—a diet to help you lose weight or a plan to better manage your finances or advice on how to improve your marriage.  Those are good things, but they are not why Jesus came.  Jesus came to work in us a complete overhaul of our souls, to turn us around and bring us back to the relationship with God we were meant to have.  How does Jesus do that?

            Now we come to the strangest part of the story.  Listen again to verses 13-15:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

            What is going on here?  John is baptizing people because they are sinners, because they need to turn their lives around.  But Jesus is the one who is supposed to save us from sin.  How can Jesus save us from sin if he needs baptism, if he needs forgiveness of sin, just like we do?

            The key is in Jesus’ reply.  He says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  When Jesus talks about fulfilling all righteousness, he is not talking only about his righteousness; he is talking about all righteousness, meaning the right relationship to God that all people are supposed to have.

            Instead of wagging his finger at us, like John the Baptist, instead of spending his days telling people what is wrong with them, like the young boy Calvin, Jesus gets down in the river with the rest of us sinners.  By being baptized, Jesus accepts the label of sinner for himself, even though he did not need to.  In his baptism Jesus identified with us in our sin, so that when we are baptized we can identify with him in his righteousness.

            Later in the New Testament there is a verse where the apostle Paul explains this.  In II Corinthians 5:21 the apostle Paul says, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

            Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of the gospel reveals the significance of Jesus’ death at the end of the gospel.  Jesus was baptized as a sinner in the Jordan River for the same reason he was condemned as a sinner on the cross.  Jesus identified with us in our sin, in our separation from God, so that we could be joined with him in his righteousness, in his reunion with God.

            Basically, Jesus was baptized with us, so that we can be baptized with him.  When we are baptized in the name of Jesus, we are given the same gifts Jesus received at his baptism.  When we are baptized, we too are given the Holy Spirit.  When we are baptized, we too are declared to be God’s beloved children.  When we are baptized, we too are given a new eternal life with God, the life for which God raised Jesus from the dead and promises to raise us up to be with him.

            But you cannot understand or appreciate what that means without John the Baptist.  John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus by helping us see why we need him.  John the Baptist is the doctor who informs us we are terminally ill.  Until you understand that, you cannot appreciate the doctor who comes and offers us a cure.

Paying Attention

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6

            Have you ever wondered why out of all the people in the world the announcement of Jesus’ birth comes to some shepherds in the Gospel of Luke and some foreign astrologers in the Gospel of Matthew?  That’s it.  As far as we know they are the only two groups to get an announcement of Jesus’ birth.  Why them?

            This question makes me wonder.  Maybe the shepherds and the wise men weren’t the only ones to get the birth announcement.  Think about this a minute.  A star is something up in the sky that anyone could have seen.  If God used a star to announce Jesus’ birth, then the announcement went out to everybody, but only these magi—these foreign astrologers—made the effort to look into it, to understand what it meant, and to follow where it led.

            How did the magi know that the star represented the birth of a new king of the Jews?  We don’t know.  But we do know that when King Herod hears their report, he is shaken, and all Jerusalem with him.  Something about the magi’s story has a disturbing creditability.

            Now we come to one of the interesting twists in the story.  If you noticed the wise men did not follow the star directly to Bethlehem.  When they saw the star they went to Jerusalem.  Why?  Because Jerusalem was the capital.  Jerusalem was home to the palace of King Herod, and the wise men assumed that any new king of the Jews would be born in the palace of the reigning king.  When Kate, the duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to her son George, who became the fourth in line to the British throne, no one went looking for the new child in Liverpool.  The reporters all camped outside the palace in London.  So with the wise men.  The star may have been shining over Bethlehem, but they went looking for the baby in Jerusalem because that’s where they expected a new king of the Jews to be born.  It was the Jewish scribes studying the Old Testament who told them to look in Bethlehem.

            I think this part of the story has a lesson for us.  Nature, in the form of a star, can bring you only so close to God.  Nature can give you certain clues about God.  Looking at the stars, looking at the mountains, looking at nature, you get some idea of God’s majesty and power.  But to find God, to really meet God in person, you need the help of the Bible.

            So it was for the wise men.  The star brought them only so far.  To find Jesus they needed the help of the scriptures.

            But here is the point of today’s sermon.  In Matthew’s gospel, the magi are the only ones to meet the baby Jesus, because they are the only ones who bother to look.  Herod does not look, even though he has been told where to look by the scribes.  And the scribes don’t bother to look, even though they have been told where to look by the scriptures.  The truth is that Herod and the scribes don’t want a new king of the Jews.  They don’t want someone coming along to shake up their lives and threaten their positions of power and privilege.  Only the magi bother to follow the star and the scriptures to see where they lead.

            Now we turn to the shepherds in Luke’s gospel.  Out of all the people in the region around Bethlehem, why were the shepherds the only ones chosen to hear the news?

            Maybe they weren’t.  Luke says, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.”  That would be hard to miss.  Like a star.  Their song may have echoed over the hills for anyone to hear.  But only the shepherds paid attention.  Only the shepherds bothered to go and look.

            For me this raises a question: Where might Jesus show up in our lives today, if we only paid attention?  Where might we see Jesus born among us today, if we only bothered to look?

            During my last several years in Spokane I went down every Wednesday morning with a small group of men to lead a Bible study at the House of Charity, the homeless shelter downtown.  We would get their early and have coffee with people who came in to have breakfast at the House of Charity and we would invited them to come to the Bible study and prayer meeting we had in the chapel.

          One week I sat down at a table with a couple of younger guys I had not seen before.  I introduced myself as Pastor Ken and told them about our Bible study and prayer meeting.  Then I asked them if they had anything they would like us to pray for.  One of the young men said no, he wasn’t interested in religion.  But the other young man began talking in a string of incomprehensible sentences.  I don’t know if he was mentally ill or on drugs or both, but I couldn’t understand a word he said.  Sometimes I understood individual words, but together the words made no sense.  Finally, I asked him if he would like to come our Bible study and share his prayer request in person.  He said sure.  So he followed me into the chapel for the Bible study.

            At that point I wondered what I had gotten myself into.  At the prayer meetings we not only each shared our prayer requests with each other, but we went around the circle and each person prayed for the person on his or her right.  Everyone said a short prayer out loud for the need expressed by the next person in the circle.  Sometimes new people were reluctant to do this, but I encourage them to try.  It is powerful to have someone else praying for you, but it is even more powerful if you are the person praying for someone else, especially when your self-esteem is at a low point.  I encouraged everyone in the Bible study to pray out loud for the person next to them, and when they realized that the person next to them might not get prayed for if they did not step up, they usually did.

            Well, we came to the prayer time, and as we went around the circle each person shared a prayer request.  About half way around the circle we came to the young man.  He paused, and then said, “I need a place to live.”  It was the clearest sentence he had said all morning.  “I need a place to live.”  Then the person on his right, an older man, offered his prayer concern.  He asked prayer for his son.  His son had left home and wasn’t doing very well.  He was worried about his son’s health, his son’s choices, and how his son was going to support himself.  Finally we started around the circle, each person praying for the person on his or her right.  We came to the young man, and I held my breath.  Then he started praying.  I don’t remember the exact words, but he said something like, “Lord, you got to help this man’s son.  You got to help this boy.  Please, Lord, don’t let him mess up his life.  His dad loves him.  So do you.  Don’t let him give up on himself.  Amen.”

            It was the most eloquent prayer I had ever heard.  And I realized that I was witnessing the Holy Spirit.  It was more dramatic than if he had spoken in tongues.  Actually speaking in tongues would have been more like what he did earlier when we were talking at the table.  But this was an embodiment of that verse in Romans 8 where Paul says, “Sometimes we don’t know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words.”  I didn’t know what was going on in that young man, but I had the feeling I was standing on holy ground.

            And that’s what I see in the story of the wise men and the shepherds.  The star is still shining today.  The song of the angels still echoes among us today.  There are signs of Jesus’ presence in our world even now.  But you see them only if you pay attention, only if you bother to go looking, sometimes in unlikely places among unlikely people.

            In a moment we will sing an old familiar Christmas carol: “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.”  Many of you know the first verse by heart,

            It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,

            From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.

 

The first verse is about when the angels come to the shepherds long ago.  But notice the second verse:

            Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled,

            And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;

            Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing,

            And ever o’er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.

 

            You can still hear the angels, you can still see the star, if you only pay attention.

Why God Became Human: A Christmas Eve Meditation

Ken Onstot

Scripture: Philippians 2:1-11

The original sin was the desire to be God.

Why do you think Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit?

The apples weren’t good enough at Costco?

The serpent told them they would be like God, knowing good and evil.

But Adam and Eve already knew what was good and evil.

They already knew what was right and wrong.

God had told them not to eat the forbidden fruit.

But they did it anyway.

They did not want only to know good and evil.

They wanted to decide for themselves what was good and evil.

Adam and Eve wanted to be their own gods.

It’s a story repeated throughout history.

Why do you think people worship idols?

Why do you think people worship gods of wood and stone?

Because statues of wood and stone don’t talk back to you.

An idol cannot tell you what to do.

Which is nice when you want to be your own god.

But here is the problem:

When we try to become God, we become less than human.

Remember what happened to Adam and Eve?

They tried to become like God, and ended up ashamed of being human.

They were embarrassed and hid from God.

When leaders try to become dictators,

are they more human or less human?

When bosses exploit people or try to make them do something wrong,

Are they more human or less human?

When family members try to control each other with threats or violence,

Are they more human or less human?

When you try to become God,

when you try to control everyone and everything,

you become less than human.

But Christmas is the opposite of that.

At Christmas we meet not a human being who tries to be God,

but a God who becomes human.

The Bible says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did nor regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.”

Christmas is not about us becoming like God,

it’s about God helping us to be human.

It’s about God helping us to be like Jesus,

God helping us to be loving, giving, sacrificing, and serving.

Jesus gave his life on the cross to save us.

That’s how much Jesus loves us.

Now he wants us to love one another.

Jesus not only helps us know God,

he helps us understand what it means to be human.

People are the most human, not when trying to be God,

but when worshiping God.

People are the most human, not when dominating others,

but when serving them.

People are the most human, not when defeating others,

but when helping them.

People are the most human, not when they are trying to be perfect,

but when trying to be forgiving,

the way Jesus has forgiven us.

Personally, I am glad I am not God.

It is hard enough to be a pastor.

But in Jesus we have a God who knows what it is like to be human.

And by accepting him as Lord,

we also can be more human.

The Co-opted Father

by Ken Onstot

Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25

Narrator: In Luke’s Christmas story, the focus of attention is on Mary.  Joseph is almost completely ignored.  But in Matthew’s gospel the angel’s message comes not to Mary, but to Joseph, and it is up to Joseph to respond.  How might he have reacted? Let’s find out.

-----

Angel: Joseph.  JOSEPH!  WAKE UP!

Joseph (sleepy and grouchy): Go away.  Don’t bother me.  I don’t want to wake up.

Angel: Don’t you brush me off, Joseph son of David.  I’m talking to you.  You hear me?  I’ve been sent to you from God.

Joseph (coming awake): What?  Who are you?  Look, I don’t appreciate getting wakened up.  I don’t get much sleep these days.

Angel: Yeah, I know.  I’ve watched.

Joseph: You have watched?  Who you are?

Angel: I’m an angel.  I’ve been sent to you from God with a message.

Joseph: Well I hope it has some answers, because I’ve got a mess on my hands.

Angel: Yeah, I know.  You’ve got a big problem with Mary.

Joseph: How do you know about that?

Angel: I told you: I’m an angel.  We make it our business to know stuff.

Joseph: Okay, so what am I supposed to do?  I fall in love with this girl.  But do I shack up with her, like other guys?  No.  I offer to marry her.  I even ask her parents.  We get engaged.  We set the date.  But do I touch her?  No.  We agree not to have sex until after we are married.  Now this!  She gets pregnant with someone else!  Is that how God rewards people for trying to do the right thing?

Angel: In your case, yes.

Joseph: What?

Angel: A guy like you who wants to do the right thing—you’re just the kind of guy we need for this situation.

Joseph: Great.  So what am I supposed to do?

Angel: What does the Bible tell you to do?

Joseph: It so happens I looked it up: Deuteronomy chapter 22.  It says, “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death.”  Is that what I am supposed to do?  Turn Mary in so she and her lover can be executed?

Angel: Is that what you think God wants you to do?

Joseph: I don’t know.  I have always tried to obey God’s law.  But this?  I can’t do this.  I love Mary.  I know we can’t be together, not after this, but I could never hurt her.

Angel: Yeah, I know.  That’s why we picked you.

Joseph: Picked me?  What are you talking about?

Angel: That’s what I am trying to tell you, Joseph. You have been chosen by God for a mission.

Joseph: What mission?

Angel: A mission to care for Mary and her child.

Joseph: But it is not my child!  Wouldn’t it be better if I quietly broke our engagement and let her marry this other guy?  Maybe if they did it right away, no one would know.

Angel: And who do you think is the other guy?

Joseph: I don’t know.

Angel: Are you sure there is another guy?

Joseph: How else did she get pregnant?

Angel: Joseph, Joseph, Mary hasn’t been shacking up with some other guy.  The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

Joseph: Mary’s been having sex with the Holy Spirit?

Angel: Oh for heaven’s sake.  Are you crazy?  You don’t have sex with the Holy Spirit.  That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.

Joseph: So how did she get pregnant?

Angel: Don’t you ever read the Bible?  Who was there when God created the world?  What hovered over the water when God said, “Let there be light”?

Joseph:  Well, the Bible says that the ruach of God hovered over the water at creation.  Ruach means wind … or …. Spirit.

Angel: Ah, very good.  The Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, was God’s agent at the creation of the world.  Well now the Holy Spirit is God’s agent at the beginning of a new creation.  Don’t you get it?  Mary’s child is not your child or someone else’s child.  He’s God’s child.  He is a work of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb.  He is the beginning of a new creation, a new work of God to save a world that has been damaged by sin.

Joseph (pausing): Well, if he’s God’s child, why do you need me?

Angel: Because you are a descendant of Abraham and David.  God promised to bring blessing to the world through the descendants of Abraham.  And through the descendants of David, God promised to give us a righteous king who would bring God’s peace to the world.  You, Joseph, are a descendant of Abraham and David.  Your son will be the one to fulfill those promises.

Joseph: But he’s not my son!  How can he be my descendant if I am not his father?

Angel: Because you are going to claim him when you take Mary to be your wife.  When you take Mary into your home, the child born of her will become your legal heir.  Through you he will become the inheritor of God’s promises to Abraham and David.

Joseph (thinking this through): So I am supposed to be the custodial parent for a child I did not father, so that God can use this child to fulfill promises made to Abraham and David?  Is that it?

Angel: Pretty much.  By the way, you shall name him Jesus.

Joseph: You mean I don’t even get to pick his name?

Angel:  No.  This is God’s child, remember.  And his name is important.  It means “the Lord saves.”  He is the fulfillment of a promise given long ago to the prophet Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’”

Joseph: I thought you said his name was Jesus.

Angel: Oh for heaven’s sake.  The name Emmanuel is symbolic.  It means that God will be present in this child.  But you will name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.

Joseph: Save us from our sins?  I thought the Messiah was going to save us from our enemies.

Angel: First, you need someone to save you from yourself.  You may think you are a righteous man, Joseph, but you suffer from the same pride, the same self-centeredness, the same alienation from God as everyone else.  This child comes for you as much as for anybody. 

Joseph: So why don’t you choose someone else?  There are plenty of descendants of Abraham and David.  Why pick me?

Angel: Actually, that is a good question.  You know, most of the descendants of Abraham and David were losers, like Abraham’s grandson Jacob.  Jacob tricked his own blind father to steal an inheritance from his brother.  And still God blessed him.  Then we come to King David.  David had an affair with the wife of one of his soldiers and got her pregnant.  Then to cover it up he arranged to have the soldier killed in battle so he could marry his wife.  Talk about sexual misconduct.  And he was one of the better kings!  Most of his descendants were hopelessly corrupt.  They cared less about God and more about holding on to power.  There is no biological descendant of Abraham or David who could possibly be the Savior of the world.

Joseph: So the true Messiah has to be a descendant without really being a descendant?

Angel: Ah, you are catching on.  The Savior of the world cannot be just another descendant of David, like the others.  None of them came even close to establishing God’s kingdom in this world.  The true Messiah must be a new work of God—a new creation—someone born … of the Holy Spirit.

Joseph: And yet, in order to fulfill God’s promises he must also be a descendant of Abraham and David.

Angel: Yep, and that’s where you come in.  You represent Jesus’ continuity with the Old Testament.  In you Jesus is connected to the story of Israel—the people through whom God wanted to bring blessing to the world.  But the people of Israel never succeeded at that mission.  So God needed a new approach.  God needed a new creation of the Holy Spirit.  That is what Mary’s child represents.

Joseph: So I couldn’t be the child’s father, because I am just as messed up as everyone else?

Angel: That’s one way to put it.  But don’t be too hard on yourself.  God chose you, remember?  God chose you because if the Holy Spirit can work a miracle in Mary, the Holy Spirit can also work a miracle in you.

Joseph: Yeah, well that raises another question: What if Mary doesn’t want to marry me?  I mean, if she’s got this thing going with the Holy Spirit, what will she want with me?

Angel: The same thing she has always wanted: a life with you, a life of faithfulness and compassion.  Look, Joseph, Mary is as confused as you are, but she still wants to marry you.  Ask her, and she will accept.  But you must not touch her until after Jesus is born.  There must be no doubt in anyone’s mind to whom this child belongs.

Joseph: So I am supposed to be Mary’s husband, but I am never allowed to have sex with her?

Angel: I didn’t say that.  I said not until after Jesus is born.  Jesus belongs to God, but you and Mary—you two belong to each other.  And to raise this child you will need each other … more than you realize.

-----

Narrator: “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife, but he had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”

Jesus @ Ancestry.com

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 1:1-21

Surely there is a better way

Matthew could have found to display

His Messianic theology,

Than with an interminable genealogy.

 

Forty-two generations

One unpronounceable name after another,

Some famous, some obscure,

And occasionally mentioning the mother.

 

But there is a story in this list of names,

And insights to be learned about the one it proclaims.

 

First is Abraham, whom you may recall

Nearly sacrificed his only son,

Almost ending the entire line

Before it had hardly begun.

 

Next came Isaac, who fearful for his life

Readily handed over his wife

To the foreign king Abimelech

Hoping, thereby, to save his neck.

 

Then there was Jacob

Who committed a deceitful sin

By stealing from his own blind father

The inheritance meant for his twin.

 

Jacob produced Judah,

Who in effect committed incest

With his own daughter-in-law

Presumably at Tamar’s behest!

 

And later there was Salmon

Who becomes God’s next recruit,

Fathering a child by Rahab,

A Canaanite prostitute.

 

These are the descendants of Abraham;

This is God’s gene pool,

Progenitors of the Promised one

Who brings us God’s rule.

 

You wonder what God was thinking.

 

Some were actual kings: like David

Who took for himself Uriah’s wife,

Then arranged in battle

To snuff out his life.

 

Their child was Solomon,

who built the temple’s steeple

on the backs of forced labor

From his very own people.

 

Some of the kings were good,

Like Hezekiah and Josiah.

But others can only be described

As corrupt and godless pariahs.

 

These are the people who gave us Jesus,

The progenitors of divine DNA.

It sort of makes you wonder

What Matthew was trying to say.

 

But then comes the irony.

 

All the names on this list,

The good and the bad,

Are ancestors of someone

Who was not Jesus’ dad.

 

Jesus was not a product of sex,

But of a different kind of relation;

The in-breaking of the Holy Spirit,

The beginning of a new creation.

 

The genealogy is meant to recall

God’s promises for us all,

That through Abraham and his relations

Would come blessing to all nations.

 

And that’s where the mothers come in,

The reason for their mention;

These mothers anticipate

God’s world-wide intervention.

 

Tamar was a Canaanite,

As was true for Rahab,

Bathsheba was joined to a Hittite

And Ruth was from Moab.

 

All these women were signs of something new:

The inclusion of Gentiles in what God wanted to do.

 

For God did not choose Abraham

Only for the sake of the Jews,

But so that families of all lands

Might hear the good news.

 

And that’s the story in this long family tree:

That Jesus has come to set all of us free,

Free from history’s constant refrain

Of greed and lust and deep human pain.

Free from the past that binds us in sin,

So that God’s new work in Jesus can finally begin.

 

The ancestry of Joseph reminds us

Of all the promises of God,

But the virgin birth introduces

Something new and strange and odd.

 

It’s a new intervention defying convention,

God setting us free from our own family tree.

 

In this story of Jesus’ birth

Our past no longer determines our worth

Because in Jesus something new has begun

A virgin has given birth to a Son.

 

And that work of the Spirit in Mary

Is a sign of what God yet can do

In all of us who trust in his Son,

Who count on God to bring us through

To the new life God has in mind

For races and nations of all humankind.

 

But there is one more piece of theology

To learn from this genealogy:

That people are still key,

And that God gives life through a family.

 

As God worked through Israel,

When faithful or not,

So God works through the church

In the stories it’s taught.

 

Jesus is an amazing gift of God

That comes through a family story,

To people who in spite of their flaws

Still believe in proclaiming God’s glory.

 

And that’s where we come in.

 

Faith is a virgin birth, a miracle

Given by God through the Spirit,

But like Joseph it comes through a family

Allowing future generations to hear it.

 

People passing on faith

To children they don’t deserve

Holding to values

They want to conserve.

Maintaining hope

When others despair

Or when brokenness seems

Beyond our repair.

Living for a future

Yet to be seen

Where people are healed

And creation made clean.

Believing the news

Of God’s shocking grace,

And passing it on

To the whole human race.

 

The people of gave us Jesus

Were not models of virtue,

But still they were vessels

That God’s love could flow through.

 

So it is with us.

 

You may not be ideal parents

Or a perfect daughter or son,

But the Holy Spirit can still work in you

To see that God’s will is done.

 

A Tale of Three Holidays

Yesterday I noticed a headline that read: “Winning at Black Friday.” The biggest day of retail sales in our country is hard to miss. Each year it encroaches more and more on our national day of Thanksgiving, coupling a day of thanks to ever more consumerism. Hidden amongst these days of high retail and intentional gratitude rests a hidden gem in our church calendar: Christ the King Sunday. It’s not a high holy-day like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, but rightly observed it can frame our thankfulness and guard us from consumerism. Join us this Sunday for a celebration of Christ’s Reign, true riches, and meaningful thanks.

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To Be Continued

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 50:15-26; Jeremiah 29:4-14

            I wonder how many of you remember an old 1960s television show called Lost in Space.  Or maybe you have seen reruns of it.  Its most memorable character was a robot that went around waving its arms saying, “Danger, Will Robinson!”  If you’ve never seen it, you are not missing anything.  It had bad acting, stupid plots, and ridiculous special effects, but my 10 year old friends and I watched it every week because of the way it ended.  Each week this family marooned on a distant planet faced some new crisis: lack of food or water, attack by aliens, or a disastrous mistake by one of the crew members, and each week the crisis was solved or averted.  But that was never the end of the episode.  Each week after the crisis passed, the show went on for another 2 or 3 minutes, and suddenly a new crisis enveloped the family.  Then the action froze, and a caption appeared on the screen that said, “To be continued,” and we were left hanging for another week.

            The ending of Genesis has written over it “To Be Continued.”  We see this first in the story of Joseph.  When the brothers sold Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan headed to Egypt, they assumed that the story of Joseph was over, that they were rid of Joseph once and for all.  So you can imagine their consternation when decades later they go to Egypt to buy food during a famine and discover that the Egyptian official selling them the food is none other than Joseph.  They thought the story of Joseph was over, but it wasn’t.  It had a sequel.

            Some of you have told me about some painful experiences in your past, times when you experienced neglect, abuse, harassment, or grossly unfair treatment.  In the news recently this has taken the form of sexual harassment and assault against women and in some cases against men, perpetrated by people in positions of power.  Maybe that has happened to you.  Or maybe you have had other experiences of mistreatment that have left a scar on your life.  Like Joseph you know how injustice feels.

            For you the ending of Genesis has good news.  Because injustice, abuse, and suffering do not have the last word in Joseph’s life, nor in yours.  Others may have intended you harm, but God has a plan for your good that will not be thwarted.

            But now at the end of Genesis, after their father Jacob dies, the brothers think that maybe their story is over, that their past is about to catch up to them.  They say to one another, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”

            But Joseph says, “Do not be afraid!  Am I in the place of God?  Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

            When Joseph discovered that injustice and abuse did not have the last word over his life, he was empowered to forgive his brothers.  And when his brothers discovered that guilt did not have the last word over their lives, they were empowered to face the future with hope.

            As I said, some of you have shared with me painful experiences of mistreatment and abuse in your past; but some of you have also shared with me painful memories of being the one who did the mistreating, the one who did things for which you now feel shame, remorse, and guilt.  And even if you don’t have some dark deed in your past, I’ll bet all of you have felt guilt over something, if not something you did then something you didn’t do—the time you didn’t help when someone needed it, the time you did not speak up when someone was being mistreated, the time your silence or inaction contributed to someone’s downfall.  There are all kinds of ways for us to feel guilty.

            But for us, too, the story of Joseph is good news.  Just as the wrongs done to us are not the end of the story, neither are the wrongs we have done to others.  Just as God brought good out of the injustice done to Joseph, so also God brought forgiveness and blessing into the lives of his guilty brothers.  Guilt is not the end of the story.  There is a “To Be Continued” written by God into the script of our lives, a sequel where God can still work to make us a blessing, if we only give God the chance.

            But there is one more “To Be Continued” at the end of Genesis.  As he approaches his own death, Joseph says to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will surely bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

            Interestingly, when Joseph delivers this promise, the people of Israel were not yet slaves in Egypt.  That would not happen for several generations.  At the time Joseph spoke these words, his brothers and their families were quite prosperous.  They were living in one of the most fertile places in the land of Egypt.  Their population was growing.  Eventually they would become so numerous and prosperous that the king of Egypt would fear them.  When Joseph said to his brothers, “God will surely bring you up out of this land,” they did not yet know how bad things would get.  They did not yet know that they would become slaves.  They did not yet know that Pharaoh would take their male babies and throw them in the Nile River.  That was still years away.  But Joseph knows that whatever happens in the future, God still has a future for his people.  And not even death, neither Joseph’s death nor ours, can thwart God’s purpose for us or derail the future God wants for God’s people.

            While I was a pastor in Potlatch, Idaho, I got to know a retired mill-worker named Fritz.  Fritz was not a member of our church, but I visited him because I heard his wife Alice was seriously ill.  Fritz was terrified at the prospect of losing Alice.  They were so close and did so many things together, he couldn't imagine life without her, and when Alice died, he was devastated.  He looked and acted like someone whose life was over.

            Fritz had never been a churchgoer, but after Alice died he was so lonely, he started coming to our church.  He always got there about 45 minutes hour early.  He said he didn't want to be late, but he lived only five minutes away.  I think he got there early because it meant less time being alone.  Since he was always there early, I put him in charge of folding the bulletins.  In Potlatch we did not have a church secretary; we didn’t even have a folding machine.  So I had Fritz fold the bulletins while he was waiting for church to start.  And while he was at it, we had him recruit ushers to take up the offering.  That made him the he ad usher.  Since he was the head usher, he thought he should join the church, which he did, and eventually he was elected to the session.

            Meanwhile, Fritz discovered the Boy Scout troop our church sponsored.  Since he had always been an avid outdoorsman, Fritz got involved with the troop on a regular basis helping some of the boys with their requirements.  Soon he was going to every meeting, and he became such an important part of the program he was given a distinguished service award by the Lewis and Clark Council of the Boy Scouts of America.  All of which happened in the six years following Alice’s death.

            I won't say that these were the happiest years of Fritz's life.  They weren’t.  Fritz still missed Alice and was terribly lonely.  But Fritz discovered that after Alice’s death there was a “To Be Continued” written over his life.  After Alice’s death Fritz discovered a new life he had not experienced before, and in the process he became a blessing to people in ways he never would have imagined.

            Six years after Alice’s death Fritz died, and we had a funeral service for him at the church.  The church was filled to overflowing with people, many of whom were there because they had gotten to know Fritz in the last six years of his life.  Included in the service that day were a whole row of Boy Scouts in full uniform who spontaneously stood at attention and saluted as Fritz's coffin was carried out of the church.

            There is a “To Be Continued” written over our lives, even after we have lost a job, even after we have been passed over for a promotion, even after we or a loved one has been diagnosed with a fatal disease.  Even after the loved one dies, even after we die, there is a “To Be Continued” written over our lives, a work of God yet to be completed that no past injustice, no present guilt, and no future tragedy can ever thwart.

Thanks and Giving

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 14:17-20; 28:18-22

            I have a confession.  I hate stewardship sermons, sermons about giving and pledging.  Partly because they seems so self-serving.  For a pastor to preach a sermon about giving is like the ultimate a conflict of interest.

            But my real problem with stewardship sermons is how bad many of them are.  This week I read message about giving on the website for Joel Osteen Ministries.  Now I know that some of you like Joel Osteen, and I have seen some good stuff that he has written.  But this message on his website, written by Lisa Comes, is really bad.  She starts out with a story:

One time God spoke to my parents to give a $5,000 offering. They always tithed, but this was an offering over and above their tithe. And it was a lot of money! My brothers and sisters were young at this time. I remember Daddy gathered all of us around him and said, “Kids, God spoke to us to give this offering, and we are going to pray over it. I just want you to know that God is going to bless us in return.” He wanted us to see how God works.  Well, a few weeks later, a lady from another state called my dad’s office. She said she was going to fly her own private plane to Houston because she had something to give him. Daddy met her at the airport, and she hand delivered a check to him for $5,000. She told him that God spoke to her to give him that money. She got back on that plane and went home.

            I want to know what kind of stewardship it is to fly a private plane across the country just to give someone a $5,000 check. The plane trip could have cost that much.  But that is not the lesson Lisa drew from the story.  Here is what Lisa said about the story:

God wants to bless you and prosper you in your finances and in all areas of your life, but there is a spiritual principle that we must follow in obeying and giving that unleashes God’s supernatural provision! …  Tithing is the key to financial blessings. Oftentimes, we want to receive the latter part, the overflowing part! And God wants us to! But we have to be faithful and obedient with the first part, giving.

            Did you notice how similar that is to Jacob in our first scripture reading?  Jacob says to God, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.”

             For Jacob, as for Lisa Comes, giving is a way of making a deal with God.  If you give to God, God will give to you.

            Friends, that is not stewardship; it’s bribery, it’s manipulation—the same kind of manipulation Jacob tries throughout the book of Genesis: manipulating his father to give him the blessing instead of his brother Esau, then later trying to buy off his brother’s anger with waves of presents.  Jacob is always trying to manipulate people, and he does the same thing with God.  But he has missed the point.  God blessed Jacob, not because Jacob made a deal with God, but because God chose to bless Jacob even before he was born.  Jacob cannot and does not need to buy God’s favor.  He has already received it as a gift of God’s grace.

            And that brings me to Abraham.  Genesis 14 is a remarkable story of how Abraham organizes an army of 318 troops to defeat the armies of four kings and rescue his nephew Lot. On this Veterans Day weekend here is another little reminder that freedom does not come cheap.  It requires courage and sacrifice.  But then Abraham on his way back from this victory meets a mysterious priest/king named Melchizedek.  This is the first appearance of Melchizedek in the Bible, and also the last.  We are told nothing about him except that he is a priest of God Most High and that he comes from Salem, which is probably an abbreviation for Jerusalem.  It may be that Melchizedek is a symbolic figure, who anticipates the later priesthood that served God at the temple in Jerusalem.  The New Testament also suggests that Melchizedek is a symbolic figure anticipating the future priesthood of Jesus.  But none of that is mentioned in Genesis.  In Genesis, Melchizedek shows up, provides a meal for Abraham, and blesses him.

            But here is the part of the story I find interesting.  Abraham gives Melchizedek a tithe, one-tenth, of everything.  Abraham does not give this offering—for that is what this is, a kind of offering to God—in order to gain blessing for himself.  He gives it because he has already been blessed by God.  God blessed Abraham with an incredible victory including the safe rescue of his nephew.  Unlike Jacob, and unlike Lisa Comes, Abraham does not give a tithe to God in order to obtain God’s blessing but to give thanks for it.

            And that, I believe, is the proper understanding of stewardship.  We don’t give to God in order to get God’s blessing.  We give in thanks for all the blessings God has already given us.

            If you give for the reasons Lisa Comes suggests, you are not experiencing gratitude, you are experiencing greed.   Giving money to God in order to get more back does nothing to help us overcome greed in our hearts; it only reinforces it.  And if you give for the reasons Jacob gave, out of anxiety or fear, your gift will not help you overcomes those fears and anxieties.  Jacob continued to be plagued by anxiety and fear throughout the rest of the story.  Giving out of anxiety or fear does not remove those emotions from your heart, it only reinforce them, because you are still depending on yourself, on your own strength and resources.  People who give out of guilt, anxiety, or greed will never experience blessing.  Because they will always be experiencing more guilt, more anxiety, and the desire for even more money.

            The antidote to greed is gratitude.  The antidote for guilt is gratitude.  The antidote for anger and resentment is gratitude.  When we practice gratitude, we push aside the restless desire for always wanting more.  When we practice gratitude, we push aside the fear and guilt of never being good enough for God.  When we practice gratitude, we push aside our jealousy and resentment over what others have, replacing it with thankfulness for what we have.  Gratitude is the channel on which God’s blessing flows to us, and giving, rightly understood, is no more and no less than the practice of gratitude.

            So this year, as you make your pledge for the coming year, don’t give just to support the church budget.  Don’t get me wrong.  I care about the church budget as much as anyone.  But don’t give for the sake of the church budget.  Don’t give out of fear or guilt or even less out of a back-handed desire to wring a blessing out of God.  Give because God has already blessed you.  Give because you have a heart pumping blood through your body and it is bursting with gratitude.  Give because you know where your next meal is coming from and want to help those who don’t.  Give because of all the important people in your life on your cell phone contact list or because of those precious dependents that you list on your tax return as a deduction.  Give because you have both the strength and the freedom to be here this morning.  Give because when the day comes that everything in your life has changed—when the day comes that your job is over and your house is sold and your friends are gone and neither your body nor your mind work the way they once did—on that day your life will still be in the hands of a loving God who will never let you go, and that is the reason to give.

            The only true reason for giving is gratitude, and gratitude is itself part of the blessing that God wants to give us.

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7